The Advantage

Posted by – February 4, 2009

UPDATE: We have ditched this idea in favour of this one! I spent January looking into the various story ideas, and the ones that I’ve found the most compelling are Play’n and Stack Overflow. The Alleyologist definitely has potential as a future project, and most of the ideas in Stack Overflow can work in the cognitive talents of the Play’n idea which I’ve renamed The Advantage.

The Advantage is about an infant developmental toy that really works, spawning the most talented youth subculture humanity’s ever seen. Will they want to fit into society — or reshape it in their image?

I’m imagining the majority of the story will focus on the Advantaged as young adults, but I wanted to get a good throughline on the originating event so I wrote up a bit of background for the toy:

A new infant developmental toy is released called Play’n Advantage. It’s a white, slightly gelatinous square, that, as the baby plays with it, forms itself into the ideal toy for the child: one that stimulates either the cognitive, empathic or fine motor skills. Unlike a lot of similar products, it has the backing of credible scientific testing, and it’s this, along with the tantalizing possibility of uncovering and developing their baby’s nascent talent, that allow people to ignore the slightly creepy texture of it.

It becomes the toy-du-jour, causing near riots of short-tempered, sleep-deprived parents in the malls in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2015. And the babies really seem to like it. Some cuddle with it, and it forms a roughly anamorphic teddy-bear shape. Some poke and prod it inquisitively, and it becomes a set of interlocking blocks. Others roll and throw it, giving it a slightly off kilter ball form.

They’re baby’s favourite toy, until they start melting.

AdvantageCorp issues a recall, claiming inadequate testing of the adaptive plastic used in the manufacturing process. Parents organize a class lawsuit amidst rumours of babies ingesting the plastic, and AdvantageCorp settles for a huge payment to the thousands of parents that bankrupts it in the process. Upon return of the remnants of the toy, the parents receive a large cheque and their baby receives an injection to counteract any reaction to the plastic. Just another example of corporate negligence, but at least this one was punished.

It’s not until many months later that the babies start to test off the charts. It starts anecdotally, on the chatrooms started for the lawsuit. At first it seems like the stories of “look what little Billy did” were just the typical parent stuff. But together, the videos of babies unlocking gates, opening baby-proofed bottles, speaking before they should… The pediatricians confirm it: the babies have accelerated development in the areas targeted by their toy.

The ex-executives at AdvantageCorp are not available for comment — they have disappeared as completely as their toys. Speculation is that identifying themselves would open them up for future liability, should the tide turn again and they go back from heroes to zeros. Who knows what the long-term effects will be, after all.

Twenty five years later, we find out.

I told Susan about this, and she mentioned that the melted toy could leave white marks on the hands of the babies to strengthen the lawsuit outrage — and it’d also allow them to recognize each other as adults. Any other brainstormy ideas or responses, add em below!

26 Comments on The Advantage

  1. Tate says:

    Cool–dig the world building and the set up. Lots o possibilities, would like to know what happens ’25 years later’.

    One idea that might be of interest could be the British 7-Up! series, which sounds pretty awesome.

    “The Up Series consists of a series of documentary films that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films new material from as many of the fourteen as he can get to participate. Filming for the next installment in the series, 56 Up, is expected in late 2011 or early 2012.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Up!

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=%2F19981025%2FREVIEWS08%2F401010370%2F1023

    If you haven’t run into it already, it’d be great as research, but might also work if you wanted to take a more doc-style approach to shooting and writing. You could see where an enterprising doc series-maker might do the same thing as the Brits in 2020, and check in with the kids every five years. Just an idea.

  2. Jim says:

    Hey Tate — great minds think alike:
    http://lofiscifi.com/story-element-possibility/playn/#comment-56
    I’m up to 35 Up at the moment.

  3. Craig says:

    shaping up nicely, although the amount of exposition to explain all this stuff terrifies me…

  4. Tate says:

    Hrg. Totally missed that. I should really read back comments before posting.

    To atone, here’s an offtrack article on nanos:

    http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Technology/Computers+times+smaller+Alta+scientist/1245748/story.html

    Still, the approach is worth considering, especially if some cameras available are more video / less 24p HD.

    Exposition could be challenging, but I’m sure you can write around it, make it fun or dramatic. Maybe do some ‘original 2015 commercials’ for the products, include them in the film somewhere?

  5. Flick says:

    Most definitely, some of those parents will be leery of getting the injection to “counteract” the toy’s effects, or maybe they’re on an ashram, off the grid, when the recall happens.

