Just as Audran finished taking the details of the damsel's distress, his phone rang with the piercing siren of an urgent message. He hesitated, torn between the rudeness of interrupting his conversation and the cachet of appearing in demand, but the cachet won out. Everyone had a façade to maintain, after all.
"Audran's Answers," he said automatically, as a hideous hologram erupted from the phone in a montage of fangs, claws and tentacles. "Good grief, Drake, you've really let yourself go. Are you still drinking Monster Tonic?"
Drake looked as hurt as the tusks would let him. "It's great stuff — puts scales on your chest. But never mind that. My doomsday clock is showing nineteen hours till the end of the world!"
Audran sighed, anticipating a spiel that would inevitably end with an offer to sell him world-saving gadgets at bargain prices. "I've told you before. I don't want to buy a robot sidekick, or a Neutronic Needle for darning the fabric of reality."
This story is set in the same universe as "Demonstration Day" and "Best In Show", and features characters previously seen in those stories. However, it's not a direct sequel. It has a different protagonist, and a somewhat different tone. The earlier pieces were written primarily as quickfire comedies, whereas this story — while retaining some humour — is more restrained. The change of style arose partly from the subject matter, and partly because I felt that the previous format would become too restrictive and repetitive if applied to every story in this setting.
The idea came to me while watching TV. I've long been a fan of the Antiques Roadshow, and evidently there are enough people like me that the BBC thought it worth creating a spin-off called Twentieth Century Roadshow, displaying recent artefacts that might become the antiques and collectibles of the future. This often shone a rather disturbing light into the world of the obsessive collector. I was fascinated by one guy who collected packaging — specifically, food packaging such as cereal packets, biscuit wrappers, and so on. He exhibited some of his collection, showing how the design of these packages changed to incorporate film promotions and the various fads of the day. He said that packaging was the defining item of the twentieth century. I could see his point. Our disposable culture is vividly illustrated by all the vast amounts of beautifully-designed packaging that's produced simply to be thrown away.
I felt that the concept of packaging — and its obsessive collectors — could be the seed of a story, since it offered a wealth of thematic material. There's an obvious theme of surface vs. content, in that a package both promotes the product and hides its true nature. To collect packaging is to value containers over contents: a metaphor for a hollow world of superficial glitter.
One of my recurring motifs is the idea of a future society of endless leisure, where people — being effectively immortal — have the time to indulge themselves in rococo hobbies and amass enormous collections with bizarre themes. I felt that a collection of packaging would neatly fit into this setting. Here, food packaging is considered a historical curiosity from a time when packaging had to sell the product, because people selected and bought items at a supermarket rather than replicating them at home. But even in a world where supermarkets no longer exist, appearances are still important — everything has packaging to make it seem more attractive. People package themselves with self-promoting façades. And just like those old cereal packets, everyone's packaging is constantly changing to fit the latest fashion.
In story terms, a bizarre hobby becomes more dramatic when indulged by numerous eccentric hobbyists furiously competing for prestige. The concept of packaging is flexible enough for various interpretations by different collectors — for instance, eggshells are packages for embryos. When almost anything can be seen as packaging, rather more sinister collectibles also exist... and whatever's inside them must be discarded. Naturally, there is one hobbyist who'll stop at nothing to collect the ultimate empty package.
I selected suitable characters from "Demonstration Day" to encounter the packaging collectors, whose rivalry paralleled the inventors' own ongoing competition for prestige. Since I felt that the titles of the previous two stories had been a little bland, this time I went to the other extreme with my longest title to date: "The Franklin J. Berneville Memorial Trophy for Saving The World From Extreme Peril". I submitted the story to Oceans of the Mind, who had published the earlier episodes, and this one appeared in the "Tribute to the Golden Age of Pulps" theme issue in Spring 2006.