Authors: Christopher John Chater
Christopher John Chater
Published by Chater Publishing
Copyright 2012 Christopher John Chater
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
Cover image by rudell30
For more books by Christopher John Chater, please visit
“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”
Kurt often thought creativity came from some other place; how could the ideas he wrote in his novels come from
? Was it God, a Muse, or some great source in the stars . . . well, he didn’t know exactly, but he often felt like a radio receiving transmissions. Those broadcasts from beyond had brought him here, to what he hoped was the beginning of a career in writing. After two years of battling the blank page, he had finished his first novel. The manuscript was now in the hands of his boss, Miles Cohen, the editor in chief of Lor Publishing. Kurt was already working as an assistant editor in the non-fiction department, but he was hoping Miles would make room for him on Lor’s roster of fiction writers.
“Did you like it?” Kurt had to know.
“I liked it,” Miles said without making eye contact. His head was lowered, his attention on the manuscript on his desk. Miles was a veteran of over three decades in the publishing game. He was an important man to know in this town and Kurt had worked hard at getting his attention.
On either side of Miles’s desk stood two men in gray suits. Were they studio executives from Hollywood looking to option the rights to his novel before it was even published? Only in Kurt’s dreams. Had he removed the dollar signs from his eyes, he might have noticed the suits were a little too conservative for Hollywood types.
“Funny thing is,” Miles said, finally making eye contact, “I liked it the first time I read it, over a week ago.”
Kurt blinked several times. “What do you mean? I just gave it to you last night.”
“I read up until chapter seventeen of your manuscript before flipping to the last page. The ending was exactly as I had expected. Word for word.”
Kurt waited for the punch line.
“I knew what the ending was going to be because I’ve already read this manuscript. Unfortunately it had someone else’s name on it. It had Richard Bock’s name on it.”
Stunned, Kurt was speechless. Richard Bock currently had three novels on the best seller list, two of which were already made into movies; the third was on the way. He was Lor’s most important writer. Had Bock tuned in to the creative frequency first? Writers sometimes came up with similar ideas, but never complete novels word for word. It had to be a mistake.
“I asked my secretary to bring me Richard’s manuscript and, lo and behold, they were nearly identical. Same idea, same basic arrangement of words,” Miles said.
“That’s impossible,” Kurt said.
“I thought someone was playing a joke on me. You’re not playing a joke on me, are you, Kurt?”
“No.” Joke? Kurt never joked about his writing. In two years he hadn’t even talked about his novel with his own mother.
“You’ve been working for Lor for . . . two years now. Like most of our assistant editors, you have aspirations of becoming a writer. I’m always thrilled to come into work and find a manuscript on my desk written by one of our own—”
, Kurt thought. “And even though we publicly claim to have a full client list, the first thing I did—after my half-caf, no foam, skim latte and bagel—was read your manuscript.”
“Are you telling me that last week Richard Bock submitted a novel exactly like mine?” Kurt asked.
“Some were different, but not many. It looked like a sloppy attempt at veiling plagiarism. Like kids do in school.”
“I wrote every word in that book,” Kurt said, jabbing his finger at the manuscript.
“Richard Bock begs to differ. And so do his lawyers,” Miles pointed to his left and then to his right, “Joshua and Byron Fickelstein of Fickelstein and Fickelstein.”
The two suited men acknowledged Kurt sternly. The whole thing was like bad television, like they had rehearsed it.
“There’s more,” Miles said.
“I stole more than one?” Kurt asked.
“You’re admitting it?” one of the suits asked.
“That’s an admission,” the other suit chimed in, making a note of it on a legal pad.
Kurt glared at them.
“If this is a joke, now is the time to tell me,” Miles said.
Kurt said nothing.
“Then you mean to tell me you don’t know anything about the other six manuscripts that showed up on my desk,” Miles continued. “The ones exactly like Bock’s?”
other manuscripts?” Kurt asked in a shocked gasp. “Wait a second. Why are they like Bock’s? Why not like mine?”
“Richard Bock is a Hugo Award winner, has a PhD in astrophysics, and is a best-selling author.”
“So, that makes him innocent until proven guilty. The rest of you are suspects.”
One of the suits handed Kurt a document as thick as a dictionary.
