19 August 2009

Aisle 2 and the Astroidian Threat

Some readers (yet many more writers) have asked me to post dispatches from Asteroid * (must use the asterisk because their spelling doesn't convert to earthly fonts) where books, to the dominant species, are a matter of life. Eat books or die.

My interactions on Asteroid * were mostly with one species that I've dubbed 'astroidians' though I realize all forms there have an equal right to the title, just as all ants, aardvarks, e. coli, and sodium crystals here could argue in the Universal Court of Justice for the title 'earthling'. But as far as I know, only one species on Asteroid * writes and consumes fiction, so it must be — as we humans are — the dominant species, seizing the title by copyright. Perhaps in the future I'll pay for this indiscretion — in The Revenge Of the Slighted Species. That's the future though. Today one individual from the bookish species is more than enough trouble.

Why did I let him come? I couldn't stop a visit. (I'll probably also have cause to regret calling my guest 'him', but they aren't 'it', and I refuse to share aspects of his mind.)

Some background
To a hardcore addict like me, today's electronic fields satisfy cravings as much as a government brochure feeds the need to know. Research as escapism has been my addiction since the only way to do it was to dig, trap, bribe, pickle and dissect. So a couple of years ago, my addiction more frustrated than ever, I turned off the virtual track, and went where curiosity pointed.
I don't remember what the question was when I first visited Asteroid * but like all great research sinkholes, it doesn't matter. Take, for instance, the ambience that hits as soon as you land. No one wears earphones.

As so much of the travel experience is comparative, I was struck by other contrasts.

Here on Earth, the drought is so great that spiders hang out in the rain gauges. Thus, because we live only on what rain falls into our tanks, I was beset the week before my latest visit to Asteroid * by the most common earthly emotion (rage) when I visited my local town's post office. Their latest promotion? Showerproof mp3 covers. I wished I could stand under a shower ignoring the cascade, polluting the air with my voice above the beautiful sound of water falling. I wished I could flush the toilet every time I pee. And hey, don't they sell ambient music that's the sound of water falling?

But land on Asteroid * and those petty thoughts slough off like so many skin cells. The astroidians have not only never seen a raindrop. Asteroid * is so dry, it not only doesn't have H2O. It doesn't have H. It doesn't have O, and not a 2 has fallen in astroidian memory.

The greatest difference between Earth and Asteroid * is the role books (of supposed fiction) play in the lives of the dominant species. Unlike the worthy among us who strive to change matters, astroidians change matter. This in itself makes their fiction pretty wild by our standards, and I had a very hard time separating fiction in an astroidian story from fact.

Of course, astroidians are unearthly, but surprisingly, they are unfictionly too. For astroidians are — fatally for earthplot and goodbooks purposes — not only rage-free, but they love an adverb as they love to eat. My research shows that, just as everything we do and are is based on our composition as twists of DNA, this species on Asteroid * has not advanced beyond their biological composition — in their case, a more complex tangle: 7 Adverbial Elements.

Promises lead to problems
When I ended my first visit I promised them not to say anything to other earthlings. I have kept my promise, only saying this little something in an internet discussion:
"The *ians are voracious readers. With their one taste-organ orifice, they consume books with a sound that, if you're not born there, takes some getting used to — and they consume so many books so fast, that *ian authors must imbibe inspiration in some way inhumanly possible as they work without rest, coffee or praise — for on asteroid * there is an inverse of the Earth ratio of fiction writers to readers. With nothing else to eat on *, fiction production isn't an aspirational profession, just as cooking isn't for the majority of people who end up doing the cooking on Earth. The most popular theme in *ian sf/f today is visits to Earth and interactions with the dominants there, uh, here: iron atoms. The plots of *ish books are fast and nutritious; but unlike power drinks on our planet, *ish books are packed full of everything delicious . . . I love these books. But *ian sf/f has some guidelines that might be universal today. No cats, no puns, and certainly no fluffy kittens. They've had those guidelines since the Pure Fiction Act of 1.9908 eons ago — which means that Lewis Carroll is still banned on *."
Well, I thought that the amount I leaked about them was complimentary, so didn't think anything of it. But they did not approve. I was immediately summonsed to "please explain". They said they'd kept their privacy for a purpose, and why had I caused it to be breached?
"Just because we love you doesn't mean we want tourists," is the gist of the telling-off I got. So though they'd never admit it, to punish me in a polite lose-win sentence, they sent a tourist back with me — the houseguest who is ruining my day.