    So you get:

    – Kids who do the recall and get the injection
    – Kids who reject the injection
    Kids who keep playing with the toys until they come back to civilization, then
    – accept or
    – reject the injection.

    Each, of course, with different consequences. And even some kids who try a “Cure” or whatever. Plot-driven? Naaaah…

    This STILL reminds me, even more perhaps, of Childhood’s End

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood%27s_End

    http://www.sfsite.com/12b/ce118.htm

    I think the scene in that book i remember most (unless I’m confusing it with another book) is when the aliens decide to end bullfights: they’re cruel, you know. So when the big bullfight happens in Madrid, they project the Bull’s pain into all the spectators just before the kill.

    Bullfights stop immediately.

    And then there’s the Midwich Cuckoo’s, which was filmed as Village of the Damned (which, btw, seems like entirely the wrong title, having read the book). One day, the inhabitants of a small town fall asleep spontaneously. Anyone trying to approach the town also falls asleep. As the government grows alarmed, trying to penetrate the mysterious sleep zone, everyone snaps awake.

    No one learns anything more about the incident, until, a few months later… all the women of the town discover, one by one, that they’re pregnant. Of course, the younger teenagers don’t tell anyone, don’t know what pregnant means exactly (it’s the 1950’s) – and the older women don’t know who the father is. All this means the information comes out slowly, much too slowly, and then it’s too late to do anything but have the children.

    So there’s this odd generation of kids in the town, who of course begin to develop strange powers…

    And another book, children of the thunder, by John Brunner. If I tell you why it’s relevant, I’d spoil it somehow, but it IS about a dystopian, fascist future in britain and a generation of kids with odd powers as well.

  6. Dave says:

    ‘rocky’s boots’ was my favorite computer game back in 1983 and a great introduction to logic circuits. why i’m posting that to this thread is the bizarre direction the game designer went afterwards, putting together a virtual reality projects for nasa, designing a nano manipulator, and starting a company that mysteriously disappeared after getting bought out by mattel for $4.3 billion…

    game:
    http://www.warrenrobinett.com/rockysboots/

    apple ][ emulator:
    http://www.dmoz.org/Computers/Emulators/Apple/Apple_II/
    ftp://ftp.apple.asimov.net/pub/apple_II/emulators/

    disk image:
    http://mirrors.nsa.co.il/apple_ii/images/educational/rockys_boots/

  7. Sean says:

    Dave, one game I remember fondly is Robot Odyssey http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_Odyssey which looks like it was based on Rocky’s boots. You had to escape from a world of robots by putting together logic circuits. I’m going to download it for my seven year old son to play.

    Instead of the Play’n Advantage toy melting, perhaps it could dry out and then start to crumble. That might be more believable than melting.

  8. Joe says:

    You could handle the frontloaded exposition in a couple of minutes with a “vintage” commercial/news item a la ROBOCOP. Alternately make it a contemporary documentary piece using the vintage commercial — in effect you’d give the audience all they needed before the credits were done.

  9. Jim says:

    Flick: just got out Midwich. It was time for another Windham, anyway! I actually usually stay away from similar stories when I’m writing, but this is the first time I’ve tried a transparent writing process, and it’s been useful.

    Dave: That game was the first easter egg, interesting. I wonder if the Play’n Advantage has an easter egg? Hmm…

    http://www.warrenrobinett.com/rockysboots/ :
    “as if the electricity was liquid orange fire flowing through transparent pipes.”

    I love when lyricism pops out of technical manuals.

    There is something so weird about his personal website, from the awkward picture on the front page to the bugs bunny ripoff giving the thumbs up to 4.3 billion:
    http://www.warrenrobinett.com/learningcompany/index.html

    Hey Sean, crumbling is a good idea. Melting is creepier, though.

    Joe, that’s true. But I’ll probably weave it into the narrative so the audience is finding out stuff about the original release through the whole thing. I’m not as worried about the amount of exposition as Craig is — I’ll make sure it isn’t too heavy.

  10. Flick says:

    1. The Kraken Wakes is one of my all-time faves by Windham or anyone. Just the wisecracking husband-wife banter is worth the whole read (hint to Jim: wisecracking banter, please). Aliens drop from space right into the ocean, bypassing humanity completely, until their industrial processes start messing up the biosphere…

    2. Right now I’m using Syd Field’s screenwriting workshop DVD to write a new script (East Vancouver Terrorist Comedy, working title). It’s amusing for his monotone LA accent, and his relentless pedantry. And when it comes down to it, his 3-act structure just amounts to “Write the movie, dammit!”

