In The Year 2022

Looking Back at the Decade of the Drones

By Warren Ellis


Illustrations by Julia Scheele

It’s the little absences that let you know that time’s moved on. In 2012, on those rare days when I was up early in the morning, I’d sometimes notice a missing sound. The electric hum of milk floats doing their rounds. It’d been present throughout my youth. I even worked on the milk for a while, in the 80s. Convoys of those absurd fibre-shelled orange carts rattling out of the servery yard gates at half past four in the bloody morning, with the head nutter pointing at the street outside and intoning “move out” like Captain Kirk. Mornings were filled with that sound. And then all the supermarkets started selling cheap milk in jugs and Tetra Paks, and that was it for the milkman in Britain.

Today, ten years later, I can’t hear the birds. There’s just that constant low-level hiss of dronerotors, which always seems to blanket over the sound of birdsong. You have to go deep into the countryside now to hear birds. Out to one of the coverage holes, like the drowned towns in the West Country. Stand at the western end of the M4 motorway that the locals call Bristol Pier. And, perhaps, the distant and distorted tone of church bells softly striking under ten metres of rainwater.

I’ve been asked to write about the state of things here, ten years on from when I began writing for VICE. My tenth anniversary and their twentieth. And it’s work, really. I have to drive through the fog of manufactured normalcy, that thing in our heads that tells us that the way we live isn’t so strange. It’s our adaptive nature. And, I have to say, in some ways, these times we live in are not so unexpected.

The Islamic Republic of Catalonia, for instance, seemed new and scary to a lot of people, but Islamic city-states are hardly an innovation in Spain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was such a laughline ten years ago, like Mayor Boris Johnson before it, that I think most people were prepared for it.

People kept saying that the knife fight of the 2016 campaign in America was “unprecedented” but it really wasn’t. They said Rand Paul would never get a second term, but George W Bush did. People called me cynical for saying that Paul would take the second election regardless of the six women who were shot dead while trying to cross to Canada for abortions – before Canada put their own limits on abortion provision. Canada’s the only country Rand Paul ever travels to! He took all the drones out of Southeast Asia and floated every one of them along the US-Mexico border! (Going against his own “policy” of 2012 – what a bloody shock.)

How were people surprised? The only thing Rand Paul ever did that surprised me was using a thermobaric bomb on Islamabad instead of a tactical nuclear device. In some ways, the Paul Doctrine worked: a reunited India, the Afghan Spring, all that. President Paul claimed to have “solved foreign policy by ending foreign policy”.

I’m sure that whoever’s still alive in the Taiwanese Friendship Zone agrees completely. Imagine them nodding furiously while chained to workbenches, assembling sheet computers for the Western market. (Sheets, by the way, are bloody awful for writing on, and I don’t care what anyone else says. I like the sheetphones – I mean, I don’t like that I have to buy a new one every year because the pixels in the crumple zone go dull, but I like the way the memory-plastic spines on sheetphones snap them out into the phone shape, because the shape always reminds me of 1970s Trimphones. But the sheet keyboards are worse than Microsoft Surfaces, and I had to switch to my old tablet and Bluetooth keydeck after the first two paragraphs of this because the wind kept pulling the sheet off the garden table.)

In some ways, the world is quieter. Putin died in prison, Medvedev’s in Venezuela, Russia’s kleptocracy has been gnawing on its own bones for five years now, but its days of both foreign adventurism and soft power projection are all over. It was, in fact, down to the EU to stamp out some of the crazy in the former Soviet states (a mobilisation whose deeper message was not lost on Catalonia). China’s more comfortable, and thereby more outwardly peaceful, in a world without American interventionist policies: they took what they felt belonged to them and then settled down. Which, weirdly, scares people even more.

