“Have you seen Plutonomics? The new show? It’s hilarious,” Lisa, the host of the virtual happy hour, asked the group of fourteen faces, each safe at home. These online functions were standard weekend pastimes during the annual infectious season.
Fiona, who was using a shark-themed video background, replied, “Oh, the one about the economics professor on that space ship to Pluto? No, is it good?”
“It’s hilarious,” Lisa repeated.
Fred couldn’t believe his ears. He joined midway through the worst conversation imaginable. “It’s about what? And what’s it called?” Fred asked.
“Fred!” said Lisa, “glad you could make it.”
“Hi. Can you please tell me about this show?” Fred asked impatiently.
“Have you seen it?” She asked, “Plutonomics, it’s this new Sci-Fi comedy, you’d probably like it. About a professor on a mission to Pluto. He helps the ship’s captain with their, I guess, economics problems. But it’s really about falling in love with the doctor — ”
“Well, the thing is,” Fred said, “I’m writing a book called Plutonomics with the exact same plot.”
Everyone on the call laughed. But Fred wasn’t joking.
Three days earlier, Fred looked at his printed manuscript, neatly paper-clipped — not stapled — that bore the title Plutonomics. He didn’t like puns, but this one seemed to work. He leafed through the pages, and paused on one of his favorite moments, when Professor John Quigley, economics professor, confronts Captain Jaxon, the leader of the expedition to Pluto.
“I’m going to need better figures to build the economic model, Captain Jaxon,” Quigley ruefully explained with a hint of immodesty. “I need to know precisely how we will calculate the demand for our supplies onboard the ship!”
Captain Jaxon stood there, stone-faced like a statue of a captain. “Gadddammit, Quigley! Stop talking your mumbo-jumbo and get to work! I haven’t got time for your bullcrap!”
“Should the captain have said ‘bullshit’ instead?” Fred thought as he acted out the voices to tweak the dialogue. He tried to find the right dramatic inflection for each character.
Fred’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Gerome: “How’s the book coming?”
“First draft is DONE!” Fred replied.
“Congrats mate! Can I get a copy? Promise I’ll send notes.”
Fred wasn’t sure it was a good idea. But the story needed an outside review. And Gerome usually gave good comments to Fred’s blog.
“On its way,” Fred texted back.
Gerome read Plutonomics over the next couple of days and actually laughed out loud more than once. There were some obvious plot holes, and the entire premise was absurd, but he guessed that was the point. Why exactly did they need an economist in space? And the romantic interest seemed implausible — the female medical officer was out of Quigley’s league.
“A day apart from you John, feels like a Pluto day, 150 Earth hours. ” Dr. Rose exclaimed poetically.
“It’s actually 153.3 hours, my dear Doctor.” Quigley replied, correcting her feeble attempt at accuracy. “And we won’t be apart that long. But I have important work to do. I won’t be long.”
Dr. Rose frowned and stepped toward Quigley, but he turned and left her quarters. John was headed to meet Captain Jaxon. He needed to show him the new labor statistics. They could be headed toward economic collapse.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rose laid on her bed, longing for John’s touch.
Gerome helpfully noted, “‘long’ seems to be crutch word” on his pad. His phone vibrated. It wasn’t a text message, Fred was calling him, for some reason. Gerome’s finger hovered over the answer button, ready to swipe in either direction. He answered.
“Gerome, it’s Fred. I have terrible news. Just terrible. Sorry to call.”
“What is it, Fred? Calm down, mate. Tell me.”
“It’s just that, it’s over. All that work for nothing. Plutonomics. It’s over.”
“What about it, Fred? I’m on the last chapter. I have some questions about Quigley’s love life, but I think you can fix it.”
“No, Gerome, you don’t understand,” Fred told Gerome about Lisa’s virtual happy hour.
“Listen, Fred, the story’s great like I said before, pure comedic gold. I’m sure the show isn’t the same as your book. Maybe you change the name. Have you watched it yet? Everything on streaming’s shit.”
“Comedic gold? It’s not supposed to be funny!” Fred almost shouted, “I just don’t know how I can go on with it, everyone will think I copied them!”
“Take a deep breath. I’m sure this happens all the time. You gotta just keep going. Publish the book anyway, who cares?”
This was the longest Gerome had been on the phone with anyone since Mother’s Day. He told Fred he had to go and they’d text later. Gerome set down his phone and looked at Fred’s Plutonomics, still in his hands. He tossed aside the manuscript and flipped on the TV.