    All the turning points, etc … every scene should be a turning point of some kind, and the fact he names “plot point 1 + 2,” “mid-point scene,” “pinch 1 + 2″ etc really turns out to be a trick to get you to write the script in bite-size chunks, and think about every scene as an actual script pivot.

    Anyway, it’s been useful, I holed up in a Whistler house-sit for a week with a bunch of movies to inspire (Munich, Ripping Yarns, etc), watched some Syd and followed his exercises. Before I knew it, I had characters, scenes, structure and a plan.

    3. And everyone here should watch “Free Radicals” as a fucking awesome, hip, hot, interweaving multi-plot art movie. Just saw it last month – yowza!

    4. Joe, I’ve noticed, btw, that some people lately seem to be down on NEWS ON THE MARCH! type interventions into narrative. Like it’s a device they don’t like, for some reason. It’s in danger of falling out of fashion. I got that as feedback from the Indie Writer’s Deathmatch, for instance, but I can’t cite any specifics at the moment. I DISAGREE! I love the intrusion of news, because you get to see the wider-world reaction without dragging major new characters in, and you can throw the audience off by having errors in the news report, or comment on the news in other ways, like distant social dangers to the main characters, ostracism, villagers with pitchforks etc.

    5. Sean, i like the melting… what if it melts because the kids start eating them?? Blue-red foam sizzling from little Jenny’s mouth and nose would certainly make a cinematic pop, and would make everything more sinister – unless we SEE the children in danger, we might not feel the parent’s panic, and we might too easily chortle “Those foolish authorities! Why are they so panicky about their children’s safety? WE know the toys are good, ‘cos we saw the trailer.”

    6. Do the toy-makers trigger this change, whatever it is, via their website / tv show, or is it something they didn’t foresee?

    7. The disappearing toy-makers reminds me of Union Carbide and Bhopal. The CEO of U.C. disappeared when he got out on bail in India:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster#Charges_against_Warren_Anderson_and_others

  11. Sean says:

    ya, i admit the melting is more appealing.

    just as the toy takes time (how long? a few days?) to take shape depending on the child, perhaps it loses shape (melts) over a few weeks, turning into a blob, and the blob separates into smaller blobs. i guess they’ll be some limits on what we can do, depending on what special effects we can muster.

  12. Anthony says:

    lovely back story jim.
    i see craig’s fear, and i say exposition smexposition.
    just kidding.
    i would imagine at one point even maybe a digital video news story (documentary) came out in 2016 or 17 on the recall and maybe even the stories of advanced children.
    i am very curious to see what these advantaged children are doing as adults.
    is the backstory (the toy) revealed early or late in the film?
    in 2015 wouldn’t only the privileged kids be getting the hottest toy on the market?
    don’t they already have an advantage?
    does this advantage grow as they do?
    do the advantaged adults become great manipulators?
    wow, my mind went off.
    one thing i wanna say before i end this brain to fingers spasm is maybe what happens to the toy (melt, crumble, evaporate, solidify) could be discussed with a special effects and/or CGI person(s). what’s cool and costlessly?
    and with my second stupid word i shall sign off.
    see y’all who’s coming on sunday.

  13. Tate says:

    Hey Jim–had a fun conversation about the Advantaged with my girlfriend, who’s not a sci-fi buff, and she really liked the idea. She had tonnes of questions about ‘how does the toy work’ and ‘what does that mean to the kids’. We kicked around a bunch of ideas, and ended up with a pile of questions that could affect the characters in 2040. Maybe there’s a helpful idea, character, or concept in here somewhere:

    How ‘off-the-charts’ does the toy make the Advantaged? Are we talking kids that go from 120 IQ to 180? Or 280? Do they have 20 programming languages down by the time they’re 15? Do they run the 100 m in 5 seconds?

    If the kids are really enhanced, does that mean they’re the ones who are done PhDs at 13, and running multimillion dollar research projects by 19? Do they excel in just one specific area? Does their maturity match their intellect/creative/skills, or is it still dictated by regular social development?

    I think you mentioned the toy specifically enhancing the kids in the way they most played with the toy–care giving, puzzle solving, etc. What other shapes or forms could the original toy take on? Kids might use it as swords, clubs, dolls, tools, drums. What other ways could the toy be used in its original form? Did it have limits? Do you want to deal with the idea of weapons and resulting super-ninjas?

