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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Writers are Suspicious Folk

When I was in law school, at The University of Chicago on the south side of the city, I dated someone from one of the tony, rich suburbs on the lakeshore north of the city. One evening as I was driving her home from our date, I noticed there was an MG dealership in her posh suburb. Since I had the silly notion at the time that I might buy an MG-B when I graduated, I decided it would be nice to get a general idea of the price of the coveted car, so I drove around the block, parked across the street, and crossed over to the lot where the cars were parked. The dealership was closed for the night and there was one of those low, single-chain decorative “fences” around the lot. I didn’t step over it, but I leaned over as far as possible near one of the MG-Bs in an effort to try to get close enough to one of the window stickers to read the price. Too dark and too oblique an angle to see clearly, I gave up and returned to my old, brown Pontiac Ventura and my date. I’d barely pulled away from the curb when the flashing mars lights of a squad car lit up and I angled back to the curb and stopped. The officer from Wilmette or Winnetka or wherever I was said something about the light over my license plate being out and asked for my driver’s license and registration, went back to the squad car for a few minutes, and came back, asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood. I explained I was driving my date home and that she lived nearby and I had impulsively circled the block and stopped in an attempt to price a new car. The cop listened to my explanation, gave me a warning about the license plate light, and let me go on my way. My date was livid about the cop stopping me, but I entirely understood what had happened. I had behaved suspiciously, circling the block around a closed business, then going across the street to peer toward it oddly. Accordingly, he’d run my plates and determined I was not a local, but rather from the south side of Chicago (the university isn’t exactly in the best neighborhood), and had decided to check me out. While my date complained about unfairness and what a police state we had, I was cool about the whole thing. Heck, if I’d lived there, I would have been glad the officer was paying attention and checking things out that looked suspicious. As we all know from recent news stories (I can’t really call them revelations, because I was in no way surprised by the stories), the government’s gotten more efficient since those halcyon days at looking for suspicious behavior. Of course, since Facebook, Google, your cell phone provider, and any of a number of passive surveillance systems know where you are and what you are doing most of the time already, finding out that the NSA and CIA are data-mining the information is not a huge leap. Think of it this way: If the government could manage (as they did) to trace Timothy McVeigh’s Ryder rental truck all the way from the edge of Oklahoma City to its parking spot in front of the Federal Building by piecing together and synchronizing every bit of video footage they could find after the bombing in OKC way back then, is it any surprise they can do it quicker and more efficiently now? For years, I’ve been telling people at writing panels for the Origins Game Fair Library (where I’ll be this week) and the GenCon Writers Symposium (I’ll be there in August) that the research they do for their books and stories, particularly thrillers, military fiction, and scifi, is likely to draw attention. Sure, some of the research is merely arcane and tedious, like the hours I spent trying to find out whether a 1970 VW microbus came with an AM/FM radio, or what combination of letters starting with a K was an unused radio call sign. But I also spent a full Saturday once trying to figure out for a book what was the largest-yield Soviet nuclear weapon that would fit into the interior of that VW microbus, once the rocket and the MRV (multiple re-entry vehicle) targeting components were removed. Gosh, I kind of hope somebody’s keeping track of people who do that kind of research. This all came to a culmination several years ago when I was under short deadline on my spy thriller, Net Impact. I originally ghost-wrote the book for part of a series of spy thrillers being put out by a company which was basically the men’s action-adventure equivalent of a Harlequin romance imprint. The company was located in Canada and I’d dealt by email with an elderly fellow there who was editing the series. When I finished two weeks ahead of deadline (always good), I emailed the editor, attaching the file to the email, and prepared to go out to meet some fellow gamers and writers to celebrate at a local convention. To my surprise, I got an email back from my editor less than three minutes later. (They were a great company to work for, but nobody expects to hear back from an editor or agent within five minutes of an email.) The reply basically said. “Didn’t you get my email two weeks ago? We canceled the series.” Gosh, no I hadn’t and the last two weeks really wasn’t the bulk of the work. “No worries. I’ll just authorize your completion payment, but we won’t be using the book.” That was great. I still got paid (and I later got back the rights to the book so I could revise it and put it out myself), but the missing email bothered me. I’ve had the same email address the entire time I have had an email address and things don’t get lost. I check my spam filter conscientiously and, let’s face it, besides spammers, not that many people email me. And then I realized what had happened. I had been emailing to a foreign country, my content (book pitch, summaries, etc.) had all sorts of language about nuclear weapons and clandestine activities, and my elderly editor’s name was Feroze Mohammed. No doubt my account had been flagged, my emails interrupted, and one such email had not made its way back into the queue for delivery to me after review and clearance. Sure, one can imagine scenarios where the powers-that-be misunderstand or abuse their power or bad things happen, but I don’t think that’s the goal of the people who work at such places. And I trust the government as much as I trust AOL or Comcast or Hotmail. Heck, I like to think that some CIA spook was assigned to read my book, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, and found it clever. Maybe he’ll recruit me someday for the scifi think tank that helps the government figure out how they’re vulnerable to attack by enemies and aliens (you know, the kind who like to attack Sigourney Weaver). Yes, I know that people are concerned about privacy. Everybody has said or done things that are embarrassing. But the thing about privacy is that you really don’t have any already. Best to try to avoid doing stupid, embarrassing, or criminal things in the first place, than to worry about whether the government can monitor your life (and then cares enough about whatever they find that they decide to do something about it). Avoiding drugs, alcohol, and hanging around with criminals, fanatics, or assholes is a good first line of defense. Of course, maybe the real reason my stories and books don’t sell better is that the government is secretly scared of my intelligent plotting and has set up a secret program to delete internet orders of my products (or even my customers). Sure, it’s a wacko conspiracy theory, but people believe stupider things. Fortunately, we can test this theory. If you and millions of your friends just go out and buy my stuff then email me to let me know you have (just email the code phrase “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” to let me know) and I get millions of emails but no sales, I’ll know the government is up to something. If, instead, I get millions in royalties, I’ll know all is safe. It’s a plan. Works for me. Don

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