Things of Distinction by Kendell Foster Crossen
Startling Stories, March 1952
Samuel Mines, ed.
Billions were spent in advertising…but the Antareans simply wouldn’t buy McFinister Hats! Now it was Jerry Ransom’s job to find out why…
This week I decided to take a break from the book of short stories to dive into…a magazine of short stories!
It’s been a few years but a friend of mine found me a bunch of old pulp mags that I’d never heard of while visiting a book store in San Francisco. They brought them to me and I adored and still adore them, but it never actually occurred to me to, uh, read them. I just sat there and admired their delightful cover art. That all changed this week when I realized there were probably words in these magazines, and moreover, they might well be words that haven’t been considered seriously in a good long while! I got excited by that prospect.
I say that this was a magazine of short stories, but that’s only half true. This particular issue had two short stories, a novelet, and a full novel. I started reading the novel, Well of the Worlds, this morning, thinking it was probably really short, but it turned out not to be, so I’ll come back to that one later. It does seem pretty interesting. Instead I hopped over to the novelet, Things of Distinction, because it seemed like it might be funny. And I was right!
The mag also had a great deal of ads of varying degrees of scamminess, running the gamut from “learn to fix radios in your spare time” to “learn to be ageless and immortal” to hemorrhoid treatments to something that looks suspiciously like health insurance with special policies for maternity and polio!
Also it looks like Jerome Bixby appears to give us a list of fan publications we might be interested in. I’ll take a look at that later, but first, let’s talk about Things of Distinction.
This is the first I’ve ever heard of this author, Kendell Foster Crossen. I looked him up and he seems most notable for a pulp series called The Green Lama about a Tibetan Buddhist who gains super powers when he chants the om mani padme hum, so I’m sure that holds up really well. He also did editing work. This particular story seems to appear only in this magazine and in a short story anthology that he edited that same year, called Future Tense: New and Old Tales of Science Fiction, which the SFE cites somewhat positively.
I think we might be looking at a lost gem here! Not one of those super-precious gems, though. It’s just kinda pretty but not necessarily all that expensive. Appropriate for dinner parties or weddings of people you don’t know very well.
It is a story of Jerry Ransom, ad salesman extraordinaire from the year 3000-something! This is some pretty classic pulp right here. We’ve got a galaxy full of all sorts of weird aliens, and we’ve got humanity sitting right out on top of it, trickling down its culture like so much maple syrup and melted butter. Mmmm, postwar America looking at humanity’s future as an extension of itself. Delightful.
Like it’s funny because I’m the kind of guy who will complain incessantly about science fiction that gives us aliens where the whole planet has some kind of a monoculture, like they’re all Logical or Warlike, or they all speak the same language, or have the same religion, or whatever ad infinitum. You know what I’m talking about. But now I’m starting to notice how often sci-fi authors of all generations do that with humanity, and the human monoculture is just “postwar America” and at that point I realize it’s not just laziness (although it is), there’s also the gross and scary fact that it might be at least a little bit aspirational!
We’re getting away from that little by little, I think, and that’s worth celebrating. Every day I see how many new voices are getting into the genre and having their experiences amplified through it, and I cheer. Like, just a few weeks ago I was in the library and saw a new Star Wars novel that was a reimagining of the saga in the spirit of Japanese history and culture and cinema, and it delighted me to no end to see that it was written by a person of actual Japanese descent. Back in my day of reading Star Wars novels, if that kind of thing had happened at all, it would have been written by a white dude whose author photo is of him wearing a robe and a topknot and a katana.
That book, incidentally, is Ronin, and the author is Emma Mieko Candon. I have not yet read it myself so I don’t know if it’s actually any good, although I hope it is. And I’m just glad it exists.
Anyway, Jerry Ransom. He works for one of the biggest ad companies in the galaxy, D, D, E, & No. the story kept telling me that this abbreviation of the company name was a source of concern for the senior partners because people made fun of it, but I feel like I never quite got the joke. It reads like that because the full name is Denning, Dibble, Eeee, and Nojul. Nojul is from Sirius III and their culture does their initials by first syllable instead of letter. A pretty clever little bit of worldbuilding, but again, it’s for a joke that never landed for me.
Ransom begins the story by learning that he’s being assigned to a very important account, McFinister Hats. Despite all the advertising they’ve been flinging at the Antares system, which has only recently been allowed into the Galactic Trade Organization or whatever the heck it was called, they haven’t been able to sell a single hat there. The Antareans are extremely happy to import all sorts of other goods from Terra and across the galaxy, but no hats. It is a mystery, and of course the problem isn’t that McFinister isn’t losing money on it, he’s just not earning money he feels he’s entitled to, so now it’s up to Ransom to go there and figure out what’s the deal with the Antareans and their hat-free existence.
I can’t find anything online about what Crossen’s politics might have been. The only hint I get is that for a while he worked as a writer for the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency that worked to fight soaring unemployment. Their biggest project was the TVA. Anyway, I figure maybe Crossen wouldn’t have gotten involved with Roosevelt stuff if he were some kind of arch-conservative?
