When You Pause the Heart of an Eagle and Can Feel Its Fear
Steve Moore's smartphone thriller for Fusebox comes to an end.
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:30AM, Wed. Oct. 22, 2014
I’ve been getting text messages from the FBI since April of this year.
Me and about a thousand other people across the United States, actually: Getting text messages from both a current FBI agent and an FBI agent who’s gone rogue.
Bonus: We’ve also been getting messages from some sort of … creature. A creature that’s pretty much nothing but sentient air.
Welcome to Computer Simulation of the Ocean, the most recent wonderment from Steve Moore and Physical Plant, begun as part of Fusebox Festival 2014 and drawing to its conclusion, six months and umpteen dozen text messages from three different numbers later, just last week.
Note: The sentient air’s name was Harry. (Well, according to rogue agent Sarah Boyd, anyway.)
Welcome to a modern science-fiction thriller that played out textually inside the entire audience’s smartphones in real time. It’s the original creation of Austin playwright Steve Moore, who has (with Physical Plant or in conjunction with some other fortunate company) previously visited upon the world such odd and memorable astonishments as The Adam Sultan Project and The Kindermann Depiction and Not Clown and Nightswim and so on.
Note: The non-rogue agent was named Shanahan. (Except that, because he was such an obnoxious prick, my wife and I followed the lead of our fellow audiencer Lise’ Creed and invariably referred to the guy as Agent Schmuckaluck.)
Those of us, the lucky ones who signed up for the, ah, narrative service during Fusebox and so were involved in the tale’s unspooling since the start, we’ve been really involved in the tale’s unspooling since the start. Because the story was compelling enough that it could’ve worked as a prose novelette. But, that it was taking place through a device that’s always with us, the events understood via text messages that wound up displayed next to the usual non-fictional-texts-from-friends that are such a familiar part of our tiny screen’s real estate …
It felt like a rather direct involvement, tell you what.
But never mind me telling-you-what about anything right now. Instead, let’s ask that mastermind Moore a few questions about what we’ve vicariously lived through for the past half a year:
Wayne Alan Brenner: Steve, your "Ocean" text-play is riddled with conversations about FBI and plutonium and hazmat and A-bomb tech. And so, taken out of context … has anyone from the actual FBI, or some part of national security, ah, contacted you about any of this?
Steve Moore: I haven’t been contacted by the FBI. Although – I don’t know if they would ever see this page – I suppose, if they started looking around, they might – there’s a page for Computer Simulation of the Ocean on the Physical Plant site that’s like “Here’s How to Get Started.” And it gives a general sense of how often the texts are gonna come, how you can unsubscribe, that sort of thing. And one of the things in there is a note to law enforcement – FBI, NSA – “Please get in touch with us if you have any trouble with this, it’s all totally made up.” I don’t know if they’ve ever seen it. I don’t know how closely they monitor this kind of stuff. Do you think they monitor this kind of stuff and they’re like, “Okay, it’s all made up, we don’t have to check into this at all,” or do you think it’s not even on their radar at all?
WAB: If they’ve seen that introductory page, then they might believe it's made up. But often in big organizations, one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, y'know? And there’s that ECHELON system, or whatever they’re using now, and I’m sure it’s monitoring everything that’s going on in our phones and the rest of the Net. And maybe it won’t register that intro page when it’s looking for whatever keywords set it off, maybe it’ll just throw up a flag for some human operator to take a closer look. I don’t know how paranoid such a system must be, but I reckon it’s programmed to be paranoid. My wife and I, when we read the texts about the FBI and the shipments of plutonium, we turned to each other and were like, “Shit, you think the FBI’s gotten in touch with Steve about this yet?”
SM: Not yet, not yet. If that happens, I’ll be thrilled. I don’t know what their keywords are, but “plutonium” seems like it’d be good. Maybe I should try harder.
WAB: So all the texts came to us in real time, like the story was actually happening minute-to-minute. But could somebody subscribe in the middle of the story, and the texts would start from the beginning then? So people could still join up now – or even sometime later?
SM: No, but we’re trying to figure out how to do that, because I would love to do more stories like this. Kirk Lynn and I are going to co-write one – it’ll be much shorter, maybe two months – and it’d be nice, in the future, if somebody’s like “Oh, I heard about this thing you guys did, can I get it?” – it’d be nice to say, “Sure, just sign up and you’ll start getting it on Friday.” But making that happen, not to get into the technological details, but it’s a lot more complicated for each person to have their own schedule than it is for every message to broadcast at the same time.
WAB: Do you know of other text-plays like this?
SM: I did some research and I haven’t been able to find any. People have done Twitter stories, but this feels unique – both in terms of it being just text messages, and that we had to build a whole apparatus to do it. We did a bunch of beta tests, where we tried to send the messages out to a group of people, and it kept failing. And what we realized, at a certain point, is that all the carriers – T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and so on – they have some kind of spam filter, they don’t want you to send the same message to more than about fifteen people. So we had to devise this clever workaround to make it possible to send the same message to a thousand people.
