Monday, July 30, 2012

"Robyn's Egg" - Mark Souza

Bio: Mark Souza lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, two children, and mongrel beast-dog, Tater. When he’s not writing, he can be found at the golf course (swearing), or hiding in his corporate cubical like a caged badger awaiting the end of the workday.

For this week's excerpt, we get the entire first chapter of Robyn's Egg.
Chapter 1
Monday, 10 October
Moyer Winfield’s father once said, if a man wanted to know who he was, all he had to do was look at where he was and what he was doing and he would know. And as Moyer rode the tube to work, jostled by strangers and largely ignored, he realized he was invisible as air, and like air, barely existed. He was a cog in a great machine that abraded men and women to dust, and an insignificant cog at that. The great machine would continue to churn with or without him without missing a beat. Without a lick of remorse. Without acknowledgment or recognition he’d ever been.
He wondered what would happen if he screamed; screamed so hard his throat bled. Would he even be noticed? But of course he wouldn’t scream. Ever. Sticking out from the crowd was too dangerous.
Those around him stared ahead blankly, tuned into the net, disconnected from the world, oblivious to anything else. Their clothing flashed with an array of ads delivered through fiber optic threads, the content selected based on proximity metrics, what might appeal to those nearby. A Hogan-Perko Birthing Center ad scrolled across the chest of a man seated near a group of married women. Global Brands Lo-Cal Beer appeared on a couple of riders seated amid a cluster of men. Moyer’s coat flashed with an ad for diarrhea medicine probably aimed at the man across from him, which was more information than Moyer wanted.
Moyer clutched the rail to keep from toppling over as the train slowed. Those around him snapped out of their trances and readied for the rush for the doors. When they opened, Moyer allowed himself to be swept out of the car and up the stairs by the crowd.
Above ground, tiny white flakes fell from a clear blue sky dusting Moyer’s clothes as he rushed with the throng of commuters for Freedom Circle. He attempted to brush the flakes away and left a smear on his sleeve. It wasn't snow; they were the ashes of the dead. Freak winds pushed the effluent from incinerators in the Northern Labor Housing ghettos back into the city, ghosts returning home.
Years ago, complaints from the city’s elite closed the downtown incinerator and prompted construction of a new facility at the outskirts of the metropolis among those with little money and less influence. But even the wealthy couldn’t control the wind, though they were certain to complain about it. When the winds blew strong from the north it meant only one thing, a storm was coming.
An advertisement for umbrellas and another for dry cleaning cropped up in Moyer’s head, as well as campaign ads for the candidates up for election to the Consolidated Board of Directors. It was an intrusion Moyer resented. He hated how messages could be inserted into his brain as if they were his own ideas, and despised the effort involved to keep the constant bombardment of advertisements and propaganda from polluting his thoughts, to differentiate between his own and those uninvited placed inside his head by someone else. Then similar ads appeared on the clothing of those around him. Messages of discounts for cleaning cropped up, and maps for the nearest location to pick up an umbrella. When the net detected a commercial opportunity such as the ash fall, it wasted little time taking advantage.
Moyer trudged toward the Circle lost in a school of people, head down, collar up against the ash fall. Walking an instinctive weave through a maze of human traffic, avoiding collisions and eye contact, he moved without identity, a sardine among a massive ball of indistinguishable brothers and sisters flowing like a liquid amalgam. He felt safe. When they parted ahead of him, he moved with them and dodged an open manhole, its cover askew over the shaft, a rusted relic from another era forged with the city’s old name, INDIANAPOLIS, printed in raised relief in an arc around the edge.
Government crews in tidy blue coveralls were out removing fresh Begat graffiti from buildings and off the bricks of the Circle. The sharp tang of chemical paint stripper filled the air. Half the letters had already been burned away, but even so, a faint watermark remained legible. Moyer didn’t have to look to know what it said. The slogans were always the same and everyone knew them.
These read HP is not God – obviously aimed at Hogan-Perko headquarters across the Circle. Trinity Corp was another favorite target. But graffiti wasn't the only tactic employed by the religious extremists. They had recently added bombings to their repertoire. If the intent was publicity, it was working. But they weren't winning any sympathy. Fortunately for the general populace, Begat limited their bombings to Hogan-Perko birthing centers and churches while the city slept. At least for now.
Advertisements splashed across the glass facades of the buildings and skyscrapers bordering the Circle. Liquid crystal sandwiched between panes turned windows into giant video billboards. In the center of the Circle stood the pillar-like structure of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Its terraced reflecting pools altered the course of those traveling north and south. On warm days, the sound of cascading water and sunlight dancing off its surface was a delight. On windy days, the flying spray was a nuisance.
As Moyer approached Digi-Soft, security agents by the dozen amassed for some kind of drill, falling into rank, a perfect square in shiny black armor and reflective visors, giant men facing a single officer with a silver chevron emblazoned on his chest plate. The massive human bait ball ushering Moyer across the Circle reacted as if a shark had entered their midst. The crowd cleaved giving the agents a wide berth. Moyer followed the flow toward his building, and kept the security agents in view from the periphery of his vision, careful to conceal any outward interest. A common saying went, look into an agent’s visor and you will likely see a criminal staring back.
