A couple years ago, my short story “A Perfect World” was published in The Pleasure, the Pain and the Profit: Young Writers on Writing. It was an anthology put together by Cora L. Hardt, an artist and editor in Germany, to share the perspectives of a variety of young, emerging writers. Each author submitted a piece of creative writing and a short essay talking about some aspect of making it as a writer; in my case, that meant discussing the challenges and opportunities of trying to start a writing career while you’re still in university. I thought the essay was pretty good, but I liked “A Perfect World” even more – evidently so did some other people, since it was republished last year in Tides of Possibility, an anthology put together by the Houston Writers Guild.
“A Perfect World” is a very light story, centering on a group of science fiction writers who find themselves with a lot of time on their hands, now that Earth’s alien visitors have provided answers to all our questions about the universe. Give it a read below, and feel free to comment!
A Perfect World
Arliss sucked on his eighth cigarette of the day as he stood on his balcony, looking out at the city. He remembered when he could hear the sound of grunting engines and honking horns, smell asphalt and the acrid stench of the nearby industrial district, and see the flashing lights of advertisements crisscrossing the streets. The sky had been shrouded more often than it was clear, and every news story was about war, crime or poverty, peppered with increasing pessimism.
He really missed those days.
Now when he stood on his balcony he couldn’t hear the sounds of urban, gasoline-powered traffic, or smell the pollution, or count how many more marquees and flashing lights there were compared to the year before. Instead, he had to strain to hear the gentle whir of battery-powered hovercrafts as they drifted leisurely above street level. The crisp, clean air just seemed wrong and there weren’t even any interesting stories in the news anymore, just articles praising the state of things and discussing new plans to make life on Earth even better.
Worst of all, people weren’t just optimistic about the future now – they were certain about it. And the reason for that certainty, and for all the other changes to the world, was the same reason why Arliss didn’t even glance at the clear, blue sky. If he did, he risked a chance of seeing one of their ships passing by, and then his whole day would be ruined.
Good thing I was never dependent on the outdoors, he thought. He took one last drag on his cigarette and then tossed it off the balcony, smiling as it plummeted down onto the sparkling street below.
When he walked back inside, the conversation was still ongoing in his living room, where his only remaining friends were seated on an assortment of chairs. As he passed them on his way to the kitchenette, he heard Garrett say, “No, she doesn’t hold a stick to Asimov. No way!”
“And why the hell not?” Laurie demanded in her slight rasp. She was a smoker like Arliss, though not quite as heavy. Her youthful features, specifically her strawberry-blonde hair and freckles, hadn’t deteriorated yet under the effects of smoking.
“She’s not even one of us, for one thing,” Garrett said around the jelly beans he was popping into his mouth. “Her writing is dystopian.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not science fiction,” Toby said. He was already slurring his words and gesturing with the glass he held in one gangly hand. “Brave New World, case and point.”
Arliss concentrated on filling a squat glass with some scotch. He didn’t bother adding anything to the debate; it happened almost the same way every week. Half-listening to his friends, he collected two ice cubes from the tray in his old freezer. Contrary to what the critics used to say about him, he didn’t maintain outdated technology because he was stuck in his ways; it was a very specific gesture to them, the extraterrestrial bastards that ruined his life.
Although, he thought as he sipped the scotch, life isn’t all bad.
Only Laurie, Toby and Garrett were involved in the debate. Olivia had deposited her overweight body and the ugly, flower-print dress she always wore into an old rocking chair in the corner, and she looked like she was barely paying attention. Gideon, as usual, was typing on his textpad, hunched over like a great bird studying its nest. In reality, he wasn’t even seeing the black, plastic keyboard under his fingers; the interface attached to his left temple was transmitting the screen images directly into his ocular membrane. The textpad was one of the few pieces of post-Contact technology Arliss allowed in his apartment, and only because he knew Gideon would never show up otherwise.
“What about a story focused on the Big Crunch?” Gideon interjected. “Mankind must fight it or escape it. Of course, there is no hope. Dark, but compelling, maybe.”
“That’ll never work,” Garrett said. “According to the wise and all-powerful Nallari, the Big Crunch isn’t going to happen.”
“Whatever happened to that story about dark matter, Gid?” Arliss asked between sips of scotch.
“A paper was released two months ago. Dark matter explained, scientists thrilled.”
“Sorry, Gid.” Laurie offered him a comforting smile even though Gideon was back in his own world again. Her gaze shifted to Arliss, who just shook his head and frowned.
That was one more idea taken away. One more concept that none of them could explore, because humanity was suddenly being given all the answers. Nobody wanted to read fantastic stories about wild possibilities. All anybody had to do was turn to the Nallari, and there was no need to wonder anymore.
Suddenly Olivia spoke up from the corner. “Have you guys ever thought … that maybe it’s a good thing they came? I mean, they’ve done so much good, haven’t they? No more poverty, starvation, lack of resources, or … or starvation…”
Everyone just stared at her. She was already into her sixth beer; by the third, there was a fifty percent chance of her voicing something ridiculous. Olivia didn’t say anything else after trailing off, but instead started idly smacking her lips while she tucked one arm around her plump middle.
“Nobody give her any more,” Arliss said to the others, earning a few chuckles.
“You’re all idiots, by the way,” Toby said, gesturing with his glass. “The best sci-fi writer of all time? Oring, hands down!”
The others looked down at their drinks in silence while Toby continued to smile in an oblivious sort of way. Arliss stared at him, chewing his lip. Toby knew like everyone else not to mention Oring, but he tended to forget things when he drank.
Arliss finally shook his head and turned away, trying to keep out the images of Oring’s body hanging limp from a ramshackle ceiling.
Laurie started the others talking about something else, while Arliss tried to ignore the churning lump that had formed in his gut. He lifted his scotch while he listened to a few more of his friends’ comments, but stopped short of taking another sip. Then he slammed the glass onto the counter.
Everyone fell silent.
“Look at us,” Arliss said. “We sit here every week having the same stupid debates and the same inane conversations, and what does it get us? Nothing. We’re still here, bitching and complaining. I’m fucking sick of the whole damn thing. You know what? I’m gonna go write something.” And then he drained the rest of the scotch.
The others stared at him. Gideon actually stopped typing, and Garret’s mouth was hanging open, a jelly bean threatening to spill out.
Laurie studied Arliss closely, looking right into his eyes. After a moment she snorted and shook her head.
“Knock that off, you bastard.”
Arliss grinned, allowing the lump in his gut to disappear. “Had you for a second, though,” he said, and went to refill his glass.