Hatrack River
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
E-mail this page
Hatrack River Writers Workshop Post New Topic  Post A Reply
my profile login | register | search | faq | forum home

  next oldest topic   next newest topic
» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » Concept & First 13: The Right Man for the Job

   
Author Topic: Concept & First 13: The Right Man for the Job
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I don't usually work in short stories, but as I noodled with yet another sci-fi version of *The Tempest*, I realized that the 3504 word opening chapter could be reworked as a stand-alone piece.

The story is a satire depicting a dystopia where there's really no such thing as a free lunch. Wireless electronic billing has transformed things we expect to be free, like walking down a sidewalk, into an economic transaction. A human life has no legal value other than the difference between the person's net assets and liabilities.

This story also riffs off of the classic Asimov robot story, in which a "roboticist" isn't so much a technologist as he is a kind of detective. This world has its own version of the Three Laws, namely:

First Law: A robot may not violate property rights or through inaction allow property rights to violated.

Second Law: A robot must cooperate with its owner's business plans unless that would violate the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must act to maximize its economic value to its owner, unless that would violate the first two laws.

Anyhow, feedback on the concept and first 13 are welcome, and I'd be willing to do a critique exhange with another short story or chapter. I need to find out whether this really works stand-alone.

--- THIRD VERSION ---

Changes: this is a different style opening, focusing less on action and more on the story's themes.

First 13:

Dr. Simon Campbell told them he'd think about the job, then hung up the phone. Robots in space? On paper it made sense. In practice they'd need a top-drawer robotic behaviorist like him to make it work. Robots simply wouldn't operate smoothly on a mission of discovery. Space exploration wasn't a profitable enterprise, and robots weren't motivated by anything like glory, discovery, or the simple thrill of going where no man had gone before.

But those things didn't seem to motivate many people either. Not anymore. Those like Simon who'd been tempted soon learned they were playing with fire. So why were the Research Fellows intent on handing him yet another box of matches? Why, of the handful of roboticists who could do this, pick the one who'd been burned?

--- SECOND VERSION ---

Changes: cut most of the numbers; make the consequences of insolvency clearer.

Pitch: In a world where everything has its price, things that matter have no value.

First 13:

Simon Campbell, renegade roboticist, turned off the Mashantucket Cheapway Connector onto the Merritt Turnpike. He checked his wrist preciometer. His projected time to insolvency was 1 hour, 2 minutes, 37 seconds. He'd go broke ten minutes short of the RFA spaceport at Storrs, where a job and positive cash flow awaited him.

“Adjust speed to minimum cost per kilometer,” he commanded. The car slowed and Simon gained five minutes; not enough time to make it to the spaceport alive, but perhaps enough to think of something. He took his hands off the steering wheel, shoving them into his pocket so he wouldn't be tempted to intervene as the car went to autopilot. This was like drowning. He wanted to stomp on the accelerator and get the hell out of here, but that would only make things worse.

--- FIRST VERSION ---

Pitch: In a world where everything must have its price, the things that matter most have no value.

First 13:

Simon Campbell, renegade roboticist, turned off the Mashantucket Cheapway Connector onto the Merritt Turnpike. He checked his wrist preciometer. It showed his current burn rate (41.2 credits/hr), his current value (43) and his projected time to insolvency (1 hour, 2 minutes, 37 seconds). The hundredths place was still changing too fast to follow, but that was better than on the Hutchison, where the tenths digit ticked over terrifyingly fast.

“Adjust speed to minimum cost per kilometer,” he commanded. The car slowed and Simon's burn rate dropped to 38 credits per hour. A five minute burn time gain left him just shy of reaching the RFA mid-lat spaceport in Storrs, where a job and positive cash flow awaited. He took his hands off the steering wheel, allowing the car to go full auto. He shoved them into his pocket so he ...

[ January 29, 2013, 04:03 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

Posts: 1347 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
RyanB
Member
Member # 10008

 - posted      Profile for RyanB   Email RyanB         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I tripped over "preciometer." There's a lot numbers. I found myself stopping and doing calculations.

