The Mythmakers of Manhattan
and their clever silicon cousins in China
[completed: 67,000 words]
author: Sophia Stuart is an award-winning digital strategist and technology commentator for Cinema Thread, ELLE China, Esquire Mexico and Ziff Davis PCMag, covering artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, cyborgs and robots within Caltech, DARPA, NASA, US Army Cyber Command and Sci-Fi in Hollywood (including interviews with directors Spike Jonze and Ridley Scott). She has also written/directed games for 20th Century Fox (The Devil Wears Prada online scavenger hunt) and Mayfair Brooks, a 15-part episodic mobile series commissioned by Pocket Gems.
From 2006 – 2013, she was an executive at Hearst, (publishers of brands including Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar): as head of mobile for the USA, then promoted to head of digital for the international division with strategy oversight in almost 100 countries, including China, India, Korea and Russia. During this time she was voted one of the “Top 21 Social Media Superstars” (Min Online) and her group won many awards (Asian Publishing Award, Ad Age Media Vanguard Award and a Webby Award).
As a digital expert, Sophia continues to speaks widely at conferences (Bookmarks South Africa, The Screen Director’s Guild of Ireland) and has appeared on BBC Radio 4. Sophia is the author of How To Stay Sane In A Crazy World (Hay House, 2014), and is represented by both the literary agent Lisa Gallagher (DeFiore and Company), and Studio Kairos for technology speaking/advisor engagements. Sophia is based in L.A., but started her career back in London on The Independent, the national newspaper that launched the careers of Allison Pearson (I Don’t Know How She Does It), JoJo Moyes (Me Before You) and Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones’s Diary).
Set in the not too distant future, The Mythmakers of Manhattan, is a comedy about artificial intelligence, robots, the rise of Chinese investment and the demise of Corporate America. Holly Hartley, a glamorous, but madcap, American executive gets caught up in a whirlwind adventure after her employer is taken over by a technology giant from Beijing. She’s retained as a consultant to build a virtual world, Nirvana, designed to deliver happiness, and given a robot, Tarquin, as an assistant. Then Nirvana gets hacked, she falls in love with a pair of fraternal twins, and Tarquin turns out to be a spy. Unsurprisingly, Holly clashes with both the old order and new regime, but emerges, triumphant. You’ve read many scenarios about the possible future via A.I. – here’s a rather more amusing, and thoughtful, take on what might be coming next.
The Mythmakers of Manhattan
by Sophia Stuart
“I didn’t know you spoke Mandarin.”
“I don’t, I speak money,”
Holly turned away from the window. Outside the lights of Manhattan started to twinkle beautifully but she couldn’t watch them anymore. It was her last evening here and her brain was racing. After twenty years of climbing her way up the greasy career pole at Cobalt Industries she was out. It was over.
The only consolation was that everyone was out. The whole thing had collapsed. A vast Chinese conglomerate called PianTech had purchased the entire physical and digital assets of Cobalt Industries, but none of its bio-units (humans) had been retained.
Holly’s assistant, Monica, had come in at the weekend as PianTech’s contractors measured every single inch of the skyscraper. There were thousands of tiny robots with LED ticker tape running across their heads counting square footage and creating a 3D floor plan as they traversed each cubicle, supervised by a few people in blue overalls.
Monica had called Holly at home to tell her the news. But Holly had gone underground to watch back to back 1960s French movies at the IFC and did not pick up voicemail until Sunday evening. By that point it was over.
The digital giant was valued at 351 billion dollars. But the real estate holdings were the prize gem for PianTech and the reason for the sale. Sixteen skyscrapers across the USA with a gleaming tower in Manhattan: ripe for development. The digital business could be done cheaply and more efficiently elsewhere. Certainly not in midtown and most likely not anywhere in the US. Perhaps not even in China. Maybe a new part of the world had quietly amassed enough young people with the right skills to carry on the data mining and media creation of Cobalt Industries.
Monica picked up Holly’s boxes and put them in the orange crates, neatly labeled. Everything would be sent via UPS. The new owners did not want shots of Cobalt Industries staff lugging their own possessions on the NY subway.