    I really dig the idea of a Mark of some kind on some of the Advantaged. Is it visible on all of them? Whether it is visible or not could be a contentious point among them–those who have the mark would clearly have harder lives than those that don’t–like the ‘monster’ angst among certain X-Men who had obvious physical mutations.

    What percentage of the population was affected by the Advantage? During the Cabbage Patch/Elmo crazes, there were huge numbers of kids that had those dolls–probably half the kids in school. Or are the Advantaged just kids that ingested the toy?

    If the toy was a thing that anyone could use to play with–might adults play with it? Would it affect them differently?

    How about an older child/young adult with a learning disability or Down’s Syndrome who played with it? An autistic? Someone that was already into puberty? Would it affect them similarly? Affect their disorder, or not? What kind of character would that result in? Some of the scariest characters in comics or sci-fi were those who had enormous power, but lacked the maturity or reason to control it.

    What happens to an adult that plays with the toy as a, um, pliable love doll or apparatus? Would that be possible? What kind of ‘advantage’ would that result in?

    Anyhow–just some ideas for rumination. Hope it sparks something for ya. See you guys on Sunday.

  14. Jim says:

    Wow, wicked stuff guys. Really great questions you’ve posed.

    Some random things I thought as I read through it…

    -Banter, check. (I think if you took out the banter out of my five books you’d be left with two.)

    -re melting or whathaveyou — definitely will be having a conversation soon with the SFX people and finding out what would be most visually engaging and nobudget viable without sliding into the cheese.

    -I’ll be staying away from action/weapons stuff (though I do dig it, and it might be fun to do a PSA of how Advantaged kids aren’t “magic” or “supernatural”). These kids are gifted, not superpowered. It’s all within the realm of human potential.

    -adults’ brains aren’t soft enough for the toys to take effect. So this means the actual scientists who invented it are forever denied access to this Advantage, and they might resent the kids as a result.

  15. Sean says:

    Jim and I had a conversation off-line. I suggested that perhaps non-advantaged took various medications to keep up with the advantaged.

    Another thought I had yesterday that could add humour, is to have some characters participating in trial drug tests (to earn extra cash), and to have them experience unusual or extreme side effects.

  16. Sean says:

    Tate – oh ya, this reminded me of your question “Do they have 20 programming languages down by the time they’re 15?”

    http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSTRE5140FI20090205
    (Nine-year old whiz-kid writes iPhone application – he can program in six languages)

  17. Dave says:

    Discussing ‘The Advantaged’ while filming and playing out some possible scenes at the shoot down at Anthony’s today gave me a weird flashback to the academic program I was sent to from grades 8 to 11: the “academically gifted” program at Earl Haig secondary school. There was a definite sense of shared alienation there that many of my classmates had; a combination of intense parental pressure, social ineptitude on our part, and mild scorn from the normal students for getting better school trips and free bus tickets if we lived out of the school zone.

    In the younger grades there was a sense that we were in Dr. Xavier’s academy, but by the time I left early in grade 12 and switched into a much less elitist alternative school I was just glad to get out of there and integrate with the regular non-gifted world and just maybe get laid in the process. One of my classmates Ilan – a prototypical computer geek like me, but much more sociable – scored in excess of 98% on his high school transcript, and had this weird habit of writing down odd numbers and license plate combinations in a little notebook he carried around with him.

    I lost touch with him when I switched out to attend an alternative high school, hoping the mood would be less severe, and he got scooped up by Cambridge. Now he apparently works for the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo on ‘Relocalising Disaster Risk Reduction for Urban Resilience'; check it out: http://www.cicero.uio.no/publications/detail.aspx?publication_id=6317&lang=EN

    This flashback paralleled the debate between the two characters in the kitchen scene. If you’re advantaged, do you want to be around other people like you, or just learn how to mix? An informal survey of the dozen or so people I’m still in touch with from that era leads me to believe that it’s a deadly trade-off, akin to the dilemma posed in the Radiolab episode ‘The Frowners': http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2008/12/05/segments/114886

  18. Sean says:

    Gattaca wasn’t a big success when it came out, but throughout my life it’s one of those movies whose imagery I’ve thought about again and again. I could never remember the name of the movie (until now, when I look through a list of 90s scifi movies). It’s set in the ‘not to distant future’, and I like the sets (and story) in the same way the Blade Runner sets are memorable. Maybe it could give us ideas of how to depict the future in a believable way. Of course, the story parallels The Advantage, with genetically engineered humans having an advantage over inferior faith births (“valids” and “in-valids”). The valids have access to better jobs and the in-valids are assigned menial work.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yr1IB9RVE_U&NR=1
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gattaca

  19. Flick says:

    Heheh – Sean, my only real problem with Gattaca was the sob-story Ethan Hawke character never really moved me. The beautiful Hollywood actor lost the genetic lottery? Please. And his hellish fate is that he can’t go to outer space, as he yearned to do for so long in his childhood dream? Boohoo.

