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Roger Clarke's 'Sci-Fi and Surveillance'

Surveillance in Speculative Fiction
Appendix 1: Visual and Aural Surveillance

Version of 11 October 2009

This is an Appendix to the paper entitled 'Surveillance in Speculative Fiction'

Roger Clarke **

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This Appendix identifies and provides outline descriptions of infrastructure imagined by sci-fi authors, which supports visual and aural surveillance.

Bill Christensen's web-site identifies and documents a wide range of instances of surveillance devices depicted in the science fiction literature.

This document provides extracts from the site that relate to visual and aural surveillance, in chronological order, oldest first. These entries have been supplemented by a number from other sources. Relatively recent instances have been mostly omitted, unless they appear to add something of significance.

The sub-sections are:

1. Sound Monitoring

This section identifies instances of aural surveillance, variously covering augmentation of the human capacity of hearing, remote monitoring, and recording.

Note that the underlying sciences and technologies were developed during the nineteenth century, and various sound capture, sound amplification and sound recording technologies were developed during the 1920s and 1930s.

Christensen's site omits Zamyatin's 'We', in 1922, which featured Guardians who:

Low-scale Detectors

'Magnifies even the smallest sound' - Brigands of the Moon, Ray Cummings, Astounding, 1931

Eavesdropping Ray

'A device that allows others to hear from outside ordinary locked rooms. Except in an insulated, an eavesdropping ray can pick up even whispers' - Brigands of the Moon, Ray Cummings Astounding, 1931

Receptor Tape

'A thin, flexible material that can pick up sounds' - The Face, Jack Vance, DAW, 1979

Two feature films are noteworthy for their investigation of aspects of aural surveillance:

2. Fixed Cameras

This section focusses on visual surveillance, whether with or without accompanying sound, by means of camera installations and transmission of images to a remote control point, in order to support monitoring and control of human behaviour. This has been the central metaphor for surveillance in popular culture at least since the middle of the twentieth century.

Many of the references below come from Christensen's web-site, but the first comes from Nellis (2009a).

The Eye

'Police have access to a glass disc on which a detailed simulation of the city and its people are displayed: "the most remarkable feature of the invention was, that the instant the eye rested on any particular portion of the whole that part was at once magnified so that every detail of it was clearly observable ..." - The Land of the Changing Sun, Publisher Unknown, W.N. Harben, 1894


"But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her" - The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster, Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1909


The conception of television dates to about 1900, and the technology that quickly came to achieve widespread use was invented in the mid-1920s, with regular transmissions beginning in 1929 in Germany and the UK in 1930.

Televisor, also Telescreen

' snap a switch - twirl a few dials - and instantly you can bring to view any scene in North America on one of the screens here. Selective television, with the elimination of a transmitter. Floods, fires, holdups, sport events - nothing escaped the all-seeing powers of the telescreens' - The Challenge of Atlantis, Arthur J. Burks, 1938


"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized" - 1984, George Orwell, Penguin, 1948

Retardite / Slow Glass

'Slow glass, which delays the passage of light by years or decades, is used to construct windows, called scenedows, that enable city dwellers, submariners and prisoners to watch 'live' countryside scenes' - Light of Other Days / Other Days, Other Eyes, Bob Shaw, Ace, 1967 / 1972

CCTV plus 'Facial Recognition'

'Closed circuit television has become intelligent, able to locate a person anywhere simply from their photo ID, continuously tracking every citizen's movements, storing the moments of their lives in digital and retrievable archives' - Whole Wide World, Paul J. McAuley, HarperCollins Voyager, 2001

3. Drones

This section focusses on mobile, aerial means for supporting visual (and possibly also aural) surveillance. A useful (and common) short-form for such devices is 'drones'.

Reality got there first!

Christensen notes the long history of Forward Observation Posts providing information to assist in artillery targeting, and the use of balloons to perform this function, at least as early as the American Civil War, in 1861.

Raytron Apparatus

A small, flat disk with a lenslike eye and a whirling, pink, glowing armature on top. 'Over a radius of several miles Sonya's raytron apparatus could direct its flight, and back over the invisible connecting ray came an image of all that the lens eye saw' - Beyond the Stars, by Ray Cummings, Ace, 1928

Scarab Robot Flying Insect

'A tiny thing, scarcely more than an inch and a half in length. It studied its surroundings, transmitting to its manipulator, far away now, all that it heard through its ear microphones and saw with its minute vision tubes' - The Scarab, Raymond Z. Gallun, Astounding Stories, 1936

Flying Eye

A remote-controlled device for surveillance overflight - The Repairman, Harry Harrison, Galaxy Science Fiction, 1959

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

"On the chest of drawers something was perched. Something that gleamed, shiny metal, gleamed and clicked as it turned toward her. She saw into two glassy mechanical lenses, something with a tubelike body, the size of a child's bat, shot upward and swept toward her. A metal cylinder with an elaborate system of antennas, receptors and propulsion jets - Vulcan's Hammer, Philip K. Dick, Ace Books, 1960

Housefly Monitor

A living fly that is outfitted with sensors for surveillance work - Lies, Inc., Philip K. Dick, Fantastic, 1964


Hovering, sem-autonomous surveillance drones with cameras to send images (and guns to respond if need be). An entire system of a hundred or more drones could be remotely controlled from a central location under an auto-scan program - This Moment of the Storm, Roger Zelazny, Publisher Not Known, 1966

Recording Eye

"We parked a drone ship fifty thousand kilometers up and dropped roughly a thousand eyes on the planet" - The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg, Avon Books, 1969

