Caper Crusaders: The Caper/Heist in Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Beyond

I recently participated in a panel on Cross-Genre Capers: A Discussion of Capers and Heists in Fantasy and Science Fiction at ArmadilloCon. I had the honor of joining Mark Finn, Marina Lostetter and Marshall Ryan Maresca for a discussion, moderated by Lauren Teffeau.

Of course, there is never enough time on a panel to get out everything you want to say (unless you’re willing to risk becoming one of those panelists), so I thought I’d put some of my extra thoughts into a piece here.

Silver Screen Sleuths, featuring “A Scandal in Hollywood”

While capers are not my bread and butter, I do have a toe in the genre. My novelette, “A Scandal in Hollywood” is a counter-caper (see terminology, below) featuring actor Basil Rathbone stepping into the shoes of his most famous role, Sherlock Holmes, to thwart an existential threat to 1940s Tinsel Town. “Scandal” is a tongue-in-cheek love letter to Holmes and Doyle that was voted “Best Short Story of 2018 (all other genres)” in the P&E Readers Choice Poll. You can find it in the anthology Silver Screen Sleuths from 18th Wall Productions.

Speaking more to the panel’s focus, I’ve written a Weird West/light steampunk caper novella, The Clash at Crush (which my publisher assures me will be out any day now). Set against the backdrop of H.G. Wells’ War of the Words, “Clash” indulges my fondness for historical cameos with three historical figures among the caper crew and introduces an atypica wrinkle when Martian tripods inconveniently show up as the caper reaches its climax.

Obligatory Note on Terminology

It’s the Italian Job … but it is an Italian Heist or an Italian Caper?

The terms caper and heist are often used interchangeably. But is there a difference? And if so, what is it? Mark Finn posits the difference between the two is that humor is a key element of capers but mostly absent in heists. That’s a division I find both intriguing and useful, and one I continue to ponder. But the one I have used and, at least to this point, continue to use is that in a heist, the target is always a tangible object and material and the crew’s plans emphasize the physical and technological. A heist is, in essence, always a burglary – no matter how fancy. In a caper, however, the crew’s ultimate goal may or may not be a something physical, and elements of social engineering (Con jobs, impersonation, blackmail, whatever.) play a much larger role.

There is also the counter-caper story, where the antagonists are planning and executing the caper and it falls to the heroes to foil them. While one could technically subdivide this into counter-caper and counter-heist categories, I will use counter-caper to serve for both.

My Favorite SF/F Caper Canon (and Horror, too!)

There is arguably a streak of sci-fi even to many capers set in what is ostensibly the modern, mundane world. These stories often involve very-near-future, clearly-on-the-horizon technology or deploy existing technology in creative ways which sometimes stretches credibility. With so many capers showcasing talents, expertise, or technology that stretches the believable, it’s only a short hop to introducing magic and technology.

Cyberpunk’s persistent shadow economy of highly skilled experts is perfect for capers/heists.

That been said, many classic caper/heist stories explicitly fall under science fiction or fantasy:

Going all the way back to that foundational classic of the genre, Neuromancer (an assembled crew of criminals and other experts on the margins of society steal the hardcopy of downloaded consciousness), it would be difficult to find a cyberpunk story where a credible case cannot be made for it being a caper/heist.

But Sci-fi capers are not limited to the near future or the morally ambiguous confines of cyberpunk. A New Hope is rife with caper/heist elements: escaping Tatooine, helping Leia escape the Death Star, and the off-screen caper of Bothan spies acquiring plans for the Death Star (which, of course, makes Rogue One a caper story as well – and, while it may not be a great Star Wars story, it’s a good caper story).

Star Trek IV may be one of the most unique caper stories in any genre. Not only does it piggyback time travel on top of science fiction, but its heist object (a pair of humpback whales) is as distinctive as it is unforgettable.  

Star Trek IV: 60 tons of McGuffin

Speaking of Star Trek, the normally straight-laced, goody-goody Next Generation bangs out an incredibly smart, funny caper story with a healthy dose of meta in the season two episode “The Royale:” [Oversimplification Alert] The crew of The Enterprise becomes trapped in a pocket universe created by aliens based on a (fictional) caper novel also called “The Royale.” As their only sample of human culture, the aliens are under the mistaken impression that the third-rate novel reflects humanity’s preferred lifestyle. Ultimately, to escape the pocket universe, the away- team has to successfully pull off the caper referenced in the novel.

Heist Crew, Hyperborean style.

