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Day Two Hundred and Eighteen: Daughter of Power

December 25, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

Okay, let’s take a look at one of my earlier characters, from a story that really could benefit from some serious re-working.

Elli Acton is the only daughter of a very powerful man – Wilford Acton, who founded Acton Informatics. She’s appeared in two stories, only the first of which is canonical. The second, however, still reveals a bit about her character, so we’ll use it here.

4: Daddy’s Little Firecracker

  • Her full name is Eleanor.
  • She has been divorced more than once.
  • She doesn’t often talk to her father – nor does she seem to want to.
  • She believes that he has interfered in her life somehow.
  • She has brought a gun with her that she plans to use on her father.

82: The Value of Information

  • Elli sometimes reacts with violence when her father is mentioned.
  • She likes to read non-fiction.
  • She has little patience with guys who try to chat her up.

And that’s about it. Clearly the key to understanding Elli is understanding why she hates her father so much. I mean, she really did mean to kill the man, and if you’re going to do that then there has to be some pretty serious hate going on.

My first impulse is to say that it has a lot to do with her father’s work. That’s usually a pretty good starting point, and having a distant, unapproachable father has been a reliable trope in fiction since, well, forever. But it can’t just be that he works too much, and I think it’s the information we get in the second story that really may provide the key. The narrative says, of Acton and his company:

[Wilford Acton] was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet.

Michael, the POV character in that story, wants to work with Acton to create a system that essentially anticipates the wants and needs of consumers by way of monitoring their purchases and finances. So for example, if their credit card activity shows an increase in social activity – like going to bars or restaurants or clubs – then they might receive coupons to local eateries. Someone who lost their job, whose credit activity might be showing a lot of late-night internet purchases, might see a lot more ads for counseling popping up in their browser.

Now, it’s ethically dubious at best, but here’s what I think is going on: Acton Informatics has been doing this for a while now.

I’ve noticed that my Evil Corporations tend to be specialists. Cerbecorp is the best at security, Munin Scientific is the best at memory and storage. Acton is the best at processing and manipulating information. I’ll have to do a longer piece on them before the month is out.

What it boils down to, however, is that Wilford Acton used his daughter as a kind of test case. He managed to collect enough of her data that he could predict her actions with incredible accuracy, and spent years manipulating her into certain decisions. At least one marriage, a job, moving to a new city, that kind of thing.

Elli found out (How? That’s a good question.) and she was exactly as upset as you might expect someone to be. She wavers between trying to pretend her father doesn’t exist and focusing her laser-like fury on him. She absolutely refuses to forgive him for what he did, and has no interest in finding out why he did it. As far as she’s concerned, it was an unforgivable violation of her trust, and she will spend the rest of her days hating him.

Naturally, this makes Elli a difficult person to get close to. She trusts very, very few people, and even those only conditionally. She takes any possible association with her father or his company as a sign of betrayal, and is not willing to hear anything good said about him.

This, of course, offers up a couple of interesting story possibilities. One, of course, is Reconciliation. One way or another, Elli is forced to listen to her father’s reason and understand why he did what he did. She needs to be given the choice to forgive him, rather than completely denying the possibility.

The second story possibility is an Alliance. As much as she hates her father and everything he is associated with, there may come a day when she needs his help more than she needs to hate him. The alliance would be fragile and uncomfortable, but it might go a way towards that reconciliation storyline.

I’m really lucky, actually – I get along very well with my parents. I find it hard, and a little sad, to try and put myself in the position of someone whose relationship with their parents has degenerated into virulent hatred. Maybe in order to help Elli to overcome her issues with her father, I should look into the stories of people with such poisonous relations. How did it start? How was it healed, if at all? Why would hating someone for years be preferable to finding some level of forgiveness?

I suppose that’s one of the real benefits of writing – you get to explore these questions without actually putting yourself through them.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-five: Role Model

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

Our players this week both come from science fiction stories. Neil Tapscott was taken away by a mysterious robot on day 126 in Summoned, and young super-genius Kevin Truman from day 71, Genius. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with these two, but an idea blossomed in my head and I ran with it. Let’s hope it takes me somewhere good.