He had never really done anything illegal, at least nothing serious – nothing more than what others routinely did; some shopping on the black market, commerce crimes mainly. But just the same, he had an innate phobia and overwhelming guilt that manifested as a tingle in his chest in the presence of security agents. It was as if, if they scrutinized closely, they would see the outlaw hidden inside him below his very average façade. As a result, he remained ever vigilant and fearful trying to ride the ragged balance between caution and nonchalance, which, perhaps, was a wise thing where agents were concerned. Locate and avoid was his philosophy. No point in tempting fate. Never stand out from the crowd. Lone fishes get swallowed up. Everyone knew that.
Moyer swiped his wrist over the security reader at the main entrance to Digi-Soft. In a fraction of a second, the computer recognized his hologram and the lock clunked open. Moyer released a long sigh when the lock safely snapped closed after him.
Inside the foyer, Moyer shook the ash out of his hair and dusted off his clothes prior to heading into the subbasement. He turned and watched for a moment as the security agents continued their drills. There was comfort behind a locked door and the obscurity of smoked glass. Perhaps the additional security patrols were to guard Hogan-Perko from the extremists. Though if Begat had wanted to bomb HP headquarters, couldn’t they have done it last night instead of painting slogans on walls?
Downstairs, Moyer draped his coat over the back of his chair and checked the productivity board dominating the front wall. The central computer had added his name to the display when he swiped in at the door, but his status was still dark. He was early. The board registered twenty-four minutes, and counted down. Nine minutes before morning calisthenics, plenty of time for coffee.
Petro Martinez was holding court in the break room, the Brazilian’s hands moved wildly as he spoke; a wild grin tattooed to his animated face. Moyer pretended not to notice while he filled his cup, but wondered what it was about Petro that made him so engaging. The man always had an audience. Around the office they jokingly called Petro and Moyer the twins. Though they had the same build, dark hair, and olive complexion, they couldn’t be more different. With his foreign accent and gregarious nature, Petro was seen as exotic and charismatic. Moyer, on the other hand, was dull, ordinary, invisible, the guy whose name no one could quite recall.
Petro’s eyes brightened when he spotted Moyer. “Come on over, Moyer my man,” he called across the room.
“I really shouldn’t. I feel another cold coming on.”
“Did you see last night’s Anything for Baby?” Petro asked.
“No, I missed it.” What Moyer didn’t say was that he couldn’t bear to watch the popular game show, couples publicly humiliating and demeaning themselves. Perhaps it was that the contestant’s desperation for a baby hit a little too close to home, but he’d preferred to think it was that he wasn’t the type who derived entertainment from the misery of others.
“You really missed out this time. One guy had his wife fire him from a cannon to impress the judges. It all went wrong, but oh how he did impress. He was trying to set a distance record and must have set the charge too high; shattered his legs. They reported on the net this morning that they had to be amputated.”
Moyer found the glee in Petro’s voice repulsive. “Did he win a baby?”
“No, that’s the ironic part. He lost the popular vote. The audience didn’t like him. He came across as an intellectual, all cold and superior.”
Moyer forced a smile. “I guess I did miss out.”
He glanced at the clock and continued on his way. Time was wasting. He stopped by the restroom to assure an unscheduled bathroom break didn’t result in a productivity mark against him.
As he stood over the toilet, it was comforting to see his face reflected in the bowl. Today was a water-free day in his apartment block, and Moyer disliked using the powder, electing instead to hold it until he arrived at work. He would not behave like some cat burying its waste in the sand if he could help it. Some people, it was rumored, used the powder for bathing, a thought which made Moyer’s skin crawl.
Moyer carried coffee back to his desk and set out his things. Organization was the key to productivity and staying in the green. He placed a pad of paper and three pens in a neat line. If one quit working, which given their shoddy construction was practically a guarantee, its replacement was near at hand with no risk of going into the red searching for another. You can’t get to three strikes if you don’t get the first. Words of wisdom. Words to live by.
Workers filtered to their desks as the status board countdown neared fifteen minutes. Hugh Sasaki, the corpulent head programmer, settled onto his chair in the cubicle right behind Moyer’s and smugly kicked his feet up on his desk.
“Winfield,” he said, “did you see that Begat bombed another birthing center last night?”
Moyer didn’t know why Sasaki felt obligated to tell him such things. Moyer didn’t follow the news, Sasaki had to know that. Was it meant as small talk, or was he highlighting Moyer’s ignorance? Why bring up something like that just before the clock reached fifteen?
“They’re extremists seeking attention,” Moyer muttered. “I choose to deprive them of the satisfaction.”
“So you believe Begat did it?”
Moyer’s face tensed in confusion. Was Sasaki hinting at something, or testing Moyer’s gullibility?
“Are you voting in the election?” Sasaki asked.
“Of course.”
“Do you think it matters?”