Fantasy takes to caper/heist stories very early in its history. Many of Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhard and The Gray Mouser revolve around capers or heists. Especially notable in this regard are “Ill Met in Lankhmar, “Jewels in the Forest,” and “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Similar tropes can be found in Howard’s Conan stories. These are on full display with the 1982 pastiche film adaptation of Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, as Conan’s party (crew?) sneaks into the Snake Tower to steal a legendary jewel and then penetrates Thulsa Doom’s temple complex.

Caper Crew, Florin style.

Conan isn’t the only overlap of fantasy and caper among 80’s cinema classics. The Princess Bride is an excellent caper story (and one of the best and most endearing examples anywhere of how “assembling the crew” can become an adventure in its own right). The same, of course, can be said of William Goldmann’s original novel, though I would argue the caper flavor is more explicit in the movie than the book.  

Horror also offers us at least one noteworthy entry. Lovecraft’s “The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is a classic counter-caper narrative with diabolic antagonists Joseph Curwen and crew engaged in multiple capers: their body-snatching and necromancy ring as well as their efforts to keep the Curwen’s resurrection a secret and return him to his former glory.  Conversely, the protagonists, led by Marinus Bicknell Willet are trying to thwart those plots (at which they are ultimately successful) and preserve young Charles Dexter Ward’s life (at which they are not).

The Lord of the Stings

The author of a famous caper story?

More than a few people have argued for The Hobbit as a caper story. I respectfully disagree. True, the whole segment at the Lonely Mountain with Smaug is definitely a caper/heist. However, while that is the company’s ultimate goal, it is only a small part of the story as measured both by page count and emotional journey. It would be like a version of Oceans 11 where the main characters spend the first 90 minutes driving to the casino.

On the other hand, I see a much stronger case for Lord of the Rings as a caper story: the crew spreads out across Middle Earth using stealth, guile, magic (gadgets), and the occasional bit of muscle with the ultimate goal of sneaking the McGuffin of Power through Mordor to Mount Doom.

(Somehow, I suspect the notion that he might have written a caper story would send Tolkien spinning in this grave).

Meanwhile Back in Our World

And, because it doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere else, two my favorite non-SFF caper stories are both from the world of 90s cinema. A third comes from prime time cartoons.

“All he’s asking for is peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” Martin Bishop, Sneakers.

Sneakers (1992) has a cast that has to be seen to be believed: Robert Redford, Sydney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and Stephen Tobolowsky (you might know him as Ned … Rhyerson!).

Hudson Hawk (1991) is admittedly a tough one to classify. It does have hints of magic (or at least alchemy) and miracles alongside a dose of clock-punk, but takes such a light touch with them that I feel it round up to a real-world, if very cinematic, reality. While technically a ‘90s film, Hudson Hawk, in all its glorious cheese, actually has more of an ‘80s aesthetic.

Two decades later, in 23rd season of The Simpsons, the episode “The Book Job” sees a motley collection of Springfield residents collaborate on a get-rich-quick scheme to publish a young adult novel, which turns into a caper when the group is screwed over by their publisher. An appearance by Neil Gaiman, playing himself as the crew’s Ringer, transforms an already strong story into something truly special.  

Why Do We Love Caper Stories (And Why Do I)? The Big Picture

At their most fundamental, caper stories are underdog stories. Crews run the gamut from lovable rogues with hearts of gold to full-blown anti-heroes in all their amoral glory. Exposition sets up social contexts in which there are perceived winners and losers, in groups and out groups, enforcers and renegades, underdogs and overlords. But caper stories play with the ambiguity and fuzzy corners of those worlds. With the right crew, a good plan, and a little bit of luck, the underdogs can come out on top. 

Definitely Underdogs and Outsider (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels)

Caper stories further endear themselves to us because, rather than brawn or superior resources, in capers the underdogs almost always triumph by being cleverer than their opponents. Most of us don’t have phenomenal strength or martial prowess among our assets, but we like to think of ourselves as clever. It’s enjoyable to see a little of ourselves in the caper crew and wonder “hey, could we do that?”

A final part of the genre’s appeal is the humor which permeates so many of these stories. This emphasis on humor serves several roles: it diffuses tension, it showcases the close relationship between members of the crew, and it gives further evidence of that all-important “cleverness.” It also underscores the underdog and “loveable rogue” nature of protagonists.

Why Do We Love Caper Stories (And Why Do I)? The Details

One of the reasons we all love Caper/Heist stories is that we know them, their tropes, their characters. But that doesn’t mean that every one of those aspects resonates with each personal equally.

For me, the most exciting part of caper stories is assembling the crew, with its rich spiderweb different and sometimes conflicting experiences, backstories, and assumptions somehow all coming together to pull off “the job.” In terms of my personal enjoyment of caper stories, the completion of crew feels like the climax of the story. Everything else is just denouement.

