"Job Inaction," by Timothy Zahn
Reviewed February 24, 2009
I'm probably not the only 1990s teenager who first became acquainted with Timothy Zahn through his Thrawn trilogy. They were the first Star Wars novels I read, and were a major departure in every good respect from the Star Trek tie-in books that had previously been my go-to standard. Before that, though, Zahn started out with short stories like everyone else from Heinlein and Clark at the top to myself, way way way at the bottom.
One such story was his "Job Inaction," which I found in the November 9, 1981 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. In it, Zahn explores the near-future world of 2009, where Charley Addison shows up at work on Monday morning to discover that a computer glitch fired him on Friday night. Though this is hardly out of character for the actual 2009 in which we find ourselves, the problem Charley faces isn't an economic meltdown but red tape - in Zahn's 2009 the employment system has been reformed, and he can't get his job back - his only recourse is to an employment lottery that has replaced the welfare system.
Much like any other lottery you'd care to name, the chances of winning in the employment lottery are long. Winners in Zahn's world have the privilege of reporting to whatever job they were in the running for to serve out a four-day week, regardless of whether or not they have any qualifications for the job.
"This is an equal opportunity system... it really does work," she assured him. "Maybe a bit slower than the old methods, but it spreads the jobs and wealth around more evenly and eliminates the need for a welfare system. And that saves all of us money."
The story follows Addison's struggles against the red tape of the system, wanting nothing more than to go back to the old job that he held, he knew, and was comfortable in, as he wages his fight all the way to the top. The manner in which he finally cuts a hole in the hedge maze is satisfying, and maybe even light-hearted. Had I been writing this story, the ending would have tilted a lot farther toward the "righteous vengeance" end of the spectrum.
Ordinarily a story like this might be a bit didactic, but Zahn deftly dumps his info - Addison's been on his job for thirty-five years, long enough to never reckon with the story's new employment system, and so provides a lens for the readers to find out how it works. Though I have a bit of difficulty believing that it would be entirely foreign to someone who lived in that world, it's a necessary transfer of knowledge to keep the story running.
In all, I thought it not only an interesting story, but another one of those precious windows on how what's our present was viewed by the past. Track it down and give it a read, says I.