Type ShortStory
Date 1950-11
Pages 12
Tags science fiction, sex

Coming Attraction

In the future, nuclear war between Russia and America has rendered New York City irradiated and barely-inhabitable. The protective clothing necessitated by this circumstance led to a fashion among American women of wearing masks, until it has become virtually required. Of course, the result is sexual mystique associated with the masks:

Since the female face and form have been banned on American signs, the very letters of the advertiser’s alphabet have begun to crawl with sex — the fat-bellied, big-breasted capital B, the lascivious double O. However, I reminded myself, it is chiefly the mask that so strangely accents sex in America.

Leiber is careful to distance this from comparisons to Muslims:

Comparing the American style with Moslem tradition is not valid; Moslem women are compelled to wear veils, the purpose of which is concealment, while American women have only the compulsion of fashion and use masks to create mystery.

A British subject, Wysten Turner, has come to America to trade technology for grain. He expects that the technology will be used to constuct an American base on the moon.

And, of course, no mention of the Moon, though everyone knows that America and Russia are racing to develop their primary bases into fortresses capable of mutual assault and the launching of alphabet-bombs toward Earth.

On the streets of New York, he helps a woman, Theda, out of a bit of trouble, and she asks him to meet her at her apartment, for she has a problem he might be able to help her with.

There, she asks him to help her escape the country. She is dreadfully frightened of her boyfriend, Zirk, who is a wrestler. When he loses, he takes his frustration out on her.

When the man appears, Turner knocks him down, but Theda quickly turns on him and reassures Zirk, "you'll be able to hurt me afterward." It seems that this is a regular ritual for them--she never had any desire to leave at all.

In the end, Turner tears the mask from her face:

I really don’t know why I should have expected her face to be anything else. It was very pale, of course, and there weren’t any cosmetics. I suppose there’s no point in wearing any under a mask. The eyebrows were untidy and the lips chapped. But as for the general expression, as for the feelings crawling and wriggling across it--

It is primarily the emotions she is expressing that disgust Turner. He can't get back to Britain soon enough for his taste.

Notes

The "ugly inside, ugly outside" thing is uninteresting, but this story has something to recommend it. Leiber portrays an America that peculiarly glorifies violence and shuns sex.

In the club where Turner and Theda talk, there is a woman dancing, "stripped to her mask", but the men in the bar aren't interested, because the mystery of the mask has shifted sexual attention from the body to the face.

Wrestling is a popular sport, including wrestling between men and women--which Turner regards as unfair, because they always match men up against women to are too strong for them. Someone comments that he knows "a place where they fight naked with knives". There's no indication that anyone views this as a sexual sport--it's about the violence.

Finally, America has invented a device called a 'handie', which is attached to a television and transmits touch--you use it by sticking in... your hand. It's right there in the name! You can feel the person on the screen holding your hand. Did you expect the pornographic 'feelies', of Huxley's Brave New World? The America portrayed here is off-kilter enough that you can believe that hand-holding really is all they use that tech for.

Name Role
Fritz Leiber Author
Paul Calle Illustrator

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