I only bring this up because I’m curious about what, exactly, this story is satirizing. Big business and its blustering self-importance, or the system behind it? It’s worth noting how the big business owners in this story have huge amounts of money and are constantly seeking further growth. A normal person would say, well, I guess they don’t wear hats on Antares. Fine. But no, that simply cannot stand. Here are billions of credits. Sell hats.
Nobody knows why the Antareans don’t wear hats, but one thing we do know is that it’s because it’s not because they don’t have heads. At one point in the past there was an alien species where that was the case, and they got around that issue by also selling them fake heads to put the hats on.
It’s silly, but it’s also really icky!
Meanwhile, Ransom also has this whole second plot where his girlfriend is under woo from the nephew of one of the partners in the company, Dibble, and so that partner is doing his best to get Ransom away on behalf of said nephew. That part interested me not at all but it does neatly tie in with the A-plot in the end.
Ransom goes to Antares and learns what he can. It’s actually not that difficult to learn what the deal is. The Antareans straight-up tell him. I guess the point is that the people running things are too impatient and bloviating to listen to anybody try to explain the situation to them, they just yell to get it done. And Ransom manages to get it done.
The problem is that the Antareans, who are Insect People, also have halos. They can be either red or green, depending on preference. It’s a biological thing. Getting rid of them would endanger their health, but they’re also very much a cultural signifier, an attractiveness thing. Even somehow hiding them with a hat would be a problem. They’re solid, so you could put a hat on top, but that looks silly, and they’re close enough to the head to make it so that scrunching a hat between head and halo would also look silly.
Apparently nobody has heard of skullcaps in this time period?
So Ransom calls his bosses to report that this is the problem, and their response is to fire him. He says cool, I got this anyway.
See, another thing Ransom has learned is that the Antareans are particularly affected by cold weather. They’re able to protect some of their bodies with clothing, but their breathing apparatuses are on their abdomens, which, if covered with heavy clothing, would cause them to smother.
Ransom goes to the McFinister people and orders a whole mess of special hats that they make for planets with thin atmospheres. Stylish and warm, but airtight and capable of connecting to an oxygen pump for hours. And sure enough, they’re a smash hit. Hats for the butt was the answer the whole time.
So now Ransom is incredibly rich and he sets out to get his revenge against the Dibbles and their schemes. It’s so convoluted and I’m hoping I recount it correctly. I remember parts of it that I can’t remember how they fit in, for one thing.
But part of it is that Ransom is now so rich that he outright buys McFinister Hats. The whole company. The elder Dibble was to remain a partner only so long as his largest account remained an account with DDE&No, so that means he’s out of the job. Okay, nice work there, I guess.
Now Ransom says that he’s coming back into the company as a partner himself, and I think they only reason the main guy, Denning, lets it happen is because Ransom says they can screw around with the letters in the name of the firm and now they spell NoRED, which Ransom says is a great way to explicitly state that they aren’t Communists.
I wish I was making that up.
And so the last thing that Ransom asserts is that he talked to a prominent Antarean scientist about how the Antareans make their halos, and now he’s learned how to make artificial ones and sell those. He’s sure that pretty much everybody in the galaxy will want one, so that means that he’s completely killed the hat industry! Damn those millenials!
And then as his last act he hires back the Dibbles to the company and even offers them a pretty plush contract and jobs. They just have to go to some planet and sell hats where they haven’t sold hats yet. The Dibbles, who I guess are supposed to have apples for brains, eagerly snatch the job, and then as the story ends Ransom tells us that the job is in the Andromeda Galaxy and they’ll have to take like five years to fly there, and also they’re sending them to a planet of cat people whose main form of currency is fish heads. Also the Dibble are allergic to seafood.
The hilarious end!
Okay so while I’m not overly wild about how this whole thing ended, I still think it was a pretty great story in terms of worldbuilding and playing with that world humorously. It was certainly an imaginative story, and that counts for a lot. Also, Crossen could turn a really good pun. Near the front of the story we learn about an ad campaign for the Planetary Electronic Guillotine Company—”Good to the Last Drop!”
I’m pretty well convinced that this story is at least a little bit of a critique of consumerism gone wild, if not the forces behind it. There’s one character in the story for a few paragraphs who tells Ransom that what he’s doing is pretty wrong, going to this planet to sell them so much junk and not even learning the native language to do it. Ransom doesn’t even blink when he counters that they’re not selling junk, they’re raising the planet’s standard of living. Sure you are, buddy.
On the whole, this was a quick and fun little novella, and I think it could stand to get some more attention. I don’t know if Crossen’s anthology sold very well or how available it is, but it might well be worth getting ahold of. There’s a John D. MacDonald story in there too. I see copies online that don’t look to terrible expensive, so maybe you can find it in a library or get them to do an Interlibrary Loan for it. If you do get it, check this little novella out. It’s a doozy. I’m glad I took the chance on it, and glad that I was given this random magazine by my friend.
(They also gave me several more, plus a whole stack of vintage MAD Magazines…)