Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Debt, Gunfighting, and Money as a Moral Imperative

 In the fall of 2011, I spent several days at a cabin in the woods. I spent part of that time reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. 

Nearly a decade later, I'm still thinking about the book. 

What's jumping out at me today is Graeber's discussion around the "gambler" and the "financier." In a passage discussing the fate of the conquistadors, most of whom were heavily in debt, Graeber writes:

What’s more, that relationship, between the daring adventurer on the one hand, the gambler willing to take any sort of risk, and on the other, the careful financier, whose entire operations are organized around producing steady, mathematical, inexorable growth of income, lies at the very heart of what we now call “capitalism.” (Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House. Kindle Edition)  

What struck me was the way in which we often portray these two characters as good or evil, depending on our point of view— the "honest farmer" or "entrepreneur" whose dreams are crushed by the demands of cold-hearted bankers or financial backers. Or on the other side of the argument, the "practical person" who "cleans up the mess" behind a careless, incompetent, or dishonest "visionary." 

The reality, that Graeber points to, however, is that these two types need each other, and the cord that typically binds them is debt. The resources used to stake the gambler become a loan, the asset intended to produce the "steady income" needed by the financier. 

And by turning that initial stake into debt, it acquires a kind of moral imperative. As Graeber notes, the debates around the moral status of the Native Americans ultimately didn't matter. Exploiting the natives was the only feasible way to repay the conquerors' debts, so the native's lives and dignity were sacrificed to the imperative of repayment. I strongly suspect that in the service of that imperative, many colonists found themselves doing things they couldn't have imagined doing before they became debtors. 

This was all very much on my mind while I wrote Corporate Gunslinger. The engine that drives Kira into becoming a gunfighter is the debts she ran up acquiring an MFA. She took the chance because she believes in herself, believes in her talent, and she believes that if she does what she loves, the money will come.

When her adventure in acting fails financially, she tries to fix it by moving on to another—becoming a professional gunfighter for an insurance company. In this capacity, she becomes a gambler for even higher stakes, engaging in life-or-death duels with disgruntled customers. Like the conquistadors' exploitation of the americas, it's all happening in the name of paying her debts.  

One of the many questions I hope people ask themselves after reading Corporate Gunslinger is why we allow money to become a moral imperative that overrides so many others, and if we really think that's the best choice, as both people and a society. And if not, what are we going to do to change it?

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"Corporate Gunslinger's" Cut Scenes: Kira's Breakup

 One disadvantage of the blistering pace required by thrillers is that there isn't time to linger over some details. In Corporate Gunslinger, I ultimately sacrificed a detailed portrayal of Kira's love life to maintain a rapid pace. However, I did explore this a bit in some early drafts. 

At one point, Kira had a boyfriend named Rabbie Baehrenwald, a young financier who was wealthy enough that he doesn't find Kira's debts intimidating. She views their relationship as a "tryout," and believes that if she can show she'll be a good partner, he'll marry her, solve her debt problem, and they'll spend their lives together. 

This dream comes crashing down when Rabbie "butt dials" Kira's number during a discussion with his friend, Mitch Roundtree. While talking with Mitch, Rabbie reveals that he has no interest in a long-term relationship with Kira—he's just stringing her along until she dies on the dueling field. 

After finding the conversation in her voice mail, Kira decides to greet Rabbie in his apartment when he returns from his business trip and hold a "full, frank, and honest exchange of views."  

The scene below describes their meeting.

Kira bent her knees and adjusted her grip on the pistol. She was about a foot to right of the door where Rabbie would enter the apartment. His most recent message said the driver had dropped him off at the building entrance. She responded with “Waiting for you.” Which was certainly true.

The tumblers on the security lock made a rolling noise. Kira brought herself fully upright and ready. The door swung open and Rabbie’s muscular form swept into the room, his voice full of wolfish delight. 

“Hey, babe. Ready for a little food and fun?” He set his suitcase down and turned, looking for her. 

She stepped behind him, kicked the door shut, and leveled her weapon. 

The smile vanished. “Wha—shit!”

Her firing position was nearly perfect--too far away for him to reach her, too close to miss.  She kept the gun level with his face. “Turn around!”

“Wait, Kira, whatever this is, I’m sure—“

“Turn. The fuck. Around. And don’t make me say it again.” 