WAB: So there’s a thousand people hooked up with this story?
SM: Well, about eleven hundred – from all over the country. In Austin, there’s about three hundred and seventy. And another two hundred and fifty in Texas. And around five hundred all across the country. And that’s part of the reason I don’t think people have done this before – because you have to create this … apparatus. So doing it over text messages feels unusual. And it took us a while to figure out that it could be sent from multiple numbers. I thought, at first, that I’d be limited to one phone number – which meant that I was gonna have to, basically, create a story that looked like a script. So you’d get messages from the different characters, but they’d be from the same phone number, so it’d look like Sarah, colon, and then whatever Sarah said. Which is really cumbersome, and doesn’t feel true to the form. So when we realized that we could use different numbers, and could ask the audience to kind of catch up – because, you get something from a new character, and that character is talking about another person whose name you’ve already seen … you have to catch up with it on the fly. And I hope that’s been fun for people, figuring out what’s going on.
WAB: Dude. When we got that first text from Harry – out of the blue, as it were – but it figured, too, because of what the FBI agents were texting earlier … I mean, I read that message and I thought, “Oh shit, this is from the air.” And then I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
SM: It’s been really fun. And it can feel like you don’t have a lot of channels to play with. It’s storytelling without physicality – in a sense – and it’s storytelling without tone of voice. Although, over time … like, you know that Shanahan’s an asshole.
WAB: Oh yeah, that was pretty apparent early on.
SM: And that’s a tone-of-voice issue. Sometimes he says things that are assholish, but also the way he says things is assholish. So it’s not the same as hearing somebody say it, but it’s as close as possible. And it’s obviously very condensed, with each text 160 characters maximum. And I try to use as little as possible. If I can send a text that has only fifty characters, that’s sweet. If I can do something in the story that only costs me ten or fifteen characters, that’s the best. Because 160 characters feels like a lot. But what I like is that the messages can come at any time – although I try to keep them to reasonable hours, mostly evenings on the weekdays. It’s across a bunch of time zones, so I can’t send things too early or the people in California will get it at 6am or something like that. But it’s fun to be able to, like, throw something across the bow at any moment. And it’s also fun that it’s coming over this medium that’s fairly remote – it’s just a piece of technology that has some words coming on it, but it feels more intimate than Twitter – for me, anyway – because it’s coming right at you. When you get a text message, most people have their phone set to announce that. So, within the universe of technology, I think it feels really intimate.
WAB: It feels extremely intimate. If movies wanted to be this intimate, they’d have to be like Purple Rose of Cairo or whatever, there’d have to be characters talking directly to you, right out of the screen. Because each of us with a phone, we become that person, that dude who broke up with Sarah, that dude that Shanahan’s a fellow agent of – who is that person, anyway? What’s his name?
SM: I just call him “X.”
WAB: And I’m X. And you’re X. We are all X.
SM: We are all X.
WAB: And it’s pretty goddam amazing.
SM: I think, if I had to do it again – and hopefully Kirk and I will find a way to do this – what I didn’t figure out how to do this time? Was to make really clear what X’s agency is. In this story, he’s quite passive, he’s just receiving. Sometimes you get a sense of his curiosity, when Shanahan or Harry writes back in a way that makes it clear that X has asked a question or made an assertion. You get some flavor of him. But I think it’d be really fun to create a recipient character, and you never see what texts he’s sending, but you get a really clear sense of that character – and the character’s a real high contrast to a normal person, you know what I mean?
WAB: Sure, but I don’t think that would be necessarily better, even though it’d be different. Because I think the story works well with X being a more passive recipient. Like Scott McCloud’s whole thing in Understanding Comics, where you fill in the vessel of a simple character with yourself –
SM: A simple character in a complicated environment.
WAB: Exactly. Which is not to say that I think a more complicated character would be bad – it’s just a different thing. And … so, ah, the whole thing is set up in advance, you said?
SM: Yes – it goes out automatically. There’s a big text file, and every message has a time stamp, and each one is designated to come from a specific character. That’s not to say that I haven’t been tweaking the shit out of it.
WAB: Ah! You have!
SM: Kind of in response to some of the feedback we’ve got. I can’t see anything that the subscribers have texted back – I wish I could see those, and I think they go into a log file somewhere – but I see stuff, on Facebook or just in talking to people. And, like, maybe people are really sick of Sarah, and I have four more things from Sarah planned before this next action starts? So I’ll decide, ah, let’s just start the action, keep people engaged. But, yeah, the whole thing is already laid out. And it’s an interesting writing process, because I basically wake up every day, and the text that’s going to go out that day, a couple of texts, I have a draft of it that I like well enough. And I’ll just sit there and work that language for an hour or so, just working the commas and spaces just right, getting it as short as possible, trying to make it evocative and push the story forward. I have this big picture, but I have this odd thing of, like, “Okay, I’m just gonna polish this one scale on the fish. And then tomorrow I’ll polish another scale." And I don’t get to go back and polish the last one again – because it’s out there already.