28 July 2011 - 6:28 pm

Starwalker’s drones

I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters of the drones in Starwalker lately. They’ve been developing quietly (and sometimes not so quietly), and are the best fun to write. They’re a part of the story that has a habit of surprising me.

The first thing to note is that they were not part of my original plan for the story. I have a pinboard at home covered in notecards – for characters, plot points, major entities, etc – and they’re not on it. It’s been a while since I updated it, but their absence is a sign of how their role has always been a question for me.

They were added to the story as one of those things it makes sense for a futuristic starship to have, like engines and hull plating and artificial gravity. The drones to do the jobs on board that people don’t want to do, can’t or shouldn’t do because it’s dangerous for a squishy human, or are simply unable to do. They had to be of different sizes, to fulfil different roles:

  • Tiny ones for crawling around ducts and pipes, getting into those hard-to-reach places (Bit and Byte)
  • Big to do the heavy lifting and external work (Wide Load and Big Ass)
  • Mid-sized for general maintenance and eclectic duties, from repairs to cleaning; from tidying up personal quarters to preparing and fetching food; and, more recently, emergency medical care (Waldo and Casper).

Because it would be silly to have only one of each (everyone loves a failsafe/failover), the Starwalker has two of each kind as standard. So, six drones in total. Easy, right?

Except it would be no fun if it was that simple. The drones are an extension of the ship’s AI; a part of how a ship runs and maintains itself. And because the Starwalker‘s AI is a little bit broken/special/tweaked, it makes sense that her mobile units would also be different from the norm.

Plus, I have a great fondness for characters like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. I had no wish to recreate him (this is one of the reasons why the drones don’t speak – others below), but he’s one of the inspirations for the metal boys in my story. Another is Wall-E.

 So, I have drones and a kooky AI linked to them. An AI that has a human subconscious mind (that, to start with, she didn’t know about), wonky processing, and emotions. The drones are symptoms of her real mental situation, an externalisation of her subconscious.

They’re linked into her automatic processes but they are autonomous; they have enough programming to fulfil their duties without the AI holding their hand and making every calculation and decision for them. They’re not quite full AIs themselves, though. At their core, they are much simpler beasts.

They’re also the closest thing that the ship has to ‘hands’ and a physical body that can interact with the crew. However, I decided long ago that I didn’t want to give her a ‘robot body’. So having them not be her actual hands worked better for what I was aiming for: she doesn’t do things with her drones; she asks them to do things for her. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Over the year and a half I’ve been writing this story (wow, that long?), I’ve developed the drones and their role. Starry, the personality that’s growing out of the AI/human meld, is changing and they’re changing with her. They are still agents of her subconscious; her personality spills over into them, and they become expressions of facets of her. Waldo tries to look after Elliott, while Casper is more like her mischievous side. Byte threw himself at a bomb in a doomed attempt to protect the crew, and Bit is angrily upset over his missing brother (the parallel with Danika and her missing brother is not something I had planned, but let’s pretend I did, because it works out awesomely).

The two heavy drones are probably the least distinct so far; they always come as a pair. They’re the solid backbone of the drone lineup; the big brothers who grab your collar and lift you back onto your feet. They’ll still quietly do what drones shouldn’t really do, though, like paint the name that Starry wants on her hull but is too afraid to consciously order them to put there. They’re still developing, and I’m still shaking down their role on the ship, not to mention how they fit into Starry’s muddle of self-expression.

Lately, the boys have become more independent. Starry’s going through a trying time (and something of a crisis of confidence) and they’re showing the cracks in her mental composure. She isn’t controlling them as much as she was and their actions are becoming more extreme examples of what’s going on under her hood. When she gets herself back on a more healthy psychological footing, I’m not sure how much they’ll calm down – they’ll probably fall into line a bit, but I’m not sure if they’ll go back all the way to where they used to be. The issues she’s dealing with right now will plague her for a while, and so will the effects they’re having on her drones.

Being expressions of Starry’s subconscious mind, I thought it was better not to give them voices. If they spoke, they would be more conscious, distinct entities, and lose a measure of the abstraction they currently have. Starry speaks for them, if necessary, and is responsible for translating their moods and actions into words (like the conscious mind! Get it?). Even with her datalinks, she doesn’t always fully understand what they’re up to, partially because she doesn’t look too closely into their systems and mostly because she tends to accept whatever the drone chooses to tell her. She hasn’t had a reason to delve any deeper… yet.

So, instead, they are more inclined to use body language with the crew. The drones’ actions emote enough for them to communicate, and I find it’s fun to have them express themselves in physical ways. I toyed with some kind of data readout/text display on them, but it hasn’t been necessary, so it hasn’t appeared yet.

Overall, they’re one of those nice surprises that stories can throw at you. The challenge of giving a ship ways to express herself is leading me into all sorts of interesting places, especially given the restrictions I’ve put on myself. These characters grew naturally out of the story and I love it when that stuff happens.

I adore my little drone boys; they’re great fun to write and handy tools for me to use. They’re going to be around for a while yet!

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  1. mjkj says:

    Yay 🙂

    …and they are well liked 🙂

    I am looking forward to the time Starry has an internal conflict: she subconsciously wants something and consciously decides she does not want it…

    That will get interesting…


    July 29th, 2011 at 6:06 pm

  2. Mel says:

    I like that they’re liked! 🙂

    Oh dear, there’ll be drone wars in the halls next. Watch out! 😉

    (PS: ahahahaha)

    August 1st, 2011 at 10:22 am

  3. mjkj says:

    Yeah, that will give the term internal conflicts a whole new meaning… 😛


    Hmmm … Drone Wars – was that not an episode of … no of course it was not – but maybe there will be one here … eventually 😉

    August 22nd, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  4. Mel says:

    Now I’ve got an image of Johnny 5 in my head, in the second Short Circuit movie after he was ‘fixed’ and came out all punk, with the spikes and the mohawk and the bad dialogue…

    August 22nd, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  5. mjkj says:


    Oh, well, I have not seen that movie for a long time – must see if I can find it somewhere 🙂


    August 23rd, 2011 at 5:13 pm