Winning Mars by Jason Stoddard
In the near future, Jere Gutierrez presents astounding “impressed reality” shows, and even in an outdated medium, draws million of viewers. His Neteno network is proof both old-fashioned linear stories and television can still be popular and profitable. But his “true in-the-moment” stories are really carefully orchestrated fabrications—and the public and his backers are catching on. Desperate for a story big enough to entrance the entire world, he teams up with a retired TV executive to create the ultimate reality show: a space mission to Mars, complete with corporate sponsors and competitors risking their lives for the ultimate prize of Winning Mars. But Jere has no idea just how captivating—and risky—his Winning Mars will be . . .
In a future where the art of “linear entertainment”—better known as TV shows—is giving way to interactive, massive multiuser online gaming (MMOs), producer Jere Gutierrez conceives of a “reality show” set on yet-to-be-colonized Mars. Eleven players, divided into teams that are each assigned a different goal, travel to the Red Planet to compete in a $50 million contest while the world watches on a five-minute time delay. The risk: a high probability of death. VERDICT Stoddard’s highly original story draws on the latest trends in reality TV and tension over U.S. vs. Chinese control of space travel. Powerful storytelling, a minimalist prose style that does not diminish the three-dimensional characters, and a keen ear for dialog add to this novel’s many pleasures.”—Library Journal, Starred Review, Debut of the Month
“Of course, someone is going to die. Probably lots of someones.”
Jere Gutierrez had heard a lot of stupid pitches, but most of them didn’t start so bluntly. He glanced at the old guy’s name and CV, scrolling in his eyeset: Evan McMaster. His last show: Extreme Losers.
“Death is a legal problem,” Jere said.
“Neteno doesn’t do snuff.”
Evan gave him a thin smile. “What about the Philippines?”
“That was news.”
“How about the Three-Day Fever?”
Jere just looked at Evan, waiting for him to look away. Evan looked fifty, meaning he was probably at least seventy, scraping the last of the best med-tech before the docs threw up their hands and said, in fatalistic voices, We’re not miracle workers here!
While he waited, Jere skimmed his CV. Evan’s career started in the mythical hegemony of the 1970s, when television was God, and audiences sat rapt on their cheap sofas scarfing down microwave dinners, going to work the next day brimming with the warm commonality of experience. From staff writer for Five in a Room, he went on to produce a bunch of mindless crap to fill thirty-minute second-slots in the eighties and nineties. He’d been exec producer on one of the first reality shows, Endurance. From there, Evan’s work descended completely into the ghetto after the dawn of the internet era, and he’d done nothing past the aughties. The usergab on Extreme Losers pegged it a timewaster of the worst sort, a parade of physically unfit people put into situations where they were sure to kick it, except for some heroics at the end to save them. Most of the time.
Jere realized Evan was still looking at him.
“Make your pitch,” he said.
Evan just smiled, but said nothing.
“I’m amusing to you?”
“Not at all. I respect what you’ve done with Neteno.” Zero expression. Eyes like lead.
Jere turned to look through the window and out over the gray concrete expanse of Old Hollywood to the smog-brown west and the invisible Pacific. The view from Neteno’s office at the top of what had once been the Capitol Records building was always soothing. A reminder of how far he’d come.
“Are you going to pitch, or are you going to leave?”
“It’s a simple idea,” Evan said. “We resurrect the reality show. And we take it to Mars.”
Jere snapped back to look at Evan. To see if he was smiling, ha ha, good joke there. He wasn’t.
“Resurrect the reality show?”
“And take it to . . . Mars? As in, the planet?”
“Yes. The planet.”
“For real? Not CGed?”
Jere stopped again. You gotta be fucking kidding me, he wanted to say. But . . . but it was a damn good idea. Except for the fact that it had to be colored all shades of expensive.
“I have data,” Evan said said, waving a tiny projector. “Can I show it?”
Jere nodded. “Lights down, screen down” he said. The window dimmed to twilight, and the room light ramped down, turning and blue as the screen descended.
There were brief flashes as the projector’s lasers found the screen, then garish graphics lit. WINNING MARS, it said, A Proposal for Neteno.
“First, let’s dispense with the death thing,” Evan said.
“Sponsors don’t like it.”
“Don’t lie. Sponsors love it. They just look properly horrified and give some insignificant percentage of their profits to the survivors and everyone’s happy. Your big problem is legal, and that can be surmounted.”
“And budget, I bet.”
Evan’s cocky expression wavered for a moment. He turned to the screen. “Let’s start with the reasons, first.”
Jere’s screen lit with colorful data, demographics, charts, multicolored peaks spiking like some impossible landscape. Standard 411, Inc. audience-inference data: size, engagement, propagation ability, monetization effectiveness. All stuff he’d seen before.
But this . . . this was wacky. Way out of proportion . . . Jere took a screengrab with his eyeset and blinked it out to 411 for verification. A message from one of their IAs shot back: Yes, this is ours.
Evan zoomed in on one of the datasets, labeled Political/Social factors. “First reason: the Chinese space program.”
“Didn’t the Chinese stop at the moon?”