———————————–

A young Indian girl raised her hand and Neil pointed to her from the stage. She stood up, looking remarkably calm for someone who was going to have to ask a question while surrounded by her fellow middle schoolers, and asked, “Is working for a technology company a way to make the future better for everyone?”

Neil blinked. He’d agreed to do this career day thing for his sister, who was teaching at the school, and thought it would just be a matter of telling them to study hard and not do drugs. He came as an “Information Control Specialist” at Acton Informatics, which was a fancy way to say that he was a data entry clerk. He got reams of numbers from the tech and R&D guys every morning and spent his day making sure they got put into the right databases. He supposed that technically his job was essential to the proper operation of the company, but that was only because no one had bothered to teach the tech and R&D guys how to do it themselves.

He cleared his throat, which seemed to echo around the gymnasium. “Well,” he said, “there are many ways that you can make the future better, and not all of them can be done at a company like Acton.” He put his hands in his pockets and tried to think. You could probably make the future better by working at Acton, but not for everyone. Stockholders, maybe.

“Working with technology means working with tools,” he said. “And a tool can be used to do good or bad things, right? I mean, I can take a hammer and use it to build a house, or I can use that hammer to crack someone’s skull.” The kids laughed, and he glimpsed his sister in the wings doing a tiny, frantic wave to get his attention. The look on her face was horrified, probably because she was standing next to the principal, who clearly didn’t find joking about murder to be very funny.

“My point is,” Neil went on, focusing on the girl who asked the question, “you’re not going to make a better world with technology. You can only do that with people. You find good people, you get a good future. The technology just makes it a little easier to do.”

His sister walked in from the wings, applauding frantically. “Wasn’t that great?” she asked the kids, who applauded with at least some measure of enthusiasm. “I want to thank Neil for coming to our school, and I hope you all got something you can take away from what you heard.” She clapped again, and a few scattered kids followed suit. She gestured offstage, and Neil walked away, giving a wave to the crowd that no one really noticed. His sister followed him a few moments later and whispered furiously, “What the hell was that hammer joke?”

“Relax, Marie. It was funny. The kids liked it.”

Her eyes went wide. “Jesus, Neil, you’re in a school! Last April a kid was suspended for drawing a picture of a gun.” She slapped his shoulder. “A picture! These are not rational people, Neil.”

He held his hands up in submission. “All right, all right, I’m sorry. If anyone gives you grief, tell them to talk to me and I’ll make sure they know how completely appalled you were.” He held out a hand. “Deal?”

Marie glared at it for a moment before shaking it. “Deal. Fine. But if I get fired,” she said, “I’m crashing on your couch.”

“Feel free,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get the cat out of my bed for a night.”

She let out a short laugh, and the tension of the moment was gone. “Ah, Nickel. You really have to stand up to your cat one of these days.”

Neil shrugged. “What can I do? I stopped being the boss ages ago.” He reached out and gave his sister a hug. “Good to see you again, Marie,” he said.

“You too,” she said. “Thanks for coming out here on short notice.”

“And get my baby sister out of a jam? Not a problem.”

“Good.”

“So now you owe me.”

Marie grimaced. “Bank it,” she said.

“With interest? Gladly!” He laugh and hugged her again. “I’ll catch you later. I have to get back to work and tell my masters that I put a good face on for the company.” Neil gave a quick wave as he pushed open the backstage doors and tried to remember how he was supposed to get back to his car. There was probably a reason why they built schools like mazes, but damned if he knew why. As he walked, some of the students waved and said “Thanks, Mister Talcott!” Which, he figured, was close enough.

He took a few wrong turns, nearly ended up in the art room, and was just about ready to stop and ask for directions when one of the students called out to him from behind. “Mister Tapscott!” Surprised at hearing his name pronounced correctly, he turned around. A boy was running towards him with a folder full of papers in his hands and he had that look of frantic desperation that all kids get when they think they might miss a big chance. Neil had no idea what the kid might have thought he was missing, but he stopped anyway.

“Mister Tapscott,” the kid said, breathing heavily as he skidded to a stop.

“Slow down, kid,” Neil said. “Take a breath. Or two.”

The kid did, and looked up at Neil. “Mister Tapscott.” He handed out the folder full of papers. “Can you look at these for me?”

Neil took them without thinking, and instantly regretted it when the boy’s eyes lit up. “What are they?” he asked.

