Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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Sometimes Technology Sucks

Everyone who knows me knows I love me some technology. I have a hard time resisting the latest gadget or gizmo, whether I actually need it. For example, I love my smartphone and update to a newer model every couple years after careful research on the latest ones. As little as I use my phone, I could probably get by with an old Motorola StarTac — but I can’t resist the lure of being able to carry an app-laden portal to the Internet in my pocket.

But when you write Science Fiction, sometimes technology sucks. Sure, it enables all sorts of stories (FTL travel, anyone?), but in some circumstances it gets in the way, spoiling what could otherwise be a great yarn. For instance, when I worked on the Star Trek roleplaying games from Last Unicorn Games and had to write a scenario (an act analogous to preparing a detailed outline for a short story), the first step was to come up with a rough idea for the adventure. The second step, invariably, was to ask, “Okay, how can the players screw this up with the transporter?” That damn teleportation device. It didn’t matter to the show’s writers at Paramount, where the philosophy was, “We’re telling a good story this week; it has no effect on next week’s story.” So they did all sorts of ridiculous things with the transporter over the course of hundreds of episodes of TV — clone people, re-age people reduced to childhood, bring people back to life. But a hard-core fan who was a gamer knew all that stuff, and would often be more than willing to take advantage of it. So I could only write adventures that could somehow be made transporter-proof. It killed a lot of good scenarios that I could have written if Roddenberry & Crew had simply had the budget back in the Sixties to land the ship on the planet of the week.

A more dire example for me, the one that inspired me to write this blog post, relates to one of my favorite Science Fiction novels: Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell. A largely (and sadly) forgotten novel these days, it tells the story of James Mowry, a Human recruited to become a “wasp” — a spy/saboteur dropped on a planet of the Sirian Empire (with which Humanity is at war) so he can use his bag of dirty trick to hinder the planet’s authorities’ ability to aid the Sirian war effort. This is necessary because, while the Humans have significantly more advanced technology in most respects, the Sirians outnumber humanity ten to one.

It’s a delightful story, one I re-read frequently — but even I have to admit it’s hopelessly out of date technologically. Heck, even for 1957, the year it was written, it’s way behind the curve of what Science Fiction authors were thinking about (in part, no doubt, because Russell was making use of tricks he thought up to bedevil the Nazis when he was a member of British military intelligence in World War II). In this novel, which supposedly takes place far off in a future where FTL starships exist, the characters:

—use computers that rely on punchcards (and these are big mainframe type things, most likely; there’s no sign of a personal computer anywhere)

—use typewriters

—drive ordinary cars (admittedly they have electric motors that run on broadcast power, but still)

—buy and read the newspaper in physical copy (there’s not even a hint of an Internet)

And that’s just what I recall off the top of my head. To put it in the simplest terms, the story works because, despite being a Science Fiction tale, James Mowry uses, and more importantly only has to hide from, 1950s-era technology. Advance the technology only in minor ways and the whole story falls apart, realistically speaking.

Therein lies my problem. For years I’ve wanted to write my own version of Wasp, updating it to far more modern technologies and methods. I’ve got a title in mind, a rough outline, you name it — but I never get far with my planning, because eventually I crash right into the wall of advanced technology.

Let’s not even worry about future tech for a minute. Let’s just look at what’s available today. The NSA uses Carnivore, Echelon, and who knows what other technologies and methods to spy on just about every e-mail sent and phone call made in the world. Major cities like London are so covered in surveillance cameras that the authorities can practically track criminals as they cross the city. (And that’s only the cameras we can see with the naked eye; who knows what others there might or could be.) DNA “fingerprinting” and other forensic techniques make it possible to link someone with practically anything he touches (much less discover that he’s an alien in disguise). Against all that alone, the idea that a single human could disguise himself as an alien and lurk on an enemy planet, committing all sorts of crimes and making the authorities think there’s a vast underground rebellion brewing, is laughable.

Now let’s extend some of that technology just a little bit — and to make matters worse, assume it’s in the hands of a ruthless, efficient secret police with an enormous (if not virtually unlimited) budget. Static cameras aren’t even necessary anymore. The Secret Police can fill the air throughout the planet with brilliant dust — nanotechnology cameras so small and light they float through the air and can be breathed in and out without harm to living beings. Given the ease and cheapness of manufacturing brought on by 3D printing and related advances (possibly even full-bore Star Trek-style “replication”), the Secret Police can churn brilliant dust out by the trillions of cameras and quite literally blanket the planet with them, continuously. Then just hook them up to computers that instantly register anything suspicious or unusual and sound the alert, and a wasp’s chance of going about his work undetected drops to 0% in a heartbeat. And that’s just one technological advance... that’s not all that advanced, really. Surveillance a century or two from now is likely to be even more pervasive and easy for the authorities to perform.

