Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Futurist by James P. Othmer








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James P. Othmer’s debut novel, The Futurist, will make you laugh while you read it, and lead you to thinking after you’ve finished it. Satire is always a challenge to pull off, and business-related satire can be even more difficult. Despite coming across as trying too hard at times, a typical debut shortcoming, Othmer succeeds in placing a believeable central character, J.P. Yates, the “founding father of the Coalition of the Clueless,” into global situations that are both plausible and entertaining. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Threats and Opportunities,” pp. 30-35:


He once fired a man on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. He once spent the night at a wellness conference holding a bingeing MacArthur Fellow’s puking head over a toilet. He once wrote the introduction to a book he never read, Beehive Management: How Life in the Honeycomb Translates to Winning in the Workplace. A re­cent lecture circuit saw him speak on successive days to a leading pesticide manufacturer and the Organic Farmers of America and receive standing ovations from both.



Yates doesn’t remember whether he was simply booed offstage or physically removed from the premises. He does remember that two people actually clapped, an Irish journalist and a security guard, but they were immediately suppressed by the glares of those who were fairly sure that they had been offended.

This is what Blevins said: “Nice job, fuckface.”

This is what the aide to the Johannesburg minister of business development said: “You have disappointed many people who are determined to make your remaining minutes in our country as dif­ficult as possible.”

This is what Faith B. Popcorn said: “Speak for yourself, ass-hole.”

This is what Marjorie said: “The truth is better than sex, yes?”

This is what he said: “No.”

This is what the reporter from Pravda said: “Do you hold your­self personally accountable for the lives of the dying civilian cosmonauts?”

This is what Yates said: “Yes.”

And this is what Amanda Glowers says as she takes him by the arm and steers him into an anteroom: “That was one of the most spectacular suicides I have ever seen.”

“Thank you.”

“There are some people I want you to meet.”

“Where, in the back seat of a car, with me in a black hood on a lonely Johannesburg road?”

She hands him a plastic key card. “They’re in my room. Four-sixteen.”

“Aren’t you coming?”

“I don’t want to. And they don’t want me to. Separation of this and that.”


She smiles, shrugs. “You tell me.”



He doesn’t knock, just swipes himself in. In the elevator he imag­ined they’d be sitting at attention at a table facing the door, expect­ing him. Perhaps a clenched-fist type in the shadows, coming forth to give him a perfunctory gun check. But instead the door quietly opens onto two middle-aged white men lying on a queen-sized bed. One is asleep. The other is fumbling with the clicker to turn off the muted pornographic movie he’s been watching.

“I can come back. I mean, I don’t want to ruin the dramatic conclusion or anything.”

The clicker guy stands up, makes a martial show of powering the TV down. Clicker as nunchaku. Clicker as six-shooter. “You could have fucking knocked.”

Yates holds up his swipe key. “Didn’t need to.”

The other guy opens his eyes, rubs his face. He looks first at the blank TV, then vapidly at Yates.

“I’m Yates.”

Clicker man nods. “I’m Johnson.” He smiles and gestures to his partner. “And so is he.”

“Lovely. Are you twins, or is the surname a mandatory require­ment for entrance into the club?”

“Hilarious,” says upright Johnson. “Listen, Glowers thinks you were made for this. I think you’re wired all wrong. But you clearly have a gift. What you just did this morning—the Coalition of the Clueless, the philosophical task of our age—good stuff.”

“It’s called a reckless disregard for one’s livelihood. The gist of the speech is that my so-called gift is a sham.”

Upright Johnson waves him off. Prone Johnson lights a ciga­rette.

“What agency are you guys with?”

“None. We work for a company that is loosely affiliated with the military, a bit more snugly affiliated with the party in power. When he’s not sleeping, Johnson here sometimes works for a con­sortium called the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. Would you like a scotch?”

Yates looks at a bottle of Glenfiddich on the table. “Sure. I mean no. What am I thinking? Definitely no. May I leave now?”

“Any time. But I haven’t given you our pitch. And since you’re fairly well professionally neutered for the foreseeable future, I thought you’d give us some consideration.”

“Go ahead. Seduce me.”

“We want you to tell us what you think of the world.”

“Right now? In one hundred words or less? Book length? Or small enough to fit on a bumper sticker?”

“We want you to do what you always do but with a more socio­logical, geopolitical bent. We want you to travel to the corners of the planet, occasionally on assignment, and tell us what you think about what they think.”


“The citizens of the world.”

“That’s easy. They hate us. Every shade of hate. Shit, there are already libraries filled with books about that.”

“But the degree and variety of hate changes by the hour. By the longitudinal click. And you are right about the hate and the surface politics. But we’re more interested in an assessment of the vibe, the emotional intangibles. The fads, the waves, what you people call the memes. What is the global preoccupation? What ideological truths are being crammed into the minds of unsuspecting children?”

“Didn’t you guys already try this a long time ago? The terror­ism futures market. What are the odds on the next attack, bloody insurrection, assassination, violent coup, subtle regime change?”

