I recently listened to a new podcast call "Cast of Wonders". The describe themselves as a "Young Adult Fiction Audio Magazine" and you can find them at www.castofwonders.org.
I listened to an episode yesterday, Ep. 113. They're up to 115 now. This one was called "The Malthus Alternative" by Jamie Mason. The premise of the story is, well, to boil it down to a single phase, "America Sucks".
That's unfair. I don't want to put those words into Jamie's mouth. Perhaps the author sees things he or she feels are not right about America, and feels the Young Adults of the audience are too dense to appreciate subtlety.
I'm not saying the issues are false. I do not believe the country has the right to "legislate a woman's uterus". I don't believe having "For Profit Prisons" is good. I think our presence I any Middle East nation is counter productive to our domestic liberty and is not flattering to our International Image. Finally, something is wrong when one percent of the population own forty percent of the wealth.
I wrote a short story last summer shortly after the NSA thing blew up. I had felt for some time that the fourth amendment to the constitution had become increasingly weak, and the NSA's blatant abuse of our privacy was beyond excuse. The story I wrote, which follows this blog post, called "No Child Left Alone" presented our nation after an extreme attempt to protect our children had overboard.
I got criticism from the online reading group that my story was "Heavy Handed". Maybe I was. I've read "1984", "A Brave New World", "We" and "Farenheit 451", and I think any one of those would be described as "Heavy Handed". It's a dystopian environment. Have you seen "Catching Fire"? What part of the movie leading up to the actual arena would not be considered stereo typical of a bad political situation?
If a dystopian story needs to be heavy handed for the reader to grasp the enormity of a wrong, as perceived by the author, then, "The Malthus Alternative" is "Double Fisted, Heavy Handed". The author presents one awful aspect of the American Political climate after another.
I will cite only two aspects of the story, in case you want to listen to it yourself. First; Naming our involvement in war on a global level as "The War on Birth Control" never took the logical step to explain how the two were equal. Sure, they were sending their young people to the middle east to fight, and sure, the politicians saw birth control as a bad thing, but never brought the two together in a sensible way. Secondly; the inequality between the author's one percent, having it all, and the 99 percent having nothing, is unsupportable in the author's dystopia. With this large of an impoverished population the government couldn't generate enough in taxes to pay the rich. Our government cannot pay absurd amounts to military contractors or "For Profit Prison" owners, unless they tax a substantial working class to get the cash. The population has to want and pay for all the crap they get from China that makes the Vice Presients and CEO's all that cash from outsourcing American jobs to foreigners who can be told what to do, when to do it, and how much they are going to get paid for it.
What concerns me most is that this is Graeme Dunlop's Editor's choice story. He describes this as the best story from the preceding 112 stories. I'll give the podcast a few more tries, but if this story is the acme of Young Adult short fiction, it will only be a few more tries, after which I will have to redefine what it is I think I'm doing with my own writing.
Here is the story I wrote last summer:
"No Child Left Alone"
Approx 2800 words.
Writer's journey prompt for June 4, 2013
GPS injected into children’s spinal column to track tardiness and truancy.
A buzzer rang down the upper floor of Central High's liberal arts wing. Students filled the halls and hurried to their next class.
Cody stepped into the hallway and watched the students, their faces set and determined as his would be, if his next class wasn't right across the way. No one wanted to be late, to be out of their seats when the tardy bell rang.
“Cody. Check this out,” Demmar whispered to him and tipping his head to the side of the hallway where they would be out of the main traffic and away from eyes and ears.
“What’s so secret?” Cody asked, only half interested, but stepping to where his friend stood next to a bank of lockers.
“I just finished this, this morning in electronics.”
He held a mat-black, cube which sat easily in the palm of his hand.
“Does it play the high school fight song, or just make farting sounds when everyone is quiet?”
"Ha, ha," Demmar laughed laying on sarcasm. “Nothing so trivial and I’m pretty sure it works. It’s a GPS decoy. You lock a GPS location on it and put it somewhere. Then, wherever the identified system goes it gives off the reading of where you’ve hidden the box.”
“Hold on,” Cody looked up and down the hallway. Few students were in sight.
