6 min read

How To Create and/or Destroy a Corporate Dystopia: Rhetoric as Worldbuilding

A guest feature by Nino Cipri

So I have good news and bad news. The good news is, most corporations are already dystopian, so you don’t have to flex those worldbuilding muscles that hard. But also, most corporations are already dystopian, and you may or may not be at the mercy of one.

FINNA was inspired by my experiences as a queer, trans worker at various institutions: an independent bookstore, a public-private transportation start-up, and an enormous public university, among others. I wrote it because I wanted to imagine an escape for characters like my friends and I from the jobs that exploited and harmed us. DEFEKT, the second book in the LitenVerse series, takes a darker turn.

DEFEKT’s protagonist, Derek, loves his job at LitenVärld. It’s his home, his family, and he lives and breathes the corporate ethos. He’s been Sales Associate of the Month, and he has a 4.76 rating on customer service satisfaction surveys. He also works a lot of unpaid overtime, and happens to live in a company-supplied trailer on the back parking lot. It’s great!

If you know me, you can imagine how much easier it is for me to write about two disillusioned, resentful queer employees than it is for me to write about one who unironically and unquestioningly walks the company line.

Step one had to be figuring out what the company line actually was.  What is the corporate ethos of LitenVärld – the multinational, multi-dimensional Scandinavian homegoods retailer where Derek is employed? What does this company say to itself, about itself? And – since this is a story about deciding to fight company power through collective action – how do you counteract that messaging?

Language is a tool of worldbuilding, and not just in the con-lang sense; you don’t have to create an entire vocabulary and syntax for your world (though more power to you if you do). Rhetoric is also a form of worldbuilding. Authors organize fictional realities by imbuing the familiar and unfamiliar with their own weight and meaning.

Employers do this as well: sometimes collectively through workplace culture, sometimes through policy, and sometimes through a lack of or opposition to policy (creating a policy makes companies beholden to it – most companies hate unions because they implement policies, and force employers to uphold them for everyone). Rhetoric-as-worldbuilding carves out a space between saying and meaning. This is ripe for exploration if you’re an author – or exploitation, if you’re an evil corporation.

For example: have you ever been told that your workplace is a family? Did it make you want to run like hell?

There’s a reason that both cults and soul-destroying employers invoke the word “family.” In these situations, family doesn’t imply a group of people with generations of shared history that engages in mutual aid. Family, instead, means unquestioned loyalty to those with power over you – power that can be exerted at will, and often with zero consequences.

Aside from cementing obedience, “family” also implies a structure outside and above the law. It means taking care of business yourself, and not bringing outsiders (such as unions or OSHA enforcement) into family business. But it’s impossible to take care of business when there’s an unequal power dynamic, especially when one person is abusing their power – both in biological families, and in workplaces. “Family” becomes both the bars of a cage and a blunt weapon of enforcement.

If you have no other measurement, maybe a boss who only values your productivity does feel like family. If you’re isolated and vulnerable, you want a family, even if it’s just a corporate facsimile of one.

In DEFEKT, I had to approach this corporate idea of "family" from the perspective of someone who believes in it, which is certainly something I’ve encountered plenty of times when organizing fellow workers. Derek doesn’t realize how harmful this idea is until (spoilers) it’s too late. He bears the consequences when LitenVärld’s corporate ethos is taken to its logical extreme. Exploitation, abuse of power, and violence against innocent end tables ensue.

Derek is forced to reconcile the gap between what is said and what it means, and he has to decide where he can go from there.

In FINNA and in DEFEKT, nearly all of the rhetorical worldbuilding is based on my experience or research. I’ve seen the corporate concept of family pushed during captive-audience union-busting meetings, and I've had it screamed in my face by a drunk coworker. The LitenVärld handbook excerpts are based on real employee handbooks –  particularly Facebook’s, which I found on this laudatory 2015 post on a design site. Derek’s interrogation by a manager uses unsettling interview questions I found suggested on Human Resource Management blogs. LitenVärld’s corporate ethos is twisted, but the rhetoric is very much grounded in reality.

This is what fiction does really well. All genres – but especially horror, absurdity, and comedy – magnify the unpleasant truths of reality to lay them bare. In the real world, good organizers can apply their own worldbuilding as an antidote, sharing dreams of better worlds. adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, argued that “all organizing is science fiction. we are bending the future, together, into something we have never experienced.” It’s the same set of skills, built on the same foundation.

What do you want out of your work? What support do you need to do it? What makes this work meaningful and fulfilling? And then, the kicker: what are you willing to do to make those things a reality? To change this dystopia? It’s one thing to be told that another world is possible. It’s a wholly different one to help someone imagine it for themselves.

Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and educator. A graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and University of Kansas’s MFA, Nino’s fiction has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy, Lambda, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has also written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a stagehand, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer.

Nino’s 2019 story collection Homesick won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize and was chosen as one of the top ten books on the ALA’s Over the Rainbow Reading List. Their novella Finna — about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes — was published by Tor.com in 2020, and its sequel Defekt will be out in April 2021. Nino’s YA horror debut, Burned and Buried, will be published by Holt Young Readers in 2022. They also write a sporadic newsletter, COOL STORY, BRO, about narrative storytelling and how cool it is. They are represented by DongWon Song of the Howard Morhaim Agency.

The cover for DEFEKT is in sepia tones and features a polo shirt topped by an expanded diagram of what looks like an android's head, perfectly mapped out for assembly.

Derek is LitenVärld's most loyal employee. He lives and breathes the job, from the moment he wakes up in a converted shipping container at the edge of the parking lot to the second he clocks out of work 18 hours later. But after taking his first ever sick day, his manager calls that loyalty into question. An excellent employee like Derek, an employee made to work at LitenVärld, shouldn't need time off.

To test his commitment to the job, Derek is assigned to a special inventory shift, hunting through the store to find defective products. Toy chests with pincers and eye stalks, ambulatory sleeper sofas, killer mutant toilets, that kind of thing. Helping him is the inventory team ― four strangers who look and sound almost exactly like him. Are five Dereks better than one?

Add Defekt to your tbr here. Order it from your local independent bookseller, or order it via Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers throughout the US and the UK. For international shipping, you can try Barnes & Noble. If you prefer audiobooks, here’s a Libro.fm link for Finna, the prequel to Defekt. You can also request Defekt from your local library — here’s how to get in touch with them. And if you need to order from the Bad River Website, here’s a link that will leverage your order to help get clean water to people who need it.

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In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.