Short Reviews – Time is Money, Haskell Barkin

Time is Money by Haskell Barkin appears in the January 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Time is Money is actually a pretty good story that suffers only from the fact that it is a short story in an issue wherein almost all of the other short stories were terrible and it immediately followed one of the best sci-fi novelettes I’ve ever read. So, if you get a chance to read this on its own without the taint and reek of My Boat and Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel or in the voluptuous shadow of Supercon Sal, I strongly suggest you do so.

The premise is that Sam Finnegan, a marketing guru, is hired by a mysterious stranger and paid in cash astonishing amounts of money to create an advertising campaign for a Time Machine. The one condition is Sam cannot use ANY of the materials he creates for the campaign in portfolios; no one can see what he’s working on. Sam creates a truly amazing and inspired campaign, some of his finest work, but alas, he’ll never be able to share it with the world! The whole time, he’s wondering if his client is a crazy eccentric or if, god forbid, the man actually DOES have a time machine. Whatever the case, the pay is good enough play along.

Of course it’s revealed that the client IS a time-traveller from the future. In fact, he’s actually the ad agent for the company who commissioned an ad campaign for their time vactions; unable to come up with anything good enough, he went back in time to get a master of marketing (one of those guys I hear that show Mad Men is about) to come up with the campaign for him. So, what’s the protagonist going to do now that he’s spent months on what will be an unseen ad campaign?

“Our ecology campaigns make up half the agency’s billing. Save our forests, streams, oceans, etc. for the future? Well, I’ve seen the future, gentlemen. And it pays.”

At first I was a bit put off by the ending and felt it smacked of ‘herp derp, environmentalism’, but that’s because I was so ready to be done with this issue that I missed the snark the first time around. Or maybe I’m choosing to read snark into it because I want to like this story. Who knows, maybe Haskell Barkin really was writing this as an environmentalist prophetic?

But what we know today is that, as the character predicted, environmentalism is big profitable business, and this was written during the early bloom. Whether it was global cooling, global warming, or climate change, there’s been a ton of money to be made in Big Environment; and while some of it is to be made through grants and money laundered through non-profits, the biggest driver and biggest beneficiary of environmentalism is marketing. Millions are spent and made in creating everything from feel-good sing-alongs to heart-wrenching visual tone poems to feature-length jeremiads. Al Gore has several mansions, on beach-front property no less (hedging our bets, are we?), celebrities speaking out on environmental issue jet-set around the world on private planes, and they get to wallow in piles of cash because marketing geniuses know how to jab people in the feels and give these people money because they’ve been convinced it’s making a difference. It’s the same mentality that has people thinking that eating a giant tub worth of yogurt actually does anything to help cure cancer that donating the cost of one yogurt cup to research would actually do better.

For those who, like Sam Finnegan, saw the future of environmentalism, it certainly did pay.

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