The Tour is Not Worth the Donation

The Tour Is Not Worth the DonationBy

Andrija Popovic

(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Hello, and welcome to the National Museum of Existential Dread. Thank you for your donation and for participating in this tour. My name is Andy and I will be your guide. Before we reach our main attraction, please take a moment to download our tour app onto your personal devices and networks.

“While we wait, allow me to describe the museum itself. This is a unique example of early twenty-first century Brutalist revival architecture. Based on an unused design found in the home of the late master of Brutalism, Paul Rudolphe, the museum was constructed from traditional materials for the style. The exposed concrete, blackened metal framework, and tinted windows emphasize the imposing, angular design of the building. At it’s opening, the noted architectural critic Anna DuMonde said, “the building almost crushes one under its harsh, unrelenting, lines.”

“OK, it looks like everyone has downloaded the application. Thank you. We’ll move on to our first exhibit before the main gallery. Existential Dread was first described by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in his book, “The Concept of Dread.” While he primarily centered existential dread around concepts of faith, in later years this dread centered around the unmoored feelings brought on by existence itself.

“Human freedom, and the responsibility to use that freedom, became a source of melancholia or angst within a person. As one realizes there is no higher plan, no direction in life, it becomes initially liberating, but engenders a terror on par with agoraphobia. Dread, existential dread, becomes a response to the meaninglessness and absurdity of life.

“We then attempt to suppress this dread by indulging in the everyday routines in life. Suffocating routine becomes a comfort. We abdicate our freedoms for the comfort of the mundane. Only the supremely confident amongst, or the supremely narcissistic and sociopathic, can look at the terrifying breadth of human experience and feel they can master it.”

“Now, please follow me into the main hall and activate your personal networks and devices.”

“What you are seeing – projected via the most advanced direct input simsense technology allowed by law – is your life. The terms of service you agreed to when downloading our tour application allowed our advanced synthetic intelligence driven datacrawlers to pull together a full profile of your life. Yes, the museum only consists of the first floor. All other floors contain the necessary machinery to present our subject in absolute clarity.”

“Look upon the different panels. Each is hung like a portrait. Each one is tailored to your life and your life alone. The simsense projectors will ensure no one but you sees the images there. You will see every choice you made to get to where you are today. But you can look and see a projection of where you could have gone, where you should have gone, had you just… been… better. 

“This is you as you could have been. Had you not let the existential dread of total freedom lead you to choose lives that masked your angst with drudgery, false ambition, failed passions, and meaningless relationships –

“Had you been masters of your choices, and not pawns of fate and fear –

“Had you not given in to existential dread –

“Well, look how amazing you would be.”

“And if you think this cruel of me, well, I’m on these walls as well. Imagine the dread which lead me to be a tour guide in a museum like this.”

“Now, please take a moment to collect yourselves. There are chairs and couches if you needn’t a seat. Tissues are provided, though we do not offer drinks until you have reached the museum bar at the end of the tour. When you are ready, just step through the door.

“Much like life, from here on out, you are on your own. And there is no guide. Thank you. And, please, fill out a comment card.”

“Death has a dignity all its own.”

(Feel free to re-listen to “… And Justice For All” after reading the blog subject. But, do it with the bass elements properly mixed back in. Also, think about what grief can do to people, and alter the decisions they make.)

I announced this on my Facebook feed but felt it deserved a deeper treatment here. My short story “Finding the Dancer” is going to be included in the latest anthology from ZNB, LLC called The Death of all Things. Edited by Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson, you can can pre-order it here. But, before jumping on and getting  copy or two to pass around, please take a look at the amazing cover by Justin Adams of Varia Studios. You can also see table of contents by clicking on the image below.

When the book comes out, I’ll talk a bit more about the story, the process behind it, and what it’s like getting editorial comments from two authors/editors you admire. But like my last published story, this was an amazing learning experience. I re-thought many of my old assumptions about creating stories.  I also encourage you to look at all of ZNB’s anthologies. Small presses like ZNB give starting authors, like myself, a chance to stand beside bestsellers and every dollar goes to keeping imaginative anthologies like the ones they publish alive.