Anyway, what with my success on Asteroid * and the curiosity this sparked about what they labeled "Earthly" bookstuffs, I had no choice but to invite an astroidian home once it was suggested.

They all expected him to report rippingly, and furthermore, to write the first of many "Earthlies" — a new line pre-promoted as a "light moontime snack". The individual wasn't anyone I chose. Rather, his latest book was top-seller from one end of what they call The Tumble to another. The perk was his, by rights, and they are ever fair with their rights dispersions.

For lack of a human name, I'll transliterate his as Krl. The actual name means something like "Happy Twist".

The problem stemmed from one thing leading to another on my virgin trip there two (earth) years ago. Being a writer, within three minutes of me landing, I must have told someone (possibly a cleaner in their landing port) that I am a writer. And you know how I hate people who autobiograph, so I was just being polite, filling in briefly about my life, works, and philosophy when I stopped to take a breath. Opening my eyes, I saw that I was alone, this lowlife having left rudely — not giving me a good first impression at all from my first conversation.

But that astroidian, probably salivating as only an astroidian can, must have told another, who told another . . . and within two (earth) months, my collection and my first novel had been translated, and tidbits of them were being offered in every supermarket on the rock. And by last year (our time) my latest novel was something that even their greatest hypermart could not keep in stock, so snapped up it was for breakfasts, luncheons, sunspot 'o brunches, dinners, suppers, high teas, midmoon pickings, feasts and snacks.

It was all so fast and uncontrollable. Despite my objections, the books are stocked in Aisle 2 in every mart — so mass-consumption they might as well be white bread equivalent — or frozen battered hot dogs. Despite my telling them (gently and diplomatically, excuse the adverbs) that my fiction isn't for everyone, that it shouldn't just be bolted down in a gulp but savoured; that some of my creations are for, say, just after a heavy meal; some for those delicate times of escapism from work at work, some for romantic readings, and some as halvah, or poppyseed cake, or salsify in cream, or unstoppable incontinent love. In short: some for one mood, some another — but all, of a certain quality.

Despite my strenuous attempts to place my works in context, to show that, if the consumer takes the time to move the mouthparts slowly — "Taste before digesting!" I said, a slogan that the Department of Health turned into the banners: "Taste before digest" — despite my attempts to show that my works were not created to be moved en masse as mere commodities — books to read while thinking something else or nothing at all — they were still stocked in Aisle 2, one of them next to three-course meals of marshmallow equivalent.

And once my latest novel was released, books with my name as author were not only stacked in Aisle 2 (at astroidian eye-equivalent level) but also at the checkouts. I don't know who decides these things, but whoever does has disregarded my advice, which they seem to consider as irrelevant as any author's thoughts on covers or supermart design.

So you can see from this picture of Asteroid * that, as Burkina Faso is to Grand Rapids, there are differences but also universals.

Visitors from out of planet are not the easiest guests to host. Above all, there's always the insecurity about what food to make available, or serve.

Saki? Lem? Joyce? Cartland? King? Alice Munro? Boccaccio?

American English? Japanese? Spanish? Sanskit? Runes?

Krl has partaken everything on offer (including the Testaments, Atlas Shrugged and "Pig Hooey") in typical astrodian fashion, in gulps — as otherwise silent while eating as a serious glutton — a sign I should have read and brooded over.

The problem is that in no time, this guest thinks he has the measure of our species. Not only that. After dinner the other night, he said he was going to write a bestseller — "One that will sell in supermarkets here."

I smiled and offered him an after-dinner Gaiman.

Krl wrote the novel yesterday (yes, it irks me) AND it's evident that he has used time when I am peeing or sleeping to analyse best sellers so scientifically (his species is so advanced, their laziness is necessary to their metabolism) that the novel is set in New York, just like most new authors' are from any outpost on our planet.

Now Krl expects me to find an agent tomorrow, and for that agent to do as Krl's research shows agents do: getting Krl's first novel to No.1 on the NY Times bestseller list next week.

Add certain problems with the manuscript, and the day has not been good. Especially not, since after our little talk where I explained some problems, I discovered some more Elements in Krl's character — Alien Adverbs far more dangerous than the ones I had already found.

