The Human Resources Bunker for Black Gate is on sub-level 12, which is normally dank, dim, and mostly empty. But as it was Quarterly Reviews, the cargo elevators continued to disgorge people, making those of us already waiting on long benches between decorative columns pack in even tighter. As I waited, number in hand, I peered up past the moss-covered chandeliers and the ductwork of the air circulation system, to the massive murals painted onto the arching ceiling far overhead, framed in gold, showing scenes of the early days of Black Gate. But the lichen that had accumulated in the years since made the details hard to pick out.
The vents overhead dripped continuously, and I had begun to worry about possible rust stains on my already threadbare suit. So my trepidation was mixed with relief as I heard my number finally called over the loudspeakers, and I strode forward, to sit on the stool before the desk of my Human Resources representative, Salinger. He looked up from his case file with a professional smile.
“So, Mr. Starr! Hope you weren’t waiting more then a few hours!”
“Great, great!” he continued, and I settled further onto a hard stool as he continued to scan reports on my quarterly output. At last he set it aside, and gave me an appraising look. “So, why don’t you tell me how you think your writing has been going?”
“Well, progress on my current novel has been steady-”
“Ah yes,” he said, as if I’d reminded him of a small annoyance that needed to be cleared up. “Let’s begin with that. I hear there’s a marketing issue…” He consulted reports, but I didn’t wait.
“Marketing issue?” I asked, and he gave a wordless grunt in the affirmative. “It’s not even finished yet!”
“Yes, well the problem is one of demographics. Your last novel was rather – how can I put this? – adult, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes. For adults.”
“While this one features a protagonist who is… 11?”
“Same thing,” he said. “The point is, you’re all over the place.”
“Let’s just do a quick review, shall we?” Here, he pulled down a surprisingly large chart from a roll behind him, revealing a breakdown of my completed novels and short stories, including pie charts, Venn Diagrams, Flowcharts, and assorted scatter plots. “Now, up here we see your fantasy work. See? And over here is your science fiction output. Down here, we’ve got some horror efforts, and then there’s this cloud in the middle. See these large spots? Novels. Smaller points are short stories. See how it forms this sort of spiral shape, like a galaxy?”
“We call this formation the Aristotelian Death Spiral. Are you familiar with the term?”
I shook my head, staring.
“It’s named after Aristotle, of course, because he wrote on so many subjects, and was influential in such a great number of them.”
“That sounds promising, actually,” I offered.
“Well, there was only one Aristotle,” Salinger replied, snapping the chart back into place and leaning over the file once more. “For everyone else, trying to write every genre is a path leading to their inexorable doom.”
“What about Asimov?” I countered. “Asimov wrote in a lot of genres, too!”
“That’s why we call his chart the Asimov Overlap. He carefully wrote things that exactly mirrored Aristotle’s complete catalog, thus avoiding the Death Spiral. Only Asimov had the knowledge of ancient Greek fantasy and science fiction to pull that off.”
As I struggled to find a response to that, the continual murmur behind me, the sound of hundreds of writers awaiting their appointments, quieted, and Salinger’s glance over my shoulder froze him in his place. I turned in time to see Goth Chick arrive, surrounded by an elite retinue. Her silent glide halted, and she loomed, a motionless feminine presence, as another Human Resources officer dashed over. I saw her dark-painted eyes narrow beneath the flowing hair that cloaked her as she regarded him. She pointed a single finger at one of her functionaries, a slim man a in tailored Italian suit, who stepped forward. The Human Resources officer turned to him, and offered up a metal briefcase.
“We here in Human Resources hope this modest raise will please you,” the HR representative said, as the man turned and opened the briefcase for the ominous figure he served. He was angled away from me as he did, and so I only saw the glow that lit her pale and perfect skin from below, the tiny glimmers of light that projected onto the distant walls and ceiling piercing the dimness that had gathered around her. Long fingers stroked her chin, nails gleaming and sharp, and I thought I saw her blood-red lips curve in satisfaction. With a nod, and a wave of her fingers to her lackeys, she turned away, trailing dark velvet and shadows. The man with the case clapped it shut, snuffing out the illumination, joining the entourage on its way to her personal VIP lift and leaving the HR representative to stand, quivering, mopping his brow with a cloth.
“Now you see?” Salinger asked quietly into the hush. “She knows how to avoid the death spiral!”
“But that’s no fair!” I protested in an urgent whisper. “She’s-” I struggled, but couldn’t force myself to say her name out loud. “She’s her. I’m just me.”
“The Death Spiral calls to everyone.”
“So you’re saying that I should write one type of fiction, for a specific audience, rather than trying to do everything?” I asked. “Over and over?”
“Exactly!” Salinger insisted. “Hasn’t your agent warned you about these dangers?”
“I’m… uh, between agents right now,” I admitted.
“Of course!” Salinger exclaimed. “That’s because agents don’t hang out in the literary depths of space! They orbit the bright, life-giving stars of genre, age classifications, and other stuff like that!”
“What about pseudonyms?” I asked. “Pseudonyms could allow me to publish in multiple different genres more easily, couldn’t they?”
“Sure,” he replied, “if you wanted to pretend to be twelve failed writers instead of just one.” Here he sat back, adjusting his green-shaded cap. “But let’s look at your blogging output.”
I squirmed as he opened another file, and consulted its contents, shaking his head sadly.
“What is all this?” he asked. “Why are you posting writing advice in the form of pie recipes?”
“I thought the analogy would be clear-”
“And then there was the series you did in the form of grooming products for pets-”
“Those were more obscure, I admit-”
“Look, Mr. Starr,” Salinger said, leaning forward earnestly. “I’m your friend, right?”
“Actually, we just-”
At that moment, a klaxon sounded, and amber lights revolved around a lift as it rose from the depths on the far side of the chamber. After the gates rattled open, dazed men and women trudged out, their faces dark with black dust around the clean skin left by protective equipment. Another crew replaced them, and the lift started back down.
“Coal?” I asked Salinger.
“Worse,” he informed me. “Manuscript ink. Below this, it’s solid unread manuscript all the way down. You don’t want your stuff being sent down there, do you?”
I shuddered. “Of course not.”
“So here’s what I’m going to do,” he continued. “I’m going to recommend you purge whatever literary demons you’re grappling with, and choose a lane. You can write other stuff, but published authors need to orbit one star for a while, if you get what I mean.”
“Are we back to marketing?” I asked, and he nodded.
“It’s always about marketing,” he said. “So let’s see what you can do with this next quarter, all right?”
I headed for the lifts with a new sense of hope. Salinger was right. I needed to stay focused. Find my direction, and choose a star in that direction. As I rose slowly out of that vast space, I realized that this mandatory visit to Human Resources had been well worth it, even if it had taken three days to complete. I was very hungry.