Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #22: "Exo-Skeleton Town" by Jeffrey Ford (Part 1 of 4)

Just a quick opening comment: I've been blogging each week about the stories in Alien Contact in their order of appearance in the book. What readers need to know is that I've kept all the authors who contributed to this anthology in the dark as well. So as I reveal one story each week, the authors themselves also learn with whom they share this anthology. I've received some cool feedback from some of the authors, like when they discover that one of their favorite stories has been included in the book. Alien Contact is now available for preorder from Amazon and other booksellers, and is forthcoming in November from Night Shade Books.

"Exo-Skeleton Town"
by Jeffrey Ford

This story was originally published in the premier issue (Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 2001) of Black Gate magazine, and is approximately 9,000 words in length.

In an earlier blog post, "Reflections on the 2000 World Fantasy Convention," I recalled attending the Jeffrey Ford reading and then meeting him afterward, all of which led to my acquiring and editing his first short fiction collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon Press, 2002). Prior to that convention -- and as I wrote, one of the reasons I attended was to specifically meet Jeff -- I had already read a number of his short stories. And, much to my delight, this first issue of Black Gate was one of the freebies included in the goodie bag that was handed out to con attendees. When I scanned through the magazine's table of contents, I was pleased to see that the issue contained yet another new Jeffrey Ford story. I

If you're not already a fan of the old, classic Hollywood movies -- and the actors and actresses that made these films such classics -- then you certainly will be after you've read "Exo-Skeleton Town." This is probably the quirkiest story in the anthology. And it remains one of the more unique story concepts I've ever read. In fact, even though I'm the editor, I'm almost tempted to ask Jeff: "Where the hell did this idea come from?"

But I don't really have to ask him that question, because he's already answered it. With Jeff's most kind permission, I'm including here most of his afterword to "Exo-Skeleton Town" in The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories. [Note: There's a bit of spoiler here, so you may want to skip this quoted text for now and scroll a bit farther down.]
This story got turned down more times than my Visa card. What's not to like? It's got giant alien bugs, Hollywood stars, balls of aphrodisiacal insect shit, drug consumption through a spigot in the crotch, and Judy Garland...shooting herself in the head....

I got the idea for this story from a book my son bought about the history of Japanese monster flicks titled Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! by Stuart Galbraith. Before looking through it, I was unaware that the great actor Joseph Cotten had done a bunch of low-budget monster movies in Japan near the end of his career. I never saw any of them, but the book had plenty of pictures. "Exo-Skeleton Town" is told in the melodramatic fashion of the black and white movies I watched on TV in the afternoons when, as a kid, I'd skip school, which was pretty often.

The name of the movie that is coveted by the mayor of the bug world, The Rain Does Things Like That, came from a deranged guy who wandered the streets of South Philly when I lived near Marconi Plaza, only a stone's throw from Monzo's Meatarama. I'd see this guy at least once a week, and he never tired of repeating that same phrase.

I've often thought that someday I'd like to write the story of the rise to power of Stootladdle, the flealike mayor of Exo-Skeleton Town. Thanks go out to Dave Truesdale and John O'Neill [of Black Gate] for bringing this creature feature to a theatre near you.

In addition to allowing me to include this afterword, Jeff has also given me permission to post the contents of this story in its entirety here on More Red Ink. So, for your reading pleasure, here is "Exo-Skeleton Town," which won the 2006 Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, the French national speculative fiction award. The French certainly do appreciate those old Hollywood movies....

Exo-Skeleton Town
by Jeffrey Ford
(© 2001 by Jeffrey Ford.
Reprinted with permission of the author.)

An hour ago I came out of Spid's Smoke House and saw Clark Gable scoring a couple balls of dung off an Aphid twice his size. It was broad moonlight, and Gable should have known better, but I could see by the state of his getup and the deflation of his hair wave that he was strung out on loneliness. I might have warned him, but what the hell, he'd end up taking me down with him. Instead I stepped back into the shadows of the alleyway and waited for the Beetle Squad to show up. I watched Gable flash his rakish smile, but frankly Scarlett, that Aphid didn't give a damn. When he gave up on the ancient film charm and flashed the cash instead, the bug handed over two nice little globes, sweating the freasence in droplets of bright silver. Love was in the air.