Not exactly a choice Designer Species
Nobody's perfect, so I don't want to list his character faults in public. Let's instead, let's cut to his basic plot flaw. So we humans (he titled the novel "Lost Without You") do cuddle up with chairs 98% of our waking hours and some of our sleeping hours, rush from a chair at work to a chair on the way home, to a chair at home — rush from chair to chair like all species unable to be loners — and have 8.9 chairs per person and use dogs for tasks and leave them outdoors, and dump them when we are tired of them — even the most popular varieties: plush and battery-driven. That doesn't make chairs companion animals.

People don't walk chairs on the beach, I told him.

He said yes, they do, and he showed me a picture of a crowded beach promontory. He was half right.

"The chair isn't walking the person," I said. "The person is rolling the chair."

He just glimmered at me — very disconcerting, but truth is on my side (our side!).

"People don't walk chairs," I said.

Smugly, he did nothing discernible, but at once the computer leapt into seekmode with a whir as loud a the pc call of trojans found! Its screen swirled vertigo green, and then black and white, filled with a post-WWI hospital garden party.

"You write, here," I pointed, 'He pulled on the leash'. "We don't walk chairs on leashes."
"Now you're looking for fine points to criticize."

As gently as I could, I reiterated to Krl that: okay, the chair-as-a-companion theme would seem to him as a momentary visitor, to be reality — in which case his reality would definitely be not only acceptable as a brilliant and sensitive key theme in this novel. Definitely Aisle 2 stuff. But there are other problems. Perhaps he doesn't know enough to taste the flavour of Manhattan, of the sea spray on a Long Island beach. Of the sound of rain, the feel of it hitting a hungry man caught out walking his cha—I never said "This doesn't work for me." I never said that the plot lacks tension, no matter how taut the leash is pulled.

When I was finished gently pointing problems out, my unearthly guest's physical aspect proved that there are some expressions that are universal, though he hadn't bothered to change his matter today from looking like a dust mite's lunch.

I held so much in. I concluded by saying only "There's just a few little things," — and bashing out two lists for him with pictures that I pasted in from the web while he glare-equivalented at my back.
  • Living Things (a Tree, Donkey, Person, Dog, Carrot, Sloth . . . )
  • Dead Things (a Church, Gun, Hamburger, Cosh, Chair . . .)
I laid the lists on the table, side by side for his convenience. "I've got to go pick up something for dinner," I said. "Want some Bradbury?" I had to get away. The temptation to exterminate Earth's first known guest from Asteroid * was so tempting it was painful. But I couldn't as a host, let alone a reader of another's writer's work.
While I drove, I thought of my findings — the 7 Adverbial Elements of Astroidians:
  • Hungrily
  • Gratefully
  • Lazily
  • Generously
  • Honestly
  • Confusedly
  • Feyly (Research should always be above value-judgment)
Hungrily my guest consumes, and waits for more. But he doesn't seem to care what he consumes, as he hasn't asked for anything by me. Gratefully? This describes his consumption, as it does a cat's. Lazily. He must be if he thinks he can just plug into me without going through the pain of learning and rejections. Generously. Well, yes, he gives generously. But a ten-year's supply of Ioky's (can't translate, but the current most popular cocktail-nibbles author on Asteroid *) works doesn't quite work for me. And I don't think it would for you, or any of our species. Honestly? No, it doesn't, and I don't know Krl well enough to know if he wants me to be that honest. But I forgot. Honestly as it applies to him. Yes, he honestly thinks his works are nutritious and delicious here. And worst of all, he's contemplating settling in. Is he confusedly? What do you think!

As I drove, I cried a bit and almost crashed, I got (to) so angry(ly) thinking about this pest. When I entered the bookstore I was so worked up, I was beside myself with nouns hunting adverbs, and ready to rope his little ly and bury it where the moon won't shine, if I only had the nerve.

So rage is alien to his voracious little species. That's no character reference when they can do so much to create rage. I was so filled with our essential element in the almost empty bookstore, that as my eyes roamed shelves groaning with delicious fiction, I swerved and grabbed. My heart beat churlishly as I made my purchase, but I didn't care. I drove home singing, my cloth bag bearing an after-dinner-mint-slim collection of poems by Sylvia Plath.

While I was gone, Krl had used my computer. They were humming as I tripped upstairs.
He was perched on my chair, waiting. There was no "How was your trip?" No welcome smile-equivalent.

"You say," he accused, "that there's the living and the dead. You don't want me to know about the living dead."

"That's fiction," I pointed out.

