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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Nudge Not, Lest Ye Be Nudged

"Donna Tartt's best-selling novel, The Goldfinch, was named after the 17th-century Carel Fabritius painting of the same name, and is helping to stir a renewed interest in the artwork. The Frick Collection in New York is seeing record visitors thanks to the book."
—"'The Goldfinch' is Inspiring Visits to The Frick Museum," Dianna Dilworth, Galleycat.
"Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees…is a popular place for suicides, reportedly the most popular in Japan.… The site's popularity has been attributed to the 1960 novel Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees) by Seichou Matsumoto."
Wikipedia entry on "Aokigahara."

AS AN employee of the NSA, I was accustomed to dealing calmly and expeditiously with disreputable lowlife informers, dicey and unfaithful allies, amoral chancers, corrupt politicians, evil but useful terrorists, weak-kneed generals, treacherous coworkers, greedy and self-serving journalists, ACLU lawyers, and progressive New York City mayors. But none of that eye-opening track record had prepared me for my unsavory encounters with that lowest form of human organism, the writer of fiction.

I never predicted when I began to serve in the NSA that my duties would one day involve me with such disreputable and shifty and unreliable creatures. But such innocence had flourished only before Operation Nudge'em. The scheme was the brainchild of one of our thinktank guys, a fellow named Lance Mungroo.

Mungroo—who had taken a few English courses back in his university days, along with all the poli-sci, encryption-breaking, economics, and history studies (primarily of the Medicis in Italy and Warring States Period of Japan) that had fitted him to work at the Agency—had apparently been musing on the famous comment that Abraham Lincoln supposedly made to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" Contemplation of this remark, along with his recent reading of Thaler & Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, turned his thoughts to the efficacy of fiction for subliminally or overtly influencing behavior and cultural attitudes.

He recalled the success prior to Stowe of Dickens's social commentary, such as when outrage at the penal scenes in The Pickwick Papers resulted in the closing of Fleet Prison. He summoned up lecture-hall memories of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and its effect on reforming the meatpacking industry. He even found reference to the obscure Japanese novel that had dramatically heightened the macabre allure of that nation's so-called Suicide Forest. That nutty country also supplied the Anne of Green Gables phenomenon, which caused hordes of Japanese tourists with red-dyed hair to show up regularly at Prince Edward Island.

Writing up his thesis, Mungroo got approval for Operation Nudge'em. He reached out to one of the NSA's sleeper operatives, Donna Tartt, who had been recruited long ago by our faculty members at Bennington College, during that annus mirabilis when we had also signed up her schoolmates, Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem. Mungroo decided to try for a simple bit of reader conditioning: to boost museum attendance for a spotlighted painting. His proof-of-concept experiment soon proved a success, and Operation Nudge'em was fully launched.

If we had only known that the Russians had tried something identical almost fifteen years prior, with Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, and then abandoned the project, we might have paused to examine the underlying existential difficulties and pitfalls more closely. Even a closer look at the relations between the CIA and The Paris Review during the Cold War might have helped us. But no one did due diligence.

Now it was three years later, and I was in charge of a project that had gone off the rails long ago, but still refused to crash and burn. Today I was off to see Brundage Seltzerson, our last best hope, despite a bunch of recent failures on his part. Every other author in the project had done even worse, producing books that had no effects at all on readers.

Seltzerson lived in a large mansion earned by his profits from a string of best-selling fantasy novels published before our recruitment of him. We had zeroed in on him because he had a big fanbase and wrote fast and without a lot of hoity-toity stylistic fetishes. Mungroo's theory was that "transparent prose" would effectuate the operant conditioning better. In any case, Seltzerson had come onboard readily enough, being convinced that he was aiding his country.

His assistant, a quiet, demure little gal named Alice, welcomed me in, and soon I was shaking hands with the writer himself in his impressive library.

"Okay, Brundage, let's get down to business. I take it you've seen the results for The Westering Sun of Demoskratica. Our goal with this novel was to increase voter participation in national elections by five percent. Our kind of voters, if you get my drift. Instead, our actuarial men and field operatives insist that your novel triggered two dozen state referendums to narrow the tax base, the bombing of several IRS offices, and a possible Constitutional Convention. That last thing is making the people in charge very nervous, by the way. Letting citizens rewrite the rules of the federation—not a good idea."

Brundage massaged his chin speculatively. "I just don't understand it. I was certain that several carefully crafted scenes would produce the desired effect. When Duke Stropssy convenes all the peers in the millennial loyza yerga council—"

"Yeah, yeah, pulse-pounding, I know. I read it. Jeez, there were more beheadings in that one scene than in the whole French Revolution."

Brundage assumed a wounded attitude. "This is the kind of grim and gritty realism which my fans clamor for."

"All right, all right, let's look at your sci-fi book, Reality Break Eleven. It's been out two years now, and what did it accomplish?"

"It was optioned by Paramount.…"

"I don't give a damn about that! Our mission was to encourage people to sign up for the new social media service, Agora Planet, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Agency. We hoped for bigger numbers than Twitter. Instead, the service is deader than GeoCities, the butt of a million jokes from IT wiseguys and late-night comedians. What happened with that, huh?"

"I can't explain it. I did just what Cory Doctorow did in his two similar books. I made the rebel hero's homegrown network sexy and dangerous. I even named it Rage Planner. How could I have gotten any more obvious?"

I sat down wearily in a chair, and tossed the folders I was carrying onto Brundage's big desk. "Well, if the expert writer can't explain it, no one can. Even Mungroo is stumped. I figure we're just going to have to abandon the project."

There came a knock at the door. Seltzerson's assistant entered.

"Yes, Alice, what is it?"

"Brundage, you left the intercom on, and I couldn't help overhearing everything."

I jumped up and reached for the gun I had foolishly left back in the office. "Jesus Christ, just what we need, another Snowden!"

Alice smiled and seemed untroubled. "Oh, don't worry, I'm not about to go public with any of this. You folks seem to be sabotaging yourself effectively enough. It's just that I think I've got the answer to why everything's gone haywire."

"Spill it, girlie."

"You just chose the wrong genres. The readers of fantasy and science fiction are deliberately contrary and curious, analytical and suspicious. Of course they were bound to react in an unpredictable fashion to your planted material. All your previous small successes, you'll note, were with realistic mainstream books."

I slapped my own head. "Of course! We were trying to herd cats! Seltzerson, the presidential election is coming up in two years. You think you can crank out a contemporary thriller to our specs by then?"

The writer seemed energized by the challenge. "I've never attempted that mode before, but I'll give it my best shot."

"Great! And you, Alice, are hereby drafted under the secret provisions of the PATRIOT Act."

 

I have little of Seltzerson's storytelling skills, but here on the day of my retirement, I'm pleased to use what abilities I have to tell you of the small role I played in the ascension of our glorious leader, Queen Alice. While hordes of readers have thrilled to Brundage's many wonderful adventure tales concerning the Queen's Musketeers, my own two decades of service in her corps have been short on thrills, but filled with gratitude for the chance to serve our glorious leader.

 

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