“I don’t understand why they don’t want any of us to stay on,” said Holly, leaning against the door jam as Monica carefully wrapped her espresso cups from MoMA in tissue paper.
“I didn’t know you spoke Mandarin,” said Monica, placing the wrapped cups into Holly’s crates.
“I don’t. I speak money,” said Holly, motioning that she didn’t want the cups and that Monica should put them in her own crate. “The international language of commerce and capitalism.”
She turned back to her now bare office, slipped out of her shoes and lay down on the dark brown beaten up leather Chesterfield sofa. Monica opened the double height butterscotch cream leather covered cabinets. They spanned the three sides of Holly’s office not otherwise taken up with the floor to ceiling windows. Holly had to look away. Seventeen years of bound magazines sat neatly stacked on the shelves. Three years ago the entire portfolio of brands had gone digital and the printing presses were silenced. Monica started to pack the crates, starting with the last editions. Holly shook her head. “I don’t want them, I never look back. Donate them or pulp them. I don’t care.”
It wasn’t true. She cared deeply. But she had learned not to show it.
“At least take this one,” said Monica, pointing to the first magazine Holly had worked on as a trainee journalist, becoming Editor in Chief within seven years. But Holly shook her head. She had stopped being overtly sentimental years ago. She had had to reinvent herself so many times that she stopped looking back.
“So, Monica, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” said Holly from the depths of the sofa. Monica stopped packing up Holly’s office for a moment. Holly turned away from looking out into the Manhattan night beyond the windows and gave Monica her most charming smile and seemingly rapt attention.
“I’m going to move to South Beach to help my brother Ralph run his hotel,” said Monica, wistfully.
“You have a brother?”
“I have six.”
“Six? You’re kidding?”
“And a sister, Maria.”
“I never knew that.”
Of course she didn’t. Holly didn’t have a personal life, she worked all the time, so it never occurred to her to ask about other people’s off-duty existences. Monica handed Holly an envelope. It was her address in South Beach. Then she left Holly to her thoughts.
Holly stayed on the sofa for a long time, just watching the lights go out one by one in the skyscrapers opposite. Finally it felt late enough to admit this was it. Her life here at Cobalt Industries was over.
Her stuff would be taken on to her apartment by the movers – and then – to where? She hadn’t decided where to go. The apartment was a Company let. She had to vacate it in a few days. She couldn’t stay on the upper west side anymore. This had been her life and now it was done.
The computer on her desk pinged. The regular automated reports had been compiled for the day. Her reflexes sprung into action and she almost rushed to see what the day’s traffic, revenues and assorted key data points were. Usually, at this time, she’d telepresence with the international content heads to go over the results, make adjustments to staffing, allocations and embedded resources before answering to the big boss, wherever he was in the world that night.
It was a life of instant snap decisions, brutal management styles and a lack of acknowledgement of timezones. But that was over. The reports would go into the ether and be crunched by machines from now on. Not her problem anymore.
Someone called on the office line but she didn’t pick up. She saw the number. It was her friend Eleanor. But she let it ring and go to voicemail. She would see them all at dinner, and didn’t trust herself to speak right now.
Outside in the hallway someone paused outside her door and then moved on. She let them go.
She wished she still smoked. It had been years since she quit. This feeling of despair would go down easier with a harsh unfiltered Gitanes. Not that any building left in Manhattan allowed smoking. But what could they do – fire her? She laughed for the first time in ages and saw her reflection in the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline.
The landline phone rang again. Perhaps it was the car service? She picked up. Eleanor’s voice came down the line – stern, but loving. It was the voice of a woman who expects to be obeyed, an attorney who made money on her investments in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange while she slept and managed the (legal) affairs (and sometimes the other sort) of major media moguls and digital titans.
“Holly, you’re terrible, screening my calls. We are waiting at the Mercer, get your ass down here, lady.”
“On my way, Eleanor. And hoping that my ass will follow.”
Holly Hartley was still stunning but the upkeep was punishing, and expensive. She had worked hard to erase the accent-from-nowhere and the hips-from-the-suburbs. Encased in expensive denim and a tissue thin cashmere turtleneck which elegantly revealed her figure, she still stopped traffic.
