February 2015 cover art

Letters to a Useless Nephew on a Backwater Planet

By Iain Ishbel


Dear nephew:

You are an idiot.

My sister remains, of course, entirely delighted with you. She spends her days boasting of your triumph: the runt of her first litter, her little baby babooshka — you see, learning Earth languages is not difficult — assigned to a real-life planetary Overthrow. And yet to me, nephew, you have revealed your idiocy in a single letter. This before even arriving in your assigned system!

I have spent thirty-five periastrons in the Diplomatic Service, and the Overthrow Division for eight before that, and I have never heard a local pseudonym more at odds with the major languages of the target planet. Can you truly believe “Yngwie Malmsteen” could be plausible, anywhere on Earth? Either you are joking, or you have failed to examine human languages with any care. You will have to do better.

Nephew, it is not yet too late to admit you are out of your depth. This pseudonym debacle would serve as a warning to any person with a working pair of brains. Admit, I beg, that you lack the ability to handle a planetary Overthrow. Earth is a tiny world and backward, but there is simply too much thinking to be done.

I can help. If you would like me to arrange a cancellation — perhaps a quick environmental catastrophe? — I still maintain numerous contacts throughout the Diplomatic service. Certainly you would seem unlucky, but that is not nearly as bad as seeming incompetent, is it? After all, which of us has never suffered from poor timing?

Excepting your uncle, of course.

Foresight and preventive adaptation: That is how I have achieved my current exalted rank in the service of their Majesty the Queen. Do not sully my accomplishments, nephew.


Your affectionate uncle,

Solomon W. Gazzola

p.s. Can you see the quality? That is how to choose a pseudonym.



Dear nephew:

No, I do not think I was unnecessarily harsh in calling you an “idiot”. In fact your blunderous arrival on Earth renders the term, if anything, an understatement.

You see, I did watch your live feed last night, though I saw only the first sixth before throwing a glass bulb of intoxicant into the wormhole projector.

Instantaneous communications are such a blessing, aren’t they? So much faster than the electromagnetic broadcasts that humans use. And speaking of which: I suspect that you might have examined those light-speed EM signals while you were, perhaps, roughly, more or less, at a guess, thirty-eight light-years from Earth?

I suspect this, nephew, because you made the idiotic mistake of reproducing local clothing thirty-eight solar years out of fashion. True, it is very easy to forget the light-speed limitation of EM communications. This is why that reminder is in large lettering on the cover of your approach instructions.

If you had taken even the elementary precaution of looking out the window at the humans surrounding your landing site, you might perhaps have noticed that very few of them were wearing white disco bodysuits. And by “very few” I believe I mean a value mathematically identical to zero.

The bell bottoms were also a mistake.

Your mother has argued that you are to be congratulated for noticing your mistake so soon and zipping up the front fastener, though even she was slightly troubled by your subsequent swearing. If you choose to grow that much chest hair, nephew, you should be prepared for some of it to interact with your clothing, I should think.

I do concede that you have done better than before in selecting a local pseudonym. I am glad that you listened to me, in this at least. Even if you plagiarized the name — and I don’t want to know if you have — “Barry Gibb” has been accepted reasonably well by your hosts.

I also agree that “The Bee Gees” follows logically as an acceptable local name for our race. It seems to me that you have inadvertently done at least one thing reasonably well. Perhaps there is a modicum of hope for you.


Your affectionate uncle,




Dear Barry:

One in thirty-two.

No, that is not your intelligence measurement, though I am sure it is very close. “One in thirty-two” is the proportion of mammalian races whose brains have evolved to rely heavily on first impressions.

Do you know what a first impression is?

Or let me ask instead: Did you even notice they were mammals? No — I will go further and forestall your response. You did not look at a single local person. Because if you had noticed that the humans were mammals, you might have realized there was one chance in thirty-two that these beings would make up their minds about you in the first day of your visit.

Which might have suggested that you shouldn’t eat any of them.

I am so irritated by your sloppiness that I will write no more this evening.





Nephew Barry:

Do not send any more letters of apology. I do not care how hungry you were.

Your mother forgives you anything, of course, but I am a senior member of the Diplomatic Service. I have spent three times the racial average on my own education, and was already Research Fellow to their Majesty the Queen before you were born. Because of this extensive education, and my vast experience with interpersonal psychology, I had already assumed that you “hadn’t meant to cause any diplomatic incidents.” There is no need to send a letter clarifying this, thank you.

Instead, you might wish to spend time explaining your Overthrow plan. I accept your analysis, as Division representative in the field, that the political leadership of Earth is not executive. I concede therefore that it is necessary to win over the populace of the human planet.

