I was four years old when my father took me to the theater to see “Star Wars.”
From that moment, until that calamitous day in 1999 when “The Phantom Menace” debuted, the “Star Wars” trilogy was everything storytelling should be.
In the past few decades, stories like the ones I grew up loving have been in short supply, leaving me to ask:
- Where are the terrifying villains that could pose some ultimate challenge to the heroes trying to take them down?
- Where are the noble but flawed heroes who grope their way to success?
- Where are the damsels in distress?
- Where are the characters whose qualities as an individual are more important than their race and their sex?
And, of course …
- Why do these modern movies suck?
Hollywood in Toto helped to introduce me to The Critical Drinker. It was the Drinker who reverse-engineered the cultural and political rules that govern modern storytelling and why those rules result in terrible movies.
After watching a few dozen Drinker videos, I was convinced that I could create an epic adventure better than anything Hollywood is churning out these days: one that ignores the rules supposedly demanded by “modern audiences” and the mobs of fanatics on social media.
Further, I was determined to create something special for a very ordinary reason: I wanted to impress a girl. My creation had to be good because the girl I needed to impress is a very special one: my wife of 25 years.
That leads me to my concept
Imagine a computer algorithm that can know your hopes, dreams and deepest desires better than even your friends and family do. It can use that knowledge to persuade you to do whatever its owner wants you to do.
The possibility that such a technology could one day exist seemed terrifyingly plausible, given that tech giants sit atop enormous mountains of data about every one of us. Further, with all of the devices in our midst, they can spy on us and communicate with us in a multitude of ways.
Having learned something about the psychology of influence, I found it easy to think of persuasion as a rule-bound endeavor, much like the game of chess or the Japanese game called Go. Long before the world stood in amazement at the capabilities of ChatGPT, I had become deeply unsettled by the abilities of an AI program called AlphaZero that had revolutionized both chess and Go (mastery of Go had eluded computer science far longer than chess).
What if AI could master persuasion the way it has mastered these games? What use would it be put to? The first use seemed obvious. It would be used for the same purpose as any new technology: to get girls. But what then? The results amazed and terrified me.
A Truly Intimidating Villain
I began to imagine a tech billionaire who owns an algorithm that can persuade and manipulate people more effectively than any human being can. Algorithm in hand, Neville first uses his program to seduce Meghan Peters, a Hollywood starlet whom he could never attract on his own.
Neville’s problem is that he owes the Chinese a lot of money. They come to him with their concerns that his program, while effective, is not perfect. They’re tired of having to imprison dissidents for political crimes. It reflects badly on China on the world stage. They threaten to collect on their debts and ruin Neville if he doesn’t perfect his program.
Neville is unable to meet their demand. The sheer complexity of the world makes the task of perfecting the program as he originally conceived it impossible. He and his team find a clever but terrifying workaround, one that solves the problem in the most horrifying way imaginable. His new weapon of persuasion interests both Chinese and American politicians.
Trying to ‘Out-Crichton’ Michael Crichton
To make Neville’s evil plan terrifyingly plausible, I had to take the reader through it one devious step at a time. If the reader doesn’t see what’s coming, it has grown organically out of the story. But if the reader begins to sense what’s coming, the eventual payoff is even more terrifying.
To accomplish that, I realized I would have to “out-Crichton Michael Crichton” by filling my budding techno-thriller with lots of real-world techno: physics, mathematics, complex systems, psychology, computer science, and network science.
Additionally, having spent the past decade on a program of self-education, I was also able to fill the work with law, art, history, opera, and political intrigue, all of it working to enhance the plot and deepen the characters.
A Diverse Cast of Heroes
What kind of heroes could overcome the plans of an AI-backed genius whose work is by nature secret?
Realistic but positive and inspiring, I designed a cast of the most American of heroes: ordinary and imperfect characters of every background who have, (in varying degrees) some of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Not knowing exactly what they’re up against, they all get in over their heads and they have to find their way out. Only one of my male characters is an incompetent laughingstock. Without having to cater to “modern audiences” I was able to build female characters who are genuinely strong rather than the “strong female character” we see so much on screen.
