Narrativomancy. Short excerpt from the novel David’s Sling.
CLICK. With the acquisition of the flatcam video recorder, the news reporter develops a similar relationship with his camera. With the tape riding quietly on his hip, and the flat camera lens pinned on his lapel, individual virtuosos can replace the old-style news teams. The camera is almost invisible; the reporter is quite inconspicuous. As he becomes less conspicuous, he becomes less inhibiting to the people who are his targets. The reporter’s eye and the reporter’s camera become a single device with which to capture the images he will later clean and craft in the lab. The lab supplies the magic. It is a place where background noise and foreground lighting can be toned to highlight the message, all by using powerful techniques of Information Age filtering,
WHIR. Bill Hardie knows that he has been born in the right moment of history—the beginning of the era of flatcam journalism. He can see from the camera lens in his lapel— not merely the lighting and the people, but the action, the emotions, the sensations. He can zero in on those elements with the skill of an astronomer picking out galaxies on the edge of the universe- Sometimes he can sense the critical moment, allowing him to shift his attention before the event, to capture it’s very beginnings, rather than its concluding passage.
JUMP. The only flaw in Bill’s coverage is an occasional jerldness to the image, a reflection of a certain anxious impatience with real life. His analysis is too important to wait on the sluggish motions of other men. Fortunately, the jitter of his camera, like the noise of murmured voices in the background, can be removed in the laboratory.
FOCUS. Bill recognizes the heavy burden his talent places on him. He understands his mission in life. He must broadcast truth in a pure form to all people. Just as his computer filters the background noise that blurs the conversation, he must filter out the foreground noise that blurs the fundamental reality,
BREAK. Bill frowns at the young geological engineer from the Zetetic Institute up on the stage. The engineer poses a serious problem for Bill. This engineer introduces blaring noise into the foreground, drowning out the truth. The truth is: The people of the State of Washington must not let the United States dump its radioactive wastes there. Nuclear power plants and radioactive wastes are bad; this is the truth. Bill focuses his attention on the nuances of the situation, to wring victory from every tiny image as it happens.
SHADE. Three men sit spotlighted on the stage facing a dimly lit auditorium. Cigarette smoke forms miniature weather inversions here and there in the audience. A puff of acrid blue haze blows across Bill’s face; he shifts locations.
FOCUS. The spotlights create the mood of an interrogation, with unseen prosecutors and accusers contemplating the three men nearly blinded by the light. The Zetetic engineer sits in the middle of the three, flanked by two older men—directors from the Power Commission- These directors are the ones who had hired the Zetetic Institute to act as an impartial consultant, to assess the safety of a radioactive waste storage facility near Hanford, Washington.
Why had they hired the Institute? They had known that the Institute had a reputation for doing good engineering. Equally important, the Institute had a reputation for presenting that engineering smoothly in public.
Indeed, the opening of the discussion is dry and crisp, almost too civilized; the Zetetic engineer simply presents facts about the geological properties of the proposed waste site. With careful clarity, he shows why it is a safe place to put radioactives. Bill realizes the Power Commission has taken a risk in hiring the Institute: Zetetics search diligently for facts, and facts could go against the Power Commission as easily as they could go in its favor,
The men of the Power Commission, in their dark blue suits, with their tight, closed faces, mirror the audience’s hostility. They perform as perfect Establishment objects of disdain. Had the engineer sat to the side rather than in the middle of the trio, Bill would zoom on them and construct a crisp image of Good versus Evil—the audience versus the Power Commission.
But the engineer sits in the middle, looking gentle, even friendly, in his light blue suit and solid red tie. He maintains an open smile and equally open eyes, apparently oblivious to the emotional tension that stews amidst the combatants. Only the careful precision of his words hints that his understanding of the situation goes deep. Bill will have to perform magic with the lighting and die shading of the stage to make him look sinister. Even then, Bill’s success will be incomplete.
PAN. Ovals of pale white float in the darkness of the auditorium: the faces of the concerned citizens who live near Hanford. From here the questions spring, randomly. in sharp tones of frustration and anger. One oval bobs twice, then rises. It is a young woman with spiked hair and mottled jeans. She asks, “How can we make them shut those plants down if we let them dump their waste products on our land?”
When the engineer responds to the woman’s question, his voice warms the room with its honesty. ‘The best way to eliminate nuclear power is, of course, to find a better form of power, such as fusion or solar power satellites. Remember, if you just tell the Power Commission that they can’t build nuclear power plants, without telling them what would be better, they’ll probably build a coal-burning plant. Is that really better?” The engineer shrugs. “That’s a separate study, of course.”
ZOOM. For just a moment, the young man frowns. Bill catches that expression, savoring it, knowing it will be useful. “This is the safest place we can find to put the wastes that already exist. In other words, if we put them someplace else, it’s more dangerous. Many of you are concerned about how dangerous nuclear reactors are. Don’t you see that if you won’t let the power companies use the safest methods they can find, then you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do you believe that you should sabotage the reactors to show how dangerous they are? That is exactly what a person does when he prevents others from using safety precautions.”
