"In Profit And In Loss" by Ian Creasey — story background

The rebalancers kept staring at Provaria with calculating eyes.  She checked her shares, but the price hadn't moved, not even after the touch of make-up she'd applied to her fourth-quarter earnings.  What does a girl have to do to get some attention round here?  If her shares didn't rise soon, she'd be thrown out of the index next rebalance.  Already hedge funds had sold her short, anticipating that index-trackers would dump her.  The vulture capitalists were circling, waiting to strip her assets and sell the empty shell.

I have worked in the financial services industry for many years, and I'm fascinated by the jargon that surrounds finance.  Often this involves taking ordinary words and giving them technical meanings, so that futures become something you can buy and sell.  Sometimes new words are coined to describe specialised phenomena: if you're considering buying a commodity future, you'll want to know whether it's in backwardation or contango.

I've occasionally put interesting jargon words into stories.  For example, the word "rebalancing" has an innocuous technical meaning in the context of portfolio benchmarks.  However, a couple of my stories use it as a sinister-sounding punishment, so if that if a character breaks the law, he doesn't go to prison — he's sent for rebalancing.

I'd long wanted to go further and write a story that made greater use of jargon in a more cohesive way, with the aim of producing a specific thematic effect.  In 2004, Jay Lake announced that he was editing an anthology called TEL : Stories, "dedicated to the idea that there is no such thing as stylistic excess.  I'm interested in fiction that is ornamented, baroque, rococo — wherever your highest flights of fancy can take your pen, we'd like to follow."  I viewed this as a challenge, the ideal opportunity to write the story I'd been thinking about but hadn't yet dared to attempt.

The result was "In Profit And In Loss", a story that uses corporations as characters.  The jargon is all correct, and to the reader it may be slightly alienating, but to the characters it's direct and personal.  For characters who happen to be corporations, financial jargon is the language of love.

I amused myself by including the mission statements for companies I used to work for, but in the context of the story these aren't the vacuous slogans they are in real life.  When a corporation is a character, her mission statement is her manifesto, and her logo is a distillation of personal fashion.

Of course, jargon in itself can't carry a story.  I crafted a plot — with conflict and resolution — based on the corporate life-cycle.  The narrative was hard to write because the conceit of corporations-as-characters kept threatening to fall off the tightrope of believability.  I don't think I've ever sweated as much over a mere 1,800 words.  But after much honing, I eventually reached a draft I was happy with, and I sent it off.

When Jay Lake accepted the story for his anthology, I felt that I'd met the challenge, and in some way proved myself as a writer — I could successfully write "stylistic excess".  Normally I restrain myself: most of my stories are written in a less flamboyant manner, without indulging in look-how-clever-I-am prose pyrotechnics.  But I view this story as my Style-Monkey Certification: if I ever want to let rip, I can tear up the joint.

Page last updated: 22 May 2015