“This is basically a gag order,” Miles said. “You can’t talk about, submit, or distribute the manuscript. The copy you submitted to me, as well as the other six manuscripts, are being held as evidence. Fickelstein and Fickelstein have also asked that your house be searched, your computer be confiscated, and criminal action taken.”
“Copyright infringement is a crime,” Miles said.
“Miles, you can’t possibly think I put my name on someone else’s book? How stupid would that be? Give me a little credit!” Kurt said.
“No one is pressing formal charges as of yet, but I suggest you cooperate with the authorities in any way you can,” Miles said.
“How could I have stolen from Richard Bock?” Kurt asked. “I work in nonfiction. You’re the only one at Lor authorized to read his material. I’ve never even read one of his published books!”
“As an assistant editor for the publishing house, you have access to submissions. You know how manuscripts fly around this office,” Miles said.
It was true. Last year one manuscript in particular, a tearjerker written by a well-known romance writer, had been passed around to every secretary in the office.
“Miles. The whole reason I wanted to work in nonfiction was so I wouldn’t be influenced by other writers,” Kurt said.
“Now Kurt, I’m not saying for sure you plagiarized his work, but it’s a little strange you submitted the same book he did. What am I supposed to think?”
“Similar ideas come out all the time. Remember those two asteroid movies?”
“Kurt, your whole book is identical to Bock’s book.”
“Impossible! No way!”
“If there’s been a mistake, we’ll figure it out eventually. You have my full support, but for now, I regret to inform you, I have to let you go. You’re fired.”
“You’re firing me? I can’t believe this!” Kurt threw up his hands.
“Security has already cleaned out your desk. They’re waiting for you in the lobby.”
As Kurt left the office—shocked, confused, and angry—Miles’s last words were nearly lost on him: “Get a lawyer.”
Out in the lobby, amid the pity-filled eyes of a half-dozen receptionists, two security guards he knew by name handed him a cardboard box full of his stuff and escorted him to the elevator. He felt like a criminal.
To top it off, a very angry woman was waiting for him in the lobby.
“I bet you feel like a moron,” the woman said. She was about thirty years old, had long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and hazel eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. There was a studious beauty about her, and not even the mismatched outfit that looked like it was bought from a thrift store detracted from it.
“Do I know you?” Kurt asked.
Rather than allow the conversation, the two security guards nudged Kurt through the lobby door, saying, “Good luck, buddy. Don’t worry. You’ll find another job.”
Kurt stood on the sidewalk staring up at the high rise, in shock. Two years ago this place had represented a lifelong dream for him. Being hired as an assistant editor for the Lor publishing house had been one of the best days of his life. He had felt like he was on his way to one day writing for them like many of his literary heroes. For the last two years he had lived like a monk, working on his novel every night after work; he never went out on a date, never went out to eat, never went to a movie. Writing was his religion, Lor was his church.
From dream to nightmare.
Today was the worst day of his life.
“You said my book wasn’t relevant,” she said. “Have you seen the news lately?” She opened a newspaper and shoved it in his face.
“I don’t read the paper.” Kurt began to walk with no particular destination in mind. He was both afraid and tempted to go home. He wasn’t sure if he could handle watching armed men going through his things. They might even arrest him. No, home was not where he wanted to be.
“I usually don’t read the paper either,” she said. “That’s sort of the point.”
Kurt continued to walk, doing his best to tune out the woman, though she continued to walk with him.
“Did you even read my book?” she asked.
“Listen, I’m sort of preoccupied at the moment.”
What should I do? I can’t believe this is happening!
“It was called
Breaking Point, A Memetic Theory of Social Degradation.
I’m Ursula Stevens. You said memetics wasn’t mainstream enough.”
“Oh yeah . . . memetics . . . I think I remember,” Kurt said. He needed to get rid of this woman. “Good book. Well done. Not right for Lor, unfortunately. Sorry. Maybe try a smaller publisher.”
“That’s what you said in your letter. But a smaller publishing house isn’t going to cut it. It’s too late for that.”
She was persistant, but not forceful or rude and Kurt could ignore her if he tried hard enough. In his state, however, even a small annoyance was too much. Were it still his job, he might have tried to reason with her. But handling rejected authors was no longer his problem.
