Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 36 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

Sammy didn’t want the writer meeting him at his office. His organization had lots of people who’d been loyal to the old gothy park and even to Death Waits. They plotted against him. They wrote about him on the fucking Internet, reporting on what he’d eaten for lunch and who’d shouted at him in his office and how the numbers were declining and how none of the design crews wanted to work on his new rides.

The writer couldn’t come to the office—couldn’t come within miles of the park. In fact, if Sammy had had his way, they would have done this all by phone, but when he’d emailed the writer, he’d said that he was in Florida already and would be happy to come and meet up.

Of course he was in Florida—he was covering the ride.

The trick was to find a place where no one, but no one, from work would go. That meant going as touristy as possible—something overpriced and kitschy.

Camelot was just the place. It had once been a demolition derby stadium, and then had done turns as a skate-park, a dance-club and a discount wicker furniture outlet. Now it was Orlando’s number two Arthurian-themed dining experience, catering to package-holiday consolidators who needed somewhere to fill the gullets of their busloads of tourists. Watching men in armor joust at low speed on glue-factory nags took care of an evening’s worth of entertainment, too.

Sammy parked between two giant air-conditioned tour coaches, then made his way to the entrance. He’d told the guy what he looked like, and the guy had responded with an obvious publicity shot that made him look like Puck from a boys’-school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—unruly hair, mischievous grin.

When he turned up, though, he was ten years older, a cigarette jammed in the yellowing crooked stumps of his teeth. He needed a shower and there was egg on the front of his denim jacket.

“I’m Sammy,” Sammy said. “You must be Freddy.”

Freddy spat the cigarette to one side and shook with him. The writer’s palms were clammy and wet.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Freddy said. “Camelot, huh?”

“Taste of home for you, I expect,” Sammy said. “Tally ho. Pip pip.”

Freddy scrunched his face up in an elaborate sneer. “You are joking, right?”

“I’m joking. If I wanted to give you a taste of home, I’d have invited you to the Rose and Crown Pub in Epcot: ‘Have a jolly ol’ good time at the Rose and Crown!’”

“Still joking, I trust?”

“Still joking,” Sammy said. “This place does a decent roast beef, and it’s private enough.”

“Private in the sense of full of screaming stupid tourists stuffing their faces?”

“Exactly.” Sammy took a step toward the automatic doors.

“Before we go in, though,” Freddy said. “Before we go in. Why are you talking to me at all, Mr Disney Parks Executive?”

He was ready for this one. “I figured that sooner or later you’d want to know more about this end of the story that you’ve been covering. I figured it was in my employer’s best interest to see to it that you got my version.”

The reporter’s grin was wet and mean. “I thought it was something like that. You understand that I’m going to write this the way I see it, not the way you spin it, right?”

Sammy put a hand on his heart. “Of course. I never would have asked anything less of you.”

The reporter nodded and stepped inside the air-conditioned, horsey-smelling depths of Camelot. The greeter had acne and a pair of tights that showed off his skinny knock-knees. He took off his great peaked cap with its long plume and made a stiff little bow. “Greetings, milords, to Camelot. Yon feast awaits, and our brave knights stand ready to do battle for their honor and your amusement.”

Freddy rolled his eyes at Sammy, but Sammy made a little scooting gesture and handed the greeter their tickets, which were ringside. If he was going to go to a place like Camelot, he could at least get the best seats in the house.

They settled in and let the serving wench—whose fancy contact lenses, piercings, and electric blue pony-tails were seriously off-theme—take their roast beef orders and serve them gigantic pewter tankards of “ale”; Bud Light, and the logo was stamped into the sides of the tankards.

“Tell me your story, then,” Freddy said. The tourists around them were noisy and already a little drunk, their conversation loud to be heard over the looping soundtrack of ren faire polka music.

“Well, I don’t know how much you know about the new Disney Parks organization. A lot of people think of us as being just another subsidiary of the Mouse, like back in the old days. But since the IPO, we’re our own company. We license some trademarks from Disney and operate rides based on them, but we also aggressively license from other parties—Warners, Universal, Nintendo. Even the French comic-book publisher responsible for Asterix. That means that we get a lot of people coming in and out of the organization, contractors or consultants working on designing a single ride or show.

“That creates a lot of opportunities for corporate espionage. Knowing what properties we’re considering licensing gives the competition a chance to get there ahead of us, to land an exclusive deal that sets us back on square one. It’s ugly stuff—they call it ‘competitive intelligence’ but it’s just spying, plain old spying.

“All of our employees have been contacted, one time or another, by someone with an offer—get me a uniform, or a pic of the design roughs, or a recording of the soundtrack, or a copy of the contracts, and I’ll make it worth your while. From street-sweepers to senior execs, the money is just sitting there, waiting for us to pick it up.”

