This story was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was named Best of Soft Science Fiction by the Association of Soft Science Fiction Writers in 2002. I’m including it below in its entirety.
So one day these aliens leave a message on my machine.
They say, “This is the Intergalactic Space Alien Federation. We are taking over your planet with a constellation of war satellites and plan to enslave your species. We were wondering if you might write our brochure.”
The voice was bogus robo-talk and I figured it was a friend of mine joking around. But then came a knock at the door. It was the aliens ready to talk business. They didn’t care about my schedule, offering only general remarks about making it “worth my during.” I think they meant “while.”
I couldn’t very well keep them standing in the hallway. They looked like six foot slugs and smelled of cheap incense and burnt coffee. What would the neighbors think? I let them in and they sort of slipped and sloshed their way into my sharp little home office. As soon as they were settled, they brought up the idea of doing a brochure again. Right off I said: “No damn way.”
“Not in a million years could a brochure even begin to accomplish your objectives. That kind of world-wide endeavor clearly requires billboards, TV spots, direct mailers, print ads, in addition to several brochures. Not to mention a Web site,” I told them.
They were eating it up. Literally. I had to stop them before they devoured the last of my mock-up samples. I sensed that budget wasn’t an issue.
“You certainly came to the right person,” I said confidently. “Now, I think you will need to lose the ‘planetary take-over’ language. In today’s market, that’s not going to fly. People want cooperation, not colonization.”
“Think in terms of service,” I urged them. “Global conquest aside, what do you have to offer consumers?”
The question seemed to perplex them, although it’s hard to be sure. Each of their ten thousand eyes darted back and forth and a putrid new odor filled the room. Clearly, these were not the decision makers of the species. Christ, I hate middle management.
They said they would have to get back to me on my ideas about an international advertising blitzkrieg.
After they left and I was mopping up their goo, I couldn’t stop shaking my head. In all my years, I had never seen a more naive group of clientele. What in the world, I wondered aloud, did they think a single brochure could possibly accomplish? Here they are, a vast conglomerate of the universe’s higher intelligence, and they believed throwing a couple thousand into a glossy throw-away document would serve them Planet Earth on a saucer. It really makes you wonder about the state of marketing in other galaxies.
They were total boneheads, but I resigned myself to holding their anterior tentacles through the process – not literally, I hoped. My association with their organization could lead to innumerable other accounts for me, and I’ve certainly had worse projects. Even if the whole colonization plan failed, I figured the worst thing that happens to me is I go back to writing direct-mail campaigns about saving the endangered fruit fly or something. Hey, it’s a living.
Soon I was asked to come visit their “ship,” at 101 Market, downtown. It looked like any other glass and marble monument to the almighty dollar, although I would swear none of it had been there the week before. The lower floors were populated with what appeared by all signs to be human beings.
“Renters,” I was told when I inquired. “In this real estate market, who could resist?”
The top floors were restricted access, and that’s where the aliens were making themselves at home. They had an unconventional style of housekeeping, to put it mildly. Lets just say, I wasn’t going to be wearing those pumps ever again.
“We’ve thought about your branding ideas, and we are intrigued by the prospects,” the new VP of marketing explained from the other end of the trash-covered conference table. “Also, we are making a killing at the stock market, so our plan to throw your world into chaos is, at the moment, on the back reactor.”
“We are having some trouble with the service question,” a high-ranking manager added. “We cannot seem to uncover what it is we can offer your consumer.”
I explained that’s not really my specialty. “But just off the top of my head, I would say focus on your unique potential. Like, for example, do you guys do any cool tricks?”
“Cool tricks?” They got really hung up on that one. Imagine a board room with everyone throwing each other looks and multiply it by 40,000 eyes. I couldn’t get a read at all.
“Yeah, like can you cook an egg by just looking at it? Or maybe read minds?” More looks.
“Forget that, how about trying to solve some big human problem. Like can you provide time travel, raise the dead, or anything like that? You see, if you could just cure cancer, you would not only be stinking rich but also very, very popular. That may not matter to you guys, but it’s bloody good PR.”
“It stands for public relations.” I could see they had no idea what I was talking about, but I moved on. I was not about to start explaining the vagaries of that field.
“Maybe you can leverage your advanced technology in IT or telecom. If all else fails, you can always sell weaponry. Even if our world seems fairly peaceful, I assure you, there is always a market for killing machines.”
“Wouldn’t that mean giving humans the means to defend yourselves against our kind?” one young slug asked.
“Not necessarily,” I responded with authority, quieting a gurgling murmur of suspicion. “There are ways to make a bundle and still hold back the big guns — we Americans have been doing it for years. But what you folks need is a consultant. As a writer, words, not weapons, are my arsenal.”
I gave them a few names and told them to give me a call when they got to the copywriting stage. How did these things survive for two minutes in space? I marveled.
On my way down, an unfamiliar feeling came over me which I later recognized as the first inkling of fear. Even slower, it dawned on me why the creeping trepidation. On the conference table, spread amongst the half-chewed papers, was a book, the disturbing title of which was just coming into focus. One of those monsters was reading either a self-help manual or, equally bad, a recipe book.
The title: “Earthling Soup for The Soul.”
For the first time in my life, I faced a grave quandary. I had been going along for years putting words in the mouths of forest-rapers, slave-shop sport shoe makers and destroyers of indigenous people who made the world safe for strip-malls. I had always known that all is fair in business, that progress will go forward with or without me, and that I’d rather be writing credit card pitches to teenagers than monitoring the fry basket at Burger Queen.
I simply knew myself, and I knew what I needed first and foremost was a six figure income. I lived for the best things in life. I did not design this world, but I was going to thrive in it.
This new account, however, required more than merely acting as an inevitable cog in a vast machinery of evil. I was actually playing a key role in the potential overthrow of human sovereignty.
Okay, that wasn’t what really bothered me. The real bug in my bonnet was the idea that these things looked at humans not just as a civilization to be conquered or a market to be exploited, but as, well, food! I thought I would be insulated from the consequences of their conquest, but now I had to worry about being around when one of them got an appetite.
So I came here. I doubt those goo balls will bother with this inconsequential island. I feel relatively safe and I’ve actually been getting a lot of writing done, here on the beach.
The way I’ve come to look at this is: finally, I have something to put in my autobiography. And just between you and me, I think I’m sitting on literary. gold. Why, this book is going to start a whole new genre. The first science fiction memoir.
©2002 Alison Bowman
This story was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was named Best of Soft Science Fiction by the Association of Soft Science Fiction Writers in 2002.