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September/October 2020
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Keeping up with the ISBNs, or, Mary Sue, C'est Moi


"First came product placement. In exchange for a payment, whether in cash, supplies or services, a TV show or a film would prominently display a brand-name product. Then there was virtual product placement. Products or logos would be inserted into a show during editing, thanks to computer-generated imagery. Now, with the rise of Netflix and other streaming platforms, the practice of working brands into shows and films is likely to get more sophisticated. In the near future, according to marketing executives who have had discussions with streaming companies, the products that appear onscreen may depend on who is watching. In other words, a viewer known to be a whiskey drinker could see a billboard for a liquor brand in the background of a scene, while a teetotaler watching the same scene might see a billboard for a fizzy water company."

—Tiffany Hsu, "You See Pepsi, I See Coke: New Tricks for Product Placement," The New York Times, December 20, 2019


I owed almost one hundred thousand dollars in college loans, was working a dead-end job in the gig economy while living in a studio apartment in the sleazy Tenderloin district that cost me more per month than my parents had paid every quarter for the mortgage on their big house back home in Utica, and had no romantic life.

So far as I could see, after much anguished cogitation abetted by large quantities of Anchor Steam beer, my only two options were to kill myself or turn my life around. Not being keen on any of the easily available methods for ending it all, I opted for the latter. At least, conditionally and without any actual detailed plan.

Exactly how was I ever going to change my life for the better? I just couldn't envision any path out of my current slough.

And then I saw a curious and unlikely online ad that seemed tailored somehow for me, since it followed me from website to website.


You Can Have Whatever You Desire!
Read Yourself Rich,
Beautiful, Famous, or Creative!
Contact Us Now!
Aspirational Narratives, Inc.


The ad provided no contact info other than an address in the North Beach neighborhood. I dithered for a couple of days, then finally decided to check out the operation. I had nothing to lose.

The address led me to the small yellow-and-red-fronted building adjacent to City Lights Bookstore and with a pizza place on its ground floor. I wondered for a moment if the ad was connected with City Lights, perhaps a clever marketing ploy to boost their book sales. But if so, why would the instructions be specifically sending me to a shabby office above the pizza joint where the corridor reeked of old mozzarella?

I knocked on the door with the correct legend, and entered.

The setup was not prepossessing—just a young dark-haired female receptionist behind a plain desk interposed between me and an inner door—but somehow I felt more at ease with the informality of the place. If it had been too glitzy an operation, I might have turned around and walked out.

The woman smiled at me—and then called me by name!

"Sid Saker? Mr. Honeychurch is expecting you. Please go right on in."

Baffled and a little unnerved, I found myself entering the inner office almost without volition.

Mr. Honeychurch proved to be the most elegant thing about Aspirational Narratives, Inc. Roughly in his mid-forties, sandy-haired, well-groomed, and reasonably good-looking, he wore a Burberry sharkskin suit, with vest, that I suspected cost more than a month of my inflated rent. He took my hand and shook it with what seemed like genuine good will.

"Ah, Sid—I may call you Sid, I hope? Good, good!—please take a seat. We'll be ready to begin in just a moment, as soon as I adjust this recording device. Technology!" He clucked his tongue.

I sat, realizing I had to speak up now, or be forever in the dark, where I might commit myself to something rash.

"But Mr. Honeychurch—just what is it you do here?"

"You didn't get our brochure in the mail?"

"All the mail for my building gets dumped in the unlocked lobby where the addicts and homeless people camp. It's not exactly a secure depository."

"Oh, my goodness! Allow me then to bring you up to speed. Surely you know the cliché that people often employ: 'That book changed my life!'"

"Yes, of course, I've said it myself."

"Well, Aspirational Narratives is in the business of making that happen with scientific precision. No longer do you have to rely on stumbling upon a transformational volume through sheer chance, and then finding out that only bits and pieces of it appeal or apply to you. No, we offer books specifically tailored to the individual, books which, upon reading, will serve as a bold impetus for you to enact the changes you desire in your life. And in your case, I believe, those changes mainly involve money and love."

I winced at the accuracy of Mr. Honeychurch's verdict, but also felt an instant letdown. "So you sell self-help books. Seven-Habits-I'm-Okay-type stuff."

Mr. Honeychurch looked shocked and insulted. "Never! First off, all our books are fiction—novels mainly, with a short story here and there as needed for booster shots. We find that the mythic qualities of fiction reach the parts of the brain we need to influence with much more potency than boring, programmatic nonfiction. What we do, in a nutshell, is to learn all about you and your goals, and then craft a series of narratives that will show you, by conscious and subconscious example, using a full set of individuated symbols, how to cut through all the obstacles in your way."

The whole deal sounded loony, but I couldn't see what I had to lose by trying it. "How much does this service cost? A novel written specifically for one person must be pricey."