The men in Kingmaker are the kind you would recognize from your everyday life rather than the “hyperactive hyper-emotional hyper-talkative children forced into men’s bodies” that today’s “insecure, effeminate, emotionally fragile Hollywood screenwriters imagine men to be.”
The heroes in Kingmaker aren’t trying to establish some unreachable Utopia. They don’t strive to be “empowered” because the desire to control the lives of others hardly seems like a noble calling fit for a hero.
Instead, they’re concerned with the same things we all are concerned with: finding work, finding love, finding meaning, finding forgiveness, exposing injustice. The obstacles they face are the same obstacles we all face: constant lying from our “betters,” utopian educators alienating our children with indoctrination, and the sheer amount of effort it takes to truly grow and achieve anything worthwhile.
In their pursuit, they show us all what we can become with courage, conviction, humility, and effort. In their quest, they uphold the best of our nation’s legacy and urge us to defend it from those who would tear it down.
As a writer, I wanted to experience the world from a multitude of perspectives by creating characters who are different from me. Some of my heroes are different from me in the trivial dimension of race. But they’re also different on the more important dimensions of experience, profession, and worldview.
For instance, although I’m an orthodox Jew, one of my heroes is a Catholic priest.
Meet the Honeypot
After reading about Chinese spy Christine Fang who seduced Congressman Eric Swalwell and other American politicians, I just had to have a honeypot spy of my own to spice up the plot. The result was Mei Hua Chang, a dangerous wild card in the plot of Kingmaker. She’s a femme fatale whose sex appeal is only exceeded by her cunning.
To execute her character properly, I could only get her clothes off but once. In all of her other interactions, she’s required to play the card’s she’s dealt to perfection. I always relished the challenge of writing her scenes.
WWCDD: What Would Critical Drinker Do?
By the time I finished planning the novel out, I had something like five plots going simultaneously. It reminded me of the HBO series Game of Thrones (but unlike George RR Martin, I actually finished writing the book, and unlike the HBO series, I provided an ending that works).
In order to tame all those plots into a coherent whole, I made a careful study of my characters, their backgrounds and their emotions. I attended to the practicalities of what my characters were attempting to do.
Inspired by Critical Drinker, I made a careful study of setup and payoff. Every plot point either had to set up an important payoff later or be the payoff of an earlier setup. (My daughter Leah nicknamed the book “Chekhov’s Arsenal.”) That one Critical Drinker video became the inspiration for an entire method of writing that guided the whole process.
A writer could do much worse than to ask himself, “What would the Drinker do?”
Don’t Hate Your Audience
Critical Drinker observes that modern screenwriters, bent on replacing legacy characters with their mediocre creations, seem to hate their fans. I was raised in a different generation. I drew on the teaching of Dale Carnegie.
He said of the great American magician Howard Thurston, that he would remind himself before every performance how much he loved his audience. I did something very similar before sitting down to write. That was easy because I was writing to impress the love of my life.
More than that. I began sending pieces of Kingmaker to my friend Martin. He devoured them and asked for more. Energized by his encouragement, I was able to keep on writing even when the going got difficult.
Critical Drinker once commented: “One of the most disgusting hallmarks of modern screenwriting is the denigration of the past in a desperate attempt to elevate the present. The bastardization of other people’s work to service your own.”
Kingmaker skewers all of those who would deconstruct the arts, architecture, and legacy popular culture IPs, revealing them to be dangerous, power-hungry operatives. It does so in ways that spring organically from and contribute to the plot.
For instance, when it dawns on my two main heroes that their favorite comic book movie series has lost interest in telling the great stories they once told, that realization dawns on each of them at different times. That difference moves the plot forward.
While Critical Drinker takes to task what the custodians of popular culture have done to the IPs they have been entrusted with, others have pointed out that the same thing is happening to “high culture” as well. Kingmaker addresses that and imagines what the next step will be for the arts if those who would deconstruct them get their way.
Something for Everyone
If a technology like Neville’s existed, which political party would be the one to use it?