“Yeah. But they said they’d go to Mars, and a whole lot of Chinese still want to go to Mars. And Koreans. And Japanese. And Americans.” Evan pointed out separate spikes on the chart, big, rabid, we-care-about-this-like-crazy spikes.
“Another reason is NASA. They’re gutted. After the Economic Rethink, everything’s de facto under Oversight. And if it ain’t promoting stability or leading to a shiny happy lower-consumption future, or helping someone get reelected, it’s a permanent deader. But there’s still an itch. People still want to see some great endeavor. Deep down, they dream about escape. It’s the Frontier Factor.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Henry Kase. Started on YouTube like you, but from the brainiac side. He’s been invited to the TED conference eight times, got a standing ovation from Zuckerberg at the last one. His algorithms found the guys planning that DC nuke. The Frontier Factor is his latest hobbyhorse.”
Jere’s eyeset barfed up lots of Kase video, but he blinked it away. “Go on.”
“Third reason, the Rabid Fan.”
Jere nodded. Everyone dreamed of creating a new Star Trek, still in syndication after all these years, or a new Simpsons, or a new Buffy. A show that made people dress up, go to conventions, meet in real life, invent languages, change dictionaries, and, most importantly, spend money in numerous ways.
“They’ll think this is too game show,” Jere said.
“Yeah. But they’ll watch. They’ll bitch, they’ll moan, but they’ll watch. All the trekkies and sci-fi nuts and people who dream about getting out, getting away, people who hate their lives for whatever reason, they’ll all watch. Look at the numbers.”
Data zoomed, showing tags of audience stickiness and inferred engagement, peaky and perfect and tantalizing. If they could create something like that . . . Jere sat silent for a long time, thinking, dreaming, imagining himself in control of a neverending, ever-licensing franchise.
Evan stole a glance at Jere, his eyes cool and calculating in the reflected laserlight.
Jere let him wait. Even though he was thinking about all the things he could do with a project like this. Selling ads was only the start. What would it be worth to have your logo on Mars? To have contestants drinking Starbucks and eating Marie Callenders? To have exclusive coverage of the tech? Reality advertising with the contestants?
Hell, how many trillions of impressions would they have for lead-up, and what kind of money could they make with user voting?
“Show me the budget,” Jere said.
Evan licked his lips, and his eyes stuttered sideways before fixing on Jere. “First, let me show you the vision.”
The screen switched to renderings of spacesuits with Nike logos, and something that looked like a big hamster wheel with a spacesuited person inside it, bouncing over the surface of Mars. The hamster wheel sported a Toyota logo. More data appeared: suggested sponsors, customized programs, and the like.
“I get the vision,” Jere said.
“The revenue possibilities—”
“I get that. The budget.”
“But I think we’ve found some additional opportunities—”
Jere just looked at Evan and waited. This time, Evan dropped his eyes. The slides flickered forward to black and white numbers, prettified by more renderings.
“We’re using Russian tech, the kind they’re using for the quarter million-dollar weeklong orbital packages. And we’re pushing it even farther, so we have some significant economies of scale—”
Jere laughed, long and hard.
“I don’t think you understand—”
“Oh, no,” Jere said. “I understand. I get it. I totally get it. And, you know what, I really like the idea. But that budget is bigger than the biggest of the massively multiplayer online games, and we’re stick down here in the linear narrative ghetto. Hell, that’s our topline for all of Neteno.”
“I think you’re missing out on the revenue opportunities, which counterbalance the investment.”
Jere glanced at the screen, expecting to see king-sized cost-per-impressions, exaggerated audiences, and sponsorship fees blown out of proportion.
But the numbers were solid. Evan hadn’t fudged. For a moment, Jere wondered: What if?
“It’s a show that could double the size of your network,” Evan said. “It could be your network.”
“Even if I said yes, our bankers would laugh us out of the room.”
“There are other ways of raising capital,” Evan said. “I would throw in personally.”
“How rich are you, Evan?”
Evan looked away. After a few moments, he turned off the projector.
“Lights up,” Jere said. The room brightened.
Evan turned to look at him, defeated. In that moment, he looked every bit of seventy, like something old and cold and prehistoric, dredged from the the La Brea tar pits. Evan didn’t wear animated clothing, didn’t have any visible tattoos, didn’t wear an eyeset. His jacket was black and boring and imperfectly tailored, as if it had been made by real, imperfect humans somewhere in the world, rather than grown to his shape. He wore a gray collarless shirt underneath, devoid of even a corporate logo. He even had a big clunky metal watch, one of those awful things that throbbed and ticked on your wrist like a bomb.
“I thought Neteno took chances,” Evan said.
“I thought you still wanted to push the edge.”
Jere flushed, the hot stab of anger like a Buffy-stake in the heart. “We’ve pushed it.” Farther than you think, old man.
“You’re not going to guilt me into this,” Jere said. “I told you how I feel. It’s a great idea. But the numbers don’t work.”
Evan opened his mouth as if to say something. Then he closed it. He put his little projector away, went to the door, and walked out without a word. He left it open as he slouched down the hall.
For a moment, Jere really felt sorry for him. It would’ve been a fun project.
But it just didn’t add up.
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