“What I mean is, by the time any candidate can reach the point of running for election to the board, they’ve been bought and paid for several times over. You only have the illusion of choice. You get to decide between the two candidates they put in front of you, but it doesn’t matter which you choose, they’re already in someone’s pocket.”
“Another conspiracy theory, Sasaki? In your world, who are they?”
Sasaki grinned. “Look around you. Who runs everything? Who owns everything? Who owns you? You’re a slave and barely even know it.”
The bell sounded and Moyer had run out of time for Sasaki’s mind games. In unison, the basement pledged allegiance to the Consolidated Americas and their trust and devotion to the CEO and Consolidated Board of Directors. The image of a woman appeared on the screen at the front of the room. She was severely lean and unattractive. She flashed a salesman’s smile and started exercising, the grin on her face never wavering. Everyone followed suit, mimicking her actions, everyone but Sasaki.
As calisthenics began, Sasaki smiled and raised his coffee mug to Moyer in a mock toast. Sasaki had a doctor’s note and was the programming equivalent of God at Digi-Soft. His non-participation was overlooked, a privilege no one else in the basement could claim. Sasaki logged in while everyone else engaged in mandatory exercise. The sound of his fingers striking keys spurred a few annoyed glares.
“Live long and prosper,” he said. It was some obscure saying from an ancient vid series Sasaki collected. He thought it amusing. No one else did. Sasaki already had a healthy head start before the board hit zeroes and the workday officially began.
Shortly after calisthenics, the office settled into the monotonous hum of work. Fingers rattled keyboards in a soft drum line. People engaged in conversations without pausing from work. Air hissed from the heating vents. And Moyer tried to screen it all out, the din, the distractions, anything that might disrupt his concentration and flow.
An explosion rang out from the back of the basement. Moyer reflexively snapped his head toward the danger. Security agents poured from the elevator and stormed the basement, dispersing in coordinated columns to surround every cubicle.
They hadn’t been drilling in the Circle after all. They had been amassing, organizing. Moyer glanced up at the agent stationed at his desk blocking his escape. Dressed in glistening black armor with a reflective visor concealing his face, he looked more machine than man. The tip of the agent’s wand glowed blue with charge. Moyer removed his fingers from his keyboard and faced forward as he had been trained. This wasn’t a drill.
Darting eyes stole glimpses of what was happening. An agent passing down the aisle bumped Moyer’s desk. One of the three pens kept in a neat row rolled away. Moyer compulsively pushed it toward its clones and peeked at the agent to see if there would be a reprisal. The agent eased his wand closer to Moyer’s face. Moyer heard it crackle, and felt the electric prickle against his skin. He worried how close the wand could get before current arced across the gap, and feared leaning away might be deemed a final transgression.
Somewhere under the shiny black armor, Moyer knew the agent was grinning. He could feel it. When the raid was over and the agents talked amongst themselves, Moyer was sure this one would brag to his comrades how he scared the skinny little programmer half out of his wits. He might embellish, adding a lie about how the programmer pissed his pants.
Up on the status board, lights turned red as productivity monitors detected the lack of keystrokes. Moyer was tempted to start typing to keep his light green. Three reds in a month was cause for rehabilitation. But he knew if he moved again, the agent would let him have it. As Moyer’s light turned red, his heart fell. He hadn’t had a red in over two years. The leash was that much shorter.
The booming voice of Louis Berman, the project supervisor, signaled a rare appearance on the floor. “Everyone remain at your desks and cooperate. We should be able to return to work shortly.”
Four agents converged on Hugh Sasaki’s desk. Sasaki screamed, “No, I didn’t do anything.” An agent prodded Sasaki with his wand and Sasaki convulsed to the floor. A pair of agents lifted his limp body under the arms and dragged him away. The heels of his shoes traced out a faint pair of marks across the tile from his desk to the elevator – a reminder.
Time seemed to slow as events unfolded. Moyer’s thoughts drifted untended. The surreal scene reminded him of antique comic books his father had given him, mementos from a time when images and stories were recorded on paper. Colorful superheroes lived among fragile yellowed pages, poised to thwart dark armies. He hoped then to be a superhero one day, to discover powers he didn’t know he possessed, to be the object of admiration.
He juxtaposed the bravery of his juvenile fantasies against his current posture, hands on desk, eyes forward, a frozen rabbit hoping it won’t be seen. In his youth, he would have thought himself capable of challenging the agent guarding his desk, capable enough to go to Hugh Sasaki’s aid. Right and wrong were simpler concepts then. Now, straightening his line of pens was all the rebellion he could muster. A layer of shame coated his fear like rancid icing on a moldy cake.
Agents retreated in formation as if they expected a counterattack from the programmers and engineers cowering at their desks. Within minutes they were gone. Hugh Sasaki’s chair sat empty.
An eerie silence and the fetor of terror hung in the air thick as smoke. A lone set of fingers clicking on a keyboard broke the stillness. More joined in, creating a swell. Soon, everyone was typing as if a flurry of productivity could wash the scene from their minds. No one spoke. The atmosphere was astringent.
Tension had been building at Digi-Soft for quite some time as the project deadline approached, but Sasaki’s arrest raised anxiety levels to a new high. Who would be next? Moyer knew he wasn’t the only one thinking it.
(Used with Permission)