“Designs,” the boy said. “I have these ideas for some new machines, and I thought that you might know what to do with them. Since you work for Acton.”

Neil opened the folder and started leafing through the pages. They were packed with dense writing and precisely-drawn diagrams of devices that Neil had never seen before. They had been done with the kind of care that he usually didn’t even see at Acton, and never expected from a thirteen year-old boy.

He turned another page. “What is all this stuff?” Neil checked the name in the corner of each page: Kevin Truman. Not a name he was familiar with, but he made a note to email his sister about him.

“My designs,” the boy said. “I want to be an inventor someday and make the world a better place.”

“Uh-huh,” Neil said, turning one of the diagrams around to see if he could figure out what it was. He couldn’t

Kevin reached out and turned the diagram again. “That one is an artificial arm I thought of. It hooks up to the nervous system and allows the user to control it like it was his own.” He pulled the folder out of Neil’s hands and flipped through the pages. “This one is a design for a bridge that converts vibrations into electrical energy, and…” He found another. “This is for growing crops vertically, so we don’t have to use as much land.” He handed the folder back and looked up at Neil expectantly. “What do you think?” he asked.

Neil wasn’t sure what to tell him. The boy had that hope in his eyes that Neil remembered from when he was that age. It was the hope that he had done something not just right, but uniquely right. It was the belief that he had finally found someone willing to listen to him. And not just anyone, but an adult. An adult who could get things done!

Except that Neil wasn’t the kind of adult who could get things done. He closed the folder and handed it back to Kevin. “Listen, Kevin,” he said. “I’m not the guy you want to be bringing these to.” Kevin’s expression grew puzzled. “I can’t help you, Kevin,” he said. A moment of honesty overtook him. “In fact, if I were you, I’d keep all those ideas as far as I could from a place like Acton Informatics.”

Kevin looked like he didn’t understand, which seemed to be a rare enough feeling that it was uncomfortable on him. “Why?” he asked. “They’re good ideas, right?”

“Sure,” Neil said, even though he had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth. “But I’m just a data entry guy, Kev. I put numbers into a computer every day, then I wake up the next day and do it again.” He shrugged. “Even if I knew how to make these ideas real, I wouldn’t be able to make it happen.” He bent down a bit so he could be more on the boy’s level, and lowered his voice. “And honestly, the ones who could? They’d probably do it, take all the credit, and leave you with nothing.” He patted Kevin on the shoulder. “I’ve seen it happen, and believe me, it’s not pretty.”

Kevin eyed him with a careful gaze. “So what do I do?” he asked when Neil stood up. “Just forget about them?”

Neil shook his head. “No, no. God, no. Keep working on them. Keep making them better, maybe doing what you can on your own. Just make sure to keep looking for the right person to make them real.” He smiled, more at himself than the situation. He didn’t think he’d be able to bring this conversation around full circle. “It’s all about the people, remember?”

The boy nodded and clutched the designs to his chest. “Thanks,” he said, the ghost of a smile playing across his face. “Thanks a lot, Mister Tapscott.”

“No problem, kid.” He watched Kevin run off again with the same burst of energy he’d used when he arrived, and only a moment later realized that he’d forgotten to ask him how to get to the parking lot. Ah well, he thought. At least I made somebody’s day a little better. Maybe the rest of the day will go as well.

Day Eighty-two: The Value of Information [MAKE-UP]

August 28, 2011 1 comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Elli Acton, the lead in one of the early stories on day 4, Daddy’s Little Firecracker, and Michael Collington, the off-screen character in day 28’s Fiat Scientia whose suicide got the whole story rolling. Considering that they’re from two different eras in (probably) different universes – and one of them is dead – this should be interesting. Let’s see what happens….

————————

The first thing Michael Collington said to Elli Acton was, “I’m a great admirer of your father.”

This was immediately followed by Elli knocking him at least three places down the bar with a right hook to the jaw. She emptied her drink over his head and said, “Go to hell, fucker.” Then she picked up her purse and strode out of the bar.

He didn’t see her again for six months.

He ran into her again in a small Los Angeles coffee shop, reading a book. He had to pass by her a few times to make sure it was her, but as soon as he was certain, he introduced himself. “Hi,” he said. “Can I buy you another cup of whatever it is you’re drinking?”

