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A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale


Charles Tan


There were many rumors circulating about the company Diseases for Sale ( right-wing political blogs claimed that the head of R&D was in fact a geneticist who used to work for either a terrorist cell or a corrupt government (although which terrorist cell or government in particular varies from commentator to commentator). Skeptics labeled its initial success as a hoax, claiming that its popularity was manufactured by the Web 2.0 community, with writers and publicists drawn from NaNoWriMo members and bloggers who failed to monetize their websites. One of the wilder theories, which popped up in a now-defunct BBS, was that the original entrepreneur was from a future in which a cure for cancer was never discovered, but where such research led to the discovery of new viral strains and bacteria.

The success of Diseases for Sale baffled the economic analysts of the 21st century, who predicted that healthcare would dominate the industry. In 2008, at a time when everyone seemed to be affiliated with at least one gym, when wonder drugs were either counterfeited or sold on the black market, when beauty products were utilized by both genders, Diseases for Sale made its debut. Historians would argue that its initial presence was so counter-culture, especially when you took into consideration the networks’ sponsors, that conventional media outlets conducted a news blackout.

R. J. Brandon, the last CEO of Diseases for Sale, claimed that the company had humble beginnings. “Our founder picked a domain name that no one in their right mind would buy,” he said. “I mean, who would trademark a company name with the word ‘disease’ in it?”

Unstated by the CEO was the fact that their initial startup website was poorly laid out with its simple white background, Times New Roman font, and usage of commonly-available clip art. The only clues that it was an actual online store were the PayPal and shopping cart buttons at the bottom of the page.

Still, whatever it lacked in marketing and design, it made up for with its services. The company’s first products were seemingly innocuous diseases: the common cold, sore eyes, and diarrhea. Whereas the pharmaceutical industry’s cash cow was selling drugs that held off these ailments, Diseases for Sale got its start by providing them as a service. They probably wouldn’t have been as successful if they hadn’t targeted the most infectious market: the youth. Didn’t study for an exam? A cold was often enough to deter parents from allowing their children to leave the house. Skeptical school nurses found themselves facing either an epidemic of sore eyes (usually the females) or clogged, stinking toilets (usually the males).

Before the authorities finally figured it out, Diseases for Sale’s URL made its way through private mailing lists, message boards, and Twitter before its appearance in places like Livejournal, Facebook, MySpace, and various RSS Feeds. For a time, some people believed that the company was an urban legend or a hoax, as elusive as a Nigerian prince offering his wealth. However, the company’s clientele slowly expanded into the collegiate level and eventually the labor sector, where employees mimicked the excuses their children gave their teachers.

Even at this early stage, Diseases for Sale had developed a sturdy business system. All transactions were done online and various methods of payment could be utilized, from bank deposits, electronic cash, and the aforementioned PayPal. They accepted all forms of currency, whether it was pesos, euros, yen, yuan, or even the more exotic ones such as World of Warcraft gold and Linden dollars.

The company’s slogan was ‘Safety First!’ and it would achieve this through several methods. The first was its rigorous screening process which verified your identity, requesting scanned photocopies of valid IDs or your birth certificate. Second was its policy that prevented you from purchasing diseases for other people. You couldn’t ‘give’ someone else a disease you had paid for. Once your account was created, every time you purchased a disease, you received an email confirming the purchase order.

Another safety feature was that all diseases it sold were only temporary and (in the case of the diseases it would later sell) could never lead to one’s actual expiration. ‘Dead customers are bad for business,’ was the official statement.

What puzzled many experts were the vectors the company used to transmit its products. Upon confirming your order, you would wake up the next day, infected with the disease. There was no need to check your mailbox for any packages. Diseases for Sale had a money-back guarantee on its efficiency. This immediate and inexplicable transportation baffled governments who were hoping to earn income from transportation taxes. Savvy industrialists similarly wondered how they could duplicate the same delivery model for their own businesses. The less innocent failed in their attempts to divine the company’s secret method of delivery, and this is arguably why Diseases for Sale lasted until the 22nd century, outliving its copycats and derivatives which only succeeded in reverse-engineering its earlier commodities but not its services. The most popular theory was that the email confirming your purchase order included an encrypted psychosomatic code, which activated various proteins in the human body that replicated the effects of the disease you ordered.

Diseases for Sale’s initial batch of products was successful enough that it enabled them to expand their repertoire and branch out to other markets. Its ‘Career Diseases’ line was one example. Insomnia was originally marketed to workaholics, writers, and graphic artists who kept long hours or complained that they didn’t have enough time in the day to finish all of their tasks. This product also proved popular to call center agents from countries like India and the Philippines, as well as nurses all over the world. ‘Less sleep doubled my working time!’ was the testimonial the company used for its ads. Another product in the same line was synesthesia, which became the craze among self-styled artists, especially when dependence on drugs and alcohol was more vigorously frowned upon by the government. Synesthesia was the substitute muse as the clashing colors of musical notes were burned in the retinas of hopeful musicians and aspiring poets, many of whom developed an addiction for the spiciness of phonemes and allophones. Even dyslexia, a cheaper product, proved to be a source of creativity as fictionists mistyped ‘love’ for ‘lost’ and ‘gain’ for ‘pain’.

