This soap opera is no ordinary drama…
So, two things: first, this is one of those especially weird attempts to market science fiction to teen girls by skipping the science part and just making goofy things happen with the explanation of COMPUTERS, DUH; the other is that I didn’t realize this was the second book in a series, so I may be a little more lost than usual when the author starts name dropping supporting characters and “Operation AARDVARK” like I’m supposed to know who/what they are.
The Plot: I was able to deduce that in the first book, Our Heroine, Sidney Scott Webster, foiled some sort of computer crime, with the assistance of new guy in town and Yuppie-in-training Joshua Rivington III, and they bickered their way into a high school romance, with the help of Samantha, a top-secret computer developed by Sidney’s father and programmed to read Sidney’s mind. Sidney also has ESP, no big whoop.
As the book opens, Sidney has founded SSW Enterprises, a computer “consultation” business/detective agency and Joshua (a supposedly lovable male chauvinist) is working for her. Samantha has been relocated from the high school to Sidney’s bedroom office:
Samantha’s a computer. A one of a kind, SMN Gemini prototype computer, with extra-special features. The ability to be operated by brain waves, for one thing. So far I am the only person who has managed to learn how to do that.
Sidney, Joshua and Samantha get their first job courtesy of Sidney’s aunt, Ms. Jane Palmer Kirby, the executive producer of the long-running daytime soap Lust for Life. Ratings are in the toilet after a plot introducing Celia, a Free Spirit, has taken a bizarre turn at the behest of the series’ creator and head writer, Margaret Geller. Hired ostensibly to crunch data and find out which plot lines have performed best for the soap historically (and what their competitors are doing that works), the teens are soon drawn into backstage intrigue when it is revealed that a practical joker (OR IS IT????) has been running amok on the set, terrorizing cast and crew.
Sidney and Joshua get a taste of how the pranks have taken a nasty turn when the arrive at the studio the next day: watching the taping of a climactic Friday cliffhanger, Leslie, the actress playing Celia opens a music box to find… a dead rat!!!! AHHHHH!
Joshua wrestles the rat away from Leslie, despite the protests of the union prop man, intending to give it to Sidney’s father for a necropsy (it is unclear what exactly Mr. Webster does. Develops mind-reading computers and dissects dead rats, mostly?)
Aunt Jane also reveals that the show’s sponsor is demanding things be shaken up, and both Margaret and Leslie are on the chopping block. Margaret because she’s made a lot of enemies in the business, most recently by forcing a demonic possession/voodoo storyline on the show that nobody wants, Leslie because she has been the vehicle for said storyline. Both are Sidney and Joshua’s top suspects for the saboteur, especially after Leslie tries to call dibs on the rat:
“Leslie is used to lab specimens and wanted to take this one home. And she’s worried the joker’s no quite sane. Also, she’s not in the least bit worried about her character being dealt with.”
“She’s an actress. She could be putting on an act.”
“I’d have felt the vibrations,” I said with dignity. “By the way there’s rumor going around that her character has been rubbing off on her. Someone either thinks she’s the joker or wants that thought.”
Things go from bad to worse when the tape for the entire episode goes missing, necessitating that the cast go on live!
Sidney has a vision of reshooting the scene, this time when Celia/Leslie opens the jewelry box there is not a rat, but a bomb, killing her character and solving THAT problem. Apparently, her aunt thinks that sounds great, and delivers the news to both Leslie and Margaret that they’re fired. Both take the news in stride until the next day, when the scene is actually broadcast, and Margaret loses it when Aunt Jane kills off her “creation”. Margaret scarcely has time to be escorted out when an overhead monitor drops on Aunt Jane’s head, Sidney pushing her out of the way just in time and leaving her with a broken leg. That night a badly shaken Sidney receives a call from Leslie announcing that she’s been named the new head writer!
Dead rats and murder attempts aside, SSW Enterprises has been hired to do the unglam market research for Lust For Life, but Sidney and Joshua neatly outsource that to trio of their high school chums: “hackers” Ceegee and Steve, and Sidney’s unintellectual BFF Cordelia who’s just perfect because she watches all the soaps!
The author is a little foggy on what that concerns, but the nerds bring over their computers to Sidney’s home office and “write programs” to “analyze data” while Cordelia reads Margaret Geller’s Lust for Life Bible (LUCKY!)
Sidney’s trust in Leslie is slowly growing, especially after she learns that she was on the verge of quitting anyway, due to a high-risk pregnancy. She also shares with Sidney the long-circulating rumors about Margaret’s reputation as a Dragon Lady in the corporate board room, and turbulent personal life (divorce, daughter dead of a drug overdose).
But Sidney gets Samantha to record data while she is in Alpha State (asleep) and produce a report on who the top suspects could be: Margaret is at the top of the list, as is Leslie, but also Ross Taylor, an actor who has mysteriously turned down better roles to stay on the soap (and is having an affair with Aunt Jane); a number of “old guard” actors who are seeing their screen time reduced in favor of the younger and sexier, and a number of cast a crew members with gambling debts, drinking problems, and drug problems.
But when Margaret is first poisoned with a drugged cigarette and then monoxide-d with her own stove and rushed to the hospital, Joshua puts aside all of his ethics and does some hacking himself, learning that Margaret’s ex-husband died under mysterious circumstances (OR DID HE???) and her late daughter was married to… Aunt Jane’s actor-boyfriend! Who is being blackmailed by Margaret! OF COURSE!
I mean, I guess.
Sidney has a sudden psychic urge that leads her up onto the catwalk, where she sees a mysterious figure messing with the flies, they have a struggle and Sidney sends a psychic SOS to Samantha, who sends Joshua just in time. Mysterious figure goes over the rail and splat onto the floor of the soundstage, revealing herself to be…. Margaret. We’re really not given any explanation as to why Margaret was so crazy, except:
“She’s a full-blown neurotic and a first-class witch. You should hear what the boys in the boardroom call her. It’s a lot stronger than Dragon Lady.”
Cordelia’s market research reveals that Lust For Life has historically received its highest rating for weddings, so Leslie throws together a triple-wedding plot taped on location in New Jersey (!!!) The show is saved, everyone gets to be a fancy-dress extra. The end.
Sign It Was Written In 1985 Department:
“The more glamor, the less security. And soap operas are a youth-market business.”
Cover Art Department: What is even going on there? Are they fighting or making out?