What is the most embarrassing thing to happen to you in school?
I was a three sport athlete in high school. During a school assembly honoring "Athletes of the Month," my name was announced for water polo (I had no idea I had been nominated) and I was called down to the stage. They presented me with a cake which I planned to share with my teammates. On my way back up to the bleachers someone threw a water balloon at me. It nailed the cake and sent it flying into the seats. Everybody laughed while I stood there stunned for a second.
What did your family say when you told them you were writing a book?
By the time I wrote Robyn's Egg, I already had a couple dozen short stories in print. It wasn't a shock to my family when I started writing a novel. Things might have been different if I gave up my job to do it.
What is your perfect food?

Pizza is my perfect food. It fits in my hand and can be eaten without utensils or a plate. It is completely customizable and can be made exactly how I want it, and is a meal unto itself.  And the perfect drink pairing? Tang! Been to the moon, astronaut tested, has a shelf-life longer than a Twinkie, and can be carried in my pocket.
There, now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about your book.  
We've seen imagery of the future in countless sci-fi books and films. So much so, that we can become jaded to it at times. YET, I was sucked right into your world. It was equal parts "Brazil" and "Minority Report". At least, in my mind it was. I loved the absolute onslaught of advertising. We've seen it touched upon, but the way you've put it in is scary. Because this is something that's very possible. Very soon. The LED fibers in clothing etc... How did you come up with this world? Is it based on your worst personal nightmare or just a logical pathway that we as a culture are heading down?

You are very perceptive. Robyn's Egg is both a cultural extension of a pathway I believe we are headed down - possibly already to the point of no return, and my worst possible nightmare.

Advertising is already pervasive.
We commonly wear clothes bearing logos and ads. I just kicked it up a couple notches using technology that, for the most part, currently exists.

One of the premises that sparked Robyn's Egg was the idea of a net chip implant. This was inspired by the rapid development of cell phones. Each year cell phones offer more and more functionality while shrinking in size.. They can now slip easily into a pocket and be used for voice and visual communication, email, internet; they are in essence mini computers - and their functionality grows every year. I envision a time when a small chip implanted in the brain will provide access to the internet and instant communication. The flip side is that it will provide corporations with unlimited access to your brain, like a television or telephone that can never be turned off. With that kind of access, what a person sees or hears can be easily manipulated by a nonstop stream of propaganda and advertising. Attention can be diverted away from important issues. And the populace can made to feel their lives are lacking and they should have this or that. That they should want more. They can be told if they work harder, they can have it all and their lives will be better. This is already going on. The difference in Robyn's Egg is that these messages are coming from inside you and you can't turn them off.

