Plumbing the Well
Last week I wrote about how ideas come to pass. This week, I’m going to examine a current short story which I am working on. Its tentative title is The Affairs of Catherine Hill, Incorporated. Mostly because I like titles that are more than one word in length.
The source of this story actually came from my desire to write something in the near future that isn’t a cop drama. Cop dramas are pretty ubiquitous in modern media. If it’s not superheroes cleaning up streets, then it’s the rugged and persistent police force in such wonderful things as CSI, Criminal Minds, Law and Order, Castle, Almost Human, Skorpion, Bones, Rizzoli and Isles, Blacklist, Person of Interest, Dexter, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Hawaii Five-O, NCIS, The Mentalist, Murdoch Mysteries, New Tricks, Republic of Doyle, Rookie Blue, Sherlock, Elementary, The Listener, True Detective, White Collar, Death in Paradise…
Needless to say, it’s a lot. I understand the appeal. It’s an easy format, very monster of the week that doesn’t require a lot of memory on the part of the viewer. Relationships aren’t particularly complex and you can really jump in at any point you want in the series because the status quo is necessary to maintain for both the format and the setting. Police departments don’t undergo rigorous changes and upholding the rules is their job. You watch one cop drama and you’ve essentially seen them all. There’s comfort in the familiar. There really isn’t a lot of variation in their presentation.
It’s also the easiest, most convenient way to work in action for a modern setting. Unlike fantasy, modern society is known for being safe and stable. You don’t really have bandits striking in the night to burn down villages and create heroic orphans. You also don’t have dragons who inherently need slaying. If you’re going to get the violence and action of a fantasy flick, you’re going to have to explore crime. And the people who would lead lives that interact in a relate-able way is the police officer. Every day, according to the TV universe, is an action packed struggle with the elements that are undermining the very structure and safety which allows the viewer to watch from the comfort of their home after a long day at work.
So, yeah, I understand the police procedural. I even wrote a short story with a police officer since it was the easiest way to work in a protagonist to explore the mystery I’d developed. But I’ve always argued that the strength of speculative fiction is its ability to take us on journeys beyond the ordinary. Science fiction and fantasy are great at taking old concepts and looking at them in different ways. Or simply jumping off into entirely different ideas.
Thus, I wanted a future story that wasn’t following a police officer. Ok, I thought, what else is fun? Well, I’ve always enjoyed espionage. It’s a genre that’s sort of been on the decline. So, I have a natural interest in that subject and it’s something that could use a fresh look. Alright, I’ll write a futuristic spy story.
Then I asked myself the niggling problem. How does the future change the face of espionage?
Therein lies the rub. And the fun. The future. What sort of future would we be seeing? I ruminated on the various directions I could take. I decided I wanted to have a future very different from our own. I mean, society has changed dramatically over the last hundred years it is silly to think that it would stay the same for the next hundred. What society driving factors would I take to change the face of society? Well, a current issue we face today is the economy. There were elements I could take from there.
Corporatism is a pretty omnipresent factor in the modern economy. We’re getting large companies that control greater and greater shares of the market. Consequently, they exert more and more political influence in the public sphere as they’re able to turn their massive profits into lobbying for laws and changes that benefit them. What were to happen if we took this to its extreme?
I began to envision a corporatocracy. Instead of individuals electing representatives to a national body, it would be corporations electing their spokesmen in order to negotiate for more favourable laws for their interests. I had this thought that, given in America corporations are recognized as individuals, what if Monsanto decided they wanted to run for office? If they were large enough, they could “convince” their employees to vote for them and insure they get the position. Surely, if one corporation did it, others would follow suit. And the cost for elections is so enormous in the United States that corporate sponsorship is mandatory for anyone with aspirations for Washington. So what if the corporations simply cut out the middle man?
Well, public office would simply disappear. What could civil servants truly hope to do in the face of these huge economic powerhouses? But what would this mean for the little guy? How would people be handled by this shift? This isn’t big government we’re looking at but big corporation.
