Genre Purge 3
By Michael Andre-Driussi
“ACCIDENTS HAPPEN, AND no one is more aware of this fact than the personnel of a bustling spaceport. But not all accidents are equal: an old kerosene-fueled
Cold shock crackled through Arthur Penman the moment he realized a genre purge had begun. The TV continued the Second Manhattan Show Trial broadcast live from Boswash, but he was numb. It was too early for a purge, by four years at least. Another alarming surprise was that the genre upper tier was getting hammered again, when it seemed in fairness that the lower tier was due a drubbing.
Arthur hurried from his one-room at the repurposed Polywater Institute toward Kafobutiko, the usual shop for genre workers to meet. His mind was racing with the history of genre purges: at age thirty, he had been a member of the genre union for eleven years, having joined after the first purge.
Arriving at the grimy utilitarian coffee shop he spotted Otto Wright, whose bewildered expression spoke volumes. Arthur made his way among the small tables to where owlish Otto sat.
“I guess it’s true, then?” he asked.
“But it’s too soon,” said Otto. The gap between first and second purges had been eight years; and furthermore, this was not even an election year. “It’s crazy—it makes no sense.”
Arthur dropped into the chair across from his friend and said, “What’s crazy is slamming the elites so hard, since the newbies deserve a spanking.”
Into the shop burst their colleagues Quill and Spill.
“We are all Venusians now,” said Quill.
“What do you mean?” said Arthur.
“There,” said Spill, pointing to the TV screen showing live coverage of the Trial. An elite editor was confessing to corruption of youth, promotion of wage-slavery, and the propagation of pseudo-science by falsely promoting the Dean Drive. More importantly, he was the heart and face of the Mars project.
“Downrange is finished,” said Otto, his voice hollow.
“What?” said Arthur. “But—that’s our careers! Most of it, anyway.”
“Content shift,” said Otto with a defeated shrug.
The four sat there in silence. Arthur’s heart ached over the last three years of work being suddenly erased. The writers of the Mars project were entrusted with visualizing the coming reality, and with gusto they had taken to describing the heroic trailblazing, the conquest of space. In their shared future history, the early days of V-2 rocket cargo ships gave way to the boom era featuring atomic rockets with their “downrange” hazards of exhaust and crashes. Theirs were tales of romance and adventure in the Martian bases as well as Earth’s “rocket towns,” where neighborhoods around the spaceport were rated for radiation hazard in terms of “cigarettes per day.” Stories of hard-working men, unforgiving environments, and the hardships of frontier living.
In stark contrast to the Venus group, which seemed to be all about easy terraforming of the sister world by bacteria, overseen by bald women in swimsuits onboard orbital stations.
“Well,” said Otto, “how many stories you got out?”
“Ten—no, twelve. Do you think I could place an Adam ’n’ Eve over at Orbita?”
Otto scoffed, shook his head.
The others reported similar numbers, then Otto urged them to get coffee.
Following the other two, Arthur dutifully went to the counter, handed over his ration booklet, and got a small cup of civet coffee. Back at the table he sipped and grimaced.
“Civet poop was better before the first purge.”
“Sure,” said Otto. “The old elites had the real stuff.”
Along came a trio of genre-workers named Baboo, Teller, and Quinn the Mex. Being young they knew only the second purge, so their elders gave them the info dump:
The first purge came after a national election where the One Party triumphed over the Other Party. There were two big changes that time: the lower level members, around ten percent of the union, were kicked out for being non-professional; and the so-called Scandinavian Model, or “ScanMod,” was instituted whereby the State was compelled to buy stories from the writers. This period was considered a “Golden Age.”
Then the group discussed Genre Purge 2, where there was another election turnover allowing the Other Party back into power. That was the time the award-winning authors and editors, something like eighteen percent of the union, were kicked out for being stooges of the One Party; and ScanMod was replaced with the National Patron, or “NatPat,” in which various governmental groups commissioned work on specific topics and themes.
The seven colleagues shared the news, commiserated, and pledged to help each other during the shifting circumstances now thrust upon them.
Then the party broke up as each hurried off to manage his affairs in this new crisis.