Pretty much the only people in space right now are the Chinese, aside from whoever is currently holding the International Space Station together with Pritt Stick and brown paper. The Chinese space stuff has great names. As I write this, there are a dozen people in the Chinese space station, The Far Hall of the People, pretending their bones aren’t rotting, and five in the moon base that rejoices in the title of The Sixth Encirclement, pretending they’re not being perforated by cosmic rays. Their Martian observation vehicle, Yinghuo Campaign Scout (Yinghuo roughly translates from Pinyin as “Firefly”, delighting a generation of Joss Whedon fans), goes into orbit any day now. Nobody knows how many taikonauts have died. Everyone knows the ways in which the world is not quieter. I’d love a cigarette at this point, but the local coverage detects cigarette smoke, and I’m sitting in the garden. I don’t need a £1,000 fine for having a fag while enjoying one of the only two weeks of rain-free weather we’ve had this year.

Everyone’s been watching the latest round of trials in Athens. I mean, the joke has long been that there can’t be anyone left in Greece to put in the dock, but when the Nero Decree stuff got out, with Golden Dawn-affiliated police destroying essential infrastructure and shooting even potential witnesses on sight… if nothing else, you understand why it’s taken this long to put all the bastards in the dock. That the trials are a joint production between the EU and the Arab League — since Turkey allied with the Arab League, Greece is now on its collective border — probably didn’t help things move along either.

The Arab Winter, as the West was pleased to call it, skipped the next spring and went straight into the Summer of Hate. The Middle East caught fire, Muslim populations in other countries either lit shit up or, more often, were seriously attacked in case they lit shit up (as in the Paris massacre, which was the end of Hollande). The American banking system finally collapsed under its own filth, and did so in a moment where the Administration of the day saw it as an excuse to kill 95 percent of foreign aid. The government of Israel, which was already pretty wiggy and under attack from reformist movements, went totally batshit when the multi-billion-dollar tap got turned off by an American president with control of both Houses and an utter absence of fucks, and that set off the firestorm.

Their tactical nuclear strike on Iran —  Fordo plant, where Iran’s (non-functional) uranium enrichment centrifuges were (not) spinning — focused everyone’s attention. America and China essentially kettled the Middle East, kept the oil moving out and kept everyone else in. It was, if you like, an extremely threatening non-intervention. And once the kettle was lifted, there were 15 million dead, and not as much oil as there used to be. It is an awful, heartbreaking thing that Israel is now in the same basic position as Germany after World War II: shamed by the corpses piled at its door. It is, however, important to remember that the crime is not Israel’s, nor of the Jewish people (and if you’re one of the people who believe that the recent pogroms were “hoaxes” or “misunderstood”, you’re an idiot or a piece of shit). The crime is that of perhaps no more than a dozen insane old men and a broken system that allowed special forces commandos and arms dealers to run a country.

I’m running out of space, and also running out of medication. I have to keep popping tablets to stop my new trachea from reacting to airborne allergens for another six weeks. So I’ll save myself from having to describe the Iranian killboxes in Bahrain and all that. But the Arab League states are going to be in a churn of low-intensity conflict for years to come, even as they reach out at their western and eastern edges to do things like provide security and stability in democratic north African states. Which plays as benignity, though of course it’s actually the act of creating a buffer against the southern half of Africa. I don’t particularly have the stomach to discuss the African collapse, when South Africa melted down and the aid packages were deleted. And South America. Christ. Some other time.

I’m looking at the allergen count on my phone, from the local coverage. The local coverage, as everyone calls it, is the use we found for drones, the kind that can be loaded with sensors and autopiloted for months at a time. Everyone with access to a screen of some kind can access data from the drones. Weather, traffic, air analysis, alerts, police activity, remote viewing of public places and pretty much anything else you can think of. So long as you have a connected device. And a Facebook.gov account.

Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenEllis

Read more from the Vice 10th Anniversary Issue:

Never Pitch Any Of These Things To Us Again

Ten London Tribes From The 10 Years Of Our Existence

Grimewatch: A History Of Grime And Vice

More from Warren:

How to Shut Down Internets

An Idiot's Guide to Time

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