Fran Wilde is an author, programmer, and technology consultant who has worked as a science and engineering writer, a university professor, a sailing instructor, a game developer, and a jeweler’s assistant. Fran’s first novel, Bone Arrow, is forthcoming from Tor in 2015. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (forthcoming), Nature, and The Impossible Futures anthology, while nonfiction interviews and roundtables writers have appeared under the banner “Cooking the Books” at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, the SFWA blog, and at franwilde.wordpress.com. You can also find Fran on twitter (as @Fran_Wilde), tumblr, and facebook.
By Fran Wilde
Diana Rios swore she’d put the next stung brigger who entered her garrison med tent out of their misery with her bare hands.
“What possessed you to put a live wasp in your mouth, Jersey?” she asked, before tearing an antihistamine pen cap off with her teeth.
“Ith wath a beth! Ow!”– From “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” by Fran Wilde, Asimov’s April/May 2014.
John DeNardo invited me to talk to SF Signal readers about the sensor wasps that appear in my Asimov’s April/May 2014 short story “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” and I’m delighted to do so.
SF writers spend a lot of time thinking about where technology is headed. In particular, we try to stay far, far ahead of where technology might be headed. It’s part of the job description. Personally, I find it a lot of fun. But it isn’t an easy sort of fun. Tech moves faster every day.
In a former life as an engineering and science writer, I learned that one way to get a jump on technology and where it could evolve is to look at the problems that technology is currently creating for itself and for its users — the holes it digs for itself, simply by virtue of its own headwind.
I’m totally getting to the wasps. Bear with me.
One of those problems is that mechanical technologies and circuit-driven technologies are fragile in ways that are difficult to determine until the tech is used in situ. For instance, the impact that super-sharp moon dust has on lunar exploration equipment: wearing down seals, getting everywhere. The tools that need to be the most sensitive are the most at risk. Sensors break, filters get clogged. Condensation is a creeping terror. (Anyone who owns a smart phone knows this already.) In short: parts wear out and must be replaced. That’s manageable for a short-term visit away from repair facilities. For a longer stay, mechanical breakdown is a problem that requires a long-term mission to carry a large quantity of repair supplies and equipment, or to live with inevitable degradation.
For a community like the one in “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” certain equipment would be protected inside an artificial dome environment, and replaced on two-year staff shift swaps. Other equipment was allowed to run out as the mission came to a close. But the atmospheric and metals sensors central to part of the mission’s success needed to both be extremely sensitive and to interact with rough environments outside the dome. In a situation like that, the breakdown rate of a computer-based sensor could be excessively fast and extremely expensive to replace, both in time and resources.
I’d been working on a non-fiction project about ways various animals and insects sense chemicals, and the tech problem clicked for the story I’d been turning over in my head – one that had to do with leadership, social hierarchy, and boredom (another kind of breakdown that tends to multiply problems during long voyages).
It turns out that researchers have tested wasps and other hymenoptera and vespidae for sensing capabilities already and, once trained, they are extremely adept at detecting tiny differences in scent for a variety of materials. While right now it’s likely easier (and cooler) to build a mechanical sensor that can detect multiple types of scents, thinking about mechanical breakdown was what made this concept make sense in terms of an exoplanet development. Wasps (and other insects) could be ostensibly modified to become even faster breeders and sharper sensors, resistant to certain environmental dangers. Then the solution to the problem of equipment breakdown is to breed what you need, rather than repair existing.
Deece separated two dozen wasps into sensor tubes. He waved a swab over the tubes. The wasps, anticipating a hit of sugar water, thrashed their abdomens and bashed at the tops of the tubes with their armored heads. Two clamped onto the filter mesh with tiny mandibles, then fell away when Deece shook the tubes. “These are ready.”– From “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” by Fran Wilde, Asimov’s April/May 2014.
Similarly, the idea that a small community might break down due to boredom, isolation, and outside pressures without planned repair or service fitted the same concept nicely. So this was a fun concept to research and play out, using wasps and briggers both.