The street Arthur pushed his way through seemed normal, a typical day in the Midwestern end of chain-city Chipitts. It seemed the news had not yet trickled out to the general public. There were the usual lines at shops, rather than the long lines of a panic. The local slidewalk was motionless due to breakage or strike, and Arthur noticed a new monocycle repair shop. His heart lifted at the prospect of taking his non-functional single-wheel motorized riding vehicle in for repair, thereby freeing himself from unreliable mass transit. But that smacked of elitism, which brought him back to pondering purges.
Exile, labor camp, and prison were the typical punishments handed out at a purge; but by the same token, there was advancement for some, or perhaps a few at least.
Wrapped in such thought, too late he recognized he had stepped into a trouble zone: what appeared to be a lackluster protest demonstration at a Dean Drive lab. Before he could duck away, a riot policeman spotted him and shouted, “Citizen, does this look like a riot to you? Do your duty, and show them how it is done!”
Chagrined, Arthur stepped forward, hoping to take up one of the bricks set out on the card table, but another cop thrust a lit gasoline bomb into his hand instead, and Arthur gave it everything. This inspired or shamed the proles into action, and as the cops applauded, Arthur slipped away.
Back in his one-room at the Polywater he made a call to the office of Orbita. He was on hold for about an hour, then suddenly he was face to face with an editor.
“Sorry to be bothering you ...”
“It’s all right,” said the editor. “What have you got?”
“It’s an Adam ’n’ Eve—”
“—set on Venus.”
“On Venus, huh?”
“Is it cyano or rhodo?”
“The bacteria,” said the editor. “For the terraforming. It is either the one or the other, the blue or the red.”
“Oh,” said Arthur, vaguely recalling that one was faster than the other, theoretically completing the process in years rather than decades. “Well, whichever you prefer.”
“I like it! Okay, so how does it end?”
“He says, Madam of Venus, I’m—”
“Huh?” said Arthur.
“That’s how this will work, we will get in a story that mocks the old way.”
“Okay, so it’s, Madam of—”
“Maiden. Make it maiden.”
“Maiden of Venus, I’m from Uranus.”
“No, not from. Just I’m Uranus.”
“Great. It practically writes itself. Send it in ASAP.”
"The V-2 Rocket Cargo Ship was going wacky, that typical problem with the gyros. Rookie Jay Burt was the only man who could do anything about it, and there were only two methods available: he could try to fly the crippled craft by wire to crash safely in an uninhabited area; or he could hit the self-destruct button and let the debris fall where it would, downrange.” —“Downrange” by Joseph Ankrum
Four months into the purge came an unexpected turn as pounding began against the lower tier. For the first time both upper and lower tiers were being flushed out simultaneously. And the penalties were harsher than ever: exile was not an option; labor camps and prison were the mild form; mental hospitals and fat farms were the worst. This put Big Fear into Mid Tier.
Arthur put in a call to Otto Wright, now an editor at a new magazine.
“I am eager to write,” said Arthur, “but it is difficult these days.”
“These are challenging times, to be sure.”
“I think I could write a Mars story set on Venus—”
“Avoid Venus until the blue/red thing works itself out,” said Otto, referencing the factional fight that had broken out in the Venus group. “Set it on an orbital station, no terraforming.”
“All right, it is on an orbital. Still, there are all sorts of options. How about a story where a quick-thinking expert deals with a crisis?”
“That seems elitist,” said Otto. “Better if it is a problem that an average woman could solve without any help.”
“Okay, how about heroic action, by a woman, in responding to an accident?”
“Well, but there are no accidents in a scientific utopia. So it must be sabotage by mutants.”
Arthur suppressed a shudder at the mention of “mutants.” This recent trend in scapegoating had led to an appalling number of genre workers being convicted on fabricated charges. “Mutants” were routinely blamed for sabotaging slidewalks, causing food shortages, and any of the other many problems affecting Boswash, Chipitts, and Sansan.
“I envision these sweating men with tools—”
“No, no, no,” said Otto with eye-rolling fatigue. “That’s the Mars thing again. Unless they are sweating mutants. What we need are international women with purple hair and silver jumpsuits, cool and competent, sitting at computer stations.”
“You can see how hard this is for me,” said Arthur. “It is like all the rules have changed.”
“They have changed. Genre is now a kind of comfort food.”