Until then, keep writing.

 

Bad Decisions Make Good Stories

I’ve seen this on a t-shirt in a few different places. It’s supposed to be some kind of devil-may-care, “I’m try-sexual – I’ll try anything” type of declaration. But I saw it worn by the co-author of Hard Case Crime’s brilliant comic, Peepland.  And it might as well be the thesis for film noir, and their pulp crime antecedents.

It’s also a good guideline for compelling stories, and the hardest one to follow. At least, for me.

But, film noir first. The last few months, every unoccupied Sunday morning, I join Eddie Muller and a gaggle of folks on Twitter for Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley.  At 10am Eastern, you can follow #NoirAlley and join a conversation about that morning’s selection.  Yes, they do have well known entries, like The Maltese Falcon (the debut) but they also show off lesser known, but equally deserving entries like the boxing tale The Set-Up featuring one of Robert Ryan’s best performances. I’m still waiting for a chance to see Woman on the Run again – a lost classic starring Ann Sheridan as a wife searching for her estranged husband after he’s witnessed a gangland hit – but there are a large number of interesting films to explore.

Noir Alley was an offshoot of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” where, for Friday nights in August it was nothing but noir all the time.  An evening of desperate people making rough choices and exposing the dark underbelly of the American dream.  Hearing Eddie Muller’s insights before and after each feature exposed how much of the film noir movement grew organically from the American crime fiction and an onrush of talent escaping the shadow of fascism in Europe.  No one declared a movement until well after the ‘golden years’ of film noir ended.

Defining film noir always started with the aesthetics, but in truth, it was the story and the characters: deeply flawed, often villainous protagonists making bad decisions in their attempt to get what they want.  Many look at the Bogart detective dramas as the template for noir, but I look at Double Indemnity and it’s overlooked counterpart (and feature on this week’s edition of Noir Alley), The Prowler.  Both feature hungry individuals looking for ways out of their stifling lives.

Desperate measures lead to bad decisions. And bad decisions make great stories.

They rarely make for happy endings, though. At least, if you’re following the template of noir fiction. Or, the endings are never bright shiny ones. Let’s take “The Set-Up” for example. The happy ending involves a man having his hands broken and shattered for not falling down and being a terrible boxer, like everyone expected of him. It saves his marriage, and probably his life, but there’s a cost.

Bad decision lead to bad ends. No good deed goes unpunished, and the bad ones often end with you getting gunned down in the desert.  It’s not the best and most hopeful way of seeing the world.  To quote Greg Stoltze’s noir RPG game, it’s A Dirty World. Everything comes at a cost.

Which means adhering to the “Bad decisions lead to good stories” tenant when you’re suffering depression is a very difficult thing to do.  Despite everything you hear, no one ever does their best work when hungry, depressed, strung-out, or miserable. No one wants to write about grim situations and desperate individuals caught in traps of their own making when they’re clinging onto their anti-anxiety meds for a reason not to go back to cutting.

But their are other stories you can tell.

I know many folks deride ‘cozy’ mysteries. And I’m not to fond of them myself in some ways. But one can write mysteries, or stories exploring the dark, where the dark doesn’t consume everything.  The late P.D. James is a perfect example of this balance. She is not a shy lady when it comes to the dark side. She spends the first act of her Adam Dalgliesh books describing the deep flaws and dark desires of her soon-to-be suspects. And when the detective-poet delves into the lives surrounding the crime, darker secrets come to night.

But P.D. James offers the reader something noir doesn’t – a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train. For all the darkness she finds, at the end of the book, justice exists.  The killer will be found. And while not everyone is innocent, the truly guilty will be found and punished.  Bad decisions may lead to good stories – but they don’t have to be the protagonist’s bad decisions.  And I don’t have to write about them if I’m not in the best place to do so. There are other ways.

So every free Sunday at 10, I’ll settle with TCM and Eddie Muller and #NoirAlley. I’ll see how bad decisions can lead to good stories. But I will also curl up with P. D. James as well. I’ll find different kinds of stories, different kinds of comfort, and know when I can’t write one because it hits too close to home, the other is there for me.