Then they descended, iridescent in the dim light of the streetlamps, circling in like a flock of Earth geese landing on a pond. The Beetles were always hot for action and they had a directive that allowed them to kill first and ask questions later. The Aphid they just kicked the crap out of until it looked like a yellow pancake with green syrup, but Gable was another story. Because he was human, they shot him once with a stinger gun, and when the needle pierced his exo-flesh, the real him blew out the hole with an indelicate frrrappp and turned to juice on the street. The dung balls were retrieved, Gable's outer skin was swiped, the bluebottles swooped in for a feeding, and twenty minutes later there was nothing left but half a mustache and a crystal coin good for three tokes at Spid's. I crossed the street, picked up the crystal, and went back into my home away from home away from home.

This is Exo-Skeleton Town, the dung-rolling capitol of the universe, where the sun never shines and bug folk barter their excremental wealth for Earth movies almost two centuries old. There's a slogan in Exo-town concerning its commerce—"Sell it or smell it," the locals say. The air pressure is intense, and everything moves in slow motion.

When the first earthlings landed here two decades earlier, they wore big, bulky exo-suits to withstand the force. It was a revelation when they met the bugs and by using the universal translator discovered that these well-dressed insects had smarts. I call them Beetles and Aphids, etc., but they aren't really. These terms are just to give you an idea of what they look like. They come in a span of sizes, some of them much larger than men. They're kind of a crude, no-frills race, but they know what they want, and what they want is more and more movies from Earth's twentieth century.

In trying to teach them about our culture, one of the members of the original Earth crew, who was an ancient movie buff, showed them Casablanca. What appealed to bugs about that pointless tale of piano playing, fez wearing, woman crying, I can't begin to tell you. But the minute the flick was over and the lights went on the mayor of Exo-Skeleton Town, a big crippled flealike specimen who goes by the name of Stootladdle, offered to trade something of immeasurable worth for it and the machine it played on.

Trying to work détente, the crew's captain readily agreed. Stootladdle called to his underlings to bring the freasence and they did. It came in a beeswax box. The mayor then whipped the lid off the box with three of his four hands and revealed five sweating bug turds the size of healthy meatballs. The captain had to adjust the helmet of his exo-suit to get a closer look, not believing at first what he was seeing. "Sure," he said in the name of diplomacy, and he forced his navigator, the film buff, to hand over the Casablanca cartridge and viewer. The navigator, wanting to do the right thing, also gave the mayor copies of Ben Hur and Citizen Kane. When the captain asked Stootladdle, through the translator, why he liked the movie, the big flea mentioned Peter Lorre's eyes. The earthlings laughed but the mayor remained silent. When the captain inquired as to what they were supposed to do with the freasence, the answer came in a clipped buzz, "Eat it." And so began one of the first intergalactic trading partnerships.

I know it sounds like we humans got the messy end of the stick on this deal, but when the ship returned to Earth and scientists tested the freasence, it proved to be an incredibly powerful aphrodisiac. A couple of grains of one of those spherical loads in a glass of wine and the recipient would be hot to go and totally devoted for half a day. The first test subjects reported incredible abilities in the love act. Those original five globes disappeared faster than cream puffs from a glutton's pantry, and none of it even made it out of the laboratory. So another spaceship was sent, carrying Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Double Indemnity, and Gone with the Wind. Ten balls of dung came back at warp speed, and the screwing started in earnest.

Two decades of this trade went on, and by then we had bartered copies of every movie we could find. Private corporations started making black and white, vintage original films by digitally resurrecting the characters of the old films, feeding them into a quantum computer, and putting them in new situations. The bugs got suspicious with the first couple of batches of these, especially one entitled We Dream with Bogart, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Carmen Miranda, and Veronica Lake. It was about a love pentagon during the Nazi occupation of Brooklyn. In the end Welles explodes, Trevor Howard poisons Bogart and then is shot by Carmen Miranda, who runs off with Veronica Lake. The problem with the film was that it was too damn good. It didn't have what the ancients called that "B" quality.

To offset this problem the specialists came up with a batch of real stinkers, starring the likes of Mickey Rooney, Broderick Crawford, and Jane Withers. One in particular, Lick the Devil, was credited with having saved the precious dung trade. I've seen it and it's terrible. Crawford plays an Irish Catholic priest, Withers is the ghost of the Virgin Mary, and Rooney plays a slapstick Chinese waiter in the racist fashion of the old days with a rubber band around his eyes. I've always said I'd like to shake the hand of the insidious mother who made that one.

Anyway, as the ships kept coming, trading their bogus movies, technical advances were made on Earth in the exo-gear that humans would have to wear on the bug planet. The geniuses at the Quigley Corporation came up with a two-molecule-thick suit that hugged the body like a second skin. Everything that one needed was shrunk down to nano-size and made part of the suit. It breathed for you, saw for you, heard with a built-in translator for you, ate for you. The only task that was necessary was emptying the exhaust twice a day through a three-inch-long circular spigot in the crotch area. The device you emptied the spigot into was a vacuum, so that when the pipe opened for its instant, the crushing weight of the atmosphere couldn't splat you. This new alloy the designers used was so flexible and strong it easily withstood the pressure.

The first of these exo-skins, as they were called, gave Earth traders back their human form, so that they now had false faces and eyes and smiles and skin color and hair. The exo-skins were made to resemble the people that they encased like so much sausage. Then some ad exec got the idea that they should make these suits in the guise of the actors of the old movies. Bogart was the prototype of these new star skins. When he showed up on the bug planet, they rolled out the brown carpet. Stootladdle was beside himself, calling for a holiday. The dung rollers came in from the luminous veldt that surrounds the town and there was a three-day party.

As time went on, the exo-skins improved, more authentic with greater detail. They made a Rita Hayworth that was so fine, I'd have humped it if Stootladdle was wearing it. Entrepreneurs started investing capital in an exo-skin and a ticket to the bug planet. They'd bring a couple of movies with them, score a few turds, and head back home to cut the crap up into a fortune. At first, one trip was enough to set up an enterprising businessperson for the rest of his life. Back on Earth, the freasence was so sought after that you could only buy it with bars of gold bullion. For the wealthy it was the death of romantic love, but the poor still had to score with good looks and outlandish promises.

The bugs rationed how much freasence could be sold in a year, and on Earth the World Corporation did the same, because the rich didn't want the poor screwing out of their class. In Exo-Skeleton Town, if you were caught trafficking without a license, like poor Gable, you were disposed of with little ceremony by the Beetle Squad. Anyone could come to the bug world and try to get a license, but they had to go through Stootladdle and he operated solely out of whim. If you had an exo-skin resembling a star he admired, you had a good chance, but sometimes even that didn't guarantee anything.

So a lot of people made the space flight, which took a year each way even at three times the speed of light, and got stranded on the bug world with no way to raise the money to finance the return trip. If you brought a hot movie, something the bugs were into, you could make enough money to survive by showing it to individual bugs at a time for a few bug bucks, which were actually mayflies that when dried and folded resembled old Earth dollars. Twenty mayflies could be exchanged for a crystal chip.

Some unlucky bastards brought movies they were positive would get them some action on the freasence market. I can see them on their trip here as the stars stretched out like strands of spaghetti during the warp drive, thinking, "Oh, baby, I've got a Paul Muni here that's gonna make those cold-blooded vermin do a jig, or Myrna Loy has got to be worth at least a turd and a half." But when they got here, they found the fickle tastes of the population had changed and that of all people, it was Basil Rathbone and Joan Blondell who were making the antennae twitch that year. So they were stranded with an old movie not even a mosquito would watch and no means of support. The bugs didn't care if these interlopers starved to death. I remember seeing Buster Keaton sitting in a dark corner at Spid's for a week and half. Finally, one day a Mantis figured out the silent comic had died and took him away for his private collection.

I got into it probably at the worst time, but I was young and so determined to get rich quick, I didn't heed any of the warnings. I didn't have a lot to spend on my skin, so instead of trying to get a top-shelf actor suit, I figured it would be wise to go for someone who was only on the verge of super stardom but who showed up in a lot of the old movies. The company I bought from showed me a nice Keenan Wynn, but after becoming a student of the old films in preparation for my journey, I knew Wynn was strictly television movies and light heavies in the full-fledged flicks he had done. Then they showed me a Don Knotts, and I told them to go fuck themselves. I was about to leave when they brought out a beauty of a Joseph Cotten. I knew better than the people who made the suit how cool Cotten was. Shadow of a Doubt, Citizen Kane, The Third Man. I plunked down my money and before I knew it, I was walking home with a bag full of suave and vulnerable everyman.

[Continue to Part 2]

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