But what was the point of all those 5AM workouts if you could still get let go and your corporate career came grinding to a halt before you turned forty-three?
Perhaps she’d take a lover. After all, her afternoons were now free. Isn’t that what women of a certain age in Europe did? She waved sadly at her reflection, walked out of her office and into her new life.
She should have taken the subway, she thought, as the car service crawled downtown. In her new life, perhaps she’d only take the subway and wean herself off the expensive town cars and constant stream of taxicabs.
Money was not going to be a problem, at least for a while. Eleanor had made sure of that. The payoff package was rumored in the Wall Street Journal to be over two million dollars. It wasn’t nearly that much, but it didn’t hurt if people thought so. But there were so many conditions attached to getting the actual payoff parsed out in payments over the next year. Mainly that she never set foot inside the competition, whose skyscrapers towered over each other in midtown Manhattan with frenzied paranoia and cut-throat competition.
She would miss some of the people, and the clothes allowance – looking that good didn’t come cheap – and definitely the view from the fiftieth floor. For a girl from nowhere, that view was a signal she had arrived. She checked her Blackberry again – no messages. That was odd. Was this what it was going to be like from now on? She was always battling at least a hundred unread emails and numerous unreturned calls.
Her shoulder felt really tight. She started to dial her chiropractor to make an appointment. But the call didn’t go through. She tried again. And then, with a gasp, realized what had happened. They had terminated her cell service. She forgot they had paid for everything. Now she was on her own.
She realized she didn’t know how you went about getting a new phone number. It had been at least fifteen years since she had booked her own table in a restaurant, or a flight, or, it seems, bought a mobile phone. Everything had gone through Monica and the business office paid it all. She looked in her bag at her corporate credit card. That must have been terminated too.
At the back of her purse she saw her debit card. But had no idea how much money was in her account. She never kept tabs on things like that. She was far too busy earning it to keep an eye on it. A twinge of regret reflected back on her face in the car window. Time to deal with real life. Oh, boy.
Holly knocked on the partition glass. The driver opened it as he stopped at the red light.
“Yes, Ms. Hartley?”
“Is this car on account?”
“Yes, Ms. Hartley. And I apologize about the traffic, I’m going to take the West Side Highway the rest of the way down, if that’s ok with you?”
She sunk back into the soft cushions and didn’t answer. Then she looked at the driver’s face reflected in the rear-view mirror and did a double take.
“Don’t I know you?” she asked.
He smiled at her as the car crept slowly forward. “I didn’t think you’d recognize me, it was a while ago.”
Holly narrowed her eyes. It was?
“Your fashion editor on the women’s sites booked me for a shoot a few years ago. And my friends were amused that the article was about cheating bastards.” He laughed. Holly smiled. She remembered him now – a charming model with more personality than most. Probably a MAW – model, actor, whatever, she guessed. And now the “whatever” was driving for a limo service. The acting gig obviously never panned out either. That was a familiar story in this town.
“I wasn’t wearing much in those pictures, either.”
Now she remembered him even more clearly. “That much I recall.” Flirting? Oh dear god. It had been a while since that had happened.
Just then the car pulled up to the Mercer and the driver jumped out to open her door. She savored the moment of emerging from the limo with a handsome man paying her attention. Even if she was paying him. Or, she corrected herself, if her former employer was paying him.
“Just in case you need a ride home,” he said, pressing his card into her hand. She looked down at the card, which said Luke Johnson in plain attractive script. Luke Johnson MAW.
“M-A-W?” she asked.
“Model, actor, whatever,” he said, with a stress on the first syllable of the last word. “Whatever you’d like.”
“Are you flirting with me, Luke Johnson?” she asked. A self-aware MAW with humor, who knew?
“It’s impossible not to – you’re gorgeous.” She stood and considered the beautiful young man in front of her. He would make a perfect lover for her now-free afternoons.
“Come and get me at midnight,” she said.
“Yes, Ms. Hartley.”