Since it’s impossible to avoid this surveillance, could a spy trick it — for example, with a device that changes how he appears on camera, or by hacking into the planetary computer system? In theory that’s possible; practically speaking it’s a waste of time. A person who’s “invisible” on camera still leaves traces (e.g., he opens and closes doors) the computers would pick up as anomalies and report. If he changed appearance while in view (and thanks to brilliant dust he’s in view every second of every day), that also merits an alert. If he blanks out all the cameras wherever he is, it won’t take the authorities long to track down the “blank spot” and find him (after all, he has to sleep sometime). And all this assumes the aliens wouldn’t find traces of a hacker in their system to begin with (an assumption I’m willing to make, given our setting factor that the humans have much better tech). It would also raise worldbuilding questions like, “If the humans can hack the aliens’ computer system, why bother infiltrating spies onto the planet?”. Even if I can come up with an acceptable answer to that question, I’m just further complicating the story and making the entire framework of the setting harder to believe in.

There’s more I could say on this topic, but I think you get my point: advances in technology ruin the sort of story told in Wasp. The only way around it is to ignore the problems and pretend they don’t exist, or jump through story-distorting hoops to get around them. Neither is a very satisfying solution for me, so until such time as I think of a brilliant answer to this dilemma, the story will just have to remain unwritten. In the meantime I’ll go back and re-read Wasp every year or two and enjoy the hell out of it. ;)

Reader Comments (4)

Very true Steve, all very true, but dosen't it work in the reverse as well? All the new tech also creates new story posibilities that would never have existed before. Example, an electronic virus that can infect humans and is spread through cell phones. or a new spying program that becomes self-aware and starts lying to its users for its own ends.
Now anyone who knows Star Trek knows how the tech got away from the writers, more in the later shows than the original series, but it is always a danger when you create new tech in Sci-Fi because it bypasses or nullifies old tropes of drama and fiction. I just see it as an invitation to create new tropes. "shrug"

September 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Bagwell

The timeless factor is human nature, though. No matter how advanced the technology, there will be bureaucrats and elites who exempt themselves from surveillance and security measures, and who are in turn susceptible to manipulation through corruption, intimidation, or trickery to create vulnerabilities in the network. Social hacking and human error will never be outdated. :)

September 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHero

David -- quite true! Where a door closes, sometimes a window opens. Even if sometimes I'd like to have the door left open. ;)

Hero -- also true, though as computers advance I think the "human factor" (or Martian factor, Fomalhauti factor, Klingon factor... :) ) becomes less and less of a "realistic" concern, at least for some kinds of stories. There's definitely some powerful SF to be written in and around social issues, though, that's for sure.

September 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

There’s several problems with a worldwide security net. The first is that they aren’t fool proof. London’s vast CCTV has at best only a middling impact on crime. The second is false positives. For every human spy, there’s likely millions of Sirians doing similar but innocent things especially if you’re watching everything. It’s going be quite hard for the Sirians to not jump at shadows especially when they are vague signs of a large conspiracy.

The big sign of a large conspiracy will likely be a communication network. Since the Sirians are monitoring the data, a botnet sending encrypted messages around to obfuscate their source and destination will trigger a whole bunch of flags. I assume humans with their superior technology can infect thousands if not millions of Sirian computers and that the Sirians can’t crack the communication. The key is that the botnet’s purpose isn’t to actually run communication for a team of spies, but instead to give the appearance that it is. With the idea planted, the Sirian's own monitoring system will supply the gaps. Then you have the botnet perform actions that are worrying like attempted probes on factories, orders, or other possible signs of something big’s about to go down at a given place like say a factory.

This ought to send the authorities into high alarm and likely shut down the factory for a day or so for major productivity loss. Likewise, they’ll also try to find the “agents” and odds are there’s going to hit a false positive or two and deal with the unlucky targets. If you can manipulate it so that their software flags important workers, that’s even better.

The reason to have an actual person on the ground is to monitor the botnet in real time, recruit moles, and keep an eye on the responses to the crackdowns. The wasp shouldn’t be caught because he’ll look like a normal sirian with an infected computer since he hasn’t done anything else. If after a couple of false alarms, the Sirians start to ignore you, then you actually could pull something big off. You’ll likely have to flee afterwards when the Sirians check their records, but overall it should be a successful mission.

What I’m not sure is how to keep your human nature a secret when you go buy groceries much less do spy stuff. One possibility is that the planet doesn’t have a 100% sirian population but at least has a small human population that you can blend into. Also the tale of aliens responding to their own insecurities rather than cunning sabotage might be too different from the original work.

September 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Larkin

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