Writing InfoSec Fiction

When I first started serious creative writing efforts back in 1997, I had no idea that, 20 years later, I’d be writing about how to write InfoSec fiction. Not only did I not even know how to write fiction, period, InfoSec was pretty much a matter of having an antivirus program and locking the doors to the server rooms. And firewalls, I remember we had just started to have firewalls back then.

Well, enough reminiscing and pondering about how I found myself to be where I am now. I have a purpose, best I get to it.

First off, let’s cover how to write well. It’s not all that difficult. Here are the rules of good writing, as they were taught to me by good writers.

1. Show, don’t tell.

2. Nouns and verbs always beat adjectives and adverbs.

3. Some things are better left to the reader’s imagination.

4. Dialogue should sound like dialogue.

5. Get rid of as many “to be” verbs as you can.

1. Show, don’t tell… that’s the toughest one of all, because we want to explain our thoughts in great detail. Well, that’s technical writing, not fiction writing. How many stories, especially science fiction stories, have gotten bogged down because the characters start explaining all. the. things. The readers will figure out how stuff works as it gets used, don’t worry. Saying “The zapotron ray carved a massive opening into the reactor core, yet none of the radioactivity leaked out” is preferable to the characters spending multiple paragraphs about zapotron technology and why it would be preferable in this situation as compared to, say, an unobtanium battering ram.

In that above example, did I myself go into those technologies? I did not. And yet, each reader now has an idea about them. Show, don’t tell. If I do any more here, I’m telling, not showing, and I’m not about to slide into hypocrisy like that.

2. Nouns and verbs… Rushing beats running quickly. The giant beats the really tall and really big guy. If you have to use an adjective or adverb, make sure it’s not with a plain noun or verb. The exception to this would be in dialogue, where if a person is likely to violate good rules of writing in his or her speech, then it’s good writing to have the character talk that way.

3. Leaving things to the imagination… what’s more scary, the huge hairy spider looming over your right shoulder or… that… THING! AAAAAHH! IT’S COMING FOR YOU! RUN! RUN TOWARDS THE SPIDER!

See what I did there? Consider this an extension of “show, don’t tell.” As I tried to make something scarier than the gigantic spider, I conjured up a notion of something so awful and immediately threatening that your best hope was to run towards the very thing I suggested was fearsome at the beginning of the comparison. And now, by telling all about how I did that trick, I took all the fun out of it. Show, don’t tell, that’s the moral, here. That, and run towards the spider if you’re in that situation, for God’s sake.

Imagination is best when you want to create feeling and mood in your reader. Sometimes, it means ending a story before they want it to end, but, hey, that’s life and good writing.

4. Dialogue… there’s external dialogue. Like my English teacher once said, “When other characters speak, they can reveal so much more with carefully-chosen words, which you want on your side when you fight against Godless Commies.”

Then there’s internal dialogue. One option is to just explain things, but in a dialogue-y way, where you bend words and stuff like that. Stuff that drove my ultra-right English teacher up the wall. Or you can italicize. How do I reconcile my relationship to my English teacher? I mean, she was brilliant, taught me all I needed to know about grammar and writing… but that shrine dedicated to Mussolini in the back of the room? Really? Mrs. Paganini was a complicated person, that was for certain…

Above all, dialogue needs to sound like people talking. Stylistically, if a new character speaks, start a new paragraph. Try to not have a character say too much in one go, it can lose readers.

“You think those ideas work all the time?” a reader asked.

“They’ve served me well,” I said.

“How do I know this isn’t more of Mrs. Paganini’s neo-fascist propaganda?”

I thought a moment. “I guess you can tell it’s not that because one, I’m not wearing a paramilitary uniform, and, two, not once have I spoken about the need to invade either Ethiopia or Albania.”

My reader nodded, satisfied in my answer.

5. Getting rid of “to be” verbs. Remember up in 2, where I talked about nouns and adjectives, how I said “beats” instead of “is better than”? Getting rid of is, are, will be, was, all those “to be” verbs will force you to use actual action words, and that moves the story forward in an interesting way.

***

OK, so those are the rules of good writing. I’d also recommend reading Socrates’ “Poetics” for some tips. It’s a short piece and well worth your time. It’ll also explain why that huge race sequence in “The Phantom Menace” was such a beat-down… put effects ahead of plot and character…

I’d also recommend reading things that help the InfoSec mindset. Look to Eastern Europe for fiction authors and look to trade journals for jumping-off points for stories.

My reading list will include films, but since I use subtitles, I’m still reading them, aren’t I?

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic; Stanislav Lem – Everything he wrote, go for Cyberiad, Solaris, and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub; P.D. Ouspensky – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin; Vladimir Savchenko – Self-discovery

For the films, go to the Mosfilm YouTube channel and watch Solaris, Stalker, Kin Dza Dza – those are the intro to Soviet sci-fi, which is much more cerebral and psychological than US sci-fi, which tends to resolve issues through violence and/or application of brute physics.