“Space disaster?”


“The futures market, which, for the record, we had nothing to do with, was poorly conceived. Should never have been released, or even leaked for public consumption, which rendered it susceptible to the manipulation of the would-be perpetrators themselves. This is much more about the gathering of emotional intelligence for probabilistic risk assessment. You know how insurance companies calculate to mitigate? We calculate to prevent.”

The other Johnson clears his throat. “And to enact. In certain situations, we might ask you to give a well-placed sound bite on be­half of our interests.”

“Why me? Why not a numbers cruncher? Why not a policy guy? Why not go to the appropriate wonk? Or to the inhabitants of some corporately funded, ill-intentioned think tank?”

“Because they’re not intuitive. They’re binary. Rational. Just like you said today. Black-white. Yes-no. We use them, but wonks and numbers crunchers can’t read the tea leaves.”

“Neither can I. In fact, I don’t even know what a wonk is.”

“Intuition is integral to understanding the probability of catas­trophe. Insurance companies can assess the likelihood of earth­quake, hurricane, nuclear plant failure. How many drunken sixteen-year-old boys will crash their parents’ SUV into an oak tree on prom night? For that, it is entirely possible to ballpark a number. But not when one is calculating to prevent or to change the course of global events. We can use advanced game-theory techniques to emulate human decisions and geopolitical trends, to model the ma­licious intent of a potential adversary. But you can only play and cal­culate so much re the individual psyche. Re the group psyche.”

“And re me? You want me to. . .”

Johnson pulls an index card out of his pocket and clears his throat. “Go wherever you want. You will have golden credit and a golden ticket. Go wherever you want and watch the world and lis­ten to its voices. Take its temperature, its resting and agitated pulse. Listen to its sins and chronicle its beauty. All the while imagining the absolute worst. The most abject combinations of the tragic and the horrible. The unforeseen. The unthought-of. Big and small. Go anywhere on earth. Consider the reality. Hope for the best, imagine the worst, and come up with a tone of voice. A way to speak to these people. On behalf of these people. Or do something more dra­matic—discover a theme, an emerging pattern. An unstoppable wave in the ripple stages. It’s quite heroic, actually. Being able to forecast and perhaps prevent the unspeakable.”

“That’s nice. Did you write it?”

The other Johnson nods. “He worked all morning on it.”

“Well, it does sound. . . interesting. But I can’t. I have no pro­clivity for this. I’m not global. I’m not worldly or political. I haven’t even voted in the last three presidential elections. I’m a fake.”

Prone Johnson stirs, taps his head. “But you have this.”

“Plus I’m a coward. If you think I’m going to the so-called hot spots, you’re crazy. The Gazas. The Indonesias. The EuroDisneys.”

“We understand. In the rare instance that we actually ask you to go to a specific location, your safety will not be compromised in the least. Whatever you are comfortable with. All that we ask is that you do what you’ve always done and tell us the parts you never dared to tell others.”

“Maybe you didn’t notice, but I just renounced all of this. I saw the light. I’m going to turn my life around.”

Both Johnsons are standing now. One hands the other an enve­lope. “We’re not stopping you. But it might be easier to turn it around with this.” He holds out the envelope. “Everything you need is in here. The credit cards, the e-mail addresses. There is one number to call for all your travel needs. Hotels, cars, flights. Just tell them the credit card number. If you decide not to play, we will ter­minate the cards in twenty-four hours. The cash is yours either way. If you decide to continue, a matching sum will be transferred to your Citibank account, which clearly can use a little help, every seven days.”

“I have a lot of stock options.”

“We know. And we’re not impressed.”

“How will we stay in contact?”

“Check your e-mail. All we expect in return is some kind of regular update. A log or diary. Bullet points of things you find in­teresting. Once a week or so. Do we have a deal?”

Yates stares at the outstretched hand. In twenty-four hours he’s gone from run-of-the-mill sellout to self-destructive moralist to what? The ultimate sellout? A shadow patriot? A job? He doesn’t know. He had wanted to walk away from it with dignity. No, that’s not true. He had wanted to destroy himself, perhaps with dignity, but implosion was the primary goal. And now this, an option that is utterly devoid of dignity and likely to lead to the darkest of all pos­sible worlds. Which is precisely what the jilted, hungover, morally confused Yates finds so compelling. Why not? Why the hell not?

“Can I travel with an assistant?”

They look at each other, shrug. “Sure.”

He takes the envelope, shakes the hand.

The other Johnson unlocks the door and stands behind it as he opens it. “Of course none of this ever happened.”

“Not even the porno movie?”


If you’ve ever rolled your eyes while listening to a buzz-worded speech at an industry convention, you’ll love reading The Futurist. If you’ve traveled enough on business to awake many mornings with an uncertainty as to where you are, you’ll enjoy the exploits of J. P. Yates. If you are concerned that we’re likely to get the future we deserve, reading The Futurist will give you plenty to think about.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2006 issue of Executive Times


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