Otherwise, it does a fairly good job of establishing setting. I'm a little bit endeared to Simon's plight, although I'm not certain that "insolvency" is something to be feared. Simon doesn't seem too worried about it.

Posts: 219 | Registered: Jan 2013  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
I tripped over "preciometer." There's a lot numbers. I found myself stopping and doing calculations.

Otherwise, it does a fairly good job of establishing setting. I'm a little bit endeared to Simon's plight, although I'm not certain that "insolvency" is something to be feared. Simon doesn't seem too worried about it.

He is worried. In this world (the reader soon learns), when you are bankrupt your bodily tissues are sold to settle your debts. He's past the point of no-return, and most of the action of the story is his conniving his way to the spaceport, despite his insolvency. Robots in this universe are allowed to harm humans -- in fact they're actually *required* to do so in certain circumstances. In the Asimovian tradition, Simon employs his mastery of the surprising subtleties of the Three Laws to trick a series of robots into letting him pass.

Can you think of a better word than "preciometer"? Also, should the numbers go? I thought he'd be watching them closely under the circumstances, and that most readers wouldn't feel the need to pull out a calculator to check them.

Posts: 1347 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
skadder
Member
Member # 6757

 - posted      Profile for skadder   Email skadder         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
The focus of credits and insolvency reminds me of the film where people drop dead when their credits/time runs out--In Time...starring Justin Timberlake. I quite like the three laws, but you'd need to do it very well and comparisons would be drawn (quite directly).
Posts: 2987 | Registered: Oct 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Osiris
Member
Member # 9196

 - posted      Profile for Osiris   Email Osiris         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I like the setting, it sounds interesting. Like RyanB, I found the influx of numbers to be off-putting. Introducing so many at once also interrupts the flow.

I think instead of throwing us into the deep-end of the setting and the importance of measuring Simon's value, start us off in the kiddie pool. For example, he could check his watch (I'd prefer it were just called a watch, preciometer was tough on me, and then as we read along, we'll learn that it isn't an ordinary watch) and just learn that he had X amount of time until insolvency. You can then add the other numerical details later.

Posts: 1023 | Registered: Jul 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by skadder:
I quite like the three laws, but you'd need to do it very well and comparisons would be drawn (quite directly).

Well, inviting comparisons is the whole point of satire, isn't it? Fortunately I don't think using such laws is quite as hard as it sounds. The gist of all those Asimov robot stories is that a complex and imperfectly known world makes rules that sound airtight less reliable than you'd think.

The two basic tools for exploiting the rules are (1) conflict between the rules and (2) irony.

On paper, the rules preclude conflict; one trumps two and two trumps three. In reality the things the rules deal with are fuzzy, so a robot has to weigh a *potential* violation of rule 1 against a clear violation of rule 2 or 3. For example, a robot pursuing a debtor onto someone else's property can't be entirely sure it's acting in the best interests of the creditors, but it is clearly exposing its owners to liability.

This is a creatively stagnant society where innovation is stifled by Byzantine web of intellectual property cross-licensing agreements, so it's clear to the more capable robots that the pursuit of fundamental knowledge is economic folly. The result is something that looks like passive aggression in highly intelligent robots. They'll cooperate insofar as they're specifically instructed to, but not an inch further.

Posts: 1347 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
skadder
Member
Member # 6757

 - posted      Profile for skadder   Email skadder         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I didn't see the satire comment--sorry.
Posts: 2987 | Registered: Oct 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by skadder:
I didn't see the satire comment--sorry.

Well, I said "satire", not "parody"; the target of the humor is society, not Asimov's work. But the idea is to use Asimov's methods to mock the excesses of society.

The story power of Asimov's robots is that, unlike humans, they are *consistently moral*. Distort those morals with the funhouse mirror of contemporary politics, and the product is satire.

Posts: 1347 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
JSchuler
Member
Member # 8970

 - posted      Profile for JSchuler   Email JSchuler         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I like your second version. I understand what your character is doing, what he's worrying about, and get an idea of how this world is different. Very well done.