The wench brought them their gigantic pewter plates of roast-beef, Yorkshire pudding, parsnips, and a mountain of french fries, presumably to appease the middle-American appetites of the more unadventurous diners.

Freddy sliced off a throat-plugging lump of beef and skewered it on his fork.

“You’re going to tell me that the temptation overwhelmed one of your employees, yes?” He shoved the entire lump into his mouth and began to masticate it, cheeks pouched out, looking like a kid with a mouthful of bubble-gum.

“Precisely. Our competitors don’t want to compete with us on a level playing field. They are, more than anything, imitators. They take the stuff that we carefully build, based on extensive research, design and testing, and they clone it for parking-lot amusement rides. There’s no attention to detail. There’s no attention to safety! It’s all cowboys and gypsies.”

Freddy kept chewing, but he dug in the pockets of his sports-coat and came up with a small stubby notebook and a ball-point. He jotted some notes, shielding the pad with his body.

“And these crass imitators enter into our story how?” Freddy asked around his beef.

“You know about these New Work people—they call themselves ‘re-mixers’ but that’s just a smokescreen. They like to cloak themselves in some post-modern, ‘Creative Commons’ legitimacy, but when it comes down to it, they made their fortune off the intellectual property of others, uncompensated use of designs and technologies that others had invested in and created.

“So when they made a ride, it wasn’t much of much. Like some kind of dusty Commie museum, old trophies from their last campaign. But somewhere along the way, they hooked up with one of these brokers who specializes in sneaking our secrets out of the park and into the hands of our competitors and quick as that, they were profitable— nationally franchised, even.” He stopped to quaff his Bud Light and surreptitiously checked out the journalist to see how much of this he was buying. Impossible to say. He was still masticating a cheekful of rare roast, juice overflowing the corners of his mouth. But his hand moved over his pad and he made an impatient go-on gesture with his head, swallowing some of his payload.

“We fired some of the people responsible for the breaches, but there will be more. With 50,000 castmembers—” The writer snorted a laugh at the Disney-speak and choked a little, washing down the last of his mouthful with a chug of beer. “—50,000 employees it’s inevitable that they’ll find more. These ex-employees, meanwhile, have moved to the last refuge of the scoundrel: Internet message boards, petulant tweets, and whiny blogs, where they’re busily running us down. We can’t win, but at least we can stanch the bleeding. That’s why we’ve brought our lawsuits, and why we’ll bring the next round.”

The journalist’s hand moved some more, then he turned a fresh page. “I see, I see. Yes, all fascinating, really. But what about these countersuits?”

“More posturing. Pirates love to put on aggrieved airs. These guys ripped us off and got caught at it, and now they want to sue us for their trouble. You know how counter-suits work: they’re just a bid to get a fast settlement: ‘Well, I did something bad but so did you, why don’t we shake hands and call it a day?’

“Uh huh. So you’re telling me that these intellectual property pirates made a fortune knocking off your rides and that they’re only counter-suing you to get a settlement out of you, huh?”

“That’s it in a nutshell. I wanted to sit down with you, on background, and just give you our side of things, the story you won’t get from the press-releases. I know you’re the only one trying to really get at the story behind the story with these people.”

Freddy had finished his entire roast and was working his way through the fries and limp Yorkshire pudding. He waved vigorously at their serving wench and hollered, “More here, love!” and quaffed his beer.

Sammy dug into his cold dinner and speared up a forkful, waiting for Freddy to finish swallowing.

“Well, that’s a very neat little story, Mr Disney Executive off the record on background.” Sammy felt a vivid twinge of anxiety. Freddy’s eyes glittered in the torchlight. “Very neat indeed.

“Let me tell you one of my own. When I was a young man, before I took up the pen, I worked a series of completely rubbish jobs. I cleaned toilets, I drove a taxi, I stocked grocery shelves. You may ask how this qualified me to write about the technology industry. Lots of people have, in fact, asked that.

“I’ll tell you why it qualifies me. It qualifies me because unlike all the ivory-tower bloggers, rich and comfortable geeks whose masturbatory rants about Apple not honoring their warranties are what passes for corporate criticism online, I’ve been there. I’m not from a rich family, I didn’t get to go to the best schools, no one put a PC in my bedroom when I was six. I worked for an honest living before I gave up honest work to write.

“As much as the Internet circle-jerk disgusts me, it’s not a patch on the businesses themselves. You Disney people with your minimum wage and all the sexual harassment you can eat labor policies in your nice right-to-work state, you get away with murder. Anyone who criticizes you does so on your own terms: Is Disney exploiting its workers too much? Is it being too aggressive in policing its intellectual property? Should it be nicer about it?