And if a corporation developed such a chip, recognized its commercial potential, wouldn't it pressure the government to make implantation mandatory - for the common good, of course? And wouldn't other corporations realizing they too would benefit, also push for this?
I see this story, in parts, as a cautionary tale. Is that one of your aims or was that just a happy accident? (Thanks to Bob Ross.)
It was a little of both. Robyn's Egg started as an entertaining short story. My wife read it and told me to keep writing, there was too much potential left unexplored to stop. Once the story found its legs, I knew I wanted it to be more than just an entertaining diversion. It was fully intended to be a cautionary tale, almost an update to Orwell's 1984.
Orwell wrote 1984 just after World War II. The Nazis had just been defeated and Stalin had invaded most of Eastern Europe and was threatening the world with nuclear war. From those experiences, Orwell envisioned a world dominated by a totalitarian fascist government.
A lot has happened since 1949. The communist Soviet Union no longer exists. In fact, Americans can now travel to the Kremlin to vacation. Russians wear Levis and attend rock concerts. The new threat on the horizon is unbridled free enterprise, the elite rich - the winners of this game, and the corporations they control.
We live in a time when Wall Street employs six lobbyists per congressional representative and senator. When the Supreme Court has decreed that money is the equivalent of free speech for corporations, and of course it is unconstitutional to limit free speech. The result is a government where people are no longer represented by their elected officials. Those representatives only hear the voices of those who paid for their campaigns and put them in power, those who promise employment that will make them incredibly wealthy after their political careers are done. Considering where we are, a corporate government doesn't seem a big stretch.
I can envision a time when morality will boil down to economic where PROFIT EQUALS TRUTH. One of the themes within Robyn's Egg is the concept that much of the course of a person's life, where they live, what access they have to health care, whether they will be allowed to have children, whether their children will be educated and to what extent, whether they live or die, will be determined from a profitability analysis - is this person's potential future earnings enough to warrant the expenditure.
Another subplot in Robyn's Egg is how industrialization has broken down the direct dependence of one person on another and how this has resulted in increased isolation and a loss of community. This is highlighted by the two worlds Moyer inhabits within the story. Most people today couldn't name the people who live three or four doors down, let alone on the next block. We spend more and more time in front of our TVs and on the internet than we do in the company of our neighbors. The result is we aren't sure of our neighbors and we are afraid to let our kids go to the park to play. And it is only getting worse.
Robyn's Egg probably won't change the world, but I can hope.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I actually had to look at the versions on my hard drive to figure that out. I started the first draft of the short story, "A Baby for Robyn," in January of 2008. I published Robyn's Egg in late May of this year. I spent much of the intervening time writing other things and groping for where I wanted take the story. Once I had a direction and a rough outline, it took a little over a year to write the first draft. 
In fact, while we're on the topic, how many drafts and re-writes did you go through to get the final product? 
Brilliant question. The story went through about ten drafts before it went to beta readers. I struggled with where to start the story, which resulted in a few iterations. There was also a first person version. And a version where Moyer, the protagonist, was stealing from his company in his effort to buy a baby for his wife. Then there was the issue of making the story timeline work. There are two births integral to the story, and births have a specific timeline. I juggled mightily to get the story to mesh with both pregnancies. I finally had to resort to a Milestone Project chart to work out the timing issues - kind of takes the romance and spontaneity right out of writing, doesn't it?
I did another four revisions to incorporate comments from my beta readers. What is that - 14? A bit of advice to new writers, keep your novels short and snappy. The more you write, the more you have to edit - like exponentially more. 
And finally, what is one piece of advise given to you that you'd like to share with anyone who wants to take up writing?

I'll relay two. First, learn to take criticism - in fact, seek it out. Criticism and practice is how writers become better. Learn to put your pride and hurt feelings aside and look at what reviewers are trying to tell you, whether they are gentle or not so gentle. Quite often the best criticism is brutal. The reason is because the people in a position to offer the best advice (accomplished writers) are very busy and don't have time to mince words and cushion the blow. Their criticism is often a lot of information provided in very few words that can feel like a sledge hammer to the temple. Once you recover, determine for yourself whether the criticism is valid. Most times it is, but sometimes it is not. You have to decide which it is.

And most important - don't quit. No one gets better at anything by quitting. Writing well is a skill that looks incredibly easy and is actually very hard. Practice improves writing- and writers should always strive to improve.

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