I Need A Plastic Thingy

Backstory: Plastic Thingy

Plastic Thingy, a story I wrote and that appeared in Analog magazine, might seem frivolous, but it’s a surprisingly personal look at my family and friends.

  • I consciously pulled in my son.
  • I apparently pulled in my sister.
  • I pushed across a self-imposed literary boundary.
  • Apparently, there was a more to the story than I realized.


Let’s start with Roger. He’s just a guy in a hardware store. Roger isn’t a hero. He plays video games and doesn’t aspire to greatness.

I’ve come to accept Roger for who he is. Some of us need to wash dishes and make beds. There’s no shame in that, although I used to point out to my kids that menial tasks were the result of no education. That might be true – but I should have also pointed out that everyone deserves respect.

I majored in Industrial Education, and one of my instructors gave a lecture on the practical side of teaching. His best advice was regarding Job One on Day One – introduce yourself to the janitors. They know everything about the building and the people in it – and they have ALL THE KEYS – literally and figuratively. Need to get into a storage room? Find the Janitor. Need to get into the politics of budget planning? Find the Janitor. Janitors are the honorable part of society.

Roger is one of these honorables, aspiring to finish the day. It’s unlikely they will appear in a history of the world – but they don’t care. Maybe historic immortality isn’t the end game.

Roger is introduced to an opportunity. To his surprise, he seizes part of it; possibly the best part. Roger could have followed the flow of events and wandered into space – instead, he actively chose a path. And that’s the message I want to share; be active with your choices.

Even though my youngest son, Aaron, worked at Hankins Hardware, Roger isn’t his doppelganger. Roger is a conglomeration of the stories I heard after Aaron returned from work – and the stories from his co-workers. I want them to know their lives are honorable.

My Sister

My sister, Christine, is a dancer. When I was ten, I went with my Dad to retrieve her from Saturday morning ballet practice. We would arrive before the end of the session and wait in the balcony of the converted church. From the balcony, I watched dancers stream across the floor. At the time, I didn’t internalize the grace and athleticism displayed below me. Grace isn’t something a ten-year-old understands until forty-five years later.

Three of the dancers would surge across the floor, north-east to south-west. Three steps, leap, recover, two steps, then turn to wait. Immediately, three new dancers would move northwest to southeast, repeating the same flow.

I’m unable to describe that experience without falling back on cliches. But power and grace are the best words. Power, as in physical strength. Grace, as in physical beauty, smoothness of lines, the completion of an idea you are just beginning to grasp. I watched dance make music physical. I watched music resolve to a pleasing chord, expressed as movement through space. I wasn’t writing about my sister in this story – but she is clearly part of the backstory of Sara Ferrous.

As a writer of science fiction, I’m allowed to jump outside boundaries, so why not declare an alien’s primary mode of communication to be physical, instead of verbal? Why not use dance as primary communication?

I’ve always been opinionated about how aliens might communicate. The Hollywood notion of English as the lingua franca is just too convenient. We barely understand the communication of animals we live with on a daily basis, so why would we assume a “superior” race would have the interest – or vocal cords – to reproduce human language?

How would a culture communicate if the atmosphere was too thin to effectively carry sound waves? Why is it odd to think of sign language as a primary vocabulary? Why would sign language be restricted to hand motions? This is the world Sara Ferrous occupies – movement is communication. Nothing odd about that.


Science fiction has a bad reputation about aliens. Green, bug-eyed monsters stealing bikini-clad women.

How preposterous.

The physics and costs of interstellar travel quickly eat into the ROI of enslaving humans, or stealing water or invading the earth. There’s plenty of ice floating around the universe. Efficiency experts tell us humans make crappy slaves, and the earth is too far from anywhere to make it worth invading. If aliens are visiting earth, it’s to gather something completely unique.

We’re unique because we dance, we sing, and we tell stories. Hopefully, we do it well. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the arts are the gateway to the heavens? Wouldn’t it be a surprise if the green-skinned aliens laugh at our feeble attempts at math, but are wowed by our artwork? What if our best artists don’t measure up to the intergalactic virtuosos? We’ll be trying to trade our Picassos for warp drives, only to be told our palettes are “limited and immature”!

Historically, earthly invasions are done for land or resources, rationalized by politics. Unexpectedly, cultures intermingle. Songs are exchanged, religions cross-pollinate, genes are swapped. Ireland, for example, has been repeatedly invaded, yet still, exists and continues to give us a stream of song and dance. They aren’t remembered for their land – they’re remembered for their culture.


The alien trappings I create in Plastic Thingy try to obey the laws of physics and chemistry. Sociology, unlike physics and chemistry, is far fuzzier, so I’m allowed to stretch the edges. That said, there are limits. It’s not reasonable to assume aliens speak English. It’s not reasonable to assume they are bipeds with sensory organs clustered at the top of their torsos. It’s not reasonable to assume they experience the same emotions. Or, perhaps they do. Like Roger implies, we don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s reasonable to assume we are exhibiting our ignorance. Plastic Thingy follows these assumptions, presenting my idea of aliens and their behavior.

Hankins Hardware

By the way – Hankins Hardware is a real place. It’s at 1720 SE Hawthorne in Portland, right across the street from McMenamins Barley Mill Pub. If you visit the Barley Mill Pub, you’ll understand why I refer to it as Jerry’s Bar. But be sure to walk into Hankins and proudly exclaim “I need a red plastic thingy“. The friendly folks working behind the counter will smile and welcome you into the club.


Plastic Thingy was selected by Tangent Online for inclusion in the 2014 recommended reading list.