Rabbie turned. 


“Kira, wait. Have you been drinking? Because if you have, then—“

“KNEEL, asshole.” 

Rabbie knelt. 

“Put your hands on your head.” 

Rabbie complied without comment. 

Keeping the gun trained on Rabbie with one hand, she released her handset from her belt with the other. She keyed the volume to full and played the voicemail. 

By the time the crucial section of the recording finished, both his voice and his body shook. 

“Listen, babe, I can explain. You know what an asshole Mitch can be sometimes, right? Well,” he turned to face her. 

“Turn around! Don’t you dare use those big brown eyes on me, you miserable piece of stinking shit.” 

Rabbie faced away from her with his hands on his head. “What are you going to do?”

“Oh, I’ve already done it. I logged on to your work account, and I sent this to your boss, all the senior partners in your firm—”

Rabbie started to stand. “You didn’t! You goddamn cunt! That’s my life you’re fucking with!” 

He came up off one knee and turned toward her, his face red and the veins on his neck bulging. 

“Ah, ah, ah…” Kira stowed her handset and waved the pistol to draw attention to it. “Remember who’s got the gun.” 

Rabbie’s nostrils flared, but he remained still, and only half-kneeling. 

“Turn around again.” 

Rabbie didn’t move. His eyes remained fixed on her. 

Kira took up a solid shooting stance. “You don’t want to surprise your girlfriend, be mistaken for a burglar and get yourself accidentally shot, do you? I’d be so broken up and guilty.” She narrowed her eyes and made her voice utterly cold. “You know I can play that, don’t you?” 

Rabbie turned away. “Fuck.”

“Well, no, that’s definitely not going to happen. We are over. Oh, and about finding another gunslinger? Trust me, that little voicemail of yours is going to go to every woman in every training class in any town you’re anywhere near. Got it?”

Rabbie nodded. 

Kira reached behind her, keyed his lock code into the door and opened it. 

“Oh, and one more thing? This is a stage pistol. So if you think you’re going to go to the police with an assault with a deadly weapon story, think again.” Rabbie started to stand. 

“But the one on my ankle is the real deal. Come at me in the hall, and you’re just another vengeful prick who got gunned down when he tried to attack his ex.” 

She stepped through the door and slammed it shut behind her. The loud click assured her it had locked from the inside. It would take Rabbie a few seconds to get to the door, a few more to realize it was locked, not just closed, and he would fumble with the door release for another few seconds. By the time he entered the hall, she would be down the fire stairs. 

And she would still be armed. 

Early readers liked this scene, coming away with equal parts of, "Oh, hell yes!!" and "Oh my god, that was SUCH a bad idea." However, in the end, Rabbie just didn't do enough for the story to justify his existence as a character, so he was cut. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Interview with Audiobook Narrator Christina Delaine

Today's blog is an interview with Christina Delaine, the narrator of Corporate Gunslinger. She is an accomplished stage and voice actor who has trod the boards of theaters from coast to coast. An 8-time AudioFile Earphones Award-winner, a SOVAS Voice Arts Award-winner (8-time nominee), an Odyssey Award Winner and an Audie Award nominated audiobook narrator, Delaine’s voice can also be heard in scores of commercials and video games. A faculty member of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts' Stonestreet Conservatory, she has a BA from Dartmouth College, an MFA from Brown University/Trinity Rep and a dog named Boo Radley.

How did you get interested in audiobook narration? Was it something you’ve “always wanted to do,” something that came up during your education, or something you picked up after you started acting? Or some other timeline? 

My mom has always been a huge audiobook fan. Back in the day, she was always telling me I should listen. I would say “I can read perfectly well. I like to read. Why do I need someone to do it for me?” Then she gifted me Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series, narrated by the fabulous Barbara Rosenblat, and I was immediately hooked. Up until that first listen, I had no idea of what an audiobook could be. Barbara just blew me away with her acting and character voices, and her outstanding skill as a storyteller. 

But, as much as I had become an audiobook fan, it was never an avenue I actively pursued as an actor. After grad school, I was doing theater and lots of commercial voice over, but it just never occurred to me that audiobooks were something I could do, maybe because I didn’t actually know any narrators.