“Comfort food?” Arthur choked. He held back a rant, a full-blown idiot lecture about how genre workers had been like unto a priesthood delivering the vision that precedes existence; how they had brain-strained to provide the direction and drive to the entire scientific/industrial complex, giving rise to whole new sectors of the economy, the very dreams our stuff is made of, from television to vidphones, from slidewalks to monocycles, from fission power to the promise of fusion power. He managed to distill this down and, after passing it through a filter against elitism, he said, “It used to be visionary escapism, channeling the spirit of adventure.”
“Now that people are losing jobs—and worse—the official line is that the fantasy should be about safe situations.”
There was an awkward moment of silence. Arthur grew desperate to say something, anything, that might give him an edge.
“Too bad about Quinn the Mex,” he blurted, referring to their colleague recently sentenced to twenty years at a fat farm.
“Shh,” hissed Otto, his face a mask of fearful rage. “This is monitored. Don’t forget your part in his fate!”
“My part? I had—”
“Sounds great!” said Otto, now beaming false enthusiasm. “I look forward to seeing it. Send it ASAP.”
"Wiping the sweat from his eyes, Jay Burt knew this was his last chance, an opportunity to fix those two failures in one go, or fumble again and see his town go up in atomic fire.” —“Downrange” by Joseph Ankrum
After nineteen months, the fever of the purge had run its course. Like most, Arthur now had several jobs, one of which was senior editor at a new magazine. In his corner office at the Crony Building he went through dozens of vidphone pitches from genre workers.
The mind-numbing drudgery of the work was wearing him out. To counter this he kept reminding himself of the Lodge meeting scheduled for that night. Mostly he thought of the coffee. Then came a call that upset his equilibrium:
“Thank you for taking my call.”
“Yes, yes. What have you got for me?”
“How about a fictional treatment of the third genre purge?”
“Huh,” said Arthur, knocked out of his grump by this kick to the gut.
“Seems a bit vague,” said Arthur, trying for abstraction by looking off toward the upper wall. “It’s hard to get the whole sweep of history in a short story. Too dry—you need characters, and that limits things, scope.”
“I thought it could focus on one man, like Otto Wright, and follow his path through the courts to the mutant camps—”
“I think you are right,” said Arthur, “it is too soon, too confrontational.”
The other was clearly getting desperate.
“It could be set on the Moon. Say there are these five friends, and each betrays the other—”
“Do not call this magazine again,” said Arthur. “I’m warning you.”
He ended the call and quit work early in an angry haze. At his car he realized it was too soon to head for the Lodge, so he settled on a visit to one of his stables.
He drove across town to a shabby district where slouched a boarded-up cold fusion research lab. Hidden within this crumbling edifice was a two-room workshop where others crafted genre that went out under his name.
When he entered the place the old guy in the corner looked up for a moment then went back to marking a manuscript, while the two youngsters lounging at the kitchen table did a quick double-take.
“You’re early,” said one newbie.
“Yeah,” growled Arthur. “Spot inspection. How’s the work going?”
“Ahead of schedule.”
“That’s good, ’cause here’s a new one for you. Top priority. There’s this muckraker, see? And he starts trying to embarrass the government over recent security decisions. He acts like he is going to expose a scandal, but then it turns out that the whole thing is dreamed up, and paid for, by filthy mutants. Justice prevails.”
“Great stuff, boss.”
“It writes itself.”
The old guy in the corner set down the manuscript and stood up to stretch.
“Might I have a word?” he said to Arthur. “Alone?”
“Yeah, sure. You two relax in the bunkroom for a few minutes.”
As the newbies left, Arthur said, “How’s the novel coming?”
“It’s all right,” said the elder, shrugging. “But I’m wondering about getting rehabilitated. You said—”
“It is still very dangerous,” said Arthur. “I know everybody is saying the purge is over, they’re giddy with it, but I’m telling you there is still a lot of danger for an unperson like you.”
“But you said—”
“Look, Ankrum, I know what I said, all right? Only it’s not so easy as that. I saved your life—will you agree that is true?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay. Well now it goes the other way—if you pop up too early, not only do they liquidate you, but they also get me, right? It isn’t just your life anymore, in fact it never was—it’s my life, too.”