While you’re on Mosfilm, consider also Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny), Ivan Vasilievich Changes Careers, and White Tiger (Belyy Tigr). The first is a pair of films that was Game of Thrones stuff decades before HBO, the second is a wild time-travel romp, the third is about a man who can speak with tanks in WW2.

Also consider the Czech film, “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea”. Why? It’s about things going wrong, and that’s what security is all about.

Once you’re paranoid and twisted in your thinking, you’ll read trade journals and start to get ideas about how things go wrong. You’ll read marketing materials from vendors that promise the moon and see holes in their logic that may deliver a shattered earth instead of a new world. You’ll see reports on outages and mentally explore what’s not reported, how much worse it could be.

Then, you’ll want to write that story.

***

We’ve gone from fiction writing to science fiction writing (briefly) and now we’re ready to deal specifically with InfoSec fiction writing. There are no rules for it yet, because as far as I know, there’s only a handful of people trying to write it, and I’m one of them. So I’ll go into my philosophy, and I’ll try to show instead of tell as much as possible.

The short story is ideal for InfoSec fiction. The short story in sci-fi takes a small concept, a gimmick, and toys around with it. The gimmick is the center of the story, so it won’t last very long at all. It’s not a character, so it shouldn’t be pushed all that far. There will be people and things reacting to, planning to use, and being affected by the gimmick, but the gimmick is the center of attention.

Consider a story about a guy using Internet-enabled footwear that’s also equipped with a flash drive and a toner-like device that can pick up signals from network cables. Fun will be had in the story, but it’s over as soon as he visits the coffee shop and uploads his stolen data to the highest bidder. Maybe it’s over now, but that’s how it goes with the gimmick. It’s a short story, but a merry one.

Writing a longer story runs the risk of getting preachy. If your characters are starting to launch into long dialogues explaining best practices, you are writing an editorial at best and a user manual at worst. If your tale has legs and it’s going to travel into the land of 10-40K words, you’re into novella country, and that demands a different focus for your writing.

Novellas have to be character-centered. This means the focus is not on the technology, but on a person using/affected by the technology. The exposition is about the character in relation to that technology, and the temptation to get preachy will try to overpower you. Resist. Stay with that character and his or her moral journey, as he or she struggles with A Big Decision. For it to be InfoSec related, the Big Decision needs to be related to that technology. A plot in which a jilted lover considers killing his former love becomes an InfoSec plot when he ponders the killing by way of a drone strike, homed in on the former love’s cell phone location… and then, to his horror, he realizes the drone strike took out an innocent because the former lover dropped the phone in the parking lot and the innocent picked it up to go return it to the nearby store’s lost and found. The actual strike and realization would be the climax of the story, unless we want this to be a psychological tale about the killer being caught and being sentenced to work out his problems with an AI counselor… that may have a few flaws in its code…

Novels are big things. If you’ve got the nerve to write an InfoSec novel, good luck with that. If you can keep from preaching and make it all about a group of characters dealing with a world changed by a technology, you’ve got a sci-fi novel. To make it InfoSec, those characters deal with a world changed by the *flaws* in a technology.

That’s the biggest part of InfoSec writing, in my view. We confront the promise of better living through technology and poke at the weaknesses in that premise. We ask what can possibly go wrong and then unleash that vulnerability on our characters. Sometimes, our characters are resilient and deal with the problem. In such cases, I’d recommend no neat and tidy happy ending. The characters dealt with the problem, but now they live in a patched world, and they have to be on their guard just in case the patch introduced a new vulnerability.

An InfoSec writer also has to face a decision whether or not the story will be hard science or more Hollywood in its portrayal of technology. My style leans mostly towards hard science. I want things to be highly accurate. My characters will never ping 10.800.1.1. My characters will never have a program with a GUI that looks like it was designed by a special effects company. My characters plow through huge logfiles, they run Wireshark and pore over the captures, and they get mandatory reboots of their OS at the worst possible times.

But, there are times where I want to go Hollywood. In these stories, I create a fantasyland where all is well, all is good, there is better living through technology for all… except, hey, what’s this little red button do? Ah, it reveals that the makers of this heaven were really humans and there are devils from our own day and age in those futuristic details! Here we are in the year 2877, but the world comes crashing down because the code is backward-compatible to run a DOS 5.0 program… in so doing, I’m able to point out the folly of assuming backward-compatible code is secure, but *without getting preachy*.

I just realized I was getting preachy about not getting preachy, so maybe I should leave the rest to your imaginations and end my essay here.

Or should I say “show, don’t tell” one more time? Where is Clippy to help me finish writing a story when I need him the most?

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