Ultimately, it was a chance meeting with Paul Ruben, who directed Barbara in those Amelia Peabody books that I love so much, in an elevator at the Film Center Building in New York that opened the door to this part of the industry for me. Paul became my mentor and directed me in my first audiobook. The rest, as they say, is history.

How do you choose audiobook projects? Is it something you and your agent work out, are there other people you consult, or is it a completely independent decision? 

Whether the project is being pitched to me through producers or an author or my agent, ultimately it’s always an independent decision as to whether or not I take it on. 

What aspects of a book make it attractive to you as an audio project? What aspects of a book tend to make you pass on it as a project? Are the books you like to read different from the books you like to narrate? 

Anything that I’d love to read even if I’m not getting paid for it is extremely attractive! It’s like having your cake and eating it too! As an actor, I love anything that has emotional currency, and as a lover of literature, I appreciate well-written fiction of almost any genre, so if I’m offered a good story by a good writer, I’m very happy to say yes. 

Inhabiting a well-drawn character, settling into someone else’s bones, is one of the great joys and most rewarding parts of being an actor, so if there’s a character that particularly resonates or even someone who on the surface seems really different than me, I jump at that opportunity. You learn so much about yourself by playing other people. 

As far as fiction goes, Romance is really the only fiction genre I’ll give a blanket no to. It’s just not my thing. I’ll also say no to extremely esoteric non-fiction, because the research for such projects can be overwhelming. At the end of the day, I just want to spend most of my time acting, not looking things up. And, of course, anything or anyone that advocates hate, intolerance or misinformation is a solid no. 

Once you’ve selected a book to narrate, how do you prepare for the recording? Do you do some kind of analysis on the text or characters? Do you try out different voices for different characters and situations? Do you record and listen back, read aloud to yourself, try it out on friends or something else? 

The first thing I do is read the book. I know that seems obvious, but the number one question I get asked is if I read the books before I record them. YES. More than once if I can. I’ll note any accents or character descriptions, but on that first read, I’m mostly just trying to immerse myself in the world of the book and experience it as the author wants every reader to experience it. I let it be what is and see what it gives me. So much of an actor’s work is instinctual. It’s all a little mysterious and alchemical. On my best day, I’m only a conduit for what the author has written, so my approach is to try to get under the text and embody its emotional subtext, rather than add anything to it, so giving the book that first opportunity to speak to me without me engaging it with my own agenda or my actor ego is my first priority. 

I don’t really know if it’s the same for other actors, but when I read a book, if it’s even remotely well written, I actually hear the characters voices in my head and that’s how I’ll voice them. I will drop recordings of voice references directly onto my digital script if there are tons of characters in a book because it helps me maintain consistency, especially if there’s a large time gap between that character’s appearances in the book. 

The sheer scale of an audiobook and, sadly, the time constraints we’re often under during production, means micromanaging my performance to the degree I would in a theater production is just impossible. Usually I’d be playing one character in a show and I’d have 8 weeks of rehearsal for a production that’s only 2 hours long and where I don’t have all of the lines. An audiobook might be 15 hours long and I’m the whole show, sometimes playing dozens of distinct characters. 

I do prepare, ruminating about the characters, doing research where I need to, but at a certain point, you run the risk of not being able to see the forest for the trees. In theater, I’m just one tree. In audiobooks, I’ve got to be whole forest so I can’t get too precious over details, or it’d take me far too long to record any given book. I try to maintain flow while working, but I absolutely do stop and listen if I feel I’ve gotten off track or if I haven’t nailed a particular line or scene or voice, and then I’ll rerecord that bit.

What’s the actual process of recording like? How long are your sessions, and do you do anything to special when you start or stop a session? During a session, do you read most of the text straight through, or are there lots of breaks and re-takes? What do you focus on while you’re reading? 

A typical workday starts with me drinking a glass or two of water and then warming up my voice. Hydration is really important for vocal health as well as for taking care of any annoying mouth noise that would leave blemishes in the recording. 

Sessions are about 8 hours every day, but I take short breaks as needed. The goal is to achieve some flow and read the text straight through, and there are certainly times when that happens, but I have to stop every time I make a mistake and go back at least to the beginning of the sentence I goofed. I’ll also do retakes if I feel I didn’t quite nail something, either a voice, or an inflection or the emotional content. 