However, I would like to know more about how you will accomplish this seduction. In your last letter you do not explain your plan. Instead, you assure me that you have one, which fact I had also assumed. I hope you are not planning to send them another group email? Even your mother thought that was a brainless and ineffective idea.


Your uncle,





Propaganda? Really? To Earth people?

This culture to which you’ve been sent on Overthrow duty is literally exceptional in producing EM radiation. There are entire industries devoted to using EM radiation to influence the mental states of huge segments of humanity: They are called “advertising”, “journalism”, “professional sports”, and “pornography”. Resisting this influence is the one area in which Earth people excel — and you thought that you could convince them to submit to their Majesty the Queen simply by discussing it?

You may think you are convincing, Barry, but the truth is that your mother never liked to oppose you in arguments because you were such a feeble nestling.

Your logic is simplistic, your rhetoric insulting, and your grammar appalling. You would not have been selected to Overthrow a high-media race such as this if there was any realistic possibility you’d use propaganda.

Did you design it yourself? The color scheme is intestinal.

On a related note, I have discovered that the name “Bee Gees” is not in fact a unique name among humans. A simple search of public records, which I undertook on a whimsical hunch and took less time than emptying my lower bladder, shows that the name was originally applied to a popular political triumvirate of the distant past, now badly in disgrace.

The disgust of the humans now toward that name would have been quite obvious to any individual with even a single operational cortex. So, yes, on that basis I expect that you simply failed to notice.

On Homeworld, however, you may recall that we receive a live feed of your planet’s local transmissions, via the instantaneous relay you yourself placed in lunar orbit. The global riots, the chants of “Death to the Bee Gees”, and a 3D re-release of the musical entertainment “Saturday Night Fever” — all these have been seen planetwide here, and are the talk of Homeworld. It is rare for an Overthrow team to be this badly despised, so you have gained some significant notoriety.

Your propaganda did indeed have remarkable results.

I have only one question: What will you do next?






Your latest letter is intriguing.

You claim that you have finally won the trust of Earth humans. That is a remarkable feat. Trust is a necessary component of any Overthrow, of course, if we are not to overtax the resources of the Military Corps. And yet when you last wrote, it seemed that you had managed to alienate most of humanity.

Still, your mother is relieved, and is once again discussing you openly with her friends and her gambling association.

But for myself I worry that you might have forgotten the basic tribal instinct of proto-civilized cultures. Do you remember that there will be tribes in competition with each other? And that tribes in competition might actually lie to you?

My prayers to their Majesty now include a daily entreaty that you have not taken up with a tribal unit such as the Americans, the French, or any other politically desperate group. I pray that you are in fact a friend to all mankind and that you have truly calmed their outrage and become popular.

My hopes, however, are not high. Because, as I may possibly have said before, you are an idiot.


Your uncle,




Nephew Barry Gibb,

Are you insane? Are you intoxicated?

You were not “following my instructions.” I have never given you instructions! You are not acting for me, and to announce otherwise is desperately inept. (How fortunate that your Earth broadcast coincided with the scarfball Colonial Series finals, so that your attempt at betrayal was not actually observed by many adults or even post-nestlings. As I might have expected, even your timing is incompetent.)

Have you been smoking carboxylates?


There is no sober reason to provoke a worldwide attack upon the United States of America, and I certainly did not suggest anything of the sort. That was a perfectly good continent, and the nations of Canada and Mexico had done nothing to deserve such peremptory extermination.

You have turned a simple Overthrow into a wasted opportunity, and ruined our family’s perfect feedback score. I have called upon two colleagues and a half-littermate, and you will find your license has been revoked.

Likely the planet will be discarded, as you have in all probability managed to push the inhabitants unstoppably toward either extinction or unrecognizable mutation. The Church is arguing for racial termination immediately to reduce long-term suffering, and the calculations seem, marginally, to support them. That solution, however, is far tidier than you deserve.

A commissionaire is on the way to take over for you and return you to your mother. Who is, if you care, utterly embarrassed. She has ceased to mention this posting altogether. In fact, she has apparently decided that your quarter-sister’s latest clutch is far more worthy of discussion.

And since the eggs do nothing but sit motionless, I must agree.

Despite my most heartfelt wishes and prayers to their Majesty,

I remain,


your uncle.



After twenty years of teaching Iain decided to find employment in any field that was not teaching. He is very pleased with his success rate so far, being continuously employed in non-teaching fields. His stories have been published in AE Canadian SF Review, in online magazines including Domain SF and Silverthought Online, and in the anthologies Astronomical Odds and Abbreviated Epics.

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