WHIR, WHIR, WHIR. This is beautiful! Bill can use that bit about sabotage: it will make the engineer sound hostile, despite the soft cheer of his voice.
PAN. A middle-aged man with a beard and a faded flannel shirt speaks, arms crossed, from a slouched position in his seat. “We have the right to decide what to put outside our town,”
SLIDE. The engineer nods. “That’s true.” His smile freezes in position as he looks into the speaker’s eyes. “You have me right to decide. But living in a democracy is not just a matter of rights and freedoms; it is also a matterof responsibilities and duties. You have the right to shout ‘Firel in a crowded theater. You have a duty to not exercise that freedom.
“Similarly, here you have the right to decide. But you have a duty to make that decision based on die most careful, rational analysis of the facts that you can. You have a duty not to decide based on a general hatred for the Power Commission, as some people might. And you have a duty not to decide on the basis of a love of high technology, as other people might.”
CUP. A voice from the darkness shouts, “It’s not fair that it all goes in our backyards.”
ROLL. The engineer sighs. “Our society carries with it a number of undesirable features. The only fairness we can approach is to spread the unfaimess as fairly as we can. Let them put the radioactives here; it’s the best place. But make them put the missile silos and the strip mines elsewhere. If someone figures out another arrangement that’s as safe as putting the radioactives here, but that’s more fair, and that doesn’t have any other even more serious consequences, let’s do that instead.”
ZOOM. Another middle-aged man stands. This one wears a suit that might have done justice to a member of the Power Commission. “What about our property values? When they put that radioactive dump in our backyards, well be destroyed.”
SUDE. Another nod comes from the engineer. “Of course, if the Power Commission handles the waste properly, tile property values should not be affected. So to encourage them, we recommend that the Commission be required to pay the owner of a property tile difference between the value of the land considering the presence of the site, and the value of the land if the site weren’t here, when he sells. We’ve subcontracted with a real estate assessor to establish a set of baseline values.” He glanced sideways at the Commission men with a hint of amusement. “This was not the recommendation that the Commission liked most.”
PAN. An elderly lady rasps from the front, “What if they don’t handle the wastes properly? What if they make a mistake?”
ZOOM. Sorrow masks the Zetetic’s face for a moment. “That’s what we must prevent. As I’ve shown, there are a wide variety of mistakes that the system can tolerate because the base rock of the area is fundamentally safe. And the shipping containers are also safe from a wide variety of human errors and natural calamities. But ultimately, even this system must rely on human beings to not invent new kinds of errors. So we asked ourselves the following question: What mechanism could we use to inspire the operators of the site to seek out and correct unforeseen problems before they become critical?”
The young man smiles as he contemplates the probing analysis he has done on this problem. “Do you know how the Romans guaranteed the quality of their bridges? In the opening ceremony, the man who designed the bridge floated on a raft underneath while the first carts passed over. If the bridge collapsed, the builder of the bridge went with it. This ritual guaranteed the construction of many good bridges.”
CUT. This story gets a short, murmured chuckle from the audience, as if against their own will, they appreciate the justice of the system.
SLIDE. The Zetetic engineer waves an open hand. “We have a similar plan here, involving both a carrot and a stick. For the stick, we recommend that the chief operating engineer and the plant manager for the waste site be required to live within twenty miles of the site during their tenure.
“We also recommend protection for the chief operating engineer. If he finds grave hazards with the plant that he cannot fix because of expense or politics, then he can blow the whistle with security: The Power Commission will be required to pay him five years’ salary. Thus, the man in the best position to know about new dangers has a ‘parachute’ to protect him from the people who have the most to lose in fixing the problem.”
PAUSE. The audience seems struck by this approach to guaranteeing safety. They don’t know if it will work or not, but it is at least different. Even Bill feels a stab of surprise, He clenches his teeth with resolve, remembering that even this novel idea does not change the basic truth.
FLASH. A woman in the back, with two children squirming beside her, speaks. “Are you telling us that the danger from these radioactive wastes is zero?”
PAN. “Of course not,” the engineer replies, leaving Bill with a wave of relief. He can certainly use that reply for some mileage. “What I’m telling you is that the danger from die radioactive dump is less than the danger of driving your car home tonight.”
CUT. The discussion goes on, but to no purpose in Bill’s value system. Most of the people leave with the same opinions they held upon arrival. But Bill knows that the engineer, with his facts, has swayed some of those people away from the truth. Herein Bill sees the significance of his own life: He must bring those people back to the fold, and convert others—enough others to defeat the damned Zetetic Institute.
Indeed, the Institute, and its emphasis on facts represent a grave danger to more issues other than the Hanford waste storage debate. Bill sees a task of greater scope being him. Perhaps part of his purpose is to destroy the purveyors of such facts, facts that by denying truth become a travesty of truth.
CUT. CUT. CUT. CUT. The size of the editing job he faces with this video shakes him; the Zetetic engineer has been smooth indeed. The engineer qualifies as a politician, despite his early recitations on ground water, earth- quakes, and mining costs. However, that smoothness does not worry Bill unduly: after all, whoever gets the last word wins the argument. And in news reporting, the editing reporter always gets the last word.