David D. Levine, Tk'tk'tk (2005).
David D. Levine’s Hugo-winning short story ‘Tk’tk’tk’ focuses on the tribulations of Walker, an interstellar salesman, as he struggles to understand local market conditions.
Walker trips up over a variety of linguistic and cultural caltrops. He does not realise that the deepest and darkest room in the hotel is the most desirable and expensive (duh). He falls for the extrastellar equivalent of downing a local liquor he really can’t handle (more literally, his shoulders are sprinkled with strange green rings, but the principle is the same, and even the chanting “Rings, dance! Rings, dance!” (p. 170) faintly echoes a frattish ‘Drink! Drink! Drink!’). He has difficulty distinguishing high and low denomination currency boluses, since figures are written in fragrances (p.162). Numbers have qualitative associations he is frequently forgets: one buyer is mortified at the idea of paying seventy for an item, but will happily pay seventy-three (p.162). Potential customers profess themselves, with elaborate humility, to be unworthy to take ownership of Walker’s exalted merchandise, calling it “beyond price” (p.161). They do hint at the possibility of compensating him for an “indefinite loan” (p.173, cf. p. 161), but seem to prefer endless, aimless, chinwagging (“did you come through Pthshksthpt or by way of Sthktpth” (p.163)) to talking turkey.
Detail by detail, Levine conjures an amusing and convincingly exotic setting, and only a heartless reader would blame Walker for his bewilderment. Nonetheless, at bottom, Walker’s experiences are just exaggerated versions of what a naive and insensitive late C20th North American (or "Westerner," maybe) might encounter, trying to hock their merch in Asia and East Asia, and perhaps particularly, in Japan.
That is: compared to Walker, the aliens belong to what the anthropologist Edward T. Hall influentially described as a “high-context culture” (Beyond Culture, 1976), in which comparatively greater emphasis is placed on implicature, supported by shared context and experience. Walker’s frustration with meandering chit-chat – what he at best justify as “building rapport” (p.163) – recalls the reactions of some North Americans to a more informal style of decision-making common in Japanese organisations. That is, a style which exhibits a more flexible understanding of what might constitute ‘on-topic’ and ‘off-topic’ conversation, and which closely links the legitimacy of decisions to the social intimacy which has led up to them (cf. e.g. Haru Yamada Snr., Different Games, Different Rules, pp.55-59).
We must be wary of stereotyping, of course -- I'm pretty sure that golfing and drinking is part of work for London City bankers, every bit as much as it is for Tokyo salarymen -- but the broad distinctions are there, at least in the Business Studies and Linguistics literature. And in light of these connections, Walker’s eventual spiritual transformation, which sees him reforming his earlier striving attitudes, is not particularly difficult to understand – he is simply one more tourist-turned-Western Buddhist. Which is still good.
Is the story colonialist, orientalist? When I first wrote this post, I pussyfooted around the question a bit, because I like the story -- and also because I also think I need to try to take an author seriously when they tell me that somebody is a giant alien insect, or an orc, or whatever: and not simply unscramble the story in some way which suits me, and then critique the cleartext as if the ciphertext had never existed. But. The use of insect and swarm imagery, in the depiction of an inscrutable, indirect and exotic people? A people whose ways are a little more collectivist than our narrator's, and who offer him a mystical path to self-transcendence? This is definitely horrible territory.
Should no more pussyfooting. Levine should have used squidbears. And/or France.
This was originally part of a blog post that was also about Cory Doctorow's 'Chicken Little.' The two stories are both about making sales, and they both appear in Hartwell and Hayden's 21st Century Science Fiction anthology.