6:30–8:30 AM is Fred’s sacred writing time. No distractions, no procrastination, no excuses. Good writing starts with bad writing. Every day he tried to write his one perfect sentence, as Hemmingway said.
But not today.
Instead, he paced circles into the floor of his small study. “Lisa should have been saying Plutonomics was hilarious — about me!” He thought, even though his novel was dramatic.
Fred read the Prologue, admiring the stakes of the journey and how he had seamlessly woven his profession into the story.
The year is 3427. The mission to Pluto is unlike any before in its scale and ambition. The spaceship had 27,003 souls including crew, passengers, cooks, cleaners, and pets. This was not just a voyage, it was an economy. There was only one way for the mission to succeed: proper Pareto optimums had to be found in the supply and demand curves. But what hero would have the technical economic knowledge and the bravery to go on this one-way trip to the distant planet of Pluto? Luckily, there was such a man: Professor John Quigley.
Little did Quigley know how his fate was about to change the course of humanity forever.
Fred sipped his coffee. It was cold. The alarm went off at eight-thirty, and writing time had ceased without Fred writing a single word.
Fred taught economics as part of an online school. When the school first opened — even though the entire business hinged on distance learning — the faculty was expected to show face in the office. It took five years of recurring global pandemics to close the faculty office — permanently.
Fred used to enjoy his thirty-minute commute to the office, listening to Sci-Fi audiobooks. Now he was stuck at home pretty much all the time, so he needed a way to change contexts between writing and working. Fred devised a virtual commute ritual to switch his study between writing and working mode. Twice every weekday, he would convert the room by shuffling some papers, covering the story corkboard, and reorganizing a few tchotchkes on his desk. Any outside observer would swear the room was identical before and after. But to Fred, it was like night and day.
Fred’s last work video-meeting of the evening finished at seven. As he converted his study back to writing mode, he thought, “What’s the point?” It had been two weeks since he had worked on his novel. He went through the motions of the writing routine, but he spent most of the time playing sudoku.
Fred was a failed author.
After work, Fred commuted down the hall to find his wife, Charlotte, setting the table for dinner. Touchless food delivery had just arrived.
“What are we having?” Fred asked, and then kissed the back of Charlotte’s head.
“I ordered Thai, I thought a change would be nice.” She replied, still wearing a mask from answering the door.
“A change,” Fred repeated, considering the words.
They sat down to dinner. Fred and Charlotte had learned that avoiding each other during the day helped their relationship. Year three and going strong. Charlotte, an interior designer, worked in the dining room. Most of her day, she showed gaudy decor options to homebound clients via video chat.
Charlotte asked Fred about his writing. He was hiding his writer’s block.
“It’s good, just plugging away,” He said.
“Really? You haven’t told me much about it lately. I was wondering if you’re stuck.”
Fred was surprised at her perception.
“Well, the thing is,” he said, “I am still pretty annoyed about that stupid TV show that stole my idea.”
“Honey, they didn’t steal anything from you.”
“You’re taking their side!” he snapped.
“No, you’re being crazy.” Charlotte said, “ I thought you decided to keep moving forward. Have you watched it yet?”
“Well, no. I can’t bring myself to. What if it’s great? What will I do?”
“I think you just need to watch it,” Charlotte took her plate to the dishwasher, “it’s the fear of not knowing that’s bothering you.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Fred wasn’t so sure. He found the Plutonomics icon on his TV and jealously stared at it. If the show was great, he was toast. If the show was awful, maybe his idea for the book was horrible too. Worst of all, what if something from the show found its way into his novel, even by coincidence. He needed to stay pure.
Fred wanted to honestly deny any accusations of plagiarism.
The next day, writing time came and went. Working time came and went. Dinner time with Charlotte came and went. The routine was comforting. Charlotte went to bed early, and Fred sat down in front of the TV. The icon for Plutonomics stared at him.
Then it happened. Fred wasn’t sure how, but it hit him. Had he been in a bathtub, he may have run through the streets naked.
Fred stood up and was about to wake Charlotte to tell her. But he stopped himself. He had to tell someone. Gerome!
“Fred, why are you calling?” Gerome asked.
“Gerome — you’re not going to believe this. I couldn’t explain over text, but I have to tell someone and Charlotte’s asleep, and I figured it out! I figured out how to make the book work!” He was talking fast.
