By Miranda Outman
2017: The Letter, 1977
Terrific to see you out at Montauk. A shame Helen couldn’t make it, but you managed to whip up a nice spread. Diane couldn’t stop talking about that fondue.
At any rate, Tom, I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’ve read through 2017. It’s different, it’s interesting as hell, it pushes the envelope right off the desk. But I can’t sell this one.
Now before I go on, Tom, you’ve got to know I think the world of your work. Hell, the day you stop writing, that’s the day Pan Am stops running those coast-to-coast flights. You’re the businessman’s traveling companion, and I couldn’t be prouder to be working with you.
But, you asked for my feedback, so I’ll tell it to you straight. With this new direction, your readers walk away. And when they walk, they don’t come back.
Thing is, the premise is solid. It’s a departure, sure, having the good ol’ boys in cahoots with the Russians and the longhairs up in arms. But you made it work, Tom, though I don’t know how you did it. The lady candidate, even the Black former president. I don’t know how you pulled it off, but you did. And the details—the toupee, the supermodels, that hulking Nazi with the gin blossoms—it’s a hell of a lot of fun, although I have to confess, I suspect you’ve been smoking something that’s not strictly on the up and up with the law. Not your average reader’s bag, of course, but he’ll forgive you for it.
It’s your president where you go out on a limb, Tom, and that’s where you lose your reader. What you’re saying, in the end, is America voted for this guy. This bloated, failed businessman with the runaway toupee. This fellow who, from your manuscript, wouldn’t know the end of a sentence if it bit him in the keister. Not that, not just America, Tom: You’re saying St. Louis voted for this guy; Phoenix and Raleigh and Dallas Fort Worth. Tom, where the heck do you think your books sell? It’s one thing to flip the script, make the Manchurian Candidate a red-blooded Republican. It’s another thing to lay the blame on the man who buys your books. And bad enough you make your guys the villains. But what you’re saying, and why I’m telling you this: You’re making your guys out to be rubes.
Now I sure hope you don’t just tear this up, Tom, because there’s a heck of a lot of potential in this thing. We’ve all got big ideas, and you know better than anyone, they’re the devil to carry out. So keep your premise, keep the architecture of the story, but give us a president who’s handsome. Give us a guy who knows how to talk, give us someone with taste. A villain we can believe in. How’s that for a slogan? So take a week or so, get a little R&R. If you’ll forgive my saying so, take it a little easy on the drink. Work up another draft and send it my way. Dinner’s on me this time. Sheila can get us a table at a terrific steakhouse uptown. Drop me a line, and we’ll talk.
2017: The Review, 1987
In the dark days of 1977, the story has it, a master of the American thriller, alcohol-sodden, reeling from a nasty divorce, dashed off a manuscript that “broke all the rules.” The thing proceeded to gather dust in his agent’s filing cabinet for the better part of a decade until Paramount Pictures, with money to burn and a reputation to squander, brought 2017 to a theater near you.
If you find that difficult to believe, well, you don’t have the credulity for five minutes of this thing.
The thing begins reasonably enough. America has elected a Black president, there’s a woman campaigning to succeed him. That the Republican is a Soviet stooge, even that comes off as credible enough. Really, the acting and directing aren’t bad, if you take your popcorn and flee for the exits after the first ten minutes or so.
Because it’s pretty much a spiral to the bowels of Las Vegas from there.
In 2017, by Paramount’s lights, America will elect a seething and bloated mass of real estate chicanery as the leader of the free world, a slovenly rambler with a scotch-taped tie, victim of a most aggressive tanning parlor, topped by a runaway toupee.
Want more? Paramount thinks you do. Enter a cavalcade of Nazis—as in, Nazis with swastikas, whispering sweet nothings in the President’s ear, running roughshod over the silver screen. Subtlety? So 1986.
The unfortunate thing is, the conceit is rather clever. America has won the Cold War (though Paramount never sees fit to let us know how—or, for that matter, to share the apparent cure for AIDS). But wait, the Russians have been manipulating the U.S. electoral system, so look who’s sitting pretty now. We thought we won the Second World War. But the Cabinet is thick with Nazis in 2017. Given the profusion of Confederate flags on set, the outcome of the Civil War, too, is very much in doubt. From the intimations of global warming and a crazed addiction to fossil fuels (yet another half-developed subplot), even the dinosaurs win in the end.
But all that is buried beneath a welter of gold leaf, skimpy dresses, an overdone soundtrack, and a never-ending series of high-speed car chases. 2017 gives us a future drowning in our own worst vices: gilt, powder, and greed. It’s an indictment, with a side of bathroom humor, of everything we’ve become, served hot, beneath a dark cloud of contempt for ordinary Americans and the votes they cast.
There’s still more, if your tastes run to leggy blonds and enough gold leaf to bury Vegas in the desert for once and for all. Stick around long enough, and there’s some genuine, terrifying suspense. By the time the president dismisses the head of the FBI and whispers sweet-nothing nuclear secrets in the Russian foreign minister’s ear, you’ll be on the edge of your seat—if you haven’t stormed away from said seat an hour before. There’s a warplane, there’s the nuclear football, there’s a park ranger turned Secret Service agent turned savior of the Western world, but do you really want to shell out $3.95 to see this thing?
Miranda Outman is a writer and editor in the Boston area.
Photo credit: Dave Bleasdale via a Creative Commons license.