I had to put down a book today because I couldn’t maintain my suspension of disbelief. It’s a pity, because I was really enjoying it. In fact, I intend to pick it up again, because the author has some very original ideas and a solid style.
However, the villains of the story are a group of people who work for an EVIL CORPORATION, and I just don’t buy them. The author was slathering on the anti-capitalistic polemic with a trowel, and it just got too thick to wade through any more. I mean just in case we couldn’t pick up on the fact that they were bad guys because they are trying to bring Lovecraftian Elder Gods back to Earth to destroy everything and they experiment on unwilling human subjects, the author helpfully reminds us that they work for an EVIL CORPORATION that is GREEDY and WANTS TO MAKE MONEY!
The good guys on the other hand, work for a university and don’t care about money, they just want to make everything all sunshine and flowers, unlike the bad guys who are driven by GREED and PROFIT and MAKING MONEY!
I mean, seriously, that contrast had to be hammered home about once a page. Ok, I get it, I get it already. Yeah, message received, academics good, private enterprise bad. Can we please get on with the story now?
Now, I don’t want to jump on this particular author too hard, because it is basically a good book, and this is so prevalent in fiction nowadays that pointing a finger at one book isn’t quite fair. I’ll probably go back to it, after I reread Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon as an antidote.
Honestly, it isn’t the idea that a corporation can be evil that bugs me. Believe me, I have no illusions about the saintliness of private companies. But, damnit, if you’re going to write about an Evil Corporation, make it a believable one!
We’re told a half dozen times that this company only cares about profits–so why is it doing something that costs a lot of money and has very little chance of return on the investment? Money may be the root of many kinds of evil (check the original Greek, that’s what it says) but it doesn’t follow that evil is necessarily the source of lots of money.
I’m sorry, but “Do evil stuff and then money will happen” is not a business plan. Sure, stomping on kittens is fun, but how do you monetize it? Oh, you say, it has “military applications”, and that will instantly make it profitable.
Excuse me? I used to work for a defense contractor, and believe me, doing R&D for military projects on spec is the carpool lane to receivership. How it works in the real world is that DCAS issues a call for bids for a particular project and then contractors blue sky a number and hope to hell that they can make it work if they are awarded the contract.
You don’t spend money and then hope that you can convince someone to issue a contract based on it. The military does business like that guy in 50 Shades Of Gray–it’s my way or the highway, bitch.
But, wait, suppose that EC, Inc isn’t working for the military–suppose that they are going to produce a product that will make everyone addicted to it? Yeah, there you go, that’s what real Evil Corporations do, force people to buy their products by unfair means!
Yeah, let me know how that works out for you. New York City has banned sodas that are too big. In LA, you have to go to Nevada to have a cigarette.
Look, there are ways to make a corporation the bad guy. Michael Chrichton does it brilliantly, in Disclosure, Airframe, Rising Sun, and, of course, Jurassic Park. But Michael Crichton knows how businesses work.
If you were going to write a novel in which your bad guys were the Knights Templar, you’d do some research, right? You’d read up on the Templars, and you’d learn how the order was organized, how they got into trouble with Rome and why they were disbanded. All that I am saying is that if you are going to write about a corporation, do the same thing.
Take the time to make it believable. Be able to articulate why the company is doing what it is doing, how the expenditure was justified to the board of directors, who knows what about the project and how the loyalty of those people is assured, what the company hopes to gain, in hard dollars and cents, and how long they expect before it begins to turn a profit. In fact, I would strongly suggest that you go so far as to write a business plan.
Ask yourself how the company is handling recruitment for its special project. Is the hiring done in house or contracted out? Who built this secure facility? Who designed it? How do they deal with building inspectors? Do you really expect me to believe that thousands of tons of construction material were shipped to the middle of nowhere and nobody noticed?
Who handles payroll for the technicians and the guards? Do they issue W2s or 10-99s? If neither, how do they handle it if one of their contractors gets audited?
And what happens if there are personnel changes on the upper levels? Suppose the Vice President Of Evil Projects decides to take a position with Even Eviler Corp, LLC? Who takes over, and who handles that briefing?
Too often making the bad guys an Evil Corporation is flat out lazy writing. It’s a way of getting around taking the time to create and write real characters. Unfortunately, it’s a crutch that authors are used to getting away with, because there are a lot of readers who will just go along with the “profit motive=evil” stereotype and not ask hard questions about the details.
I challenge writers to ask themselves those questions. Convince me. There are a lot of really scary things that a large corporation can do. Bad guys who have their own legal teams and paramilitary security forces? That’s a classic. But do it right, or don’t do it at all. Corporations also have weaknesses, and rules that they can’t be seen to be breaking. Use that as well. Know your enemy.