“I just don’t know how much longer I can go on like this,” said Ankrum. “I feel the walls closing in on me—I’m hungry all the time—”
“Be patient. Just—”
“I want some real food. All this crap, this space food junk—krill paste, food pills, liquid breakfast, soylent crackers—it’s wearing me down.”
“It has kept you alive.”
“It’s all expired!”
“That’s how I was able to get it for you through the black market,” said Arthur. “It is no longer counted. And it isn’t cheap, either.”
“But it’s not fit for human consumption, either, if it ever was.”
“Just a little longer. When it’s over it will all seem so short a time, so long ago. Here, I’ll take the novel now, as is.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Arthur. “You deserve a break. And I’ll work on getting you some better food, okay?”
“That would be good.”
“Hang in there. I’m working on it, you know I am. For both of us.”
That would have been a perfect moment to leave, but it was still too early for the Lodge. In order to kill time, Arthur asked the newbies to show their work. The results made him apoplectic.
“This is what you call ahead of schedule? What a stupid lie. And the quality is abysmal. People with five times your talent have been sent to prison, whereas those with only three times your talent have been liquidated.”
He hit them, he stomped around, he pounded the table. Then he had them go through a self-criticism session. This done, he berated them as they outlined the new muckraker story.
Finally it was time to leave, and he drove off with some small satisfaction.
For an hour he drove from the city into the dustbowl, while the twilight deepened to hide all signs of entropy and decay: the failed hydroponic farms and ostrich ranches; the mile-wide dish of the rectenna; the wireless power transmission towers; the weather control cloudscrapers. When he pulled into the driveway of the Lodge his headlights showed the other two cars were already there, a good sign. Once he shut off his vehicle he could make out the faint light from oil lamps and candles coming through the cabin’s windows.
He went inside to form the local triumvirate with Enigma and Cipher.
Following the rules, their conversation during the meal was all fairly light and inconsequential. But after they had removed the dishes it was time for business.
Most of the items on the agenda were boilerplate: facts (that were dubious), figures (that were fraudulent), rumors (assumed to be true), and trends.
As they were finishing up, Arthur mentioned the problematic pitch he had received during his workday, naming the offending genre worker. He told them in meticulous detail, ending with, “This is very serious. Something must be done.”
“I don’t know,” said Cipher. “Maybe it is just a joke.”
Arthur stiffened. He had not thought of that.
“You make my point,” he said. “It would be bad enough if this sophomoric scribbler is acting on his own. But think how much worse it would be if he is repeating a line fed to him by another faction. They are probing me; they are testing us. Is it only a tease?”
The others shook their heads. There was no such thing as a tease.
“It is a threat,” said Enigma. “Still, we are under pressure to produce an elite.”
“Is it a quota?”
“Hardly,” said Cipher. “It is the work that must be done. Like taking out the garbage.”
Arthur considered his thumbnail for a moment, running through the options. He decided.
“I will give you an elite in exchange for the silencing of the muckraker.”
“Some low level elite,” said Enigma.
“The soul of Downrange,” said Arthur.
“Interesting!” said Cipher.
“But only if he gets a mild sentence,” said Arthur. “Exile. Yes, exile to a civet ranch.”
“I think that can be arranged.”
“The muckraker deserves the harsh sentence,” said Arthur.
“Naturally,” said Enigma. “Please jot down the address of your elite and I will see to it immediately.”
As Arthur wrote, he voiced additional thoughts.
“There are a couple newbies at the place. They should be left alone, unless they do anything really stupid.”
“I understand,” said Enigma, taking the bit of paper. “Well, then, I’ll get going.”
Now that the work was done, the remaining two had their coffee. Arthur looked back on a productive day: two problems liquidated, even though he had made a point of leniency. When he took the first sip, he sighed with childlike happiness.
“That’s the real Civet,” he said. “Best stuff on Earth.”
“Jay Burt’s skill had held out, this time. There was always next time, until there wasn’t. This was life on the edge, a place where a man should risk it all or get out of the ring.” —“Downrange” by Joseph Ankrum
Michael Andre-Driussi is an Associate Member of SFWA. He is the author of “Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle,” and “Handbook of Vance Space,” a guide to the science fiction worlds of award-winning Grand Master Jack Vance.