“How’s Business” (short story) by Jacques Sternberg
English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)
Original: French (Comment vont les affaires?), 1957
Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976
Synopsis: A nameless interstellar salesman for an Earth-based soap company pens a journal following the dramatic rise in soap sales for the Company. His life is soap, his passion is soap, and so, when the Company takes an exciting new direction, he follows in suit eagerly. They buy a planet Draguere of grease with its dull, sluggish denizens so they can make soap directly from the planet’s natural resources. The soap is an instant success across the galaxy, but the hired hands of Draguere fumble and flounder. 13 pages
Pre-analysis: There’s some quaint notion to a story of bureaucracy which drives itself in to the heart of my readership. Ever since I read Jack Vance’s “Dodkin’s Job” (1959) in 2008, I’ve been struck by the wit of this type of story: white collar versus blue collar; the subjective absurdity of the work floor driven by the hand of the objective hand of detached administration; the brain not knowing what the hand does and the hand not know how the brain thinks. Perhaps this stems from my curiosity of affairs when my father was antagonistic with his company yet cooperative with his union. Even at the naive age of 11, I felt a intellectual conflict between the responsibilities of the employer and the employee.
Analysis: In “How’s Business”, the reader observes two ends of the anonymous spectrum from both sides of the employment divide:
A) The nameless company lackey bent on following through with company directive for the good of the company, for the company’s progress, for the company’s welfare. We can see his dedication to the soulless company by wavering care for his own family. When a dollar is to be had, he supports the efforts to earn that extra dollar for the same of the company.
B) Meanwhile, on the borderline-enslaved planet of Draguere, the mentally dull and physically sluggish denizens are forced to work against their nature—they must focus and toil when their nature suggests ambiguity and sloth. When they fail to progress to the human-standard of the concept of the production line, stringent measures are places and some are put to death in view of the others.
Considering both perspectives, in “How’s Business”, capitalism is a faceless, insensitive train of so-called progress which robs the souls from the bourgeoisie and the stamps the flames of nature from the lives of the proletarians.