"I haven't been dining on dictionaries," he replied, with an accent.

Dining on dictionaries? Only two hours before, my guest who doesn't breathe had not been able to get a job on even the most fm radio, as his kind doesn't have vocal chords. Instead, we had conversed in the international language of book lovers. Now, though he didn't have a hair to brilliantine, he sounded like the lead sneerer in a Noël Coward play. Interplanetary metabolisms!

"You don't want my book to sell here," he said.


I'm happy to say that he doesn't know what bollocks means, and is at this moment, preoccupied with his confusion. Maybe a petty victory is better than none.

The thing is, he's right. I don't want his book sold here. His kind have their good points, but still, they are what they are — an alien threat.

I mean, confidentially between me and you — it's a trip for my works to be sold as they are over there on Asteroid * and to know they consume my works in such huge numbers — with no choking — but it's rather ungratifying that no one chews. One gulp and a whole oeuvre's gone, with less after-effect expected than we allot to an oyster. Especially distressing since I need time to create these works. I don't write anywhere near the speed of an astroidian. No earthling ever has, even in the ambrosial Days of Pulp.

So yes it's nice to sell on Asteroid *, but there's no place like Earth. And between him and me, yes, he's a guest, but bugger him. He can get in the queue. Earthlings first.

If you are a writer, you agree, don't you? And if so, please spread this word in our publishing community:
If you get a manuscript titled "Lost Without You" please do not publish, no matter how out-of-this-world accompanying spread sheets show projected levels of consumption for this book. Even if the plot it has revolves around the sensitive relationship of a lonely worker and a three-legged chair with no arms but a levitating swivel, please reject.
for if this first Earthling novel by Krl succeeds here, invasion is inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Did you mean me when you say "you"?

anna tambour said...

I must have, if you agree.

Anonymous said...

I thought so. I was shocked when you interupted your dispatch to say "you". You interrupted your flow of information, and sounded insensere. But by your request to spread the word, it was obvious you were talking to me. I haven't written to you for a while but I love your writting. Of course I'll spread the word. I have a novel (my autobiography written as fiction) that would ace everything on Asteroid *, I can keep this up as a series for at least 60 more years putting out one a year. Or more, catering for demand! Can you get it published there for me?

anna tambour said...

You can't possibly want to be published on Asteroid *. Not when I just finished telling you how you'd have no control over your success.

Anonymous said...

Then could you just get me your agent on Asteroid *?

anna tambour said...

Sorry. They don't have agents. My writing must be just very much to their taste, because they are very picky.

Anonymous said...

I don't write marshmallow cream!

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to finally be able to read new stories that I can gulp, by people who aren't writers. What a chugger! Where can I find these Asteroid * books?

starved for too long

anna tambour said...

Dear anonymous,
There's nothing wrong with marshmallow cream, in the right mood. Besides, if you read carefully, you would see that sitting next to marshmallow cream is not the same as being a halva equivalent. And there is no need for exclamation marks or snobbery. But still, we both understand the angst when you've got a work of fact or faction and want to place it. Realistically, however, why don't you try a nice little independent press here on earth?

and sorry, starved. Asteroid * books are not available on earth. Something to do with treaties, I think. Or maybe it's markets.

Anonymous said...

And sell, like, only fifty thousand copies?

anna tambour said...

You really shouldn't get worked up about the number of books sold, especially if you bothered to read how demoralizing it is when the novel or collection you've slaved over, poured your very soul into, isn't savoured. Just devoured, and again bought to be devoured, time and again. (For on Asteroid *, books are no more 're-read' than a hamburger dinner here is 're-eaten'. Books they love are bought time and again, many in 6-packs on a weekly basis.)

So you see? You demean your talent (and diminish my non-fiction work as a researcher and reporter) by thinking lightly about these serious problems, and above all putting value into the pinchbeck of success: sales in volume of volumes.

Anonymous said...

As I said, I love your works, so you take me along with you on your next trip?

anna tambour said...

Thank you. As for the trip, even if I get permission to take a guest to my next launch there, I don't know if you'd really like it on Asteroid *. They are very strict with their import restrictions, so you cannot carry any information-bearing devices. That ban includes boxed manuscripts, electronic files, printed books, and sound-emitters.

And it's rude to refuse the tidbits circulated at a book launch on Asteroid *, so don't blame me if the Ioky sushi equivalent sends you into anaphylactic shock.