Before the Aliens…

Before the Aliens Came

Hey, kid. Don't you try to tell me about aliens. I know more about aliens than you'll ever know, not if you live a thousand years and spend every minute of them immersed in those stupid alien holodramas. I know about real aliens -- alien aliens. The kind that science fiction writers were coming up with for decades, in book after book after book, scary aliens and creepy aliens and funny aliens and just plain weird-ass aliens. Yeah, I know that's why you're here, why you want to talk to me. I admit it -- I was one of those science fiction writers, and no, you can't use my name in your stupid piece. If my name isn't good enough to sell my own books anymore, you can be damn sure it isn't going to be used to sell your little piece of garbage.

There was a time when my name on a book was enough to guarantee a bestseller -- that's a million copies sold, and that's during a time when books had gotten so expensive that they'd cost as much as a good dinner -- so if you were poor, you'd have to choose between food for your stomach and food for your brain -- and plenty of people chose their brains back then. Not like these decadent days, where they give away the holoprojectors for free and the holodramas too, and you don't even notice that the spaceship you're walking around in is full of brand-name crap that you'll then go out and buy buy buy. Hell, you don't care. You're just here because once my science fiction novels, full of aliens, sold millions of copies. You're here 'cause you work for some holodrama company thinks maybe some of their users would think it might be fun to know what it was like in the days before the aliens came, in the days when both writers and readers had to use their brains, and actually make stuff up!

I remember those days, sure. Those were great days, great times. I'd get up at 5 a.m. and sit alone in my study. My wife'd get up with me and make me coffee; she made the best coffee. Didn't put any weird stuff in it, but brewed it just right -- damn, it was good. I'd open up the laptop, start typing. I wrote epic space operas, that were just chock-full of aliens. I'd usually start with some humans, just so the readers would have someone to identify with. But once they got off the planet, it was first contact after first contact, out in the wild blackness of space, the desolate wasteland of unseen dangers. Sometimes they'd blunder into a little solar system at war. Sometimes they'd discover a race on the verge of getting space travel themselves. Sometimes they'd encounter an alien who seemed just like us -- until they got to know it better, and realized just how alien it really was. 'Cause that's what it was about -- that's what it was always about. Really alien aliens. Strangers. Weirdos. Confronting the other, the different. And triumphing over it, goddammit, 'cause that's what humans do. That's what the readers want, and what I want, and those books were fuckin' brilliant, is what they were. There was a reason they sold like crazy -- even in hardcover, they jumped off the shelves.

What's hardcover? Screw you, kid. Shut up and listen, or leave. I honestly don't care which.

Usually by lunchtime I had at least half a chapter done. I'd take a break, eat some lunch -- my wife used to make the best grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. That's what I had for lunch, every day -- some people say they like more variety in their food, but I had all the variety I needed in my books. All those aliens, and every single one so different from us. So I'd have some lunch, and then go back to work. I'd usually finish a chapter, and sometimes two, by dinnertime. I liked a nice dinner; soup and a salad and some chicken and a vegetable. Vegetables are good for your brain, y'know. Especially carrots and rutabagas. I could have eaten a lot fancier, of course. The books were selling well enough that my family was pretty well-provided for. I sent the kids to the best schools, not that it did them any good in the end. I could have eaten steak and shrimp and drank expensive wine with every meal. But all I ever asked for was some good wholesome food and the peace and quiet to do my writing. That's not so much to ask, is it? Is that really too much to ask?

After dinner, I'd read for a few hours -- the classics, usually. Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke... I'd read them all a hundred times, of course, but some books you can't read too much. Then I'd go to bed. Same thing six days out of the week -- on the seventh I dealt with whatever business my agent had for me. Foreign deals, local signings, that kind of thing. A couple of made-for-tv movies. A bunch of my books got optioned for big Hollywood movies, but somehow it never quite happened. Maybe if the aliens hadn't come. You never know what could have happened -- the world was different before the aliens came.

You know what was the worst thing about it all? The worst thing was that I was so goddamned happy when they came. I mean, I wasn't just happy. I was thrilled. I was overjoyed. When NASA announced the silvery ships coming towards us, when everyone else on the planet started freaking out, I was so incredibly exhilarated that I almost had a heart attack. That's right. Because finally -- after sixty years of reading about aliens, writing about aliens, being more in love with my aliens than I was with my goddamned wife, I was finally going to get to see the real thing.

Hah! Real thing. Real shits is what they were. Showing up with their fancy tech, handing out holoprojectors and holodramas all over the planet, letting everyone know just what it was like being an alien. And not just one kind of alien -- oh no. Thousands and thousands of aliens that all came from different worlds, that all belonged to their precious little Consortium of Planets. They came and showed us that the universe wasn't dark and scary and empty -- it was chock full of aliens in all different colors and shapes and sizes....but not to worry, little Earthlings -- the aliens were just like us!

That was what broke my heart. I tried a couple of those holodramas; I tried hundreds, in fact. At first I'd live through a few days of each...then a few hours, finally just a few minutes. I was just skipping through them, looking for just one alien who was actually alien. Actually different. Strange. Bizarre. Weird.

Not one. They were all just like us. With jobs, and kids, and wives who left them to go be actresses in holodramas after forty-one years of marriage, with not even the courtesy of an explanation or a goodbye. Their kids were just as bad as mine; their jobs were just as dull as most jobs on this dismal planet. There were only ever a few jobs that let you get away from it all, y'know. And science fiction writer was the best of them.

Oh, sure -- I could still write science fiction. Hand it to a studio, get it turned into a holodrama. But what's the fucking point? My books stopped selling once the aliens came. No one wanted to read about aliens that were different -- they knew that aliens were just like us, and the readers loved that. The alien holodramas were just like all that goddamned reality tv; no one using their brains -- no one making stuff up. Just living, in this fucking stupid world, just exactly the way it is. The mainstream writers have been doing great the last couple decades -- they get to take their stories, give their characters names like Gluck and Rs'emsfk, put them on other planets, and then call them science fiction. 'Cause that's what aliens are really like -- just like us.

My agent said that I could still sell if I switched to fantasy. Sometimes, people still want to escape, and when they do, they go back -- way back. Kings and princesses and magic swords and dragons and elves and all that crap. But I told him I wasn't interested. I didn't want any part of it. I was a science fiction writer, and that's what I was going to stay -- I'd never read any of that fantasy shit when I was a kid and I wasn't going to start now, as a grown man whose own kids had grown up and gone off to other planets to act in holodramas there. I'd been raised in an honored tradition; I'd grown up reading the greats. I'd been a science fiction writer, one of the best, if I have to say so myself -- and even if the world had turned crazy, I couldn't give up my noble profession to turn to something lesser. My pen would never write about hobbits if I could help it.

So yes, I still write science fiction. Restaurants deliver my meals now, and the coffee I make is crap. But I still get up at five and write until dinner; I still read in the evenings. Now I do it seven days a week instead of six -- and maybe I'm even happy to not have to deal with all that marketing/business nonsense. When I write, I can lose myself in the universe the way it should have been -- with bold captains on human ships, exploring a dark and sometimes hostile galaxy, meeting strange creatures whose desires are so very different from their own. Making friends and enemies among the stars; helping the good and punishing the evil. While I'm writing, I can forget for a little while how it really all turned out; I can forget that dumbshit kids like you might show up wanting to record my brain so people can find out what it was like in the old days, before the aliens came.

Get out of here, kid. You're not sticking any recording devices in my brain today. I've got a novel to write -- about aliens.

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