Now both stories will still be shot by John Alton – but that’s another discussion.

Choose your own Adventure

(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

The door opens up and you find yourself in the main hub area of your beautiful job. Rows of cube-chairs, one after the other, line the massive open plan office space. You can see your reflection in the great silvered mirrors of the executive offices. The executives get private thinking spaces where they can still observe every person. You’re glad they’re always watching over you, able to see and hear everything they do.

As you make your way to your cube chair, you see Don and Samantha. Don is one of the executives. His bespoke suit and designer interface apps show you just how well he’s doing with the company. He has Samantha in a small corner of the office, near one of the windowless ‘consultation rooms.’ He appears to be encouraging her to get inside.

Samantha seems uncomfortable. She wants to want to get back to her cube chair. She’s glancing at Don, and back at her chair, and then back at the consultation room.  Then, she looks at you.

Do you interfere? If so, select <HERE>
Do you head to your cube chair? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You smile to Don and give a not to Samantha, but then walk to your cube chair and get ready for the day. Don gives you a knowing smile as he pulls Samantha in for a private consultation. You feel warm: an executive has given you a positive personal sign.

 Your managers know best. Your Human Resources confessor told you the first day you were inducted into the sixth floor processing pool. Trust their judgement in all things. What’s best for them, is best for the company, and best for you.

You strap yourself into the cube chair, locking down your hands and feet. You plug in the appropriate fluid and waste taps before lowering the workspace helmet over your face and eyes. There’s darkness at first. Then, you can smell the delicious scent of fresh coffee and warmed apple tarts. The startup screen begins with daily announcements from management and HR, as well as your set tasks for the day and the amount of debt reduction you can expect from completing them.

And then static fills your vision. A woman in a silver mask appears and begins speaking to you in modulated tones:

“This is an emergency broadcast from free space to anyone listening. You are being used. Your mind is being used. While your conscious brain is being occupied with garbage work which will never clear your debt, the unoccupied sections of your brain are being hijacked. Your creativity, your dreams, your ideas are all being drained away and classified as company intellectual property.

They are stealing your soul! But you can fight this. Do not call HR and do not hit the cutoff switch. If you stay on-line, we can firewall your mind and let you work freely without the company patenting your dreams. Stay on the line and we will free you.”

This is obviously a dangerous transmission from anti-capitalist forces, but you find something bothering you. What if she is right? What if the company, HR, and management are not being honest with how they use your staff potential? What if the debt will never be wiped away?

Your doubts ring out as you finger the emergency cut-off and HR alarm button.

Do you listen to the broadcast? If so, select <HERE>
Do you call HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You hit the button several times. Your work helmet powers down and the transmission has replaced a blues screen, instructing you to wait until HR arrives. “You may remove your helmet at this time.”

You take off your helmet and look out onto the cube chairs. Around you, others are removing their helmets. Red lights flash, highlighting the cubes where assistance is needed. Men and women in black suits and handsome ballistic mesh armor move briskly through the workspace. Some stop and talk with your coworkers, asking them if they are OK, and checking their vitals.

Others move to cubes where co-workers still have their helmets on. They activate overrides and pull your former colleagues out of their cube chairs, quickly sedating and binding them so they do not harm themselves. You can see many of them were from original colonist stock – various shades of dark skin and musculature a not suited for intellectual corporate work.

You remind yourself you need to watch out for other co-workers like them. Did one of them plant the transmission?

And then you notice Samantha leaving the conference room with her clothes torn, trying to avoid the HR presence by heading right to the rest cube.

Do you follow her? If so, select <HERE>
Do you report her to HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries
by Andrija Popovic
(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

[Excerpt from artificial drive-through attendant Turing Test with Miss Rosa Mirella, 26, of Gaithersburg, MD. In this test series, subjects are randomly exposed to either a human attendant or an artificial one.]