I then remembered my time in Japan and how the face of business was changing over there. At one time, it was socially expected that a young man would get hired on with a company and that company would, essentially, take care of him for the rest of his life. Unlike in the United States, there was extremely little job changing. Perhaps this would become the new normal. Companies still need people at some level to keep them running. And if the government isn’t going to provide the basic necessities (because it doesn’t exist) then companies could offer them as incentives to keep their workers.
I was beginning to broach upon medieval serfdom. In my research for my novel we hunt dragons. I came across the surprising information that the relationship between liege and serf wasn’t entirely as one directional as I had believed. There was a defacto contract between ruler and ruled. The ruler was expected to provide safety and sustenance (in the face of poor crops and droughts) to their farmers and in return the farmers provided a (hefty) tax to their protectors. Should a ruler fail in his duty to his farmers, there were in many places recourses that the serfs could take to protect their livelihood. This often manifested as taking the lord to court with the greatest threat the farmer could leverage was the freedom to remove their self from their lord’s protectorate and seek out a neighbouring realm which he could work and live.
This structure would work incredibly well in the case of my rising corporations. The company a person worked for would be their entire structure. It would set their laws and protections as well as the rewards and compensation for their efforts. As long as I was a member of a company, I was safe. I would essentially sign my life to these corporations for their benefits. Had I no affiliation, I would have nothing. Someone commits a crime against me and I would be forced to shoulder the financial burden of paying the police to track them down and prosecute them. I would have to be the one to pay for that criminal’s prison sentence. I would ultimately have to cover the damages that were done. But if I were an employee, all of that would be taken care of by my company.
It was medieval servitude and I liked this association that the future of our current business practices was ultimately our past.
There was a further wrinkle, however. I felt that public interest wouldn’t ultimately die to the Cokes and IBMs of the world. I could see professions living on if they incorporated themselves. It was the rebirth of the guild system. Once again, the parallel with medieval economic structure was perfect. And its explanation for its recurrence was simple and elegant. Instead of being gobbled up by the burgeoning medical fields, the doctors and surgeons would unite and form their own corporation. They would hold exclusive right to practice, train and sanction official doctors. If companies wanted their service, they would have to pay for them. In this manner, the doctors could insure that healthcare didn’t fall to the rich. If they were in charge of their own services they could have humane scales of payment depending on an individual’s income. Company members would have to pay out the nose because they could. Unemployed people could pay in service if they had no credit to their name.
Thus, the labour force wouldn’t entirely disappear but would play the same game as the corporations.
But how would this be enforced? What would stop the big business from gobbling up the smaller?
I knew I wanted some national body to draw parallels with our current democratic governance to highlight how different the world had become. With everything revolving around the almighty dollar, I realized that the principle organization would have to be a bank. Only that institute would hold the interest of all the various companies and fields that would arise. Every company would want to be able to influence loan rates and inflation. Most importantly, the bank would have the power to settle inter-company disputes.
For the one niggling problem I had with my set-up was I couldn’t explain how the justice system would work if two different company employees did harm to each other. They, after all, lived by different laws set by their employer. Thus, the solution had to be an independent voice who held the ability to punish severely any group that did not co-operate. The bank then became more than just a place every company could deposit their money at the lowest possible risk. It was a place that held the power to remove a company from the economic structure and deny them the unified currency which every company would trade. It also had the ability to allow the Guilds to thrive. For the bank would recognize any account it approved as a valid company. If every company had a vote, then the Guilds could certainly insure their persistence through sheer solidarity and numbers. They could vote for the bank to give loans to labour start-ups in order to dilute the power base of the big business. But it’s a double edged sword. Should those companies fail to pay back their loans, then the bank would take shares from their company. Once the bank owned all a company’s shares, they would be dissolved and belong to the bank. Of course, there is nothing that would stop those people from trying to open a new account… save the bank and its voting base itself. And on a council that would be very willing to buy and sell votes, spending on an already failed venture seemed a losing proposal.
Needless to say, this world is starting to come together.