As for my focus, I try to stay engaged and let the story take me where it will. As for special rituals, whenever I play a role, before every performance, I say “I hope she lives,” sort of an actor’s prayer. I start every book adapting this slightly by saying “I hope it lives.” When I finish a book, I wipe the surface of my iPad clean, because, well, when you’re talking that much, spit happens.

The main character of Corporate Gunslinger is an actor who consciously uses her training when she interacts with other characters; did voicing a character who is also an actor present any special problems or opportunities for your performance? 

The fact that Kira is an actor gave me an immediate connection and point of entry into who she is. I loved her dedication to her craft. She’s willing to put in the sweat equity to do her job right, and I have the utmost respect for her discipline as a performer. 

Like Kira, I love to rehearse. It’s actually my favorite part of the process. So in the moments when she was working out her costume or refining her Death’s Angel persona, I could see myself in her so clearly. I also went to Drama school, which is perhaps the least practical thing in the world for anybody to do, and like Kira, I spent several years wondering if I would ever be able to pay off my student loans. Her background and her vocation put me pretty close to her bones. I grok her on so many levels, it made it easier for me to slip into her skin.

There are two scenes in Corporate Gunslinger where one character has been wounded on the dueling field and she's gasping for breath and is in great pain, while another character is remaining calm, cool and collected as she tries to talk the wounded character through the experience. When those characters talk, do you use a special technique to switch voices that quickly and completely, or do you do something like read all the wounded character’s dialog first, and then all the calm character’s dialog, and edit it back together? 

I don’t record each character’s lines separately and edit it together. I record the dialogue in the same sequence it’s written, just like having a regular conversation. At the risk of sidestepping your question, I’m not really sure I can tell you how I do it. It’s one of my stupid party tricks, I suppose. My voice is pretty flexible and there’s always a little micro-beat between lines where the character switches, where I can bounce into the next character. So, I’m one character at a time fully, and then I turn on a dime and become the next character fully and on and on. 

If I make a mistake of any kind, I do have the luxury of just stopping, and picking up again right before the line or voice I messed up, which is called “punch and roll” recording. It seems more seamless in the finished product than it is when I’m sitting in the booth making the inevitable mistakes, but while I’m working I do try to transition as smoothly as I can from character to character. I fail a lot, and when I do, punch and roll is my savior.

Your Twitter bio describes you as an “acrobat of the heart.” What does that mean? 

I love that you asked me this because no one ever has before. 

To give credit where credit is due, I’ve borrowed this phrase from Stephen Wangh’s book about acting, AN ACROBAT OF THE HEART. To me, that phrase captures so perfectly what I aspire to be in my work as a performing artist. Waugh gives the example of a trapeze artist, which is a wonderful metaphor for the actor. She rehearses for years and with tremendous precision so that she can defy the laws of gravity. But even after all that practice there is still that moment when she must let go of the bar and dare to fly. In that moment, we as an audience cannot know for sure what will happen, and neither can the trapeze artist. She can flip. She can twist. She can fall. A thousand things could go wrong. It’s literally life and death and endless possibility. That is the moment we all collectively thrill to. That moment of freedom, danger, uncertainly and potential. Yoshi Oida said, “A sense of danger is essential to all theater.” Antonin Artaud said, “The actor is an athlete of the heart.” 

While the trapeze artist is putting their body in mortal danger, the actor is opening up their heart to that same kind of risk. To be an actor is to be constantly training for that moment of letting go. You rehearse and prepare, but that moment itself is not under your control. The emotional life of the character is ultimately beyond your control. At that moment it’s not what you’re doing, it’s what is happening to you, which is you’re adrift, untethered in the unknown. Then you can make choices. You can be changed and enact change. That’s when things get really interesting. To take that leap requires courage. The audience doesn’t want to see you hold the trapeze. They want to see you fly. That’s the kind of acting I love.  

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Corporate Gunslinger Narrator Nominated for SOVAS Audiobook Award

Christina Delaine has been nominated for a Society of Voice Arts and Sciences Voice Arts®Award for her narration of the audiobook version of Corporate Gunslinger.

She did an extraordinary job with the main character, Kira Clark, who uses theater training—and especially her voice—to influence her dueling opponents. I was also impressed by Christina's ability to convey changes between the book's two timelines, which the print version solves by using italic and standard fonts for the text, but Christina conveys with changing voice quality. 