INTERVIEWER: Miss Mirella, just to review, prior to the very end of your experience in the drive through of your local [REDACTED] franchise, you had no sense this was an artificial individual?

R. MIRELLA: Nope. Honestly, I was completely fooled in the beginning. I mean, he had to confirm the order because the speaker was shitty, he forgot to put in extra ketchup packets, all of it. He even looked sweaty. I didn’t think you could do that with fake people yet.
 

INTERVIEWER: But at the very end, as you were reviewing your food, you definitively flagged the attendant as artificial.

R. MIRELLA: Oh, yes. Because of the soda.

INTERVIEWER: The soda?

R. MIRELLA: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t understand.

R. MIRELLA: OK, so, you know when you get a soda it has those little dots you push in? The ones that say if it’s Diet, Iced Tea, Root Beer or Other? Well, I ordered a diet Coke and a Dr. Pepper, you get me?

INTERVIEWER: I think so…

R. MIRELLA: So, when I got the drinks, the diet had the little Diet thing pushed in, right? And the Dr. Pepper had the Other thing pushed in.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, we saw that. And that’s correct.

R. MIRELLA: Have you ever been through one of your own drive-thrus? Or worked in one? No one ever just hits the Other button. Everyone pushes all of the buttons in on the lid.

[Extended pause as the Interviewer stares blankly at Miss Mirella.]

R. MIRELLA: What? I did it when I worked there. Only a robot does shit exactly like the manual.

[Interview was then terminated when Interviewer picked up notes, walked out of the interview room, and began to spew out a large number of obscenities in view of the observation team.

[Complied results and recommendations can be found in memo: “How Do We Get AI’s to Act Like Frustrated Employees?”]

[Excerpt ends.]

END

Loyalty is a Flaw

I grew up watching Airwolf like a lot of other kids. Either on NBC, or later on syndication on Channel 20. There were a lot of episodes I gravitated towards. But one in particular still sticks with me: “Severance Pay.”

The plot focuses on Larry, an operative and analyst with the FIRM (Airwolf’s CIA stand-in). The day of his retirement, he discovers there may be a mole in the FIRM and dutifully reports it, as he’s done for 20 years. Imagine Robert Redford’s character from 3 Days of the Condor if he’d had an uneventful career. He and his partner, Joe, go to get their retirement checks and bonuses from the pension office. But, the FIRM still has them classified as ‘temporary’ workers. They are due no retirement bonuses. Worse yet, Joe has a heart attack at the pension office and dies in Larry’s arms. We later learn it Joe’s widow isn’t getting anything from his death: as far as the FIRM is concerned, they received medical benefits they were not entitled to and need to reimburse their former employers. No dignity, even in death.

Larry does what any reader would do: he goes to war against the FIRM. The plot escalates and involves the mole, and a termination order. But the part that always stuck with me was the questions of loyalty, and hard work, and how in the end it got them nothing. That’s what sticks with me.

The stories we tell about work, about how it’s supposed to make us feel, about what we expect from it in the end, say a lot about who we are and what we hope for in the US.

While it’s aimed at a cold, unfeeling bureaucracy I honestly see “Severance Pay” applying to corporate thinking, especially in the days since the philosophy of “Shareholder Profits Above All” took root in America. Employees are not assets, valued and given fair treatment for their work. They’re used and disposed of, with no reward for the uncounted hours spent on its behalf. One good visit from a ‘management consultant firm’ and suddenly, your experience and knowledge base is gone. The American Dream was, from what I understood, the fact you could find a good job you enjoyed, work hard, get due promotions, and then be able to retire with comfort, knowing you’ve earned it.

The American reality is very different. A worker is a liability. You have to pay them a salary, give them benefits, and the longer they stay, the harder it is to give them less and less. When a company needs to make profit expectations but sales are not up, people go. Overhead, cut from the bottom line. Then, of course, the pension funds are raided for more money back. Everyone is asked to do more with less. People start working multiple functions and when their work degrades, they get fired. More money back for the company. By any means necessary, the quarterly numbers must be met.