Another joy for me are the social interactions between the caper crew and the forces of law (order, the establishment, whatever you want to call them). That’s one reason I tend to favor caper stories with heavy social engineering/con aspect to them.

But we’re talking specifically about Capers/Heists in science fiction and fantasy. In those genres, on a meta-level, I enjoy seeing how exposition is handled (and sometimes mishandled).

When a caper/heist is set in the mundane present day, or even a well understood historical period, a lot of exposition can be omitted. Readers/viewers already understand the technology, the traps, the weapons, law enforcement, and the social and economic relationships well enough to fill in the gaps. But when the caper is sci-fi or fantasy, all those axiomatic elements are now up in the air. What does magic allow? What does new technology allow? How do law enforcement and the legal system work? What are the social and economic relationships informing the caper?

This is a challenging tightrope for authors to walk. We have to explain how all the caper tropes apply to the world in question so that the plot points feel earned and twists believable … without throwing up giant “Chekov’s Gun” red flags while doing so.

To illustrate that point by going a little ad absurdum, if an author informs us that “the three-headed hounds of Gnarr are the realm’s most fearsome guard animals but, when both moons are full in twain, the hounds are afraid of flying shrews,” the reader can safely assume that’s going to come up later. The challenge is seeding that information so that, when the crew uses the musk of flying shrews to bypass the evil Duke’s three-headed hound, it was not obvious ahead of time but still feels earned when it occurs.

On Gadgets

Gadgets are not only a major trope of caper/heist stories, they are huge part of their fun. Unless a caper story is very strong in other areas, the lack of any sort of gadgetry, technical wizardry, or Rube Goldberg-esque silliness is going to be keenly felt. However, for science fiction and fantasy capers, the challenges of exposition go double for gadgets.

More broadly, creators need to balance the sense of wonder gadgets create in a reader/viewer without leaning on them to heavily for support. I would hesitate to utilize more than one major gadget or two or three minor ones in the course of a story. The more heavily a story features gadgets, the more important it becomes to balance the narrative scales a bit. Perhaps the forces of the establishment have gadgets of their own to throw at the crew. Or maybe one of the crew’s gadgets fails, possibly in a spectacular fashion.

So … you need a gadget?

Thoughts on Writing Capers

First, to support the genre’s tropes and conventions, a certain level of social complexity and technological development in the world is required – say at least equivalent to earth’s Bronze Age. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s no way to write a Neolithic heist or a caper story involving egalitarian hunter-gatherers, but I’d love to read it, because I don’t know how you’d do it. (As I’m typing this, I’m realizing that Quest for Fire is basically a fantasy Neolithic heist story, with fire as the heist object. So maybe treat my preceding statement as a loose guideline).

As with any form of genre fiction, don’t bust your ass trying to come up with something nobody’s ever seen before, because its an almost impossible task. Rather, spend that time thinking about combining the elements you love in fresh and exciting ways. Don’t be afraid of tropes, they’re not necessarily your enemy. After all, those tropes are at the heart of the comforting feel that people seem to like about capers/heists. We know these stories and that’s a big part of why we love them.

With advanced technology and other areas of niche expertise playing such a strong role in caper stories, many authors anguish over the appropriate level of detail, research, and accuracy needed. These are valid questions but, as with so many aspects of writing, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Write to the level you’re comfortable with. If you’re already published, you know the level your audience will enjoy. If you are not yet published, write to the level of the audience you want.

I cannot stress this enough: Unless you are a world-class expert in cryptography, information security, digital intrusion, etc., no matter how much legwork you do, you are not going to be write to a level that will satisfy every reader. If you try, you’re going to lose a lot of the people you really want, so steel yourself and ignore the handful who will never be satisfied.

Where are Capers Going?

In moderating the panel, Lauren Taffeau made there interesting observation that:

We’re going through a period in history right now where it feels like espionage and other crimes are happening right out in the open instead of all the cloak and dagger from an earlier age.

In light of those developments, Tafffeau posed the question

How have current events changed expectations for writing capers?

This is an interesting and important question, and one where I admit to not having much in the way of concrete answers. We may very well see that kind of open, smarmy malfeasance reflected in the kinds of targets caper crews go up against, using classic caper skills to hit those targets on the back end. On the other hand, it’s possible we may see crews engaging more openly as well. We could see the emergency of the “spin doctor” as a variation on the traditional “face” archetype in crews (for a rather prescient foretaste of what this could look like, check out the antihero crew of the 1997 dark comedy Wag the Dog).