“You’re talking to the wrong guy, lady. I just got fired.” Kurt showed her his box of personal effects.
“Oh . . . sorry to hear that.” Was that vindication in her tone? “How about I buy you lunch?”
Kurt sighed. “Like I told you, I don’t work for Lor anymore.” He showed her the box again. “I can’t help you.” He marched over to a trashcan and deposited the box of office supplies.
“Actually, now that you’re unemployed, you can give me an honest appraisal of my book. You could obviously use the free meal.”
Despite her awkward way of dressing, she was attractive, and under different circumstances he would have been overjoyed to have her as a lunch date, but he was not in the mood to be social and certainly not charming. Right now, the only thing he wanted was out from under the shadow of the monolithic buildings towering over him. The sooner he could dig a hole and climb in it, the better.
“Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you,” Kurt said.
“I don’t have a phone.”
“You don’t have a phone? At all?”
“No. Please, let me buy you one drink. I only need a few minutes of your time. I didn’t want to say this because I thought it would sound crazy, but it’s a matter of life and death.”
At the restaurant, Ursula tried to explain her book to Kurt. Though she said she had submitted it to Lor only a month or so ago, Kurt didn’t remember much about it. With unsolicited manuscripts, he often just read the synopsis and the first few chapters, and if he didn’t see wide appeal, it would go straight into the slush pile. Because he was himself a writer, he always made a point to write a personal letter to the authors. It only took him a few minutes, and as a struggling writer himself, he knew it would be appreciated. The down side was that, if he included his name, they might contact him.
He was too preoccupied to get all the details she was rattling off about memetics, the science behind her book, but he did get the impression that her work was the only important thing in her life. It seemed a shame for a pretty woman, but how could he judge her when he had sacrificed a social life for his career as well. When he wasn’t writing, he was thinking about writing, talking about writing, analyzing the business, strategizing, researching, and reading autobiographies of other writers to compare himself to them. He lived and breathed literature. As he listened to her talk about her book with such passion, he wondered how she would have felt if she had found out her book was exactly like someone else’s.
The allegations of plagiarism were obsessing him. He prayed the whole thing was a mistake, that one of the assistants had made some type of copying error. He had once heard of an editor who, after editing a novel, accidentally sent the manuscript to the typesetters instead of to the editor in chief for final editing. It still had notes written on the pages. The typesetter, not knowing any better, printed thirty thousand books, editing notes and all. One note explained the need for a happy ending, given the “small mindedness” of today’s reader.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t completely unheard of for a struggling author to copy previously published material by another author, and either submit it to a publishing house as his own, or self-publish it as an ebook. Usually publishers caught the deception. Sometimes disgruntled writers had no intention of actually going through with publishing the stolen work; they just wanted to see if a publishing house would reject proven material, the whole thing being a ruse intended to prove that publishers didn’t know what they were doing, which was often the case.
The waitress brought Kurt his drink. Something about her distracted him from his self-absorption . . . something odd about her . . . she was . . . glowing. A couple sitting a few tables over grabbed his attention . . . they were radiating a dismal intensity; something awful was going on between them. Kurt deduced, by the way the man was limply holding her hand and intentionally avoiding eye contact with her, that he was about to break up with her. He had no idea how he knew this, it just occurred to him.
Ursula faked a cough.
Kurt reluctantly brought his attention back to her. “You were saying that memetics is the study of how ideas spread from mind to mind like a virus.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Say, for instance, you start humming a tune. Someone overhearing it gets the song stuck in their head. They catch it from you, like the flu.”
“That’s a science?”
“We believe it’s a component of evolution. Biological evolution isn’t enough to explain why we are the way we are. Our minds must have played a part. Much like biological evolution, we believe ideas are selected, copied, and then replicated.”
“Ideas have contributed to our evolution?”
“Of course. Someone originally had the idea to cook meat, to build weapons, to make tools. These ideas caught on and allowed more people to live longer and in better conditions. Longer lifespans allowed for the development of our intellectual abilities, which then led to complex language, architecture, art.”
“I think I got it,” Kurt said, taking a drink. “But where did the ideas originate?”
“What does that matter?”
“Isn’t that the most important part?”