“I’m the writer who doesn’t watch your corporations on your own terms. I don’t care if another business is unfairly competing with your business. I care that your business is unfair to the world. That it aggressively exploits children to get their parents to spend money they don’t have on junk they don’t need. I care that your workers can’t unionize, make shit wages, and get fired when they complain or when you need to flex your power a little.

“I grew up without any power at all. When I was working for a living, I had no say at all in my destiny. It didn’t matter how much shit a boss wanted to shovel on me, all I could do was stand and take it. Now I’ve got some power, and I plan on using it to setting things to rights.”

Sammy chewed his roast long past the point that it was ready to swallow. The fact that he’d made an error was readily apparent from the start of Freddy’s little speech, but with each passing minute, the depth of his error grew. He’d really fucked up. He felt like throwing up. This guy was going to fuck him, he could tell.

Freddy smiled and quaffed and wiped at his beard with the embroidered napkin. “Oh, look—the jousting’s about to start,” he said. Knights in armor on horseback circled the arena, lances held high. The crowd applauded and an announcer came on the PA to tell them each knight’s name, referring them to a program printed on their placemats. Sammy pretended to be interested while Freddy cheered them on, that same look of unholy glee plain on his face.

The knights formed up around the ring and their pimply squires came out of the gate and tended to them. There was a squire and knight right in front of them, and the squire tipped his hat to them. Freddy handed the kid a ten-dollar bill. Sammy never tipped live performers; he hated buskers and panhandlers. It all reminded him of stuffing a stripper’s G-string. He liked his media a little more impersonal than that. But Freddy was looking at him, so with a weak little smile, he handed the squire the smallest thing in his wallet—a twenty.

The jousting began. It was terrible. The “knights” couldn’t ride worth a damn, their “lances” missed one another by farcical margins, and their “falls” were so obviously staged that even the chubby ten year old beside him was clearly unimpressed.

“Got to go to the bathroom,” he said into Freddy’s ear. In leaning over, he contrived to get a look at the reporter’s notebook. It was covered in obscene doodles of Mickey Mouse with a huge erection, Minnie dangling from a noose. There wasn’t a single word written on it. What little blood was left in Sammy’s head drained into his feet, which were leaden and uncoordinated on the long trip to the filthy toilets.

He splashed cold water on his face in the sink, and then headed back toward his seat. He never made it. From the top of the stairs leading down to ringside, he saw Freddy quaffing more ale and flirting with the wench. The thunder of horse-hooves and the soundtrack of cinematic music drowned out all sounds, but nothing masked the stink of the manure falling from the horses, half of which were panicking (the other half appeared to be drugged).

This was a mistake. He thought Freddy was a gossip reporter who liked juicy stories. Turned out he was also one of those tedious anti-corporate types who would happily hang Sammy out to dry. Time to cut his losses.

He turned on his heel and headed for the door. The doorman was having a cigarette with a guy in a sports-coat who was wearing a manager badge on his lapel.

“Leaving so soon? The show’s only just getting started!” The manager was sweating under his sports-coat. He had a thin mustache and badly died chestnut hair cut like a Lego character’s.

“Not interested,” Sammy said. “All the off-theme stuff distracted me. Nose-rings. Blue hair. Cigarettes.” The doorman guiltily flicked his cigarette into the parking lot. Sammy felt a little better.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” the manager said. He was prematurely grey under the dye-job, for he couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Thirty-five years old and working a dead-end job like this—Sammy was thirty-five. This is where he might end up if his screw-ups came back to haunt him. “Would you like a comment-card?”

“No,” Sammy said. “Any outfit that can’t figure out clean toilets and decent theming on its own can’t benefit from my advice.” The doorman flushed and looked away, but the manager’s smile stayed fixed and calm. Maybe he was drugged, like the horses. It bothered Sammy. “Christ, how long until this place gets turned into a roller-derby again?”

“Would you like a refund, sir?” the manager asked. He looked out at the parking lot. Sammy followed his gaze, looking above the cars, and realized, suddenly, that he was standing in a cool tropical evening. The sky had gone the color of a ripe plum, with proud palms silhouetted against it. The wind made them sway. A few clouds scudded across the moon’s luminous face, and the smell of citrus and the hum of insects and the calls of night birds were vivid on the evening air.

He’d been about to say something cutting to the manager, one last attempt to make the man miserable, but he couldn’t be bothered. He had a nice screened-in porch behind his house, with a hammock. He’d sat in it on nights like this, years ago. Now all he wanted to do was sit in it again.

“Good night,” he said, and headed for his car.

<<< Back to Part 35

Continue to Part 37>>>





As part of the ongoing project of crafting’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.

Doctorow’s Makers will be released in print by Tor Books in October. You can read all previous installments of Makers on on our index page.




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