“And call me Holly.” And with that she swept into the restaurant where her best friends were waiting to toast her freedom on the first night of her new life.
Eleanor, Kiki, Miles and Kelly and were waiting for her, already a little merry with drink. Holly walked slowly towards them, trying to savor the moment. Her friends were always there for her – and for each other – ever since they graduated from London University too many years ago to count.
Five Americans on the loose in England. Friends since the first week, they had been inseparable then. And now? Despite the distance their jobs, various marriages and other aspects of life, brought from time to time, they still depended on each other, lives still entwined, if not as closely now.
There had even been different permutations of friendship within their group over the years. She and Kelly had been lovers, very briefly, at college. Kiki and Miles dated for a while. Then, Kiki, after a disastrously brief starter marriage and a change of teams, settled down with Kelly a decade ago. Miles had secretly lusted after Holly for years and she still caught him watching her when the dinner parties went on into the night. Eleanor was married to her job. And had, at one time, been married to Miles. But they were now just good friends.
Eleanor stood up to toast Holly as she arrived. “To your freedom!” she said, and the others joined her with their Champagne glasses held high.
“But what the hell am I going to do now?” Holly said. Miles playfully wagged his fingers at her.
“Whatever the hell you want, lady. I heard you got a very tidy sum from that bastard of a takeover giant.”
Holly looked between Miles and Eleanor. “I didn’t tell him what I negotiated for you,” said Eleanor, quietly sipping her drink. “Give me some credit.”
“It was in the WSJ,” said Miles.
“Oh yeah, like you can believe everything you read online, Miles,” said Eleanor, quickly.
“But I can never work for another similar corporation again.”
“Why?” asked Kelly, pulling out a seat for Holly to sit down.
“Because the Chinese know she’ll kill what’s left of Cobalt’s projects that’s why,” said Eleanor. “And I wouldn’t blame her.”
Kiki kissed Holly on the cheek. “Darling Holly, it’ll be wonderful. Whatever you decide to do.”
“Dear god, who is THAT?” said Kelly leaning over to Holly to grab her attention. “Walking towards you with a grin on his face the size of Texas.”
Holly turned around and saw Luke Johnson walking towards their table, carrying her Blackberry. She blushed a little and stood up quickly to compose her features into a more professional demeanor.
“You left this in the back of the car,” said Luke, handing her Blackberry to her. “I thought you might need it, just in case you needed a ride any earlier than midnight.”
He turned to walk away and Kiki did a low whistle. “Who’s the cowboy, darlin’?” she gasped. Holly looked at her now-defunct Blackberry and let it slip into her bag as she watched Luke walk away.
“That’s my goodbye gift,” she said.
“Atta girl,” snorted Kelly, and motioned for the waiter to come over and take Holly’s order.
“It’s just like our publication days on the magazine getting wasted in the student union,” said Miles.
“Hardly,” snorted Holly, pointing at her glass of Champagne.
“I meant us being together, for a change, relaxed, no drama, just us,” he persisted.
They were all silent for a minute. It was lovely. The magazine they started at university had been a wonderful experience. Even then Holly was brilliant at creating content, understanding their readership and tapping into the zeitgeist. With Kelly and Kiki as Ad Sales chiefs the magazine gained traction instantly with companies eager to reach students at an impressionable age. Miles was their Art Director and brought a beauty mixed with an homage to Bauhaus to the stunning layouts. Eleanor did their contracts and kept them all in line.
Each issue sold out and the friends were bonded forever, becoming notorious as their fame grew and Time Out London wrote a cover feature on their group as “Young Americans”.
But, as the years went on, only Holly stayed in the business. The others took jobs that paid mortgages and provided some measure of stability. Holly tried not to judge, but she did. Even Miles stopped being a full-time creative. That was the blow she took hardest. It was as if he stopped being Miles when that happened.
And now here they were. In Manhattan, drinking Champagne and toasting Holly’s freedom.
Luckily Luke walked back in just before it all turned maudlin. The others got cabs. Holly took a deep breath, slipped her arms around his waist on the back of his motorbike and didn’t care where she ended up. As long as it wasn’t alone.
Holly wasn’t ready for that.