“I was about to watch the show, I was just about to, finally.”
“What show? Oh, Plutonomics? It’s crap mate, it’s not like your book at all.”
“Maybe. I don’t know, but listen to what I’m trying to tell you. Just listen.” Fred continued, “This situation I’m in, this is the story. A writer who has his exact idea taken and put in a TV show, and then he doesn’t know what to do. This is the story I’m going to write!”
Gerome asked, “how would it work?”
“This is the best part, I can include little snippets of Plutonomics in the book. The author character is writing my book! And then I’ll have a good excuse why I wrote the same story as what’s on the television. It will be art copying life!”
“Wow, that’s really great, Fred. Brilliant. It’s a very meta-story. Nice idea.”
“Thanks, Gerome, I appreciate it. I’d like your help since you’re the only other person who’s read the book.”
“You haven’t finished it, Gerome?”
“When you told me about the show, and you made it sound like you’d given up. I just didn’t know if I should bother. I’m sorry to say it like that. I will finish it. How does it end?”
Six-thirty, writing time. Fred was back in action. His new manuscript was coming along. He had spent the last few weeks re-crafting Plutonomics into a meta-story about the author of the original story. He liked the new concept even better than the original because he could weave together the different “levels” in the narrative. He was writing the author character about himself, which was new to him.
But how to end it? The only way he could finish the story with honesty was to copy what happened in real life. That would mean the author in his book would have to resolve to change his story to be about an author who tries to write a book only to discover it had been made into a TV show. Fred pondered how to end his story with an infinite regress without being trite or repetitious.
“Nice to see you, Fred, glad you could make it,” said Lisa at the next virtual happy hour, “And looks like Charlotte’s with you! Hi Charlotte!”
Fred and Charlotte both smiled and waved at the camera.
“Hi, Lisa,” Fred said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I also invited my good pal, Gerome.”
“Of course not, the more, the merrier! Gerome, are you there?”
Gerome replied from his little video box, “Uh, hi. Can you hear me?”
Fred wanted to unveil his new story and tell Lisa, Fiona, and the rest of the group about how they inspired him.
“Remember that show we were talking about a few weeks back? Plutonomics?” Fred asked, “well, I have a funny story I want to tell you about it.”
“Oh yeah,” said Fiona, “It’s like my favorite show right now. Did you see the season finale last night? It was a cliff hanger, what a twist! I don’t want to ruin it.”
Fred took a deep breath. “No, I haven’t seen it, Fiona. I haven’t watched it at all.”
“I thought you said you had a story about it,” Lisa said.
“I do,” Fred replied, “it concerns the book I’m writing. Remember, I told you about my book. It’s about the same topic as the show. After the last happy hour, I decided to re-write the book to be about an author writing the book. A kind of meta-story.”
Fiona jumped back in, “I thought you hadn’t seen Plutonomics.”
“I haven’t!” Fred raised his voice.
“I didn’t want to spoil it, but the final episode of the season,” Lisa explained, “that’s what happens. They reveal that the main character is actually an author writing a book about the show. And he put himself in it. That’s how they get away with such a stupid idea. It’s really nonsense if you think about it. But making it about a self-absorbed writer kind of lets them get away with it.”
Fred’s mouth dropped open. Gerome broke the silence, “Fred, I gotta run mate. Thanks for letting me crash the party. I think my toaster’s, er, on fire.” He left the chat.
Fred turned to Charlotte, seated next to him, and put their microphone on mute. “I can’t believe it! It’s happened again,” he said, “and they think it’s a stupid idea, and I’m self-absorbed!”
Charlotte asked, “Why do you care what they think?”
Fred considered it for a moment. Did he write to impress them? Before his writing routine, he was lost at home for months during the infection season. He couldn’t sleep and would eat poorly. It made him sick to remember, but he would sometimes yell at Charlotte for no reason. Daily writing changed that. His routine gave him stability when the world was so out of balance. Why had he forgotten?
“You’re right,” Fred told his wife, letting out a deep sigh. “Who cares what they think?”
Charlotte smiled and unmuted their mic.
“Can I tell you about this client of mine,” Charlotte said to her friends in the computer, “she asked me to do Art Deco, but really she wants tacky-Gatsby. You have to see it!”
The next morning, Fred found his study in writing mode, just as he left it. This part of his life was under control.