The Darwin Protocol, by William Oday (9:54)

IOD score cardToday we see that even evil conspirators need proper motivations for their evil conspiring.

What I gleaned about the story: Dr. Reshenko is at a meeting with the most important, powerful people in government, waiting to have his say. He thinks he’s surrounded by idiots. He’s probably right, but it’s still not a great look. Oh, and an old man is predicting the collapse of civilization.

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WTF #1: Immersion-busted with a single word

Analysis: As Dr. Reshenko observes the conference room, where VIPs and their VIP entourages have gathered, he’s analyzing what he sees through the lens of his personal chimp-based theories of social dynamics. He notes the chair at the head of the table, where the absent POTUS should be sitting: Proximity from that vacant chair communicated power and position.

Shouldn’t it be “proximity to” or “distance from?” By the fourth or fifth read-through of the sentence, I’d convinced myself that it should. The words ‘proximity’ and ‘from’ seem to tug in opposite directions. If immersion is the sensation of being carried forward page after page, this hiccup makes the sentence arresting in just the wrong way.

WTF #2: Missing word… maybe?

Analysis: As Dr. Reshenko relishes the impending moment, the one where he finally gets the recognition he clearly thinks he deserves, an old dude makes his way to the front of the room.

He hobbled along with the aid of a cane and a seemingly endless span of time to arrive at his destination.

The sentence is difficult to unpack. It feels like it should read and [took] a seemingly endless span of time. As it reads on the page, it makes it sound like his journey is being aided by two things: a cane, and also “a seemingly endless span of time.”

Chunks of ambiguous grammar are the cinderblocks spilled on the highway to Immersionville.

WTF #3: Did the Matrix just glitch?

Analysis: At the conclusion of the old man’s ponderous journey, he arrives at the front of the room. Immediately:

The white-haired man clicked a remote and advanced the presentation to the final frame. It was astonishing how PowerPoint could dull even the most vital topics. He pointed at the enormous display on the wall behind him. He shuffled closer and touched the screen, leaving an oily mark. The smudge covered large red numbers.

I’ve got that unmoored, should-I-go-back-and-see-what-I-missed? feeling. It’s not clear to me how we got here, because right up to the moment the old DoD guy clicked the remote, Dr. Reshenko seemed to be watching a room where a meeting was waiting to start. The VIPs seemed to be conversing with each other and their assistants. Nobody is shown leading any sort of discussion or giving a presentation, and Dr. R was even griping to himself about the incessant chatter.

So I’m wondering if clicked a remote and advanced the presentation to the final frame was supposed to convey a lengthier process: that he gave the presentation, clicking through slide after slide as he laid the groundwork for his terrifying-yet-inevitable conclusions. Because I’m actually interpreting the paragraph as, “He opened the presentation straight to the end, then pointed to a big, scary number written in red.”

We gather from the ensuing discussion that the number is the output of an insanely complicated simulation. Some sort of disaster is about to unfold, and while they’re vague on the specifics it has something to do with the stresses of overpopulation.  But since I didn’t get to see the presentation itself (and I’m not even clear that the people in the room got to see anything but the last slide), I’m not prepared for the lack of pushback against his conclusions.  Nobody asks, “How do we know your insanely complex simulation is valid?” The pushback is much more content-free and subdued, more along the lines of, “Is this happening? I can’t believe this is happening. Tell me this isn’t happening.”

We didn’t see anyone being convinced.  We saw an old dude pointing at a big, scary number without actually being told what the number is or precisely what it means.  I don’t care how serious a font he wrote the number in (Copperplate, obvs), you’d expect resistance.

To sell a conclusion like, “the world’s ending, so if we don’t do something super-drastic the value of those season tickets to the Washington Wizards will drop to zero,” the old guy needed to build his arguments brick-by-brick, like a skilled courtroom prosecutor.  Nothing like that is apparent, leaving me with the feeling that several pages of story had accidentally been deleted.

Part of the problem is just Bryce being Bryce. I’m insanely curious about how the insanely complicated model actually works, and wouldn’t mind if the story spent several chapters on it. But model-wonkery isn’t the scene’s job. It’s just trying to give the reader a quick glimpse of the Evil Conspiracy and its motivations before introducing the people the Evil Conspiracy will screw over. The strategy is a sound one.

But in its haste to deliver, the scene seems to be taking shortcuts. Maybe the scene should have started with everyone convinced of the problem, but still needing to be strongarmed into taking action. But whatever the solution, something’s not quite firing.

Kudo #1: Curiosity engaged

Analysis: The timer stops when I hit the third speed bump. But even with the glitches, the story had raised good questions and left me itching for answers. So I skimmed ahead to the end of the scene, where Dr. Reshenko introduces the ominously named “Darwin Protocol,” and a little beyond to get my first introduction to the people the upcoming apocalypse would soon be screwing over.

Despite the official WTFs, the writing is pretty good, and I was starting to get into it (especially once I realized that the sociopathic POV character of Chapter 1 was the villain rather than some sort of creepy antihero).  Good apocalypse/dystopia stories are often less about the disaster mechanism, more about the way the characters react to unfolding events.

My spidey sense is tingling that this book’s got potential.  Grab the free sample and see if it grabs you.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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