The answer is obvious: either of them. Any political party can have ruthless operatives, opportunists, and time-serving apparatchiks. It should be obvious to every American that one party isn’t the domain of well-meaning idealists while the other is the one for evil wannabe tyrants. If Machiavelli has taught us anything he’s taught us that the public would never know which leader is virtuous and which one is simply an effective Machiavellian. Party affiliation can’t help the public tell the good politicians from the bad.
While Kingmaker addresses issues such as lawfare and election integrity, which is currently associated with the political right, that issue is genuinely critical to all Americans. Governments that are secure enough in their power that they don’t have to answer to the people have done some tremendously depraved things to keep and increase that power.
In those one-party states such as Saddam’s Iraq, it was extremely dangerous to be a member of the Ba’ath party.
When offered Neville’s tool to increase their power, the villains in Kingmaker do not hesitate to add members of their own party to the proscription list.
In any political system, the strategy for getting and keeping power is the same: reward the people who keep you in power and punish those who oppose you. That goes for a dictator who depends on a small number of people to keep him in power and a Republic that (hopefully) governs with the consent of the people at large.
The evil Party operatives in Kingmaker are not evil because of which party they choose. They’re evil because as Machiavelli and Game Theory teach us, good politics frequently requires evil behavior.
No Easy Answers to Complex Questions
Unlike modern moviemakers, I don’t dictate my answers to complex questions to my readers. In fact, I have no idea how to answer many of the thorny questions posed by Kingmaker. For instance, what is consent in an age of powerful persuasion?
How do we make it so that the government truly can be said to have the consent of the governed? Did Meghan Peters genuinely consent to Jerry Neville’s advances after she had been seduced by his computer algorithm? I invite the reader to think through questions like these about the topic of consent with me. I don’t attempt to answer them, even in a book entitled Consent.
One reason I don’t attempt an answer is an important truth that Jerry Neville knows about the human mind: our brains are not sophisticated enough to genuinely understand a board game any more complicated than checkers. Equipped with that kind of brain, I realize that we’re going to have to grope our way through these issues and learn from experience rather than trusting some smarty-pants who says he’s figured it all out for us.
DIY or Die
I didn’t want anything about Kingmaker to be dictated to me by a publishing industry that is busy editing out the “offensive” bits of James and the Giant Peach. Instead, I followed my vision.
Paul Joseph Watson has famously argued that populism is the new punk. Every step of this project has been influenced by the 1970s punk ethos of “DIY or Die.” I immersed myself in the nitty-gritty of every stage of this production: background learning, writing, editing, formatting, and the recording and editing of the audiobook.
The only thing I didn’t do was design the cover. That was left to my friend Richard Smotherman.
The result was a product I was so confident about that I put Consent, the first volume of Kingmaker on YouTube for free.
Facing down the impossible odds
If the culture war against those trying to destroy our heritage is to be won, we have to become creators. It’s a risky business. The odds against hitting it big are long. The thought of daring greatly and having the world reject your work is not one that everybody can bear. Still, it must be done.
Simply finishing Kingmaker has been a reward unto itself. For the past two years, I have gotten to experience the greatest drama I will ever encounter. I started with a simple premise and thought as deeply as I could about what I had created.
Thinking deeply about simple things leads to wonderful discoveries. I was constantly delighted and surprised by what my characters did and the way the plot twisted and turned as I tried to wrestle five stories into a coherent whole. All the while, the project was spiced by the persistent question I asked of myself: Can you do this?
For two years, I willed that answer to be “yes.” No matter what, for the rest of my life, I will be able to say that I stared down those impossible odds and kept going when I thought I couldn’t. In the process, I created something wonderful.
I hope you will take that risk and join me in creating culture. Our nation needs it. You might even impress your wife.
Attorney and polymath Ari H. Mendelson is the author of the “Kingmaker” trilogy. His previous novel was “Bias Incident: The World’s Most Politically Incorrect Novel.” Before beginning the Kingmaker Trilogy, Mendelson dedicated himself to home schooling his four children. You can find his books at Amazon.com and GoodReads. Follow him on Twitter (X) via @kingmakerseries.