I do wish I knew what RFA stood for. Is this the spaceport run by Radio Free Asia, or by the Renewable Fuels Association? But that's my only issue. Love the name of the Cheapway.

Posts: 270 | Registered: Jan 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Interesting premise in the pitch. If the pitch has a shortcoming, I feel it's that it is impersonal. A theme emphasis typically is impersonal, though, and appeals to audiences who relate to the literal idea. However, the opening begins with a personal focus on Simon Campbell. I don't think they're coordinate constructions. The pitch expresses a situation; Campbell has personal complications (plot) from the situation that are not, I feel, fully realized in the opening.

I didn't stumble over specific details given; that Campbell is a renegade robotocist, that he wears a preciometer, that he has "1 hour, 2 minutes, 37 seconds to insolvency," etc. I did wonder why these details are directly stated and their relevance isn't as directly or sufficiently indirectly given.

The parenthetical detail, "renegade robotocist," feels imprecise to me. Renegade meaning rogue? Meaning freelancer? Meaning a deserter? Meaning Campbell rejects lawful or social conventions? Clarifying the import of "renegade robotocist" before moving forward might bog the opening down. Consider revealing that more artfully. It is important to know.

"Preciometer" feels to me like naming exposition: sumarizing a person, thing, place, or abstract concept's meaning solely by naming it, generally lacking sufficient context and texture for ease of comprehension.

"He checked his wrist preciometer." Feels like static voice to me. The action is static summarization of looking, seeing, clock watching.

The causal context of looking at the preciometer does not logically develop or derive from turning off the Cheapway. Its emotional context isn't given; context meaning where and when and what relative to setting's time, place, and situation features. Time and place are implied; situation feels underdeveloped to me. That Campbell will be insolvent before he reaches his destination goes somewhat to stakes' situation, but what are the compelling consequences of insolvency? Fatal consequences are implied in the preamble, but not given in the text.

Consider the texture of the countdown's meaning; texture meaning how, perhaps why, maybe who. Campbell rushes to avoid insolvency with just the clock on his back trail. He's having a bathtub scene all by himself in the vehicle. Who or what else is immediately dogging him? A robot horde?

Another coordinate construction concern: the amount of time Campbell has before insolvency is given in precise terms. Yet the following sentence is in less precise terms. I think Campbell's aware of seconds, but that level of precision is unnecessary for comprehending the deadline's context and texture.

In all, from what's given in the preamble, the pitch, the text, I see a storyline I've read many times before. Dystopian financial motif; lack of financial solvency results in immediate fatality. I don't think the motif is outworn, not in today's fiscal climate.

I feel another layer of figurative meaning would enhance publication poetential. From what's given, I project that layer from the Three Laws and robotocist equals detective motifs. Theme based, that Campbell uncovers biased application of the three laws, corruption that's aggitating for his destruction.

I'm not comfortable this scene is where the story begins. Campbell is already in motion, in medias res motion. Yet the immediate cause or first cause that sets him in motion is left in the wings. He's by himself, which he logically could be, but the opportunity to develop a first cause through dynamic action and interaction simulataneously with other causation isn't deployed first. Reaction before compelling stimuli is not causally logical and difficult to comprehend.

His want is clear, that he wants to remain solvent. His immediate problem is somewhat clear, that he will run out of time. Those serve as bridging complications. But bridges from what to where the central complication is revealed? Is insolvency Campbell's doing? A consequence of his neglect? Or is he powerless against the might of his society's insistence on maintaining the status quo? Who are the human agencies behind that insistence? Are they on his back?

Someone or thing chasing him would address most of my concerns about what's not working. Maybe that's too simple a treatment, though. Maybe someone or thing in the vehicle engages in a dramatic or Socratic irony conversation with Campbell? Thus increasing his anxiety while artfully revealing the underlying complications. And surely he takes more notice of the setting than he's on a toll roadway? Symbolism or imagery meaning can be given by his attitude toward the setting.

