Down and out sci-fi/fantasy writer Rudy Steiner is approached by his agent Mal Blitzberg, who offers him the chance to write a UFO abduction book. The fact that it is April 1st isn’t lost on Rudy, but he soon believes that Mal isn’t playing a joke on him. Apparently, previous books presented as true life alien abductions have gone over well and sold many copies. An editor at Knopf, Janet Cruse, is eager to have Rudy write the next big thing. What does he have to lose? He’s overweight, perpetually in AA, three months into a wicked writer’s block, and a frivolous lawsuit is all that Rudy has going on.
With the help of editor Janet Cruse, Rudy writes about the completely “true” alien abduction of his imaginary daughter, Bunny. The fact that Rudy has no children to speak of is not a problem; Janet will take care of everything.
“Oh, I think you’d always have written it, Rudy. The only difference now is that you’ll sign your name to it.”
“You think I’m shameless.”
She was right.
And who can pass over a Knopf payday? Everything seems so perfect–an easy gig for a writer fallen on tough times–but while he’s halfway through writing the manuscript, the real truth begins to unravel. Janet Cruse isn’t representing who she first says she is, the mysterious and imagined Bunny Steiner, blonde curls and all, is starting to pop up on television interviews, and there is a vengeful cult called The People who have their hands deeper in these events that one should feel comfortable with.
When he starts to become aware that not everything is okay, Rudy awakens in the middle of the night and has “an obscure sense that something terrible had just happened to him but he didn’t know what.” For a short story, so many unsettling things are happening in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie.” There is the obvious lie snowballing into something completely out of the control of the protagonist and the even more uncomfortable UFO cult that is more prominent than Rudy is first led to believe (aside: The People are an interesting example of strange UFO cults that were featured on the 5 o’clock news in the 1990s and the ones that still persevere today like Raëlism and Scientology).
Although, Thomas Disch’s story first appeared in April 1992 (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), there is an element that rings so relevant to some of today’s publishing schemes and the desires of the book reading public. When Rudy is first presented with the idea by Janet Cruse of writing the true tale alien abduction, she tells him, “Strieber’s book shows that the audience is there, and Hopkins’s book shows that anyone can tell essentially the same story.” She is referencing recent releases that had captivated readers and made a killing for the publishers (whether they are truthful or not isn’t relevant). Why not jump on the bandwagon is her initial pitch to Rudy. This feels entirely in line with the recent smorgasbord of dystopian youth novels that are invading bookshelves. You can’t go on the internet without reading about some new post-apocalyptic trilogy’s breakdown of a not-so-distant future society (and just a few years ago, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into some teenager vampire romance). Even in Disch’s story, when a publisher sees a lucrative venue, they’ll milk it till it’s bone dry.
“The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie” is not a science fiction story onto itself. True, the protagonist is a sci-fi writer and he’s penning an alien abduction book, but the story is completely set in reality with the horror and anxiety coming from very real, albeit, bizarre sources. As Disch stacks one more bit of the strange on top of another, the reader will be hooked until the final page.
- Thomas Disch (1940-2008) was extremely prolific. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.
- On TheMillions.com, David Auerbach writes of Disch: “He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.” You can read the complete article here.
- Update: This story pops up in a few anthologies. I read it in Decades of Science Fiction (ISBN13: 9780844259956).