C. C. Finlay (ccfinlay) wrote,
C. C. Finlay

With Apologies to James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Burty

"We're going through!" The Commander's voice was like a diskette cracking. He wore his programming uniform, with the heavily laden pocket protector bulging manfully upon his chest.

"We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a flamewar, if you ask me."

"I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Scalzi," said the Commander. "Throw on the power verbs! Rev up the blaming! We're going through!"

The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the flames licking the pilot window. He walked over and pecked at a row of complicated keys. "Dispute every single fact!" he shouted.

"But, um, they're facts," said Lieutenant Scalzi.

"Issue a call for courtesy!" shouted the Commander.

"WTF? Who was being discourteous?"

The loyal crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined SFWA hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The old man will get us through" they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're writing too fast!" said Mrs. Burty. "What are you writing so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Burty. He looked at his wife, in the SFWA lounge beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. Then he realized that's exactly what she was.

"You were posting fifty-five messages a day," she said. "You know I don't like to read more than forty. My eyes start to bleed."

Walter Burty wrote on toward the Presidency in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst flamewar in twenty years fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.

"You're tensed up again," said Mrs. Burty. "It's one of your elections. I wish you'd let some story doctor fix your prose so it seemed internally consistent and avoided wince-worthy phrases like 'Greetings gentlebeings!'"

"Whatever," said Walter Burty.

"Hey, that's mine!" cried Scalzi. "Are you pirating me?"

Ignoring Scalzi, Walter Burty parked his election platform on his website, where all the urls ended with just an "ht" because "ml" reminded him too much of mailing lists, which he couldn't control.

"That reminds me! Remember to get verification that those stories are actually pirated while I'm having my hair done," Mrs. Burty said.

"I don't have time for verification," grumbled Walter Burty.

"We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the newsgroup. "Do you really want to piss off Doctorow?"

He raced the CPU a little and surfed the internet aimlessly for a time. Then he drove past the bank on the way to one of his business projects. . . .

"It's the million-dollar SFWA warchest," said the pretty accountant.

"Yes?" said Walter Burty, wadding up the tissue and discreetly tossing it aside. "Who has the keys?"

"The president and the treasurer, but there are some other officers here as well."

A door opened down a long, cool corridor and the SFWA president came out. He looked remarkably like Burty would look, if Burty were president. "Hello, Burty," he said. "We're having the devil's own time with these millions of dollars. Calcification of the interest. Tertiary. Wish you'd find a good business investment for it."

"Glad to," said Burty.

In the back room of SFWA headquarters there were whispered reservations: "It looks like a conflict of interest."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Burty. "I'm a doctor."

"But the conflict of interest here is black and white."

"No, dammit, it's Shades of Gray."

A huge, complicated machine called the internet, connecting the members of the organization to one another, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

"They're talking to one another!" shouted an intern. "There is no one in the world who knows how to stop them!"

"Quiet, man!" said Burty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-qwerty-pocketa-qwerty. He began fingering delicately a row of glistening keys. "Give me a fountain pen!" he snapped. Someone handed him a fountain pen. He scribbled a series of hasty apologies, shifting blame to the villainous enemies intent on ruining his brilliant investments. And then he wadded up the pages and shoved them in the mouths of everyone who spoke against him. "That will hold for about ten minutes," he shouted. "Get on with the loan!"

An accountant hurried over and whispered to the treasurer, who, surprisingly, looked like Burty would look if Burty were the treasurer, and Burty saw the man turn pale. "Due diligence has set in," said the treasurer nervously. "If you would take over, Burty?"

Burty looked at him and at the cowardly figures of the ordinary mortals who doubted his fiduciary genius. "Glad to," he said. "As you know, I'm a doctor."

They slipped him a blank check and . . .

"Back it up, Mac! Look out for those checks and balances!" Walter Burty jammed on the brakes. "Wrong kind of check, Mac," said a group of officers who didn't look like Burty at all.

"Gee. Yeh," muttered Burty. He began cautiously to back out of the venture.

