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Fiction Review: Marshall Brain's “Manna”
It seems the field of science fiction is loaded with tales of dystopias, the most famous being George Orwell's bleak and cautionary Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not nearly as prevalent are stories dealing with utopias, heavenly societies that have attained near-perfection for their citizens. Author Marshall Brain has succeeded in producing a work that combines both themes in his eight-chapter online novella “Manna.”
Brain's story opens as the first decade of the 21st Century is drawing to a close. Joe Garcia, founder of a fast food chain called Burger-G, has turned to a software program to increase the efficiency and profitability of his restaurants. This seemingly innocuous decision turns out to be the first step in the long-awaited robot revolution that will transform society, but it is not the revolution most people would have envisioned. Instead of robots designed to perform menial labor while their managers and supervisors look on, the Manna software replaces middle management, speaking to Burger-G's minimum-wage employees through headsets worn throughout their shifts, guiding them in their tasks to the minutest detail. (“Place the ‘wet floor’ warning cone outside the door please. Please block the door open with the door stop. Please retrieve the bucket and mop from the supply closet.” And so on.) By eliminating the higher-paid restaurant managers while retaining the lowest-paid workers, the Burger-G chain saves $100 million in salaries between 2010 and 2012. Moreover, the Manna system increases the efficiency and profitability of the chain to the tune of an additional $150 million over the same period. Manna, it seems, is a smashing success – at least for the company's owners and shareholders.
At first, Burger-G's minimum-wage employees don't mind working under Manna. As the story's narrator Jacob Lewis, a teenager working at the North Carolina restaurant where the new system is given its trial run, puts it, “Manna never pushed you around, never yelled at you. The girls liked it because Manna didn't hit on them either. Manna simply asked you to do something, you did it, you said ‘OK,’ and Manna asked you to do the next step. Each step was easy. You could go through the whole day on autopilot, and Manna made sure that you were constantly doing something … the day went by very fast.” Customers also like the Manna system, which keeps the restaurants cleaner and neater than ever before and tremendously improves service. Manna even helps organize shifts and staff hours; since the system is tied into the cash registers, the software is able to track peak hours when sales are heaviest and schedule employee shifts accordingly. Manna also controls inventories and oversees food preparation the same way.
With such astounding corporate profits rolling into Burger-G thanks to Manna, it doesn't take long for other companies to incorporate the software into their business models. Within a few years, most minimum-wage employees in the United States find themselves working under Manna or similar programs, since companies who resist this new technology simply can't compete with those who embrace it. From the restaurants where it started, the Manna phenomenon spreads to all other retail establishments, and then to airports, amusement parks, hospitals, theaters, construction sites and anyplace else that employs unskilled labor. By this time, the computerized manager has developed the ability to compile average times it takes to complete tasks, and starts firing employees who don't measure up. It also fires workers who fail to keep their hours, or who refuse to work extra hours when “requested” to do so. And since the various computers running Manna are networked to communicate with each other, employees fired from one company find it impossible to get hired by any other company using Manna – which is just about every company in America.
Within a decade of its debut, Manna has rendered tens of millions of Americans unemployed and virtually unemployable, while Joe Garcia and his fellow executives enjoy record corporate profits.
Things grow far worse in the 2020s when a breakthrough in artificial vision technology allows the first real robots to be created. Manna can now manage mechanical people instead of real ones, and whatever minimum-wage workers had been holding onto their jobs now find themselves replaced, with no other jobs waiting for them. Half of America's population become homeless refugees inside their own country, including narrator Jacob Lewis, who thought his administrative position in the education field would spare him such indignity, until Manna replaces those positions as well. By the mid-21st Century, Jacob finds himself warehoused in one of the massive, windowless welfare dormitories constructed of Terrafoam, a cheap new material. These government facilities serve one purpose only: to keep society's less desirable members out of sight and out of mind. Jacob sums up the situation thus:
“America in 2050 was no different from a third world nation… The rich controlled America's bureaucracy, military, businesses and natural resources, and the unemployed masses lived in Terrafoam, cut off from any opportunity to change their situation. There was the facade of ‘free elections,’ but only candidates supported by the rich could ever get on the ballot. The government was completely controlled by the rich, as were the robotic security forces, the military and the intelligence organizations. American democracy had morphed into a third world dictatorship ruled by the wealthy elite.”
The disenfranchised half of Americans destined for a bleak Terrafoam existence can't even riot or resist; the robots now running society (and run by the rich elite) are simply too powerful. When ordered by Manna to report to a Terrafoam residence, the unemployed either go voluntarily or else they are forcibly taken there by the robots, but either way, they go.
It is at this point that “Manna” shifts gears from dystopian to utopian. One day Jacob and his bunkmate Burt return to their room after a walk to discover two women awaiting them there. It turns out that Jacob's father, a former airline pilot, had foreseen where Manna might lead society all the way back when the first Burger-G had been outfitted with it, and had purchased two shares in a concept called the Australian Project. This endeavor had been founded by the visionary Eric Renson in 2012 as a counter to the society he feared Manna would create. Renson sold shares in his project for $1,000 each to a billion shareholders, and with the one trillion dollars raised, he purchased a million and a half square miles of the Australian outback, along with whatever factories and mines he needed to make his dream a reality. While Manna was enslaving the entire American underclass, the Australian Project was establishing a new form of society in which all citizens owned everything equally, and while Manna's robots were rounding up and imprisoning the impoverished, the Australian Project used its own robots to serve the needs of all its citizens. This effort has resulted in a continent-sized community where all needs are met at no cost, and people have the freedom to live however they want. And, thanks to his father's foresight, Jacob now has a ticket to freedom, away from the misery of the Terrafoam residence forever.
The second half of the story follows Jacob's (and his friend Burt's) deliverance from post-Manna America to the technological wonderland of the Australian Project. The main theme in these later chapters is that freedom fosters innovation, and while America has become mired in a stagnant monarchy of the wealthy that stifles inspirational thinking, the Australian Project has been free to surge ahead at the cutting edge of human creativity, spawning new inventions and technologies that seem almost alien in their sophistication – and are all at the disposal of the people. Linda, one of the women who came to Jacob's Terrafoam room, serves as his guide through this revolutionary society, explaining to him (and to the reader) everything he needs to know about his new home.
As a dystopian/utopian piece, “Manna” works fairly well, laying out the author's themes in a brisk narrative that keeps the reader engaged and interested in spite of some dry writing and a few detours into technical exposition. The characters, as is often the case in such works (see Ayn Rand's writings, for example), are very much on the flat side, which is to be expected, since they are little more than ciphers serving to escort the reader through the author's ideas. Perhaps the biggest flaw of “Manna” is its level of credibility; some of the plot holes involving Manna's impact upon American society are big enough to fly a pilotless plane through, and it would be very easy to argue how the scenario Brain lays out could never come to pass, for any number of reasons. Still, the fact that “Manna” even spurs one to such mental ruminations suggests that the story has served its purpose.
Marshall Brain's "Manna" can be found here: