Thursday, September 8, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #18

In a previous blog post I unveiled the cover for my forthcoming Alien Contact anthology (Night Shade Books, November) along with a recap listing of the first 17 stories. The anthology is now available for preorder on  And here is story #18:

"If Nudity Offends You"
by Elizabeth Moon

This story was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1988, and is approximately 4,900 words in length.

I read this Elizabeth Moon story when it first came out, and loved it for the young female protagonist's strength and attitude, for the way she focused on her day-to-day living -- money concerns, boys, clothing, makeup, work, etc. -- totally oblivious to the finer details of what was actually going on around her.

Nearly 20 years later, in 2007, I had an opportunity to read this story once again as I compiled the contents for Elizabeth's short story collection, Moon Flights, which was also published by Night Shade Books. (This short story collection is well worth your serious consideration.) Then, a year later, when I was putting together the proposal for Alien Contact, this story was at the top of my list for inclusion in the anthology.

I asked the author for her thoughts on "If Nudity Offends You," and she wrote about the story's genesis. Be aware that there are definite spoilers in what follows:
In 1979 we moved to a very small town in central Texas. Although I had grown up in what I thought was a small town, this one was much smaller and much more insular (much less so now). I enjoyed the differences, and especially the way oral storytelling—from short anecdotes to long involved family histories—had survived.

"If Nudity Offends You" resulted from the collision of two stories told me by a local woman. Her brother took a job as a rural mail carrier, and one day he had to deliver a registered mail package to a mobile home in a remote area. When he got there, a neatly printed sign by the door said "If nudity offends you, please do not ring this bell."

He thought it was a joke of some kind (surely no one would really come to the door with no clothes on) and he had to get a signature for the package. So he rang the bell. And sure enough, a woman came to the door with no clothes on and he tried not to look as she calmly took the package and signed the form. But he told his sister, who told me, of his astonishment that the woman with no clothes was brown all over—no tan lines—and she wasn't the least embarrassed.

Hmm, I thought, that's the kernel of something. It's an anecdote, not story, but it's oddball enough to be interesting. I was writing mostly science fiction at the time, and didn't initially see anything SFnal in it.

A year or so later, the same woman told me about her son's girlfriend, who lived in a trailer park where there'd been trouble with people stealing power by switching the cords to someone else's plug. Her son's girlfriend had been one of several victims; her son had traced the cord to the wrong plug and then confronted the power thieves. This anecdote vibrated in the depths, but not enough to generate a story when I was neck deep in a different story. Again, a kernel, but nothing more.

Then I overheard a few phrases of an argument between a couple of old men sitting on a bench downtown. "How could you tell if they were aliens? I know people who don't act much like people."

Almost instantly, the kernels merged, formed a story's critical mass. What if the alien lived next door? In a trailer park? What kind of person would see an alien naked and not notice? Someone for whom noticing another person's nakedness—when not sexually involved with them—would be unthinkable. Someone so focused on their own concerns, their immediate needs and desires, that they could miss an unexpected reality.

I showed the story, when it was finished, to an older woman who volunteered at the little town library. She read it, laughed, and then looked thoughtful. "I wonder who does live next door, we ever know?"
I read this story and I can picture in my mind the flat lands of Texas, and a large, dusty plot of land, set up in a grid of mobile homes, surrounded by tall grass and scrub bush. This may not be a realistic picture of Texas, but I grew up watching a lot of Saturday matinee westerns (and science fiction movies, too -- see this blog post), so that's the image that I have, regardless. [Texans, please forgive me!] Here's an excerpt from the opening of the story:
When Louanne opened her light bill, she about had a fit. She hadn't had a bill that high since the time the Sims family hooked into her outlet for a week, when their daddy lost his job and right before they got kicked out of the trailer park for him being drunk and disorderly and the kids stealing stuff out of trash cans and their old speckled hound dog being loose and making a mess on Mrs. Thackridge's porch....
Anyhow, when Louanne saw that $82.67, she just threw it down on the table and said, "Oh my God," in that tone of voice her grandma never could stand, and then she said a bunch of other things like you'd expect, and then she tried to figure out who she knew at the power company, because there was no way in the world she'd used that much electricity, and also no way in the world she could pay that bill.
Actually, I can not only picture all of this, but I can even smell the humid heat, the dusty air, too -- but then that's just me....

One final, brief excerpt: The morning after Louanne's uneasy meetings with her electricity-stealing neighbors:
She overslept, and had to run for it in the morning, dashing out of the door, slamming into her car, and riding the speed limit all the way to work. It wasn't until noon, when she paid the bill at the power company with the twenties [which the neighbors had given her], tossed the crumpled envelope in the wastebasket by the counter, and put the change in her billfold, that she thought of the foreigners again. Something nagged her about them, something she should have noticed in the morning's rush, but she didn't figure it out until she got home and saw lot 17 as bare as a swept floor.

They were gone. They had left in the night, without waking her or anyone, and now they were gone.

The story does, in fact, end well for Louanne; she even snags a new boyfriend.

[Continue to Story #19]

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