Remote surveillance drone watch

Basketball-sized devices that floated twelve feet overhead in anarchy zones, waiting. Each had a television eye and a sonic stunner, each a hookup to police headquarters - Cloak of Anarchy, Larry Niven, Analog, 1972


"The prototype blue-bellied, gray-backed tracer-bird with the wide-angle eye and the parabola ear followed the dragon-riders north. A series of the larger fliers followed it at well-spaced intervals, to serve as relay points for the spy broadcasts... The dark birdforms dotted the mountaintops like statues of prehistoric beasts, wings outspread. Had there been an eye to observe them, it might not even have noted their minute, tropism-like pursuit of the sun across the sky as they recharged their batteries for the night's flight". 'Their movements could be controlled using a wrist bracelet control panel, that also showed surveillance footage on a small screen' - Changeling, Roger Zelazny, Ace, 1980

Public Eye

A floating, free-roaming surveillance camera. "A Public Eye was floating above and beyond me. No reason to jump out of my boots. Nine times out of ten an Eye is cruising at random, unmonitored, and its twelve-hour loop may or may not be scanned by a human before it is scrubbed. The tenth time - a peace officer may be monitoring closely..." - Friday, Robert Heinlein, Publisher unknown, 1982

Aerostat monitors

'Almond-sized aerostats with eyes, ears, and radios, which picked up the sound of an explosion and began converging on the attack' - The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson, Bantam, 1995


'Squirrels whose brains are outfitted with microchips that transmit everything they see and hear', resulting in 'a panopticon of squirrels' - Paul Levinson, The Pixel Eye, Tor, 2003

4. The Eye-Camera

This section identifies key instances of visual surveillance by means of a camera that is substituted for a natural eye. They do not come from Christensen's site. The first work was drawn to my attention by a conference delegate when I asked for fiction works that pre-date Steve Mann's sousveillance techniques.

The Unsleeping Eye

'A human eye is replaced by a camera' - The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (UK title), The Unsleeping Eye (US title), D.G. Compton, 1973. Filmed as La mort en direct / Death Watch (1980)

Dittos / Golems

'People (archies, or archetypes) can create clay duplicates of themselves (dittos or golems). A ditto gets all of the archetype's memories up to the time of duplication. At the end of each day, the archie can choose whether or not to upload the ditto's memories' - Kiln People, David Brin, Tor Books, 2002


'Squirrels whose brains are outfitted with microchips that transmit everything they see and hear', resulting in 'a panopticon of squirrels' - Paul Levinson, The Pixel Eye, Tor, 2003

5. Data Surveillance

This section identifies monitoring techniques that depend on recorded and transmitted data of the nature of text and tables rather than image, video or sound. None come from Christensen's site. A theory of dataveillance was enunciated in Clarke (1988).


'Britain's slid further down the slippery slope to a surveillance state. Law enforcement have always lived in a different world, and now they inhabit a data-rich version of reality called CopSpace' - Charles Stross, Accelerando, Orbit, 2005

The Vast Machine

'A capacity to access, integrate and if necessary hack the world's burgeoning surveillance systems' (cf. the Bush Administration's mooted 'Total Information Awareness project) - John Twelve Hawks, The Traveller, Corgi, 2005

6. Magnetic Surveillance

This section identifies a category that remains speculative.

Magnetic Eyes

A device that permits remote monitoring of people or other objects. "'Magnetic eyes' are of great use to miners and civil engineers. These instruments are something like the mariner's compass, with the sensitiveness enormously increased by galvanic currents. The 'eye,' as it were, sees what substances are underground, and at what distances. It also shows how many people are in an adjoining room -- through the magnetic properties of the iron in their blood whether they are moving, and in what directions and at what speed they go. In connection with the phonograph and concealed by draperies, it is useful to detectives, who, through a registering attachment, can obtain a record of everything said and done" - A Journey In Other Worlds, John Jacob Astor IV, Publisher Unknown, 1894

Sonomagnetic Fabric

'Magnetic fields can be produced by acoustic motions in electrically conducting media, like sea water. A sonomagnetic field can be induced in the ocean by submerged acoustic sources, which imparts a water mass oscillation in the ocean. Water particles crossing flux lines of the Earth's ambient magnetic field experience an induced electric field' - Earth, David Brin, Bantam, 1990

7. Thought Surveillance

This section identifies a category that at this stage appears far-fetched.

Great Ear

'An electronic telepathic listening device that monitors thousands of people simultaneously' - Our Friends From Frolix 8, Philip K. Dick, Ace Publishing, 1970

8. Omniscience and Precognition

This section identifies a category that at this stage appears far-fetched. These entries do not draw on Christensen's site.


'A device which allows direct observation of past events ... inherently limited to recent times--but what if, instead of focusing it upon the past of a generation earlier, it were tuned to the past of one-hundredth of a second ago?' - The Dead Past, Isaac Asimov, Astounding Science Fiction, 1956


A system that punishes people with imprisonment for murders they would have committed, had they not been prevented - The Minority Report - Philip K. Dick, Fantastic Universe, 1956, made into a film of the same name (2002)

Time Viewer

'By opening a wormhole, anyone can view people and events from any point throughout time and space. When the technology is released to the general public, it effectively destroys all secrecy and privacy. The novel examines the philosophical issues that arise from the world's population ... being aware that they could be under constant observation by anyone, or that they could observe anyone without their knowledge. ... An underground forms which attempts to escape this observation; corruption and crime are drastically reduced; nations discover the true causes and outcomes of international conflicts; and religions worldwide are forced to reevaluate their divine histories' - Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days, Tor Books, 2000

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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