I had to scrap a draft of a piece for the first Appalling Stories anthology because I couldn’t develop an ending that would both satisfy the reader and not descend into cliche. It involved a middle schooler who was being bullied by Syrian immigrants, and when the school refused to intervene because of the bullies’ protected social status, the boy’s father goes to the main bully’s house in a bad neighborhood to address the situation himself. My original conclusion had him knock on an unresponsive door, dejectedly go back to his car, and get mugged and stabbed by an aggressive panhandler. It was ugly and brutal and ended the story, but not well. Anything like the father meeting the parents and developing a rapport, or meeting the parents and finding that they’re bad people, or meeting the parents and bullying them himself, or going home and angrily bullying his family would have been too hackneyed. The story just got away from me, which is why I like to use an outline for the vast majority of my fiction.
With the deadline looming I scrambled to come up with something, and seeing my kid watch television shows produced long after my childhood gave me an idea. The notion of SETI searching for extraterrestrial radio communication fascinated me, and I’d always wanted to write a story about what would happen if we actually received television signals from an alien planet. Combine this with every parent’s fear of his kid becoming alienated from him because of a rapidly-changing culture, and you’ve got something most of us can relate to. That’s how Cultural Overtones was conceived. In a way it’s about Elvis and rap music and teenage rebellion, and in another way it’s about something a lot more disturbing.
Being a parent is a full-time job that requires mindfulness as well as love and affection, and you have to make smart decisions about what to let slide and what to address. What happens when you go on autopilot?
You’ll see. Below the fold is an excerpt from Cultural Overtones.
Susan scrolled her Facebook feed, skipping the 30-second avocado toast recipe videos and political memes to find the vacation pictures her sister had texted about last night. Every photo had to get a Like and a comment or Zooey would get mad. Not outwardly mad, just icily silent for days.
Does every family measure affection with Facebook Likes?
The toaster oven dinged, and as Susan moved to pry out the bagel half with a butter knife, the video screen set into the refrigerator door unmuted at her proximity.
“—this morning on CNN’s New Day we’ve got Carl Monnet in studio. Carl’s the author of The Cygnus Tapes, the runaway best-seller that blew the lid off of the biggest cover-up in human history. Now, almost twenty-five years later, he’s here to talk about—”
“Oh, come on,” she muttered, scraping margarine across the bagel’s browned surface. The proximity sensor was supposed to show the fridge’s interior when someone got close, not activate the volume controls, but it hadn’t had a software update in months. At least it still kept food cold.
“—so even as we’ve been broadcasting our television waves into outer space for close to 80 years, the Cygnians have been doing the same with their television-analogues for, well, we don’t know how long. What we do know is that their star, Beta Cygni, is 380 light-years away, so even if they’re listening, they won’t receive our signals for at least three hundred—”
She chewed, swallowed, and activated Siri. “Set reminder for two PM to update fridge software.”
“Okay,” said her phone. “I’ll remind you.”
“—still learning more and more, but even though the Cygnians have three sexes, they’re a lot like—”
“Who’s that guy? He looks familiar,” Emma said, drifting in to put an ice cream-crusted bowl in the sink.
Susan looked up, gaped at her daughter’s outfit, and inhaled bagel crumbs. Trying to control the coughing spasm, she said, “You…you are not going out dressed like that.”
Great. Now I sound like my mother. The circle of life is complete.
“What?” Emma asked, turning up her palms. “What’s wrong?”
“You know what’s wrong.”
Emma folded her arms. “Everyone dresses like this.”
Rolling her eyes, Emma said, “No, but you’re—”
“I’m what.” Susan sharpened her stare into a glower. “Old?”
Emma eased her tone into something more conciliatory. “Well, uh, no, but you’re just not into it. You know, the culture.”
Lifting an eyebrow, Susan said, “Cygnian culture. TV shows from space aliens.”
Susan pointed at the fridge’s video screen with her chin. “Well, that guy, he’s the world’s foremost expert on—” she made finger quotes. “’The culture.’ Cygnian culture. And you don’t see him going out wearing pasties and hot pants.”
“They’re not pasties. And Cygnian males don’t dress like that anyway.”
Pushing her plate away, Susan said, “Human females don’t, either. At least not you. You’re fifteen years old, and you’re not going out dressed like a hooker, for Christ’s sake.”
Emma’s pink-lipsticked mouth pointed down at the corners. “Dad doesn’t mind.”
“One of the many reasons why you see him only one weekend a month, Emma.”
You can read the rest of Cultural Overtones, plus twelve other entertaining stories, in the anthology Appalling Stories: 13 Tales of Social Injustice.