Earlier this week, Teju Cole posted seven short stories about drones on his twitter account. Here they are, reprinted from The New Inquiry:
1. Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
2. Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
3. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
4. I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.
5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
6. Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
7. Mother died today. The program saves American lives.
Numbered and tweeted with minimal additional commentary, all seven managed to find their way into my timeline through retweets, even though I don’t follow @tejucole in my main feed.
I will defer on the ramifications of twitter as fiction medium to The State‘s resident internet-literature scholar, Olivia Rosane, who calls the internet not a “as a frustrating combo of research aide and procrastination device,” but “as a new medium for telling stories and even making art.” But I will comment on the drones.
Actually, it is another writer who lobs this one to me. Zack Beauchamp, on Think Progress, had this to say about drones and literature:
The promises and pitfalls of Cole’s writing on drones aren’t created by his his chosen medium, as a lazy analysis might suggest, but reflective of the broader limitations of literary approaches to argument about politics and philosophy. Non-fiction has the luxury of being able to be boring: it can reflect every nuance, every subtle detail of an argument, however much rote recitation of facts that might require. Even narrative journalism, with all its literary trappings, still has a basic obligation to string together an argument based on the facts.
Fiction, by contrast, is about a universe that isn’t real. It isn’t about making an argument with facts that exist in our world; it’s about creating a new one. That world may be very similar to ours, but it isn’t the same thing. Fiction isn’t a direct argument, with clear premises and conclusions; it’s a means of pointing us in a certain direction.
This is easy for me to respond to, because it is so completely and exactly wrong. Drones are already literary, and they might only be dealt with on a literary basis. One can easily and self-righteously claim the merits of writing non-fiction about drones by asserting a primacy of fact over “false fiction”. The problem is that one does not write non-fiction about drones.
Drones are not real–they are a cultural characterization of many different things, compiled into a single concept. One writes non-fiction about the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the RQ-14 Dragon Eye, or the iParrot Quadrocopter. These are all unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, of which there are so many sizes, types, and ranges of purpose, as to make them impossible to conflate in a non-fiction manner. A iParrot quadrocopter has more to do with a model train than it does with a Global Hawk, and yet when we write about “drones” we are always referencing both of these together, and therefore, we are already out of the domain of non-fiction, even if we still surround ourselves in facts. And the distance between drones and non-fiction is larger than the simplified categorization of combining dissimilar technologies under a single name. Drones are singular, fantasized and commodified in the mind, to the point at which they are ahistorical. Non-fiction is always a historical project, not restricting itself to the face of a cultural characterization, like drones. One can write non-fiction about UAVs, the War in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the surveillance state, or the feasibility of border patrol. But all of these are different topics, with important non-fictional contexts. Each subject would generate a different piece of writing and a different point of view–none of which would be strictly about drones.
Drones are a cultural node–a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias related to a future-weird environment filled with New-Aestheticish-resonating robot, GPS technologies, digital cameras, and instantaneous communication via micro-technology. There is no actual thing as a drone–and if there was, it would actually be something like the OQ-2 Radioplane target drone. It would not be a satellite controlled jet plane capable of carrying some of the most state-of-the-art surveillance packages in the world today, or enough ordinance to take out an entire city block. When we talk about our awestruck emotions about these vehicles, the fact that we can experience the same technological extension with a hobby kit controlled by our cell phone, and the uncanny mystique of robot warfare as we imagine it to be, crossed with the atrocities of fact we are delivered day after day in the news as if nothing was wrong, we are left with a single point by which we can describe all of this together: drones.
A drone is a literary character–it is an archetype of uncanny and deadly technology, spread out around us in the geopolitical world in such a way that they are nearly invisible to our non-fictional sense of fact, and yet around us all the time in fiction, invisibly hiding in the clouds, with as much reality as a paranoid delusion. And yet a drone is a literary character with the actual power to kill. They are related to the world of fact as surely as a bullet fired out of the pages of a novel, hitting the reader in the face. The substance that we use to create the fictional character of drones is drawn from a world where these are not speculations, but every day fact.
This strange one-way overlap between fact and fiction is due to the fact that we have yet to fully deal with our present concept drones as fiction, and therefore we are unable to deal with the present and future of UAVs in the world as fact. Think about the non-fiction of UAVs–it is boring, dry, and doesn’t relate at all to most people’s experience any more than a publication by Jane’s or a report by Amnesty International. And this is why we turn to science fiction to hear about drones–because this writing corresponds to our imaginary world, and the characterization we have formed around drones. We pull UAVs into our fantasies of the future and technology. To allow us a separate dimension of speculative investigation drawing upon the world of facts is science fiction’s purpose, at which it excels.
The problem, is that in other less speculative forms of fiction that are more related to our present day emotions–like, to take one example, the novel–we are completely unwilling to engage with drones. We read and write in a world divorced from the spectacle of drones, and even more so, beyond reach of the fact of UAVs. The problem with fiction like Zero Dark Thirty is not simply that it is historically inaccurate. It is that it is alone in the field. War movies, terrorism TV series, and major news outlets have a monopoly on the characters of drones. Drones, in our consciousness, are controlled not by soldiers in Nevada bunkers, but by producers with US Department of Defense enhanced budgets, by attractive action stars masquerading as the long arm of the government, and by news anchors with commercials to sell. There is barely any art and literature that attempts work with the more surreal aspects of our understanding of drones, let alone in a way that might connect our attention back to the facts of UAVs.
And so, we bounce among these these areas–the commercialized version of UAV news, the science fiction speculation of drones, and the dry non-fiction of technical specs, dates, times, and tragic body counts. Meanwhile, that cultural blob that is the drone continues to hover in our consciousness, observing, waiting for its chance to strike.
Until we get work like Cole’s. Or perhaps James Bridle’s Drone Shadow work, or the Drone Identification Kit. Or even some of the more esoteric attempts at unpacking what a drone really is in our estimations of it, like the parody/performance twitter accounts @droneinsertion or @selfawareROOMBA. No, these are not works of fact. Even Bridle’s work that takes the exact dimensions and shapes of UAVs in their models, and Cole’s short stories that take things that have happened and continue to happen and stages them with memorable literary characters and lines, are not non-fictional per se. But they work to connect our mystique and our inner consciousnesses of fiction back to the work of fact. When Cole unleashes a twitter post like those above, suddenly one of those countless circling drones of our consciousness loses its engine, plummets to earth, and crashes. We look at the wreckage, and back up at the sky. Where did this thing come from? We wonder this, as it slowly evaporates, leaving only a small crater.
This sort of fictional work is of the upmost importance. What it has done is figured out a way to get at those drones in our heads. There are plenty more in our minds, and taking out one will not win the war. And yet, it is a line of attack that actually works. They work by reaching through our imagination to remind us that the drones that we think about, in everything that they are and are not, are only a missile strike’s distance away from UAVs, which are unfortunately, unspeakably real.