"Not at all! We have a large staff of freelance writers who are willing to work for minimum wage or less. Pennies per word, actually. It's more than they can make selling their own work, especially the poets. In any case, you pay us nothing up front. You merely sign a contract with us guaranteeing a certain percentage of your new income for a stipulated period, but only if you attain the levels which you yourself set. No results, no fees. Here, I have the documents already prepared, including your consent for us to delve into your personal background, much in the manner of a private investigator."

Mr. Honeychurch whisked some papers out of his desk drawer and offered me a pen. Poised over the signature line, I hesitated.

"You're not the Devil by any chance, are you?"

A hearty and sincere laugh put me at ease. "Hardly! Although I do appreciate a good Fra Diavolo!"

I signed, and we immediately plunged into a series of questions that reminded me of the Voight-Kampff interrogation scene in Blade Runner, except even more probing and disconcerting.

Hours passed in a blur. When Mr. Honeychurch signaled a halt, I was aching and sweaty, thirsty and hungry.

"This was splendid! Along with the results of our other research, we will have more than enough to begin composing your aspirational narrative. We'll contact you as soon as it's done."

On the way out I said, "You seem like a flourishing organization with money behind you. Why this downmarket office?"

Mr. Honeychurch winked broadly. "This was just our office for you, Sid, calculated to induce your trust and cooperation. But since there's no need for future face-to-face meetings between us, we'll be closing it down as soon as you leave."

I exited in something of a daze.

Three weeks later I got an email from Aspirational Narratives, along with an ebook attachment that I could download to my phone or other device.

I immediately began to read it.

When I resurfaced eight hours later, I realized I had just finished the best, most impactful, most affecting book I had ever read—but I couldn't tell you much about it. I had zoomed through it as if in a fever dream, like a ten-year-old sick at home with a temperature, consuming the entire series of Oz books as if by osmosis. Even after several rereadings, all I recall about my private novel—which was titled The Pressure of Time Considered as a Helix of Dreaming Jewels—was that the protagonist was a young man named Saki Red whose biography overlaid my own in a curiously distorted and resonant way. The tale involved a long arduous odyssey from humble origins to ultimate high status and total spiritual, monetary, and carnal satisfaction. Even the genre of the novel was slippery. Sometimes I thought I was reading sci-fi, sometimes a bodice-ripper, sometimes a literary novel. One thing was certain though: The text was studded with name brands that loomed like neon blazes along the trail I was to follow.

Soon after that first reading, I changed my toothpaste to the kind that Saki Red used.

That night in my local bar, I met Alice. We struck up a surprisingly carefree and intimate conversation, and before I knew it I had a promise of dinner the next night.

Shortly after that we were lovers.

Shortly after that, we had pooled our finances to exchange our separate unsatisfactory living arrangements for a very nice if modest apartment in the Mission district.

Life was looking up.

All this time I kept rereading The Pressure etc. and adopting various products and strategies highlighted therein.

A certain Brooks Brothers necktie that I invested in—something I never would have bought before—struck the fancy of the guy interviewing me at Adobe—he owned one almost just like it, his favorite! Before I knew it, I had a great job there.

Joining the same national-chain health club that Saki Red belonged to brought me into contact with some high-finance guys who helped me invest a portion of my new paycheck in a way that soon doubled and redoubled my investment. I was able to pay off my student loans, with plenty left over.

When it came time to meet Alice's folks, they welcomed me immediately into their family thanks to my thoughtful gift of the precise gravy boat they needed to replace the busted one in their ancestral set of china. Alice had mentioned the item to me, but I found it only by visiting the same junk store that Saki Red had once patronized.

Well, to make a long story bearable, just two and half years after that meeting with Mr. Honeychurch, I was sitting on top of the world: happily married, making good dough, living in a nice small starter house, and with the prospect of more good things to come—so long as I reread my magic aspirational novel on a regular basis.

One Saturday I was watering the lawn when a car pulled up and out stepped Mr. Honeychurch. He looked dapper and self-assured as ever, but with a tinge of excitement and glee.

My stomach lurched a bit, but I reassured myself that I was a changed man, able to deal confidently with whatever demands this mysterious fellow could impose. It wasn't like he was coming for my firstborn—with whom Alice was currently pregnant—was it?

"Sid, my boy! Wonderful to see you! I take it you are eminently satisfied with the results of our product?"

"Yes, of course. Let me just go inside and get out my checkbook—"

"That won't be necessary at all. Matters have changed. We'd like to invoke a clause in our contract whereby you can repay us simply by reading another novel of ours."

"Oh, well, that sounds doable...."

"Fine, fine, here it is." Mr. Honeychurch handed me a wrapped package. "I think you're going to like this one. Highly dramatic, albeit slightly demanding. We've borrowed the title from Robert Penn Warren. We call it All the King's Men."



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