Elli turned a page in her book and held out the cup. “Caramel latte,” she said, not looking at him. “Make it quick.”

Mercifully, the line was short and he was back with her drink in under five minutes. She took it from him while she read and muttered “Thanks.” Michael lowered himself into the seat next to hers and sipped his own drink, a black coffee. He waited, watching people move past, coming in, ordering drinks and going out, and occasionally glancing over to see if Elli was doing anything other than reading her book.

She wasn’t.

After about ten minutes, he took a chance. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said. He’d found during his time in the United States that his native British accent was considered charming, so he tried to play it up a little whenever he could. “I’ve noticed you’re reading the new Nicholas Calviani book. Is it any good?”

She continued to read. After a few seconds, she turned a page, coming to the end of the chapter. Then she said, “Yes,” and continued to the next.

“Ah,” he said. “I see.” He took a drink from his cup, emptying it. “It’s just that I find his theories on the causes of inner-city poverty to be rather simplistic and he never really offers a solution to any of the problems he brings up in the book. I mean, if all it took to ‘fix’ poverty was a rousing sing-along and an outpouring of community feelings, we would have solved it by now, don’t you-”

Ellie snapped the book closed and put it into her bag. She drained the last of her latte, stood up and walked out of the coffee shop without a word.

Michael sat at the table and watched her leave. “Damn,” he said.

They way he had come to know her – or at least know of her – was through a magazine interview he’d read with her father, Wilford Acton. He was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet. Acton’s systems were elegant and simple, and the moment Michael read about them, he knew he wanted to be a part of the bigger picture.

He had ideas. He’d always had ideas, ever since he was a kid, but they never seemed to work out. Either someone else would get there first, or he would realize that the brilliant plan he’d put together would be impossible to actually work out. He might lose interest in one in order to pursue another, which he would usually drop when another, grander idea came into his head. The result of this was that he had a general working knowledge of many topics, from science and technology to art and music to sociology, psychology and astrophysics. But he was an expert in none, and didn’t have the connections to the people who were experts, so he feared he would be forever lost to progress.

The interview he’d read, however, seemed to be the chance he was looking for. He had thought of ways that companies could use interconnected databases to analyze their customers’ buying habits and then extrapolate their needs. So by looking at their credit card purchases, for example, a company might know when to target them for certain products. If someone suddenly started buying more health foods, for example, instead of their usual purchases, it might be time to make sure they see an ad for a local gym or an at-home exercise machine. Someone whose statements showed more social activities – restaurants and bars, for example – might be dating again. The perfect time to send coupons to local eateries. By keeping a constant watch on people’s purchases, companies could better tailor advertising and product research.

Michael had mentioned this to a few friends, most of whom thought it was a massive ethical violation, akin to spying on people, and he conceded that they had a point. But he knew it would work, and that it would change the world forever. So he studied up on Acton Informatics and learned about Acton’s daughter, Elli. She was young, smart and once again single, so Michael did a bit of research online and managed to find out a bit more about where she liked to spend her time.

What he’d somehow managed to miss, it seemed, was how she felt about her father.

He was determined to try again, though. He’d found her on Facebook and Twitter and followed her on both. He kept notes on where she went and who she seemed to talk to a lot, and produced what he believed to be a good dossier of her likes and dislikes, the latter list being topped, in large red letters with “HER FATHER.” He studied his notes constantly, taking time to make predictions about her behavior and see how well they bore out.

Part of Michael was aware, to some degree, that what he was doing might be considered stalking. That if she ever found out about it, he could be arrested, or at the very least forced to keep as far away from her as the law would allow. And that he would lose his only possibly means of getting to Wilford Acton.

But he didn’t care. The ends justify the means, he told himself, and knew that one day, if necessary, she would forgive him.

He stood in front of a small Italian restaurant where Elli’s birthday party was being held. He’d managed to get on the invitation list through a friend of hers, and he’d brought a bottle of her favorite scotch. He’d wisely left his dossier at home, but he didn’t need it. He knew her likes and dislikes and what would probably get her talking. The first time, he’d gone in blind. The second, he’d been a complete amateur.

This time, he would win over Elli Acton.

After that, the world.