22. Deathstar Drones


Prediction in novels quickly becomes outdated. 1984 isn’t the future any more. Neil Armstrong, not Leslie LeCroix, was the fist man on the moon.

Historical novelists don’t have to deal with that problem. The North always wins the Civil War. Caesar always dies on the Ides of March. Contemporary novelists can stream any consciousness they want and nobody cares, but if you write science fiction and you don’t keep up to date, you look like a fool.

That can be a problem if there is a long time between first draft and publication.

In fact, this post is a prime example. You should realize by now that A Writing Life is not a normal blog; it isn’t about day by day events. I revise and revise and revise. Then I polish. Before my first post hits the internet, I will have sixty or seventy posts in the can. I don’t like working without a net.

The first draft of this post was written on May 20, 2015. I am polishing it now on August 13. It is due to appear in your computer on October 6.

This morning (i.e. May 20, not October 6) I saw a story on Good Morning America in which drones were being tried out to carry life rings to drowning victims at the beach. I applaud the idea, of course. Drones are everywhere and everybody is talking about them. Miniature drones, that is. Drone target aircraft have been around since the very early twentieth century, and relatively sophisticated ones at least since Viet Nam. Only the little ones are new.

They weren’t even a gleam in a designer’s eye when I put them into the first draft of my upcoming novel Cyan.

Keir was down by the river with Viki, beginning a bridge. They had swum the walker-crawler drone across, towing a strong, light line, and Viki was trying to get it to climb a tree. The tree bole leaned over the water at a sharp angle, and the track treads of the little drone could just grip the bark. Viki was manipulating the controls with deft care, heading for a crotch five meters above the water. Keir was on guard. His pistol was in its holster, but he was on alert, scanning the treetops above them, the grass at the break of the bluff, and the dark swirling waters. Twice the thought he saw something large and swift move beneath the surface, but it was hard to look through the sparkling, shade-dappled surface.

Viki’s face was drawn with concentration as her blunt fingers struggled with the controls. The drone was only a meter short of the crotch, and wobbling. Viki grimaced with unconscious fierceness.

The drone wavered and slipped. Viki twisted the controls viciously, grunting encouragement and insults in an undertone.  With a last effort, she coaxed it through the crotch so that it leaped forward and fell; splashed and bobbed to the surface; then began to churn through the water toward her like a playful dog, trailing the line out behind it.

I also gave them flying drones for aerial surveillance. They are both still in the final novel, because explorers will certainly use them, but they don’t look new like they did when I put them into the first draft.

It could be worse. In fact, it once was nearly a lot worse.

The year was 1977. I was writing my fourth novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying, and I had just gotten to the part where India was about to launch an orbital bomb platform. A friend and his wife took my wife and me to see a new movie called Star Wars. When we left the theater, he was bubbling. I wasn’t impressed.

But I was depressed, because I was going to have to go home and change the name of my orbiting bomb platform from Deathstar to something else. At least the novel wasn’t already printed and waiting for distribution.


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