If you'd like to hear a sample, follow this link over to Audible

I have believed Christina delivered an outstanding performance since the day I first heard it, and I'm happy to see her work being recognized by her professional peers. 

In addition to the nomination in the Audiobook Narration – Science Fiction, Best Voiceover category for her work on Corporate Gunslinger, Christina was also nominated in the categories of Outstanding Commercial – TV or Web, Best Voiceover; Audiobook Narration – Biography, Best Voiceover; Audiobook Narration – Mystery, Best Voiceover; and Audiobook Narration – History, Best Voiceover.  

Award winners will be announced on Sunday, December 6, 2020 at the Voice Arts® Awards Gala, which will be livestreamed without an in-person audience because of COVID19 restrictions. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Paid Time - An Origin Story

By Doug Engstrom

I have a long-standing fascination with first-person accounts of just about anything—battles, expeditions, shopping trips, whatever. I love to hear the voice of someone who’s experienced something tell about it in their own words.

So, it’s probably natural that I was entranced by Studs Terkel’s classic Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do and Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs. Though separated by the turn of the 20th century into the 21st, both these books are based on interviews with people about their occupations. Unsurprisingly, people display a wide variety of feelings toward their work, and not always what you’d expect.

I thought a fun, science-fictional spin on the idea would be to repeat the format for jobs 20-40 years in the future. I called it Paid Time: Americans Working in the 21st Century. Mimicking the style of the Gig interviews in which the subject speaks to the interviewer, but the interviewer's words are never present, I wrote the stories of AI Wranglers, Theology Mixers, Gladiators, and a historical preservationist for the American Automobile Association, struggling to halt the conversion of garage space into living areas.

In and amongst those, I wrote a little vignette for a “Corporate Duelist.” Here it is as I wrote it in March of 2014.

Corporate Duelist

I get it over with in one shot. Most of the time, anyway.

If the arbitrators fail, I step out on the field with my opponent, we both take our best shot, and it’s over. The judge rules in favor of the last person standing. Or in my case, the employer of the last person standing.

A lot of people are surprised by a female duelist. They think it’s something gentleman do. That’s a throwback to the days when it was all about honor. Now, it’s just about money – another way to keep financial disagreements out of the court system. Dueling is the last step in arbitration.

I present a smaller target than most men, I have quicker reflexes, and if I’m hit, I can take the pain and blood loss better. I’ve taken a hit that practically took my arm off, but still walked off the field after an opponent twice my size keeled over from a much smaller wound. My employers like that.

What’s it like? In many ways, it’s a lot like theater. My uniform is like a costume. The dueling field is a formal space, like a stage. The lines are laid out by the Wards and all the markers have meaning. There’s the center, where we start, the kill boxes on each end, where we finish, and the boundary lines we can’t cross. The rules are like a script, dictating our actions right up to that moment of dramatic uncertainty at the very end.

Sure, I’d prefer no one died. The best duels end in the waiting room, where my opponent quits before we get to the field. Next best is I inflict a minor wound the opponent misses me completely; I win and everybody goes home alive. I always go for the kill shot, though. As Blane says, they’re shooting at me, too.

Blane? He’s my second. He’s also my trainer, which is pretty standard for professionals. He designs my practice simulations, schedules the events and looks after my interests on the field. He checks the guns and the other gear to be sure everything is as it should be. Sure, it’s all randomly assigned at the last minute, but the second is one more assurance that everything is fair. That’s what makes dueling work: people accept it because they think it’s fair.

Well, I got started because I was in debt. People warned me about piling up loans to finance a Master’s in theater, but I was 23 and I was sure of myself and sure of my talent. I knew I’d get my big break before the bills came due. When I didn’t, I consolidated everything against a lifetime services contract to get lower payments that I thought I could handle. When I started to fall behind on that, I knew I was in trouble. When they foreclose on one of those contracts, it’s like slavery. The owner decides who you’ll work for, how you live – everything. And they can make you do just about anything, especially if your contract is resold outside the US.

I was telling my troubles to an old boyfriend who worked for an insurance company. He told me about an opening for a duelist. I’ve always liked guns and I worked with the armorers in lots of plays. The signing bonus was enough to get me current on my loan and the salary was high enough I thought I could be debt-free after a year of fighting, maybe two on the outside.

