Watchbird — Robert Sheckley

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The late 2001 SFWA Author Emeritus Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) saw “Watchbird” first published in the February, 1953 issue of Galaxy magazine. This radio adaptation comes from the short-lived (January 1-April 9, 1953) SF radio show Tales of Tomorrow, and aired on January 1, 1953 as the show’s first episode. “Watchbird” has been adapted three times for television, first as an episode of the The Twilight Zone, then Babylon 5, and more recently (2007) as an (un-aired) episode in the Masters of Science Fiction series.

“Watchbird” postulates a scenario where scientists, working for a private sector corporation, have perfected a technique to invade the human mind (in essence to become telepathic) to such an intimate degree that the computer-programmed, miniaturized components the corporation can produce to literally read our very thoughts are narrowed to such a fine-tuned degree that they are able to determine when anyone is about to commit murder (can human thought be reduced to bits and bytes?). The military (with the approval of congress) gets hold of the device and installs it in drone-like “watchbirds” that scour the skies and are equipped with the capability to neutralize any potential murderer with what Sheckley calls “electrical immobilizers” (think powerful tasers from the skies). First, there is one watchbird, who tests successfully. Before long, the skies are filled with thousands of them…and then something goes horribly wrong. Sheckley’s story not only adds a What if? reductio ad absurdum twist to the “Big Brother Is Watching” theme so chillingly portrayed by George Orwell’s 1984, but takes it another frightening step and in a different direction that is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. “Watchbird” is a quintessential example of the cautionary SF story.

While America grew weary of the Korean “conflict,” and SF fans took a short break from their magazines to listen to such SF fare as “Watchbird” (which they had probably just read, given magazine publication schedules–note both the print and air dates for “Watchbird”) they would return to the pages of their favorite magazines to read further top-notch tales from early 1953 like Fritz Leiber’s cerebral think-piece “The Big Holiday” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January), Theodore Sturgeon’s remarkable “Saucer of Loneliness” (Galaxy, February), William Tenn’s dark and gripping “The Liberation of Earth” (Future Science Fiction, May), and Ward Moore’s classic post-apocalyptic story “Lot” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May).

Sheckley is known for, by turns, his witty, satirical, humorous stories (or a combination of all three) and his personal Golden Age was by various accounts the 1950’s (though he would continue to write, quite successfully, virtually until his death). With “Watchbird” he shows us that some themes demand more than a lighthearted treatment. Worthy of note is that Sheckley sets his story in the year 2003 when, ironically, the military does indeed possess watchbirds (i.e. predator drones, or warbirds if you will) and uses them to seek and eliminate high value military targets in the War on Terror.

Play Time:  28:19