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The Art Of The Long Con: Thoughts towards a SF caper story

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on August 15, 2005

I’ve been watching a lot of films that deal with the art of the long con recently. Last night’s, “Matchstick Men” managed the trick of wrapping one con inside another, while the recent “Ocean” sequence have produced some truly complex and intellectually stimulating puzzles.

It strikes me that one of the roots of SF is the puzzle story, and the long con is one of the ultimate expressions of the puzzle – one where only a handful of characters have the full picture, and one where misdirection is a key concept. In “Ocean’s Twelve” the reveal sequence shows that what appeared to be a failed con was in fact part of a complex swirl of events that were actually directed at solving a puzzle that was only hinted at by the opening moments of the film.

So how can we come up with an innovative long con for SF readers? It’ll need to be one that won’t trip up and deliver the pay-off before the final reveal, that keeps the readers hooked, and at convincing them that they know what’s really going on, while the characters do something completely unexpected – in full sight of the reader. It’s something that’s puzzling me – I feel there’s some scope here for something that could be humorous, yet thrilling, and able to tell a story about some of the more unsavoury elements of the human condition.

I’m wondering about constructing something in the shape of the classical artefact archaeology story, using a variant of the classic gold salting scam. However, this is one where the folk running the con actually know that there are real artefacts on site, but are unable to put together the resources needed to recover them – and so run a long con that not only has to convince the marks that they want to recover the artefacts, but that once recovered they are in fact worthless, and then to hand them over to our protagonists. We can dress things up with a touch of the post-human to make things harder for the protagonists. Like the best long cons it’ll need a big team of players – the key actors, and then their support infrastructure. The later is actually critical – and could make in an interesting focus for the story.

It’s something that could be worth trying out. There’s the prospect of constructing an appropriate milieu, as well as designing the story state machine in order to construct the appropriate loops and place the characters (both the grifters and the marks) in the right places. The trick seems to be covering up the obvious cog wheels that drive the con – perhaps by throwing in something unexpected that leaves the grifters having to improvise, or affecting the support infrastructure in the middle of the con…

Hmmm. That last one would work well in a story from the point of view of the support infrastructure folk, with the front office grifters out on the job, and the under-briefed folk at the back-end of things having to rapidly develop front-end skills in order to solve a problem…

Hmmm…

OK…

Nothing to see here…

Move along now…

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9 Responses to 'The Art Of The Long Con: Thoughts towards a SF caper story'

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  1. andrewducker said,

    It strikes me that one of the roots of SF is the puzzle story

    And here was me thinking that the root of SF is really big fricking laser beams.

    Both Enders Game and Use of Weapons make very good use of Long Cons, perpretated on both major characters and the reader. The Matrix could be viewed as the story of someone who’s been conned, and is now taking revenge. There are some magnificent turnarounds in The Golden Age trilogy, made more fun by the fact that with memory editing technology people may not even realise that they _are_ conning someone until the backups kick in…

  2. sbisson said,

    And here was me thinking that the root of SF is really big fricking laser beams

    No, I’m sure it’s actually “Coruscating beams of irresistable force emanating from massive projectors that ravage the very aether in their quest of destruction!”

  3. almeda said,

    I’d so read that.

    Just for the record. :->

  4. andrewducker said,

    That was, in fact, exactly what I was thinking of.

    Oh, how I loved the Galactic Patrol novels when I was 16.

  5. del_c said,

    Speaking of memory editing technology, A Deepness In The Sky, although it’s not the con artists who subject themselves to memory editing, rather that they (the Emergency) subject their victims to it. Except the Emergency then turn out to be marks of…

    Hmmm. I’m struggling to count how many separate long cons are going on in that book:

    Emergents + Qeng Ho -> Spiders
    Emergents -> Qeng Ho
    Pham -> Emergents
    Underhill + Trixia -> Spiders, Emergents + Qeng Ho

  6. razorsmile said,

    I don’t suppose you’re trying to con us into writing you a story, are you?

  7. devilgate said,

    I thought you thought that conventions were too short…

  8. daveon said,

    I’ve often thought about this, as the Big Con is a huge favourite of mine. I’m trying to recall it being well done in a narrative form. The tricky part with the movie form is the handling of patsies and the classic bait and switch. It’s relatively easy to do on screen where you control the POV, much harder unless you have a POV character who is outside the Con.

    It would make telling the story trickier than in a movie.

  9. marypcb said,

    knives, forks and spoons of ravening force I think you’ll find 😉


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