A video camera on the hallway ceiling swung slowly side to side.
“Come over here,” Cody said indicating a spot just past where the row of lockers ended. He pulled out his Kindle to act like they were talking about a school assignment and he turned his back to the camera, blocking any possible view of the decoy.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Cody asked.
“Yeah,” he said, a grin spreading across his face like a kid who’d just gotten caught steeling candy from a baby. “They won’t be able to monitor where we are. If we leave one of these for each of us in the classroom where we’re supposed to be, we can walk into any room in the high school and the GPS tracker will think we’re sitting in class. We can walk right into the girl’s locker room and the alarms won’t even sound.”
“Don’t tell me that’s why you made this thing, to get into the girl’s locker room.”
“Why not. I thought it was a good idea.”
“Sure you would,” Cody rolled his eyes. “Don’t you think any one of the girls in the room, not to mention the female coaches, would notice that you were a boy, and not a girl?”
Demaar’s smile faded. “I wasn’t planning on going in when anybody was watching.”
“Right,” Cody said. “Anyway, we’re probably beginning to look suspicious. Meet me after school. We need to talk. I’ll walk to your house with you. That should look fairly normal.”
Two hours later they had passed through the high school exit scanner and were walking to Demaar’s house.
“You said you were pretty sure the decoy worked. Why aren’t you sure?” Cody asked.
“I could only test it in the electronics lab. So I know it works for a short distance and with a local GPS Scanner. Wherever I put the decoy in the room, the scanner showed me there. I’m not sure what the actual range is, though it should have enough power to reach anywhere on campus.”
“It doesn’t need to reach far; especially if we use them during language arts. We would have two whole hours to test it out.”
“Where are you planning on going?” Demaar asked.
“The one spot where we could see if it was working and answer a few questions I have about these GPS strings in our spines,” Cody said.
“You’re right. The data lab is directly below our language arts class. We could run some routines from the school’s system to imitate a GPS tracker and see if the decoy really works.”
“You’re close, Demaar, but not on the nose. What room can we access from the student’s data center?”
“You’re not talking about the GPS control room for the entire school are you?”
Demaar was incredulous. Cody only nodded his head.
They sat on Demaar’s front porch.
“You were quick to jump on this idea, today. The whole time I worked on the decoy I was thinking of all the ways I could use it, to, um, get into the locker room.”
"For a guy, smart enough to make this thing, you sure have some moronic reasons for developing it," Cody said and shook his head.
"I'm not cool like you are. You never see girls following me around, do you?" Demaar said and looked down the street.
Cody followed his friend's gaze. Two houses away, halfway up a light pole, a video camera slowly panned up and down the street. Cody didn’t think they, whoever they were behind the camera, could tell what the two talked about. Still, he waited until the camera’s lens had passed them before he spoke.
“These GPS strings they put into our spines, they say their biological, designed to deteriorate and be absorbed into the body between age eighteen and twenty.”
“I had to do a report for my Civics class about the Courts System and I found out some interesting facts. Did you know that the crime rate is one-fourth of what it was twenty years ago? That over the last twenty years there has been a steady and consistent decline in crime and the rate for people aged 20 to 30 is almost zero?”
“Those sound like good things to me.”
“Yeah, but at what cost? We’re Americans. And that’s something else I learned from Senior Civics; we’re supposed to be free and protected from unwarranted search and seizure.”
“You lost me, Cody. I can do magic with electronics, but politics, that’s your game.”
“Think about it, Demaar. They put these “No Child Left Alone” GPS strings into our spine so that all children, age five to eighteen, can be tracked and found at any moment. Sure, protecting children from abductors and abusers is great. Even keeping an eye on us in school is okay, for attendance reasons. But, what if they keep watching you after you leave the school’s campus, or the strings don’t degrade and their spying on us as adults? Is that okay as well?”
“No. I guess not.”
“You remember Sean, don’t you?”
“Yeah. He graduated last year. What about him.”
“That’s my question. Whenever we asked him what he was going to do after graduation, he said, ‘Nothing. Not a damn thing. And that’s what he did through the summer. Do you know where he is now?”
“Yeah. He joined the Army. That’s what his little brother said.”
