L. Neil Smith's
Number 208, January 27, 2003


If You're Not Atlas, Are You Still Allowed To Shrug?
by Joel Simon

Special to TLE

One evening last week I got a phone call. It's the kind of call that comes maybe three times in a lucky career. I'm a contract technical writer, which means I'm always either out of work or going to be out of work soon. It isn't what I had in mind when I started my career, but that's life. Sometimes I eat well, and sometimes I count the grains of flour in the bag.

A contractor's most important possession is his network. The kind of jobs I take aren't listed in newspapers. I make sure everybody I deal with knows that I'm always looking for work. I keep in mind that every contractor I know is always looking for work, too. When I hear about a job I can't take myself, I pass the knowledge on. People call me in the same spirit, and for the same reason; enlightened self-interest. These contacts go back and forth all the time.

The call I got the other night was from a young man I really should cultivate. He's absolutely brilliant, full of light and energy, and exactly the sort of fellow who's likely to die rich. He's on the leading edge of some very high-end 3-D computer modeling technology. One of the reasons I'm not as friendly toward him as I should be is that I never understand more that 25% of the words that come out of his mouth. And he recently found profitable work in a very booming industry.

What industry? Why, surveillance! This company makes magic machines for scanning airline luggage. He waxed enthusiastic (He's always very enthusiastic; you can't shut him up or get a word in edgewise) about how this machine can do a 2-D scan of a suitcase in three seconds, then switch to a 3-D deep-scan if the operator finds anything dangerous or prurient. They're also marketing scanners that mount directly in the airplane, scanning bags at seven seconds apiece, as well as other high-tech surveillance systems.

They moved fast to get these nightmarish things on the market, and now they're kind of back-dating their documentation. They need operator manuals, procedure manuals, troubleshooting manuals, training manuals. They need me. I could eat for years on this job.

I had a cold-chest moment. You know what I mean; that moment when you know you have to do something that's going to hurt you. That moment when you have to make a costly decision, and you have to make it right now. Here was an enormous opportunity in a business that's just beginning to bloom. This company (which shall remain nameless, but computer geeks would recognize it) has its stained, smelly teeth locked in some very juicy haunches at the moment. And it was a corporate job; not just a contract. I might've been able to retire there. I'm not getting any younger. Work gets harder to find every year. I'm still working steadily, but things aren't good in the semiconductor biz. I'm one of the very few contract technical writers I know who's still employed full-time in this town, and that could change tomorrow.

I'm really not a very principled person. I wish I were. Sometimes I say I am. But I'm not. Oh, sure, I don't like being pushed around. But that just means I'm a curmudgeon. Sure I have guns, but that just means I have guns. None of it means I have balls. I'm not particularly known for my balls. One of the things I fear is my tendency to knuckle under rather than stand up to intimidation or pressure. Someday I'll have to unambiguously fight or crawl, and I'm terribly afraid that I'll crawl.

That would end any reason for life I might ever have had. I fear it.

I can't afford to turn down work for principle. I'm getting big in the belly and gray in the beard. I've got child support payments. I've got credit card companies mad at me. Wave a dollar at me, and you have my attention.

This call wasn't about a chance for an interview. My caller already knows my work; the job was mine for the taking. Visions of a full pantry and a contented landlord danced in my head. Maybe an apartment with an actual bedroom. I pictured myself pulling into an auto shop and casually telling the manager to fix that knock in my engine, expense be damned.

For just a moment I tried to work out how to shave without a mirror for the rest of my life. And then I told him no.

It turns out my current partner (whom I've mentioned before) knew about the job, and had convinced this other guy to call me. I wasn't planning to mention the incident, but he asked if I'd gotten the call. When I said yes, he asked what happened. I told him.

There was a moment of silence. Then he said words I'll wear like a medal.

"Damn, Joel," he said. "I knew you had opinions. But I didn't know you had principles."


"Joel Simon's new historical fantasy The Staff of the Nameless God appears destined to take its place among the great unpublished American novels. Anybody know a good agent?"


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