Science Friction: An Experiment

1) Read “Trade Surplus”

2) Watch Andrew Swainson’s “I Lovely Cosmonaut” (music by Monstrance, 2007)

3) Repeat 1) and/or 2) as needed

4) Report effects in Comments section

TRADE SURPLUS

They first exported mesh bags of green plastic army men, tiny warriors tangled in platoons of prime numbers. Each soldier was unique. Each was svelte and androgynous. Each sported a monstrous hooked nose and an improbable weapon: this one aimed a defoliated tree branch; this one cradled a gigantic spiked dildo; this one stood tip-toe in the act of hurling a boomerang made of broccoli.

We passed them around. Trade them! Collect them! All one-hundred-and-thirty-seven!

Ha-ha-ha…

When the clothing came, we fought over it. I wore a vest of acrylic burlap in shocking blue with seventeen pockets and an eye-shaped vent between the shoulder blades. The chill up my spine was small price to pay for an ironic fashion statement. My girlfriend wore a shimmering blouse with extra sleeves flapping like rectangular wings. We laughed aloud at the late-night talk show host who proudly displayed his new blue jeans and then had the cameraman zoom in on the superfluous fly at his left ankle.

It was open.

Ha-ha-ha

The initial injuries came with housewares. The filigreed tableware was hypnotically gorgeous, but even the spoons were frighteningly sharp. Trivets snapped like terrapins, salad tongs closed on their victims like medieval torture devices, and drinking glasses required bibs or tourniquets, depending on your luck.

Opinion on the goods was divided. Enthusiasts took a neo-Taoist approach. Gorgeously crafted nine-inch golf tees, for example, made wonderful chopsticks, and twelve-pound, razor-sharp butter knives were a chef’s dream come true. Use them for what they are, not what you wish they were. Just ignore the instructions.

Not an option in my set. The instructions were cooler than the products themselves, Zen kohan with stick figures engaged in absurd activities apparently unrelated to the products themselves. We blew them up on tee-shirts and bumper stickers:

NOW POCKET NECK WISHES—SLICE!
(stick figure apparently shot from cannon)

and

HAPPEN ABYSS 11x11=123 POTATOES—BAM!
(stick figure apparently crying or sweating on toilet)

and

SPORT CHEST COOLANT POWERS—TRIP!
(stick figure apparently asleep in colander)

and my favorite, the ominous and enigmatic

EAT GLOVE NO BABIES—DESTINY!
(stick figure apparently smoking a dog)

Consumer electronics appeared overnight. There were no design innovations to distinguish them from the products of established makers. There were, however, unexpected functional anomalies. We heard of these UFAs as rumor, but we all faced the reality sooner or later.

Eating directly from the new refrigerators destroyed melanin, which led one feebleminded school nutritionist to tell children that midnight snacks caused albinism. The picture quality of the new televisions was superb, but even limited viewing left owners with a desire to hoard ball bearings and a voracious curiosity about Paris in 1473 C.E. The new hairdryers left users starry-eyed and anemic, but their hair was so lustrous and full-bodied that few could forgo the pleasure.

The products were hard to avoid. We started buying them by accident, which ruined the irony—or worse.

A canned drink had me seeing infrared vapor trails with the first sips, then in x-ray at the half-way mark. By the time it was empty, I was counting mites on a bluebird three blocks away, and I was afraid to leave my bench due to the yawning crevasses and gigantic crawling creatures on the sidewalk, so unaccustomed was I to the startling shift from telescopic to microscopic vision. It was dusk when my sight returned to normal, and by that time, I had examined the can as no human had ever examined any object with the naked eye.

Just below the allergy information:

SHARP SHARPER SHARPEST CAFFEINES—DANCING!
(three stick figures apparently fighting over a pizza slice)

The products penetrated all markets, everywhere. By the time we understood their synergistic interrelations, how using the products in close proximity to one another created new and more alarming UFAs, it was too late.

We had dug our own graves with our debit cards.

We threw it all out. The streets were littered with indestructible, immaculately wrought objects generating overlapping fields of complementary and increasingly deadly UFAs. The goods neither rotted nor rusted nor faded, and no one collected them. The sanitation workers had been issued the new cell phones.

We quickly learned to hit the dirt when we heard that peculiar, warbling ringtone.

I saw one up close. Bits of the former owner clung to it with a sort of molecular desperation, but it was clean enough that I could read the single instruction on the receiver:

BATTERY LIFE CONFETTI OPEN/HANDS—TRANSMISSION!
(stick figures apparently joined at the heads)

As UFAs tore the world apart, the decision finally came to use beta testers. The legacy of our journalism and of our culture is the cynicism of the final headlines:

BETA TEST OMEGA GOODS—POINTLESS!
(stick figure kneeling in prayer)

and

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE—GOODBYE!
(stick figure exploding)

We forage now. We’ve even learned to joke as we skulk beneath the crisped husk of the little girl catapulted into a tree by her own bicycle or as we step over the poor shivering bastard whose skin has melded with the lining of his seven-sleeved fleece hoodie or as we dodge the lurching woman whose headset has burrowed into her brain.

Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?

We cannot laugh, but we joke. We are still urban sophisticates, after all.

We hope for escape to the suburbs, but energy-smart and passenger-hungry vehicles prowl day and night, and the new traffic signals are dreadfully efficient. Petrified forests of would-be jaywalkers crumble at every bridge and tunnel leading out of the city.

We forage till one of us opens the wrong cabinet or uses the wrong can opener or steps on the wrong floor tile.

We forage, and we read labels. We’re don’t care about high fructose corn syrup anymore.

We look for unusual instructions. We look for the ubiquitous point-of-origin label:

MADE ON ALDEBARAN VI—FANCY!
(stick figure and ice-squid apparently playing pat-a-cake)

Ice-squids from a gas giant, little entrepreneurs with big dreams.

Ha-ha-ha!

Nobody’s laughing now.

I LOVELY COSMONAUT

FULL-SCREEN MODE RECOMMENDED

• Monstrance was an experimental improvisation project featuring XTC’s Andy Partridge (guitar), Barry Andrews (keyboards) and Martyn Barker (drums). Get Monstrance here.

“Trade Surplus” appeared previously in a daily supplement to a for-the-love online litmag.

James Kendley launched his fiction career in 2009. He has published numerous short stories and two novels, The Drowning God and The Devouring God. He has written and edited professionally for more than 30 years, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, then as a copy editor and translator in Japan (where he taught for eight years at private colleges and universities), and currently as a content wrangler in Northern Virginia.

Posted in Fiction