Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Eric Frank Russell's "Top Secret" (short story, humor): On data corrupting communications channels!

In this age of internet, both the technology & premise of this story appear outdated. And I wonder if it made sense even in the telegraph age. But it sure made me chuckle a few times.

While unreliable communications channels are common enough, the least anyone will do when deploying them in mission critical settings is get an idea of their reliability, & do some verification at endpoints. Star faring civilization in this story doesn't even do this simple check.

It's not among the best of Russell, but good enough in my book.

Story summary.

It's a military setting.

There is a human frontier colony on a planet called "Motan", "located in the middle of a close-packed group of solar systems, a stellar array that represents an important junction in space." There are currently 20,000 people & 2 spaceports there. In charge of local military base is Commander Hunter; by the end of the story, he will be replaced by his deputy - Captain Maxwell.

Then there are friendly aliens called "Zengs". With the permission of human authorities, Zengs have now occupied "two nearby planets in the same group" - "Korima & Koroma".

Of course, the permissions was given by a politician; military bosses are not happy - particularly, General Railton. After some strategic thinking at military headquarters on earth, there is a decision: "instant the Zengs attack we've got to retaliate against their beam stations".

This headquarters decision needs to be communicated to Commander Hunter. And that simple process causes all the troubles in the story.

Now, there are two ways of sending a message: via "direct beam", or via "tight beam". Former is direct relay from earth to Motan, but is considered easy to compromise. Later is store & forward via a roundabout route: Earth sends message to a relay station X, clearly marking the recipient; it's then relayed to another station Y; ... until it reaches Motan after 18 hops.

And both direct- & tight-beam channels are voice channels - scrambled between relays. To send a written message, you speak out the message. Operator at relay station notes it down; then reads out for next channel. And different relay stations are manned by people with different levels of English proficiency. No wonder tight beam never delivers the original message!

Further, the messages can be straight (plain text) or in code (encrypted). The encrypted messages employ a simple substitution cipher. Each station has a code book - a sort of printed dictionary that substitutes one word for another. These code books are a pain to change & use; so their use is generally avoided.

And all stations are supposed to use the current code book. But you are never completely sure if someone is using an outdated version! If you are a programmer who once worked on a team that didn't have a sane version control system, you'll find the situation familiar.

OK - so the message marked "Top Secret" from headquarters to Motan: "In event of hostile action in your sector the war must be fought to outstretch and rive all enemy's chief lines of communication."

What Motan receives is: "An event of hospitality your section the foremost when forty two ostriches arrive on any cheap line of communication"!!

Whole lot of hilarity ensues as they wonder about ostriches, then many more communiques on the subject where both parties are trying to interpret it based on first pair of messages - sometimes employing various versions of code books suspecting the other party forgot marking it's in cipher! Until Commander Hunter eventually gets a sack order from HQ (finally on direct beam) for indulging in cryptic communications! Only, his successor will soon prove to be as bad!

Oh - and no one suspects, through out the story, that communications channels might be spicing things up.

Collected in.

  1. "Major Ingredients" (ed Rick Katze). 

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, August 1956.
Rating: B
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.