“Focus” appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It was my second story in Analog in the last six months (the previous one having appeared in the December 2016 issue).
The simplest way to sum it up is to say that it’s a story about how companies parasitize everything—or, rather, convince us to allow them to parasitize everything to better serve their ends.
The story is set in Vietnam—in Saigon and a South Korean-run factory in an industrial complex in nearby Bình Dương Province. While my wife and I were in Vietnam in May 2014, there were anti-Chinese riots in Bình Dương, and Chinese-run factories were targeted—but so were factories run by South Korean, Japanese, Singaporean, and other East Asian companies, supposedly because of their ties to China or their use of cheaper Chinese labour instead of Vietnamese workers.
During our time in Saigon, we didn’t get to meet a lot of Vietnamese people, but we met some who were mostly lovely. On the other hand, we met a fair number of Koreans, though since they were mostly connected with the manufacturing industry—that is, with the sweatshops of Bình Dương—we encountered what I guess one might call the typical sweatshop-owner mentality a little more often than we expected.
I think one some level, this story is an inquiry into that: the twisted dynamic by those who run institutions (schools and businesses alike) and those who find themselves within those institutions (be they students or employees) both end up subject to a kind self-imposed deformation of their lives, families, and their own minds. The teacher or factory manager must achieve self-conviction of a number of unsettling beliefs about employees to do the job effectively; the employee or student must willingly deform his or her mind and body to fit into the resulting system. Tragically, they have more in common than they ever realize, and the biggest losers seem to be those who, for whatever reason, can’t manage to pull it off.
This is another of those stories I finally managed to write after about a decade of trying: the original story was, I think, set in a Filipino sweatshop and written as a flash piece—a corporate report on the progress achieved using something like the eponymous drug in this story. It was too short to really explore the subject, and bounced (with a nice rejection) from Nature, where I’d sent it for consideration for the Futures flash fiction series that ran (and I think still runs) on the back page of the journal. It took me a while to get back to the subject, but “Focus” was the ultimate result. Among other things, I’ve learned I’m not really a flash fiction kind of writer.
The original story had all the Vietnamese diacritics included, but one thing I’ve learned is that the age of digital publishing has constrained, rather than freed up, typography. A print-only book is free to include all kinds of crazy fonts, but when you’re releasing an ebook that needs to work with a plethora of readers and software, plain old Roman letters (and maybe Greek and some math symbols) are just a safer bet. I didn’t learn much Vietnamese while I was there, and the little I learned wasn’t much use to this story. That said, I’m pretty sure everything’s correct except one expression—the euphemism for a government cover-up—which I cannot remember if I got from someone, or warped from a more innocuous Vietnamese expression. 1 I tried to keep the Vietnamese to a minimum, though, since I learned so very little of the language.
I think I warped it, with the reasoning that the people talking (teenagers) would have some kind of neologistic way of saying it.↩