Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Humans travel to another planet and meet aliens they call Bugs (which they vaguely resemble). During this first contact humans show Casablanca to the Bugs; they go crazy for it and demand to trade for the film and projector. What the bugs offer in return, little balls of dung, turns out to be an incredibly potent aphrodisiac in humans. There is soon something akin to a gold rush to the planet, where plenty of people buy one-way tickets hoping the films they carry will make them rich.
Not sufficiently surreal? Add in the fact that the humans are all wearing skin-tight spacesuits detailed to look like black-and-white actors. The Bugs think the actual film stars are present, and after you’ve lived in one of these suits for a few months, you start to forget too. (“I remember seeing Buster Keaton sitting in a dark corner at Spid’s for a week and a half. Finally, one day a Mantis figured out the silent comic had died and took him away for his private collection.”)
Our protagonist wears the body of Joseph Cotten. He came out to the planet with a copy of Night of the Living Dead and high hopes, but he fell into drugs and traded the film away for pennies. A chance at salvation comes when a Bug, Stootladdle, gives him a job: get hold of an old film called The Rain Does Things Like That, featuring the incomparable Gloriette Moss. The problem is the only copy is held by the rich widow of an ambassador, Gloriette Moss herself. Stootladdle wants that film, but can’t force her to give it up thanks to her diplomatic ties.
“I want you to go out there and get it for me. I don’t care how you get it short of stealing it, but I want it. You can not harm her. She must willingly give it to you and then you will give it to me and I will let you live.”
“How am I going to do that?” I asked.
“Your charm, Joseph. Remember how you were in The Third Man, bumbling yet sincere, but altogether charming?” he said.
“Succeed or suffer a slow, painful death.”
“I think I hear zither music,” I said.
But when Cotten meets Moss and falls in love with the sight of her, the story becomes increasingly surreal while still capturing the air of old films, especially noir and doomed romances.
Plus it has Clark Gable being gunned down in the street in the opening paragraphs. There aren’t too many other stories offering that spectacle.
Exo-Skeleton Town by Jeffrey Ford
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 9,000
Awards: 2006 Imaginaire Award
First published: Black Gate, Spring 2001
Where to find it: Available for free at Infinity Plus here
The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and other stories, collection, 2009, Golden Gryphon Press
Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern, 2012, Night Shade Books