Don’t watch that video. Don’t eat that candy bar. Don’t…ah, screw it, we can’t be constantly policing every little thing. And that’s where some sci-fi stories get us! Turning small everyday products and items and wondering…what if they were bigger, meaner, and everywhere?
It’s an effective writing prompt, too. Here are just 7 instances of “little product, big problem” stories that have stuck with us over the years (or in one case, the last few days).
The Videotape, Infinite Jest
If David Foster Wallace’s maximalist novel Infinite Jest has a center, that center is the mysterious avant-garde film created by James O. Incandenza, former tennis player, inventor, and indie filmmaker. JOI made dozens of film during his career (you can read about them here) but for whatever reason, the one he titled “Infinite Jest,” while seemingly just another weird, grainy film, actually exerts a terrifying power over anyone who watches it. See even a few seconds of the film and you lose all will to move, eat, drink, talk—all you want to do is keep watching until you die. Sounds bad, right? It gets worse when a mysterious madman begins mailing unmarked copies of the videotape to unsuspecting victims. And it gets even worse once word spreads of a film that completely incapacitates anyone who sees it, and the government, the film community, and several different terrorist organizations all find themselves in a race to find the last few copies.
Adipose, Doctor Who
Adipose is a diet pill that actually works! Unfortunately, that’s because their slogan, ‘The Fat Just Walks Away,” is literally true, and if too many adipose walk away, you’ll die. It works like this: you take the “pills,” and they bond with the latent fat stored in your body, thus spawning the babies of the Adiposian First Family. The adorable baby Adipose are then rounded up by the head of Adipose Industries, the mysterious Dark Poppins known as Miss Foster, who acts as their nanny while she waits for the First Family to come pick their kids up. It sounds like a grim death…but look at them! They’re just so cute, it’s almost worth it.
Rejuvagen, Extreme Makeover
After they lose the monopoly on their chemotherapy drug, NewYew must scramble to find a new product to turn a profit—and they hit upon it in a less noble but no less necessary market: anti-aging. With Rejuvagen, a burn cream that stimulates cells to create more collagen and eliminates wrinkles, scientist Lyle Fontanelle is rejuvenating NewYew as well. Never mind that the science involving plasmids is technically gene therapy and would never pass with the FDA. Never mind that Rejuvagen’s ability to overwrite DNA means that it’s turning its consumers into clones of the last person who touched the lotion. Never mind that suddenly there are dozens of Lyles walking around New York City, that NewYew wants to keep selling the product, and that the United States government thinks this could be a nifty weapon… Actually, that’s all reason to panic, and might explain why the book opens with “267 Days to the End of the World.”
Tribbles, Star Trek
But they can’t be a product, they’re alive! Au contraire, my shipmates. Tribbles only become a problem on Space Station K-7 because Cyrano Jones brought them on board. And they only become a problem on the Enterprise because he sells one to a wide-eyed Lieutenant Uhura, who totally buys his “tribbles are the only love money can buy” schtick. Chekov came along to help Uhura shop on the space station and does nothing to dissuade her because he clearly also thinks they’re cute. So does Spock, who claims to be immune to their trilling, but totally is not. The real problem with tribbles is that no one seems to think they’re an issue until they’ve taken over your living space and show up in your coffee. (It’s a little hard to believe that Starfleet doesn’t have clearance forms for bringing a new form of life on board as a pet, but what can you do? Besides update Starfleet regulations.)
If you just see the title for “The Problem with Popplers,” you’ll possibly think that Futurama is riffing on the Tribbles of yore, but no, what they have in mind is far darker. And involves eating babies. The Planet Express crew finds a pit full of what seems to be fried shrimp, and, upon discovering that whatever they are, they’re delicious, decide to devote their energies to creating a snack food empire. This creates two huge problems: first, Mankind for Ethical Animal Treatment (M.E.A.T.) stages massive protests, arguing that they’re intelligent animals and shouldn’t be eaten, and second, Leela soon learns that they’re actually the helpless, yummy babies of the Omicronian race. The Omicrons understandably want to eat a whole bunch of humans in return, but one of the babies stops them…after he’s climbed into Leela’s mouth to speak for his brothers and sisters. See? Disturbing.
Band Candy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The thing about being a student who’s supposed to fund-raise for school by selling something—spice sets, magazine subscriptions, candy bars—is that it stinks, and no one wants to do it. So of course Buffy Summers sells her entire stash of band candy to her mom, Joyce, and her Watcher, Giles. Candy sold, job done, everything copacetic (other than the pesky vamps that always need killing). It’s just chocolate, right? What could go wrong? Well, plenty, when the chocolate’s being made by the devious Ethan Rayne. There’s an elaborate demon-placating, baby-sacrificing reason for the whole scenario, but let’s focus on the really important part: the candy makes adults act like teenagers, and Giles and Joyce turn out to be … not the most responsible of teens. Guiding the vampire-slaying savior of humankind is really stressful, you know? It’s never in doubt that Buffy and the gang will save the day (and the babies), but will Buffy ever get over the sight of teen-Ripper Giles and teen-rebel Joyce making out? (It’s not until later that she finds out what else happened.)
Audrey II, Little Shop of Horrors
Who knew that having “strange plants” as a hobby could turn out so… murder-y? Typically unlucky Seymour Krelborn buys a weird plant one day–following a total eclipse of the sun–then finds that the plant’s presence brings fame and fortune and love his way. He also finds out that the only way to sustain the plant is to give it blood and body parts and… well, let’s just say that success comes at a price, and that price is having a now-giant plant sing (in Levi Stubbs’ gorgeous tenor) to you about how you need to kill your crush’s abusive dentist boyfriend. And sure, the guy deserves it, but Seymour knows deep down that this is just the first step on an unending road of criminal activity. He eventually finds out that the plant comes from outer space, manages to electrocute the thing, and saves his lady love in time to move to a suburb.
Unless you’re watching the stage-version of the musical, in which case everyone dies and the plants take over the world….