image source: US Air Force

A great many words – though a lot of people would probably say not nearly enough – have been spent on the United States’s drone war, on what it means, on who dies, on what it suggests about what war will look like in the future, though of course we appear to remain generally unconcerned about what it looks like to civilians on the ground watching their villages explode. But a recent piece by Adam Rothstein in The State makes a powerful and provocative claim: That when we write and think and talk about “drones”, we’re really writing and thinking and talking about a thing that needs to be understood as distinct from the actual specific varieties of UAVs themselves. In fact, Rothstein argues, when we engage with the concept of a “drone” we have stepped from the realm of nonfiction into the realm of fiction:

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.

There are a number of points here that I want to address. First and foremost, the implications of what Rothstein is describing don’t merely tell us a lot about how we think about drones and drone warfare; they also have a lot to tell us about how we experience and imagine reality itself. This is very heavy stuff already, but I think it’s even heavier than it initially might appear.

In dealing with this first point, I actually need to proceed to the second one, which also amounts to a mild disagreement with/desire to expand on the characterization and terms of Rothstein’s argument. I think Rothstein is exactly correct in pointing out that when we engage with different aspects of our world in different angles and with different elements of specificity and connotation, we often aren’t engaging with them in ways that we would recognize as “nonfictional”. That’s all fine and good and true. The quibble I have – and it’s at once minor and kind of important – is that Rothstein is still writing about fiction and nonfiction as if they were clearly distinct categories of understanding, though they overlap somewhat.

And I don’t think they are. As least not so distinct as all that.

I’ve touched on this idea at a couple points here before, and now I want to expand it somewhat.

Rothstein describes nonfiction as, among other things, a “historical project.” In fairness he’s mostly using the term in order to point out the ways in which nonfiction – to his thinking – isn’t confined to “restricting itself to the face of a cultural characterization” in the way drone are. But the mention of history is significant whenever we end up talking about fiction and nonfiction.

Historiography is rife with a long and ongoing debate about the degree to which historians can speak with any objective accuracy about basically anything, or whether any historical project is necessarily going to be bent and biased by the historian’s own assumptions, cultural and temporal context, mode of writing, narrative conventions, and a host of other problematizing things. That argument is a little beside the point for my purposes; what I want to use it to highlight is the fact that fiction and nonfiction aren’t dichotomous binary categories but names for a porous and often nebulous reality of story and narrative and memory through which all of us move, and which all of us experience differently. This doesn’t mean that nothing is knowable – not necessarily – but more that it’s just not that simple. Fiction is characterized by invention born in imagination, but every time we open our mouths to talk about anything we’re more or less embedded within that process.

There are elements of the created and elements of the “objectively true” in everything we talk about. In this sense, I think it’s fair to draw a comparison between this kind of (what I’ll call) narratological dualism and the concept of digital dualism. Rather than distinct categories that don’t intersect – you can be in one but not the other at any given time – I want to argue that we need to understand them as categories with different natures, uses, and intents that nonetheless constitute the same “reality”, the same lived experience.

But also: discussions of fiction and nonfiction are not only marked by this kind of dualism but tend to privilege one over the other as more legitimate and real and – often – good. Fiction is regarded as wonderful by those who love it, but I think there’s a general sense in our culture that as nice as it can be, it’s just escapism in the end (especially what literary gatekeepers snootily refer to as genre fiction, best said with the nose uplifted and a faintly condescending smile) and ultimately kind of silly in comparison to the grounded and “real” work of nonfiction. The argument about fiction in historiography first really began when a bunch of historians in the nineteenth century started complaining that historical fiction -which was quite popular at the time – was muddying the waters of the discipline and degrading its truthtelling mission. What this argument really comes down to is whether or not fiction –  or, in my characterization, fictional elements of understanding – can allow us to meaningfully engage with the truth of the past. Australian writer David Malouf argued that it could, and that in fact it was uniquely well-suited to do so:

Our only way of grasping our history—and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now—the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there. And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. Poetry may do so, drama may do so, but it’s mostly going to be fiction. It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.

This brings me to my final point: that fictive writing doesn’t just allow us a deeper understanding of our past but a richer window into our present and a more vital imagining of our future. As I’ll argue extensively to anyone who has the misfortune to raise the topic with me (I am so much fun at parties), far from being merely escapism, fiction – especially speculative fiction – is a fantastically useful arena in which to do social theory, yet it’s one that most social scientists roundly ignore. Rothstein points out that science fiction is uniquely well-suited to allow us to engage with what we really understand by “drone” and what it can tell us about our general experience  and construction of specific forms of technology:

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.

Speculative fiction, among other genres, allows us to explore the full implications of our relationship with technology, of the arrangement of society, of who we are as human beings and who we might become as more-than-human creatures. It’s useful not because it’s expected to rigidly adhere to the plausible but because it’s liberated from doing exactly that: it’s free to take what-if as far as it can go. This differentiates it from futurism, which is bound far more to trying to Get It Right and therefore so often fails to do exactly that. William Gibson didn’t set out to imagine right now, but he was able to get far closer to it than a lot of futurists precisely because he wasn’t subjected to the pressure to do so. I think it was far more chance than any temporally piercing insight, but when we can imaginatively go anywhere, we usually get somewhere.

And then we can look back on what we imagined before, and it can tell us a great deal about how we got to where we are now and where we might go in the future – and where we need to go. We can’t do pure nonfictive work on “drones”, but to the extent that the work we do is fictive, and to the extent that we recognize this, it tells us so much in ways that other things can’t and don’t:

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…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.

Fiction is part of what constitutes The Real. It’s an investigative tool as useful as any other. We need to use it. But we can’t do that until we understand it for what it is.