Before you think the non-profit world is any better, talk to someone who worked there. “Non-profit slave” is bandied about quite a bit. You’re asked to give up so much time and effort for no pay to help the cause. “We work until the work is done.” And never mind the consequences. It can create an atmosphere where people break themselves. I wonder how many non-profits run on the backs of people who don’t realize they’re being under-rewarded for their work.

In the US, we turn work into another kind of faith, thanks in part to the Puritans and their beliefs. Work and success are signs of divine grace. If one is poor, or sick, or mentally ill, it is the Lord casting down judgement on their sins. This flows into the prosperity gospel, which John Oliver took on. Success means god loves you. Only the wealthy will enter into heaven. So if you aren’t doing well – if you are not succeeding at your job – it’s your fault. It’s a character flaw. It’s inherent sin. Never mind you may not like, or be suited for the job you’ve been thrust into. Never mind your career progression path has been so chopped up you’re not sure where you’re going. You, and only you, are responsible for your success or failure. No one is ever set up to fail. And those who have grasped success, they deserve admiration, no matter how they did it.

Chuck Wending wrote an amazing Twitter/Storify essay on his father, and how he related to the bosses in his business. I really encourage you to read it, because it captures how the narrative of the American work ethic, and the truth of how American capitalism and ‘merit’ work run in stark contrast. It also shows that when the narrative we’re fed as children does not turn out they way we wish, it’s easy to push the anger on others. And not on management.

These narratives make it easy to blame workers for terrible working conditions, workers in other countries for lost jobs, and anyone but folks who actually make these conditions. When, for example, a new manager comes in and begins assigning people to jobs they are not trained or suited for, and they don’t do well – it’s obviously the worker’s fault. After all, if they were good hard workers they would be successful.

When workers are laid off in favor of technology – it’s not the corporate managers who decided they were not getting a good RoI by giving folks a living wage. It’s foreigners. It’s the workers who asked for too much, like health care or the ability to work with pride. They asked for too much. They could not compete. If only those workers had gone into real jobs, gotten business degrees or… you get the picture. These narratives enable exploitation, and more.

So, how do we change things?

We need to change the narrative. We need to tell different stories. Maybe ones where we don’t value wealth over humanity? Or maybe stories about people finding jobs they’re good at, and being allowed to work there and improve, without having to jump to another position they hate. Is the idea of being paid well for a job you love so strange?

On the same day I re-watched “Severance Pay” I also saw the film Your Name. At the very end one of the protagonists, Taki, is job hunting. In the interviews, he explains he wants to be an architect because he wants to create places in Tokyo which bring warmth and good memories to people. And as I watched, I hope he would find a good place that let him do just that, and appreciated what he wanted to create.

I’d like to see a story where someone, in the modern world, finds a job that they can appreciate, and can appreciate them. But maybe that’s why we call it the American Dream –  we have to wake up at the end and face reality where the workers we admire, the ones we put in our highest office, are these guys:

 

All Politics is Local

All Politics is Local
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Ms. Deveroux, give us a straight answer.” Duane Jefferson, seventy years old and elder statesman of the Groveton city council, crossed all four of his arms. “Is the waste water disposal system for the oil wells causing our inter-dimensional issues?”

Thea Deveroux, an occult seismologist with Oklahoma Geological Survey, tucked one of her antennae back against her pointed ear and replied:  “Yes.”

A storm of growls and keening laments rattled the town hall. Duane just shook his head. His membranous wings, black as his bald head, flapped irritably.

“Order! Dammit, order!” Alicia Sears, new mayor of Groveton, banged the gavel with a cilia-covered hand. Her six eyes were heavy and dark with exhaustion.

Chad Michael Rimer – representative from Halithon Pandimensional Petroleum and the only baseline human in the room- spoke: “Please. Everyone, settle down. Look, we all knew there may be minor environmental issues with this new fracturing and disposal process…”

“What?” Duane clacked his talons. “Look, we know the drilling boosted the economy. And we knew there would be risks. But when y’all came here, you didn’t mention gates to chaos realms on Henderson Drive!”