    I really dug the suits, though. Fashion Fascists.

    We all know what would really happen if genetics played too close a role in life destiny – it’s called Nazi Germany, or the old South, or something more obvious like that. Brave New World is closer to it, and in that story there’s irradiating of embryos and drugging of foetuses etc to ensure nobody smart accidentally ends up in the lower classes.

    I’ve heard Chomsky say that there’s language innately programmed into our brains. For instance, a chinese baby brought up in north america would be indistinguishable from a european baby on the telephone: the physical apparatus for reproducing language is identical in every human, therefore some part of culture is physically / genetically / preprogrammed prior to socialization. He goes on to suggest that morality is somehow hardwired as well, which he thinks is good because at some point (so the unspoken part goes) we’ll discover that the natural human morality is what Chomsky believes already, i.e. science will prove that he’s morally superior.

    The obvious danger of a scientific morality is evident in the nature / nurture debate over criminality or homosexuality. If it’s nature, we can select against it; if it’s nurture, we can scientifically cultivate for / against it.

    Anyway, i think all that stuff is more interesting / sinister than poor widdle Ethan Hawke’s dream of going to spacie-wace.

    And come on, we don’t need genetic coding to deny inferior beings the right to go into space:

    http://www.spaceflight.esa.int/file.cfm?filename=astbecome

    “An applicant’s personality should be characterised by high motivation, flexibility, gregariousness, empathy with fellow workers, low level of or disposition towards aggressiveness, and emotional stability.?”

    Gregariousness? Oh brother.

    PS – since nobody’s said it yet:

    Ender’s Game.

    Genius kids hand-picked for video-game interstellar war against bugs! And it’s more violent and suspenseful than The Last Starfighter! Woohoo! To bad they didn’t have The Advantage!

  20. Dave says:

    There’s a section in Cory Doctorow’s ‘Eastern Standard Tribe’ that describes the development by a ‘user-experience guy’ of a futuristic children’s toy, something which might inspire a scene about the development of the Play’n Advantage toy itself:

    http://craphound.com/est/Cory_Doctorow_-_Eastern_Standard_Tribe.html#21

  21. Dave says:

    some other links of potential interest:

    the tuskegee experiment, which led to the creation of ethics review committees in scientific studies:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_Study_of_Untreated_Syphilis_in_the_Negro_Male

    howard gardner’s multiple intelligences theory; quite popular in my teacher’s college program, but not really backed up by any cognitive neuroscience studies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences

    u of t psych department, always worth poking around to see what kind of research is going on; located in the basement of the sid smith building south of robarts library at 100 st. george:
    http://home.psych.utoronto.ca/Research.htm

    york’s neuroscience dept, full of fascinating lab equipment:
    http://www.mehri.ca/

  22. Jim says:

    Just read Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckooos. It’s a little too talky, and misses the chance for building up any kind of suspense for what the Children will do, but it gives them a reason for their strangeness rather than mystical spookiness (they’re a collective intelligence) but I was especially interested in how he would end it — this is a big issue with world-changing plot twists. He went with the “blow-em-up” ending, but with a bittersweet twist — making the Children likable just pages before and had their beloved, trusted teacher do it. As the reader, you’re pretty sure annihilating them’s the only way to go, but awwwww…. So, the lesson I guess is that if you’re going to go with a stock ending, complexify it somehow.

  23. Flick says:

    Awwww… and the suspense is, will they SUCCEED in annihilating them?

    I still think my favourite part is the set-up. The human chain of soldiers etc trying to rescue the mikman, asleep just inside the sleep zone.

    The rest of the book is a blur.

    Awwwww.

  24. Sean says:

    I was thinking, if the Advantaged have the markings on their hands, it would make it easier for the audience to follow along.

  25. Dave says:

    since there’s somewhat of a parallel between the stimulated cognitive, empathic or fine motor skills of the advantaged kids and howard bloom’s ‘taxonomy of educational objectives’ domains of the cognitive, affective, psychomotor, i was thinking that the ‘bloom’s rose’ image on the link below might make for a nice graphic on the packaging of the ‘play’n advantage toy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxonomy_of_Educational_Objectives

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