These rhetorical questions might or might not have significance for a stand-alone short story. They do for a novel.

Assuming the short story is an introduction intended to promote the novel, though, they're relevant for both. I think the short story can work as a stand-alone. The shortcomings I see in addition to the above are minimal setting development, minimal plot development, and overreliance on summarization. Summary can pass muster more readily in short fiction; however, summary is summary and detracts from reader appreciation, reader participation mystique and willing suspension of disbelief in a secondary world setting.

In all, I feel the opening is underdeveloped. Clarity for comprehension's sake is my biggest misgiving, caused, I feel, by rushing through summaries of the dramatic action.

I do feel that this short story and novel have enormous potentials.

[ January 29, 2013, 10:08 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

Posts: 3529 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
mayflower988
Member
Member # 9858

 - posted      Profile for mayflower988   Email mayflower988         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I had to look up "insolvency". (Yes, I'm a 24-yr-old grad student, your point?) :) But I think if you had not explained before starting the story, I would have been lost. If you'd saved your explanation until after the first 13, then I probably would have been able to give you a pure reaction. For what it's worth, I think there is a bit too much jargon. I figured that a "roboticist" is a person who makes robots, but then the other words like "perciometer", "burn rate", and "mid-lat" kind of turned me off. Personally, I like a story that starts out simple, then introduces the sci-fi concepts. But then I don't read a lot of sci-fi, so what do I know?
Now that I've said all that, I can tell you that the concept is a fascinating one. I look forward to seeing what you do with it.

Posts: 286 | Registered: Jun 2012  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
extrinsic -- you're asking for a lot of information in 13 lines!

The story has Kafkaesque overtones; he's not running from anything so prosaic as an army of robots, but rather an ubiquitous, impersonal system that has decided he's (for want of a better word) an enemy of the state. Their version of judicial execution is to charge him prejudicially high prices while cutting him off from his revenue.

I don't much worry about starting the action in media res, but more about what happens later. I often treat first chapters as something like a standalone story that links to the rest of the novel, but there are limitations to that metaphor. One of them is that an opening scene delivers or transitions to background information necessary to launch the rest of the story. For example the explanation of the satirical "Three Laws" comes near the *end* of the story. This feels backward in a short story, but I think the obvious order of exposition and demonstration doesn't work; the Laws are more convincing once the reader has seen them in operation.

What I think I will do is wrap the story in a different question, namely why is Campbell being hired? What are his prospective employers up to, hiring someone who's been blackballed? I've posted a third version of the opening above.

Posts: 1347 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Bruce King
Member
Member # 10018

 - posted      Profile for Bruce King   Email Bruce King         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
2nd version:
I see some great tension in the "race against time" scenario.

I have no problem with the name "preciometer" (it's easy to figure out) or the specific times being announced. After all, this is what the character is thinking.

I really like the tension created by him being forced to slow down in his "race against time".

The only thing I would question is the statement you are calling a pitch. It sounds more like an epigraph.

I think this is a great opening. The first 13 hooked me. Rock on!

Posts: 15 | Registered: Jan 2013  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Corky
Member
Member # 2714

 - posted      Profile for Corky   Email Corky         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
From what you've told us about the story, I have to confess that I would like you to start with a scene where "Simon employs his mastery of the surprising subtleties of the Three Laws to trick a series of robots into letting him pass."

You could get the info about the Three Laws and about Simon's insolvency into such a scene, and I think it would be more interesting and engaging than what you've done here.

Posts: 603 | Registered: Jul 2005  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
   

Quick Reply
Message:

HTML is not enabled.
UBB Code™ is enabled.
UBB Code™ Images not permitted.
Instant Graemlins
   


Post New Topic  Post A Reply Close Topic   Feature Topic   Move Topic   Delete Topic next oldest topic   next newest topic
 - Printer-friendly view of this topic
Hop To:


Contact Us | Hatrack River Home Page

Copyright © 2008 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.


Powered by Infopop Corporation
UBB.classic™ 6.7.2