“The damn hounds mauled my cattle!” John Murphy stood, frills red and agitated. “Protective runes cost money and blood. How the Hell am I supposed to keep out seven dimensional predators without bankruptcy?!”

“I appreciate your concern. But, we don’t know enough about what’s really going on in the dimensional subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk,” said Rimer. The pandimensional wards sewn into his Alexander Amosu Bespoke suit gave it an oily sheen. “HPP is continuing its studies. We feel there is no direct correlation between our processes and the regrettable phenomenon–.”

Mayor Sears interrupted.”And the report?”

“Our in-house teams will be releasing a full rebuttal. We disagree with the hasty and ill-evidenced conclusions–”

Howls from the audience overwhelmed Rimer. Deveroux looked moments away from bludgeoning the HPP representative with the six hundred page report.

Duane slapped his wings. “Madame Mayor, I motion that, based on Ms. Deveroux’s testimony and the report submitted, we consider Ordinance 193 and halt this method of waste water dumping.”

Citizens and town council-members alike growled, snarled and slapped their shells in approval. Rimer glanced at the runes dancing on his tablet. “Point of order!”

Silence, and then Rimer said: “The council cannot take up this ordinance.”

“Mr. Rimer, it is well within our jurisdiction to regulate how business is conducted in our town. Especially if it impacts the well being, and pan-dimensional stability of its residents.” The Mayor rattled her spines, annoyed.

“Not anymore.” Rimer placed his tablet into his briefcase. “As of twenty minutes ago the State Legislature voted on, and the Governor signed, HR 193. This blocks local governments from regulating energy operations in the state. If you want to shut us down, take it up with the legislature and the Governor.”

Everyone dove for their tablets as Rimer made his exit. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “Our legal team will be in touch.”

Order was abandoned. People swarmed the council members. Others mobbed Thea Deveroux, demanding answers. Alice had to stand on her chair and let loose an unearthly howl before order resumed.

But no one was in the mood for further business. Motions were tabled, and everyone filtered out. Only Duane and Alice remained in the meeting hall.

“We can’t let this go on, Alice.” Duane stood up, one set of arms folded behind him. “I mean, look at this. We’re barely human anymore. Haystacks of tentacles roam Memorial Park like it’s their back yard. And what do we get out of it? The blood magic expenses eating away at the money HPP brings in. We’ve got to do something.”

“You know my grandfather was from West Virginia?” Duane shook his head. The Mayor clicked her secondary mandibles in thought. “Yep. Coal country. When I was young, he told me how the mining company cut safety gear costs by using outdated masks. Or how botched coal ash storage contaminated the aquifer with heavy metals. Then, he lost his best friend to methane explosion. The mine could have prevented it if they weren’t in such a hurry to open up new seams.”

“Every now and again, someone talked about suing or getting the government involved.” Alice stared at the text of the bill scrolling down her tablet. “No one ever did, though.”

“Why’s that?” Duane tilted his head and antennae.

“I asked my granddad. ‘Why they put up with it?’ He always told me to stand up to bullies when I grew up.” She packed away her tablet, notes, and documents into a messenger bag. “He said, ‘What else are we going to do? That’s just the price you pay for having a job.'”

“Do you believe that?”

Alice laughed. “Fuck no, Duane. I love my Grandad, but he spent his off hours crawled into a bottle of cheap beer.” The Mayor picked up her bag. “I’ve got to get to work, start making a plan to overturn this bill. Maybe go to court. I’ll be in early tomorrow. Should I expect you there?”

Duane smiled. He tucked his wings along his back. “Yep. I’ll be here. See you tomorrow, madam Mayor.”

“See you tomorrow, Duane.” She haded out. Duane turned off the lights, closed the door and locked the town hall behind him.

In the distance, green and purple flares jetted from the drilling wells dotted landscape. The tentacled mounds in the park stood in a circle, undulating around the statue of the town founder. A pair of hounds, lean and barely in this dimension, howled at the moon. They serenaded him all the way home.

Duane hoped they’d hush up, or find a rabbit to chase. Tomorrow would be another long day in local politics.