Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Making of "Borrowed Time"

As the summer comes to a close, my work on the short stories of "In-Futura" continues. Specifically, I've been focused on finishing the final three stories in Part II: Longing. The final story in this series is the compelling journey of an autonomous military robot that gets a taste of true freedom in "Borrowed Time".

The premise of "Borrowed Time" is inspired by a current movement that is sweeping through the U.S. military: a movement away from on-the-ground human reconnaissance and combat and towards remotely-controlled surveillance and strike operations using autonomous and semi-autonomous airborne drones. Based on various rumblings and rumours, fully-autonomous ground-units aren't far behind. What really interested me about this, however, wasn't necessarily the machines, but the dynamic that must exist between a robot given the opportunity to make its own battlefield decisions and an officer half a world away attempting to maintain overarching control...

Here is the synopsis:

In the future... no soldier need ever be in harm's way, with domestic Combat Systems Officers in remote control of their own UMUs - Unmanned Military Units - their robotic proxies in the battlefield. When a harrowing assault forces one CSO to allow her unit to operate autonomously, conflicting decisions and unanticipated surprises begin to take their toll. An unlikely friendship soon forces the wily UMU to go on the run as it longs to make the most of its "Borrowed Time".

Below are three interesting challenges that I encountered while writing "Borrowed Time":

(1) Research, Research, Research!

Believe it or not, "Borrowed Time" is the first story that I've written that required a bit of extensive, pain-staking research. Because it was originally inspired by real, rapidly-evolving developments in war methods and technology, I needed to know everything that I could about the topic. First, I needed to know a little more about the current state of military automation, and so I read a number of long-form articles and stories that documented the technology and the current use of drones. This gave me a sense of how the system worked, and some of the operational (and of course, philosophical) issues that are involved.

Secondly, I needed to know more about the machines themselves, how they worked, what features they had. I read all I could about the make-up of the current batch of drones that are in use, but I also took it a step further by digging for information on the autonomous ground units that are either in development or being tested by various corporations. And there were many of them, in many forms and varieties. I voraciously studies the features and capabilities that they each had.

Finally, I needed to jot down various terms and names that I could pepper throughout the story in order to make it seem, and feel, more realistic, like it was a vision of a future not that far off. From "telemetry", "situational awareness", and "lost link episodes" to M240 machine guns, Hellfire missiles, and IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) Systems, I had to have a bagful of descriptors and terms that I could use. Needless to say, doing research and taking notes was half the battle!

(2) Designing My Own Machine

Now that I knew the ins and outs of existing autonomous military technology, my next challenge was to design a unique military robot of my own - to develop the look, feel, and features of the key protagonist of the story: Unmanned Military Unit number 742, or UMU 742 for short. To do so would require a balance of old and new, the research and facts that I had gathered on the latest drone technology combined with my own creativity and vision for what I wanted an UMU to be.

Going through the plethora of military robots that are in development, I noted any defining features or recurring structures, and tried to understand why those design decisions were made. For example, most of the units used a tank-like conveyor belt for mobility, which would help them traverse the rocky terrain of the Middle East. Many had rows of cameras for vision, and long, claw-like grippers for hands. Although many kind of just looked like mini tanks, a few took on more canine characteristics.

Then the creative juices kicked in. Of all the real autonomous drones that I saw, none even closely resembled the physiology of a human being. And since I knew that I wanted the reader to feel like UMU 742 was slowly becoming human, I knew that I had to design it with a human-like body plan and characteristics. And so, I whipped out my sketchbook and began to draw. I ended up with an anthropomorphic robot that looked somewhat human, but maintained characteristics and features that would leave no doubt that it was a machine.

(3) Making UMU 742 Human

The final challenge, which was more of a writing and tone and manner challenge than anything else, was to bring UMU 742 to life, to make the reader feel that it was human. To that end, I had the Combat Systems Officers, who are meant to remain in control of the autonomous robots throughout battles, call out orders to their machines as if they were humans who were ready and listening. In the same respect, I had the UMUs respond to their human controllers in kind, acknowledging communications and keeping them updated on their activities.

Next was writing about the relationship that develops between the freed UMU and a small boy whom it meets during a battle. I had to balance the fear that the boy initially feels for the cold, intimidating machine towering above him with his obvious curiosity at the robot's human-like behaviour. Accordingly, I also had to balance out the robotic communications-style of the UMU with a sense that emotion, even empathy, is flowing through its circuits.

Finally, in one of the keys to the success of this story, I had to make UMU 742 seem like it was vulnerable, that it was in danger or running out of its "borrowed time". The rogue Unmanned Military Unit, on the run from its controller and getting a feel for what it's like to leave the battlefield and experience life, had to be treated like a child who had disobeyed, with a sense of innocence that leaves the audience rooting for it to fully-escape the shackles of its makers and grow into a mature "human" being. If the reader worried for UMU, and felt at any point that it just might not make it, then that would be a huge success!

"Borrowed Time" is currently submitted for publication - wish me luck!