Her brows furrowed. “Not really. The truth is that most ideas are variations of other memes, mutations of preexisting ideas. Ideas share a common ancestry and evolve over time.” She sipped at her drink, pulled a sour face, then continued, “The important thing is that I have carefully studied our noosphere and I can say, with near certainty, that society as we know it is headed for catastrophe.”
“I’m starting to see why you don’t get out much. You don’t want to be infected by ideas.”
“If there was a flu going around, would you be interested in socializing? In the last few years, it’s gotten worse. There have been spikes.”
“There’s a software program that can track and predict memecomplexes. Spikes occur during certain critical times in our culture, when there’s a shift in thinking. It only takes about ten percent of the population to accept a meme before it becomes mainstream. Just like a biological outbreak, when a certain amount of the populace has it, it’s impossible to stop it from infecting everyone.”
“We’re undergoing a shift in thinking?”
“Yes. A very powerful one. It’s unlike any other time in our history.”
“Is that bad?”
“Most memes are harmless, but sometimes collections of powerful memes gather together like a tornado. It’s what we call a memetic storm. Often the result is total political or social upheaval.”
“Wait a second. A meme is an idea, right? What idea could possibly do all that?”
“Historically, fascism in Nazi Germany would have caused spikes like these. The mounting disenchantment with British rule over America, leading to the Revolutionary War . . . the civil rights movement.”
“If you really think the world is coming to an end, why don’t you go to the media?”
“What am I supposed to say, ‘Ideas are coming, run for your lives’? I can barely get the backing of the mainstream scientific community. I tried a website for a while, but people only saw it if they wanted to see it, and most of the time I just looked like another crackpot with an end of the world theory. Getting my book published was my last shot at legitimacy.”
“What you’re telling me is, not only did I just get fired from my job, but the world is coming to an end? Great fucking day.”
She took his humor as a sign he was making light of her claims and said, “Before you think I’m crazy, you might be interested to know that I’m not the only one studying this. The government has a department dedicated to memetic game theory. Their hope is to combat harmful memes, such as religious extremism, but memetics is a powerful and often misunderstood science. Put the wrong ideas in a noosphere and all hell could break loose.” She lowered her head and whispered to him, “The cause of the spikes, the life and death shift in thinking I was referring to, may have been inspired by a mutated meme put into the noosphere by the military.”
Part of Kurt believed her concerns had merit, but even if the world was coming to an end because of bad ideas, he didn’t care. All he could think about was the dismal state of his career, the impending doom that would soon shatter his dreams.
“I’ve been having some issues getting my book published too, so I know how you feel,” Kurt said.
“Are you a writer?”
He chuckled ironically, “Not anymore.”
“Ah, come on. What type of writing?”
Ursula suppressed a guffaw, and then she said, “You mean you indulge the aliens?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Kurt said, throwing back the remainder of his drink. He then searched out the waitress to bring him another.
Ursula’s reaction to his admitting to being a science fiction writer came as no surprise to him. He was used to the pretentious literary sects reacting to him like that. Science fiction wasn’t taken seriously, especially in New York; in fact, he had a fellow writer friend who had told him that he would have been better off staying in California and trawling Comic Con for a publisher. But Kurt always subscribed to what Gregory Benford had said: “Science fiction is perhaps the defining genre of the twentieth century, although its conquering armies are still camped outside the Rome of literary citadels.” But even in the twenty-first century, science fiction was still regarded with an upturned nose by the literati. Kurt hoped to one day be one of the soldiers storming into those citadels, armed with a work that would level the place. He considered himself a truth teller. Even when he wrote about aliens and alternate dimensions, about enhanced humans and seductive robots, he did so with the intent of revealing the truth about those characters, and with the hope that his fictional stories reflected a truth about real life. To him, the idea that one genre was less truthful than another was absurd.
When the waitress returned with more drinks for them, Kurt said to her, “You’re pregnant.”
Taken aback, the waitress said, “How did you know that? I only found out myself a few days ago.” Somewhat unnerved, she quickly walked away.
Kurt was smiling stupidly, feeling pleased with himself. It felt like he had solved a puzzle.
“How did you know that, Kurt?” Ursula asked.
“You couldn’t tell?”
Kurt and Ursula were walking down Fourth Avenue when they got to the stoop of a brownstone.