Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.
The coupe with the fishhooks welded to its fender shouldered up to the curb like the nose of a nightmare . . .
British subject, Wysten Turner, is in post-nuclear-war New York–where all women wear masks and revealing their faces in public or on TV is unheard of–to negotiate with the United States the trade of electronics for wheat, when he witnesses and rescues a masked lady from being ran down by a menacing coupe coming off the street. As thanks, the mysterious lady invites him over to her apartment for that evening, but instead of staying in, she drags him to a nightclub frequented by wrestlers, including her wrestling boyfriend, while all along leading Turner on and relating to him all her anxieties.
Coming Attraction speculates on the social aftermath of a limited nuclear exchange, and a continued hot and cold war, between the Soviet Union and the United States, and suggests that mass neuroses would plague the population, revealed in sexual mores, gender relations, fashion, and popular culture.
And, naturally, the masks, which are definitely not, as the Soviets claim, a last invention of capitalist degeneracy, but a sign of great psychological insecurity. The Russians have no masks, but they have their own signs of stress.
Symptoms are everywhere. Masks are worn by all women in public and have become the new focus of sexual attention, replacing the breasts in power, the latter now more casually revealed. Athletic masked women wrestle scrawny men in popular entertainment and sport, but the men, in turn, take out their embarrassment in the same fashion on their girlfriends. Even the moon no longer represents love and the romantic, but another source of danger, hovering overhead with missile-ridden bases of both the Soviets and the U.S. The throwaway line about all the elevator shafts in New York being unusable and out of plumb because of an old blast, seems to also subtlety suggest how society is off-balance.
Ugliness pervades the streets of New York, not just in the radiation-scars of beggars, and the craters of Inferno, the ruins of the Hellbomb; but also in the compulsory bribing, and in the crassness of the wrestling-watching populace. The British protagonist regularly shows his irritation and impatience.
The masked woman of the story seems to be a metaphor for the United States itself, both with their hysteria and anxieties, bruises and scars, and the ugliness of contorted emotions and fear hiding behind the masks of normalcy.
In a story where the cultural masking of women is a prominent feature, Leiber seems to predict the reaction of some European countries to the Muslim hijab:
“A few members keep trying to persuade Parliament to enact a law forbidding all masking,” I continued, talking perhaps a bit too much.
But Leiber directly addresses any comparisons:
Comparing the American style with Moslem [sic] tradition is not valid; Moslem women are compelled to wear veils, the purpose of which is to make a husband's property private, while the American women have only the compulsion of fashion and use masks to create mystery.
Graham Sleight‘‘Coming Attraction’’ (1950) has one of the most famous first lines in SF, ‘‘The coupe with the fishhooks welded to its fender shouldered up to the curb like the nose of a nightmare,’’ telling you all you need to know about its desolate post-nuclear-war US. But notice also how much fun Leiber is having with language there: the almost-rhyme of ‘‘welded’’ and ‘‘fender,’’ the way the stress falls on the nouns he wants you to notice, the alliteration of ‘‘nose’’ and ‘‘nightmare.’’1)
Algis Budrys“Coming Attraction” “signalled the end of 'Modern' science fiction as the most viable form of speculative fiction [and] revealed that 'science fiction' was technology fiction.”2)
Todd Mason[Coming Attraction], a science fiction story which suggested that people really didn't necessarily behave in the ways you might want them to or that they led you to believe they did, and that your “heroism” might just be playing into their little fantasy-games, seems so obvious in retrospect…but was a corrective to entirely too much lazy thinking in the field at the time.3)