When I had the idea – or rather when James the hacker had the idea – that my character might hack a drone, I had a very rough picture of what a drone was. A thing that flew around snooping, or a toy for a well-off kid. It didn’t take much research to realise that drones are crop-sprayers, wildlife trackers and, much more menacingly, killers. Quite how they kill is fairly brutal, as is the number they accidentally kill. The writers’ cogs started to whir.
While I was writing, drones appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme every week – flying over football matches, nearly colliding with aeroplanes, delivering Amazon parcels, annoying the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). In Alabama, you can get a licence to hunt drones – if they dare to buzz over your land. Gosh!
After I’d delivered the book – not by drone – and the proofs had been handed back, the new Homeland series started with (SPOILER) a drone strike on a wedding party in Pakistan. I mention a similar event in my book. Did we both happen upon the same idea? No. It’s a well-documented true story, that we both adapted.
I’ve been visiting secondary schools with my new book, Hacked, talking about hacking and drones and hard decisions. Dan, my hacker, appears at first to be making poor choices, but – hopefully – the readers’ sympathies are firmly with him. Whether there is any sympathy with the drone pilots, pulling the trigger from thousands of miles away, I don’t know. They hardly feature. What I do know, when I describe the way the unmanned aerial vehicles roam, armed with Hellfire missiles, is that all the kids in the audience that like gaming (most therefore) think it sounds brilliant. Understandable, because it mirrors their own experiences. The pilots – despite the label – don’t leave the ground. They sit looking at a heads-up display full of data with a controller at the ready, coffee by their side I expect.
I’ve changed the way I talk about the ‘drone wars’ because of the reaction from the audience. Leaving any shred of an idea that a drone operator would be a cool job would make me very uncomfortable.
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Dan, my hacker, could have just as easily hacked the International Space Station, or his local cinema. But I didn’t want to trample on Mars and Dan isn’t that fussed about the whole film thing. That’s the trouble with characters, they do their own thing.