"Hey, better give back the money."

"Oh," said Burty, handing the officers their bucks. The treasurer vaulted into the spreadsheets, backed up with insolent skill, and put the money where it belonged.

They're so damn cocky, thought Walter Burty, perusing the members fiction section of the SFWA website; they think they know everything. I could be a best-selling author if I had more time. But no! If I'd used traditional publishing routes, Noontide Night would never have seen the light of midnight day. I sacrifice and sacrifice, nurturing young writers, volunteering on every committee, building consensus after consenus. And they have absolutely no idea at all how much time it takes to fight the misconceptions, exaggerations, and falsehoods that my enemies unjustly spread against me! He kicked at the slush in his trunk.

"Overshoes," he said to himself, and he began looking for a shoe store. "If they're going to start slinging mud at me, I'll need overshoes."

While he searched through overshoes.com for a pair of rubber waders, Walter Burty began to wonder what the other thing was that Mrs. Burty had told him to get. And why did he call her Mrs. Burty when she was really just the voice of reason on sff.net...?

Focus! he told himself. She had told him to get something. Ear plugs, he thought, new printer cartridges? No. Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, cardorundum, initiative and referendum? He gave up. But she would remember it. "Where's the what's-its-name," she would ask. "Don't tell me you forgot the what's-its-name."

He chanced upon a bakery website selling pies....

"Perhaps this will refresh your memory." The pirate captain suddenly thrust a heavy laptop at the quiet figure on the quarterdeck. "Have you ever seen this before?"

Walter Burty took the laptop and examined it expertly. "This is my Dell Inspiron 2112," he said calmly. "I got it from the future."

An excited buzz ran around the deck of the pirate ship. The captain banged the hilt of his sword for silence. "You are a crack shot issuing DMCA takedown orders, I believe?" said the pirate, insinuatingly.

"Objection!" shouted SFWA members lined up as prisoners against the railing.

Walter Burty raised his hand briefly and the bickering SFWAns were stilled. "With any known make of computer," he said evenly, "I could have killed Cory Doctorow's story at three hundred feet with my left hand."

"OMGWTFBBQ!!!11!" shouted one SFWAn as he leaped overboard into the shark infested waters.

There was a pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound of elected officers running off the plank after him.

Burty's hand went to his chest. "I could swear I had a pocketa protector here just a minute ago." A woman's scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly the lovely, dark-haired Mrs. Burty was in Walter Burty's arms....

"Your plank?"

"Yes," said Burty, snapping to his senses. He was back in the SFWA lounge and Mrs. Burty was talking to him again.

"You're running for president of SFWA--what are the planks of your platform?"

"Ah," said Burty. In an uncharacteristic fit of brevity, the author decided to summarize the next two thousand words. "To protect authors... mostly from themselves, since I know what's good for them better than they do. Also, to avoid internal tar pits. Because SFWA members are like the Pleistocene megafauna, and may sink without me. And finally to jump ahead of the singularity. So I can charge it money on its way into the future."

"Puppy biscuits!" said Mrs. Burty....

But her voice had already faded into the signal-to-noise ratio. Burty had a platform to stand upon. He put his shoulders back and his heels together. "To hell with the handkerchief," said Walter Burty scornfully.

With a faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Burty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

# # #

My wife, the lovely and sensible raecarson, thinks it's a mistake for me to post this. For one thing, she says, it hits too close to the mark. For another, it's sure to bring me trouble.

But in reading all of Burt's defenses against his critics in this election, it strikes me that he is the hero of his own story. I don't think he believes that anyone could have an honest problem with his record. He is the victim -- misrepresented and maligned -- heroically struggling to do right while ill-intentioned enemies try to tear him down for no legitimate reason. His versions of events and their connection to reality made me think more and more of Walter Mitty. I realize posting this will throw fuel on the fire that is this SFWA election, but I couldn't help trying to see things from Burt's point-of-view. And this is what Burt's point-of-view looks like to me.

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