Drones and fantasy literature

In one of the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo and Chebacca confront a machine with a glowing red eye and multiple, tentacle-like arms. Like a metallic jellyfish, it floats above the icy surface of Hoth, taking readings and observing. It fires at Han, but as soon as it is hit, it self-destructs rather than fall into rebel hands because it has been reporting information back to Darth Vader’s fleet–information used to discover the Rebel base and lead the in Imperial Fleet in pursuit of Luke, Leia, Han, and company.

The probe droid has a sinister look and with good reason. It is the embodiment of state power extended. The state is watching the citizen, even in that desolate wasteland. Big Brother was in the home and this is not that, but, in the (heavy handed) Star Wars universe, the remote state surveillance can summon Star Destroyers.

Nor is Star Wars along. One fantasy trope is that the “bad guys” use carrion feeders or other suspect animals (crows, rats, snakes, etc) to remotely spy on the heroes and normal people. Sometimes there is immediate feedback, sometimes they have to report. Sometimes the good guys make a point of killing those animals whenever they appear, sometimes hiding is a more reasonable option. The common threat is that the bad guys are watching in a way the good guys cannot replicate.

Last week on “Studio 360,” the radio show on PRI that I listen to on podcast, one of the segments was a discussion about drones. It was well worth a listen, [1] but several segments stood out, an artist designing clothing that hides the heat signatures picked up by drones,an interview with people who saw drones in action on the Mexican border nearly a decade ago, and an interview with a former pilot who is now a doctor of engineering. The last suggested that one reason drones live on in the movies and the imagination beyond something like PRISM is the drones–whether in actual shape or looking like the probe droid from Star Wars–are something that people can conceptualize. In this way drones are similar to Big Brother. One doesn’t actually need to comprehend what is going on in order to be taken by the sinister implications.

What struck me was the way in which the popular conception of drones, including the function of the drones and the alignment of the faceless government that dispatches the drones, seems to mirror not just the Empire with its malignant government, but also more traditional embodiments of evil in e.g. Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. These fantasy tropes pre-date drones, although even there the trope is not necessarily novel. The two trends also overlap in movies and television where the scrappy hero is chased by government agencies or people hijacking government property.

I suspect there is an underlying human discontent with being observed, particularly by groups of beings that are out of reach and potentially malevolent. This natural reaction, with the inhuman remoteness of drones and the right to privacy as currently understood in the US constitution mesh to make several simultaneous negative reactions to drones. Drones are also active in a way that PRISM may not been seen to be. The issue at hand is that while drones themselves may be a relatively recent addition to the US arsenal the concept is not new and the use of drones for surveillance against a population puts the government on the wrong side of a lengthy tradition in the popular imagination.

[1] As were the interview with Linda Ronstadt and discussion of Walt Whitman.

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