That’s what I intended to do: work long enough to get out of debt, get a little cushion, then get out. But, you know how it goes. Since I had one late payment, the penalty interest rate kicked in, and that makes it hard to keep up, even on my salary. Besides, you get used to certain things. I don’t think I could go back to sharing an apartment with four girls, waiting on tables and hoping for auditions.

The theater training helps, actually. In the waiting room, I’m putting on a performance to create an emotional response, just like a play. I want my opponent to quit before we get to the field. When I make my entrance, I’m dressed like death herself. I wear a black blouse with red ruffles at the throat, a crimson-lined cape and a black fedora. Based on what I see in the audience, I try for different emotional responses. Some can be intimidated, others decide that they love life, and I’ve even had guys quit because they didn’t want to hurt me.

Backing out doesn’t happen much with other professionals, but when citizens represent themselves, about a third of them leave without firing a shot. For me, it’s more often than that. My employers like that, too.

Sure, men react to my job in different ways. Some of them are intimidated. For some of them, it’s a turn-on. It can get kind of creepy. I think they have this image of me as an unstoppable killing machine, like something on VidNet. Really, I don’t think I’d be much good in a street fight. I’m very specialized: thirty paces, turn, and shoot. That’s all I do. But I do it very well.

I’m not sure about my future. The doctor says my reflexes are starting to slow, but Blane says my accuracy is improving. I can’t wait forever to decide. Though before I do something else, the dueling field might decide for me. That’s what it’s there for, after all.

And then…

Paid Time never got any traction, but some of the individual vignettes served as a springboard for other ideas. This one contains the core my debut novel, Corporate Gunslinger. In the novel, the dueling distance is shortened to ten paces, the second is a woman named Diana, and gunfights between professionals are extremely rare and lucrative, but all the essential elements are in this sketch—a young woman with an MFA whose crushing debts have pushed her into dueling to defend the claims of an insurance company.

I’m surprised at how little the core idea changed in the process of this sketch becoming a full-length novel over a period of several years, but I guess that’s one way I can tell it was a good idea.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be running some of the other Paid Time vignettes in this blog. Take a look at them and let me know what you think.

If you want to know more about the novel this one became, hop over to my author page:

Monday, June 1, 2020


By Doug Engstrom

Back in 2013, when I first started messing around with the ideas that became Corporate Gunslinger, I thought the motifs of lifetime servitude based on debt and trial by combat as a substitute for the legal system might be such obviously wild, over-the-top, satirical ideas people would have trouble engaging with the story. Seven years later, a little more than two weeks from publication, I told a friend I was glad the folks at Harper Voyager tagged A Novel off the end of the title, because otherwise it might get shelved with narrative non-fiction and no one would notice. 

I was only partially kidding. 

I always saw the book as part of that long tradition of science fiction that goes to where society seems to be headed, takes a few pictures, and returns to ask, "Are you sure this is where you want to go?" What I couldn't have dreamed seven years ago is how rapidly we'd move in that direction. 

Americans are taught to love "opportunity" and "choice." An ever-increasing number of options in all areas of life is relentlessly promoted as the final good of consumer society and the opportunity to select them is portrayed as the ultimate expression of freedom. Of course, most of those "options" exist only for those with the means to access them, and many more are just camouflage for outcomes ranging from irritatingly bad to horrific. 

The real beauty of "choice," though, is that the chooser can always be made "responsible." Any story of exploitation posted on the internet will eventually produce a slew of responses insisting that the situation could have been avoided if the person being exploited had "chosen better." If only they had read the fine print, consulted a lawyer, done more research, or modeled the financial outcomes, then their situation could have been avoided. 

Never mind that they were lied to, denied access to information, or placed in a situation where all the choices were varying degrees of bad. "They have chosen, and must accept the consequences of that choice."

We've proceeded to the point where cutting off unemployment benefits for workers who "choose not to return to their job"--no matter how unsafe--in the midst of a global pandemic and depression is apparently reasonable public policy, and the opportunity to pursue a middle class career is bought with crushing debt.

Somewhere a bit further down this road we find the world of Corporate Gunslinger, where you have the "opportunity" to mortgage your freedom, and you can "choose" to face a professional gunfighter if you don't like the way you've been treated by a corporation. 

Take a look around and see if this is where you really want to go.