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: dougengstrom.com

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.