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Monday, October 16, 2017

GUEST POST: The Unreliability of Magical Surveillance. by Tom Doyle


In my American Craftsmen trilogy, psychic spies (farseers) can view intel across the distances of time and space (farsight). Their visions guide the missions of magical and mundane soldiers, and they play against the farseers of hostile powers.

I want to look briefly at some of the popular stories of magical surveillance. The use of magical or psychic means to view across space and time is an old idea. Yet few of the stories that come immediately to mind view such power as an unambiguous good for the wielder. In the story of Snow White, the evil queen uses a magic mirror for scrying. Like many such devices, the mirror is a two-edged weapon. On the one hand, the mirror demonstrates what powerful surveillance can accomplish; for example, the attempt of Snow White and the huntsman to fake her death fails because of it. On the other hand, the mirror seems to be driving the queen to her eventual destruction by doling out only as much information as she requests and no more.

In The Lord of the Rings, we have the Mirror of Galadriel, the palantíri, and the Ring itself. All of these are in their own way unreliable. The Mirror of Galadriel shows Sam a vision of an industrializing Shire that momentarily discourages him from his mission, when his mission is the one hope of Middle Earth. Denethor’s palantir gives him true intel, but only what Sauron wants him to see, and so he goes mad with despair. In turn, Aragorn is able to use Saruman’s palantir to nudge Sauron into rushing his attack. The Ring seems to serve as a sort of tracking device, but only when Frodo puts it on does it work well enough to zero in on him.

(By the way, Palantir Technologies is the name of a big data analysis, counterterrorism company, as anyone who’s taken the DC metro over the last few years knows from its ads.)

In the original Oz book, the Wicked Witch of the West only had one eye, “yet this eye was as strong and powerful as a telescope, and could see everywhere in the Winkie Country.” (In the film, this was changed to a crystal ball.) Yet this eye, which clearly helped her enslave the Winkies, also led to her doom, because it’s explicitly stated that Dorothy would not have been able to find the Witch, but the Witch was able to find Dorothy.


In the Dune books, Paul Atreides has an incredible power of precognition, but he has difficulty seeing the actions of opponents scheming under the protective umbrella of a Spacing Guild Navigator because the Navigator is also a precog. In the end, Paul’s foresight only leaves him with one tragic choice.

The most famous oracle of Classical Greece was at Delphi. Scholars think that it may have in part functioned as an intelligence gathering and exchange point, and it was particularly effective for guiding the Greeks in their founding of colonies. But the oracle could also be notoriously ambiguous and potentially disastrous to the unwary and hubristic. According to Herodotus, one such oracular prediction was that if Croesus made war on the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire. That empire turned out to be Croesus’s own.

Finally, related to the ambiguous oracle is the unheeded prophecy. Cassandra is the archetypical example; her ability is precise and accurate, but no one believes her anyway. Many stories of biblical prophecies are similar--the prophet clearly warns that if bad behavior continues, disaster will surely follow, yet we have fewer stories of the prophecy being avoided than fulfilled.

I’m uncertain as to why the limitations of farsight are such a consistent theme in our stories about it. However, the Dune series points out a particular problem of perfect prescience--under the God Emperor of Dune, history as we understand it comes to a halt. Perfect prescience may not eliminate free will, but it may negate its force in the universe.

Or perhaps any power without a limit or flaw just makes for bad storytelling.

So, what are the limits of farsight in my secret history of our world?

1. Farsight is probabilistic. In the fashion of scientists, my psychic spies report their predictions in the form of probabilities, with absolute certainty never fully achieved, only very closely approached.


So, my first book, American Craftsmen, has passages like “High probability of end of American democracy,” and another where one spy counts down the seconds and another gives the survival odds. The third book, War and Craft, mentions a probability of greater than five sigma of a certain character’s destruction. War and Craft also introduces the insane, drug-addled precogs of the Left Hand, who under apocalyptic stresses made such absurd predictions as “probability the sun turns into a giant clown-faced wolf at ten to the minus tenth percent.” In its more sober form, this use of probabilities allows those who use the psychic intel to weigh it, but it also underlines the limitations of such intel perhaps more honestly and directly than other more mundane reports and considerations.

2. My farseers are limited by other precogs and the Dune rule. No one nation, ideology, or moral stance has a monopoly on precog, and sufficiently skilled psychic competitors of all stripes can see the oncoming probabilities of certain events. Beyonds a ubiquitous passive observer effect, this means that rivals can attempt to take action to avoid certain outcomes. Also, associates of a farseer (or in one case, friends of the child of a very powerful precog) are largely screened from such predictions.

3. Farseers have a variety of skill levels and trustworthiness. It’s proverbial that military intelligence is only as good as the people delivering it and using it. Some of the best farseers have become unstable because of the tragic choices they are forced to repeatedly make. Sometimes those responsible for giving the orders based on the intel fail to do so because they don’t trust the particular farseer or prediction. In my books, the unbalanced yet powerful oracle codenamed Sphinx issued predictions that were so distant in time and extreme in counteraction that the tragedies occurred anyway: “Evacuate the embassy in Tehran. Close all the airports in September.”

4. From their experience, my characters (particularly morally dubious ones) know that if they lean on precog intel too much, the prediction may spring some karmic trap upon them. As one evil character reflects, “responding too directly to oracles was a quick trip to poetic justice,” especially when the ambiguities are almost screaming in the choice of words.

However, even my characters who aren’t precog specialists pick up bits of oracular statements everywhere. Combat heightens the sense of irony and of the perversity of fate. Anything that sounds like “famous last words” triggers their psychic warning bells, and certain characters are gifted or cursed with strong forebodings of their own deaths.

Thank you to Fantasy Book Critic for hosting this post. I hope you’ll check out my psychic spies for yourselves.




Official Author Website
Order War And Craft HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of American Craftsmen
Read "Mixing Magic With The Mundane World" by Tom Doyle (guest post)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Tom Doyle is the author of a contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil--and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America's past. In the third book, War and Craft (Sept. 2017), it's Armageddon in Shangri-La, and the end of the world as we know it.

Some of Tom’s award-winning short fiction is collected in The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories. He writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. You can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website.

1 comments:

Sethia said...

Just started this series and am loving it. Thanks Tom!

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