“Think. Would a guy whose goal in life was to do nothing join the Army? No. But if someone was watching what everyone was doing and saw that he was doing nothing, he could be pegged as a potential criminal or drain on the state. Kill two potential birds with one stone; put him in the army.”
“You’re sounding paranoid, Cody.”
“Maybe I am. But getting into the GPS control room will be proof enough. I think we will see if this is all in my head.”
A week later, Cody waited in the hall next to their language arts class for Demaar to arrive with a second GPS decoy.
The two walked into the classroom a few minutes before the bell. Demaar passed Cody the decoy as they took their normal desks, side by side.
Cody thumbed the buttons in the order Demaar had told him and pressed the decoy to the underside of the desk, holding it in place with two pieces of self adhesive Velcro.
First Cody, then his friend left the class and descended the stairs to the first floor. No one would assume they were anywhere other than where they should be. The attendance office showed them sitting in their seats and any teachers who passed them in the halls would figure they were on an approved and recognized task.
Rows of computer terminals and keyboards on tables were packed into the long narrow room. They took seats near an unidentified door at the far end of the room. Each boy opened a routine appropriate to their studies and appeared to work. They listened for sounds of people from beyond the door.
A vidicam slowly panned the room and students.
“Okay?” Demaar asked.
Cody waited for the camera to angle past and counted, “One, two, three. Okay, let’s go.”
They stood, opened the door and stepped through into the dark room. As the door closed the overhead lights came on. Fans set high up on the walls whispered, keeping the small room cool as the numerous computers pumped out heat from their active processing.
They agreed before hand they wouldn’t speak, only move directly to their tasks.
Cody wandered between several computers set up at individual work stations. Demaar dashed from station to station until he found the one he was apparently looking for. He sat and powered on the screen. Cody settled into a station with a broad flat-screen monitor and flipped it on.
A floor plan of the school opened up before him. Most classrooms were filled with neat rows of tiny blue dots, each one indicating a student. Few moved through the hallways. Cody found the Data Center and rolled his cursor over the ‘dots’ in the room. With each dot the cursor passed over a number appeared above it on the screen. All the numbers he found were similar to his own, in the 46,320,000’s, but not his own.
The room where he and Demaar worked wasn’t even on the schematic. He centered the screen back on his classroom, brought the view in close and cursored over the seats where he and Demaar sat.
Feeling satisfied and considerably more secure, he smiled and leaned back in his seat. Among the blue dots of students in his classroom were four yellow dots; one at the head of the class where the teacher usually sat. He tried to picture where the other yellows were positioned in the classroom and was sure of only one, Esteban Martinez. He had come from El Salvador at six years old and had difficulty with English. Because he was held back a year he was already eighteen, past the age when the GPS string should have degraded.
And the teacher, he moved the cursor over her yellow dot. Though it didn’t show her name, her number was obviously not one of the students; 15,665,719; much older than the students.
Intending to go back to the original screen he expanded the view wider. However, the controls were more sensitive than he thought and the school dropped away from view and a map of the whole neighborhood appeared before him.
“I’m right,” Cody declared.
“Shhhh,” Demaar said, then in a whisper asked, “What are you right about?”
“There are dots everywhere.”
Demaar came over to Cody’s screen. It was true. Throughout the neighborhood tiny yellow dots moved around houses and floated along streets. Green, blue, turquoise and red dots were also present, but very few.
“I think the yellow dots are anyone over eighteen. Look at our classroom.”
Cody zoomed in on the classroom again. “Look. Here’s Ms. Alexander. Her number is pretty low, but here’s Esteban. He’s eighteen and his number is closer to ours.
“What do you think the red dots are for?” Demaar asked.
“I don’t know,” Cody began but realized what caused Demaar to ask. In their classroom two red dots sat side-by-side and Cody didn’t need to pass the cursor over to know who they were.
“Let’s get out of here,” Cody said, jumping from the chair and running for the door. Bolting through into the Data Center the two boys ran into the principal and two of his assistants.
“Bring the boys to my office,” the man said.
The assistants grabbed the boys by their upper arms and marched them behind the principal to the administration building.
“How did you find my decoys?” Demaar asked.
Cody shushed him. They had the right to remain silent, didn’t they?
“Come on, Cody. We’re caught, and I want to know. Did they give off a conflicting signature to the GPS signal?”
“Decoys. I like that name.” The principal sounded smug. “Actually, yes. They did give off a signature, but it was incredibly hard to locate. We scanned the building several times before locating them. What gave you away was motion sensors in the control room. An alarm goes off in the attendance office and in my office as well. We found you two cloaked in there; that was when we searched for a cloned signal.”
The principal spoke matter-of-factly, as if discussing the weather with a next door neighbor. "Now that we have your devices, we will be able to protect against them. The whole GPS system is about protection, to protect you young people.”
“If that’s so, why don’t the strings degrade as they’re supposed to when we turn eighteen? Ms. Alexander’s string is still going and there are yellow dots moving all over the neighborhood.”
“You’re a perceptive young man, Cody. You have to remember, it’s for everyone’s safety, and you, being you, don't know the dangers you face. The original plan was to allow the GPS string to degrade at eighteen, but some of us saw a bigger picture where we could all be safe, regardless of age, just like the children.”
“You’re awfully free and open, all of a sudden,” Cody said at the same moment Demaar asked, “Are you going to kick us out of high school?”
“Both good questions; spoken, or implied,” the principal said.
They passed the attendance desk.
The assistant, still holding the boys by their arms, ushered them directly into the principal’s office. Cody and Demaar were released and told to sit in chairs to the left side of the principal’s desk.
Principal Stevens sat at his desk and turned his attention to the computer terminal in front of him. He appeared to enter data on a form. The screen sat perpendicular to the boys and they were unable to see the form or the data entered.
What Cody could see was across the principal’s desk; a bank of video screens mounted on the wall to the principal’s right, and directly in front of the two boys. He jabbed his elbow into Demaar and tipped his head toward the monitors.
Both boys were on five of the screens, shown repeating loops of video feed; the two standing by the lockers in the hallway; them entering the computer lab; passing the GPS decoys in the classroom; standing outside the school yesterday and sitting on Demaar’s front porch. Video feed of the two boys off the school grounds was disconcerting enough, but what really bothered Cody was that it was not from the angle of the vidicam he knew of. The view was from directly across the street; perhaps from under the eaves of the Zwickie’s home.
Did they have cameras everywhere? Cody wondered. Where else could they be watching?
“There. All done,” Stevens said. He looked up from the screen to the two boys with a wide grin. “Congratulations are in order. You’ve both just graduated from high school. Your diplomas will be mailed to your parent’s homes within the week.”
“What?” Demaar asked.
Cody shook his head and said, “Okay?”
“You’re not the first students to figure out how the “No Child Left Alone” Technology is being used, both in school and out; not the first by a long shot. But over the twenty years of the program, how to deal with clever children like you has been, reformed.”
Demaar’s face went gray.
“Don’t worry Mr. Wilkins. You’re not going to jail. Quite the opposite. It would be a terrible waste to incarcerate and punish intelligent minds; they should be rewarded, and...” He paused a moment, looking thoughtful. He finally sighed, and said,“ Exploited sounds like such a harsh word. But, your “Decoy” is very impressive. The school will receive a large bonus for its development.”
He turned to Cody.
“And your lateral thinking, Mr. Ashkour, was very perceptive and shows an insight not common in a boy your age. Your parents will be pleased to learn you have been transferred to a prestigious university and will be pursuing an advanced degree in Political Ethics.”
He turned back to Demaar, “And you a degree in Electronic Engineering, Mr. Wilkins.”
Principal Stevens stood and said, “Transportation is here, boys. Enjoy the next six years of higher education. I’m sure by the time you graduate you will both have the appropriate perspective to help us carry out our important work.”
Author's note: This is not a completed short story. I wrote it through and revised it once before submitting it to the Online Writing Workshop. I did a short rewrite after that. Since that time I have also decided it's not done. Demaar has a back up plan with another set of decoys which which deflects their GPS chips location randomly traveling in different directions. They break away from the guards and escape into the neighborhood.