Eventually, Diseases for Sale grew just like any other successful business. It had a phase as a fad when the fashion industry decided it was glamorous to design clothing that highlighted one’s rashes and allergies. Diseases for Sale experienced a boom in sales as models and social climbers sought out ways to induce irritable skin or puffy cheeks. There was even a controversial magazine cover featuring a model who willingly exposed herself to leprosy.

However, they encountered problems as well. Countries like Japan and Singapore, which prioritized healthy hygiene as a virtue, initially opposed Diseases for Sale’s entry into their markets. The PR department, however, alleviated many of their concerns, especially when it came to the contagiousness of the diseases (each product was uniquely tailored to affect only the customer’s DNA) and the mortality of its clients (as previously stated, diseases were non-lethal, including the cancerous variety—although one was subjected to hours of excruciating pain). They even allowed governments to inspect their offices and ‘factories’ (in actuality, warehouses full of network servers and crisscrossing wires), the location of which were previously undisclosed (hackers years earlier tracked their IP address to one of the Polynesian islands). Eventually, a special license was dispensed, and Diseases for Sale required waivers from customers in select countries.

In R. J. Brandon’s memoirs, he divulged that during this period of growth, the company relied more on their stable and consistent customers. “We had all sorts of professionals availing of our services and it is because of their patronage that we continued to be a successful enterprise.” More than one method actor, in interviews, admitted to using Diseases for Sale’s products in order to better embrace their roles. Historical movies were one genre in which this proved popular: why feign the symptoms of consumption when you could actually experience the wracking agony of tuberculosis? Medical professionals were also under this consumer bracket, as they bought diseases so that they might better understand—or failing that, empathize with—their patients. (The more cynical doctors told their patients, “Yes, ma’am, I know exactly what it feels like, so stop whining and let’s get this over with!”)

In the late 21st century, Diseases for Sale became as ubiquitous as Xerox or Coke. It was during this period that the company pushed its more radical products into the market. Parents bookmarked the order form for temporary paraplegia and tetraplegia, threatening their misbehaving children with a few hours of limbic paralysis should they fail to cease their tantrums. (The company had relaxed its stance on ‘Safety First!’ by this time and allowed guardians to purchase diseases for their wards.)

The S&M crowd appropriated many of the company’s products for their own fetishes. Aside from temporary paraplegia which the non-dominant partner usually ordered, Sickle Cell Disease—pain being the least of its effects—also proved to be one of the company’s bestsellers.

Heavy taxation on alcohol led some drunkards to resort to doses of Alzheimer’s as it enabled them to forget many of their problems without vomiting, hangovers, or random brawls.

Again, not all of Diseases for Sale’s products were met with open arms. Sterility was popular among the bachelors and married Catholics (whose only form of birth control had previously been withdrawal) until pro-life protesters held several rallies. There were numerous debates as to whether nonpermanent sterility actually counted as anti-life, and this discussion intersected with discussions of religion and philosophy.

At its peak, the company’s products delved into the realm of abstract diseases. The R&D department managed to distill elements of various diseases and package them as concentrates. For the masochists and morphine addicts, they sold pain. Those feeling guilt at their inability to grieve at a relative’s funeral could avail of depression. Children and adults alike often bought denial, and Diseases for Sale never asked them for their reasons.

For a time, it was possible to custom-order diseases that weren’t readily available on the company’s catalog. Diseases for Sale soon discontinued this service, however, when they were unable to meet many of the demands: spurned lovers and unsure youths wanted to order homosexuality, but Diseases for Sale countered that it was not a disease. Military agencies imagined that they would be more productive if they could purchase paranoia, but the company said that they were already infected with it. Radical and right-wing leaders wanted to mass-order discrimination and prejudice, but Diseases for Sale instead offered them prosopagnosia—the inability to distinguish faces.

The most-requested disease in the company’s entire history was death. More than a few billionaires, especially those crippled by an accident or suffering some terminal disease, requested such a product. R. J. Brandon, however, declined to provide their request. When pressed for a reason during an interview, he merely shook his head and told the press that “The company was never in the business of selling cures.”

As successful as Diseases for Sale proved to be, it was not immune to market forces and the ravages of time. New fads popped up, such as iSuicide, which bit into their clientele. Governments created new laws which imposed high tariffs on their products. The human race started developing stronger antibodies to combat its addiction to disease. The company finally folded when a computer virus corrupted the company’s database, brainwashed the AI automating many of its servers, and sent copies of itself to their clients. Yang Mei Lee, an independent business consultant, has this to say on the matter:  “It was the company’s downfall when they inadvertently gave away free product.  They could have capitalized on the incident by charging their customers for the virus.”


Sneak preview

"A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale" will appear later in 2009 in the anthology Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 4, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar.  Thank you Dean and Nikki for your cooperation in allowing me to get my mitts on this fine story here and now. But since it's been nigh impossible for people across the seas to get your books into our hands and libraries, isn't it about time you organise an online purchase capability for this excellent series?

Charles Tan’s fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 3. He has conducted interviews for the Nebula awards, the Shirley Jackson awards, and magazines including SF Crowsnest and SFScope.







Charles is co-editor, with Mia Tijam, of the  Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, an online anthology with an introduction by Charles, and  stories by Dean Francis Alfar, M.R.R. Arcega, F.H. Batacan, Douglas Candano, Ian Rosales Casocot, Michael A.R. Co, Khavn De La Cruz, Pocholo Goitia, Francezca C. Kwe, Apol Lejano-Massebieau, and Vincent C. Sales.

A regular contributor to a variety of websites, including SFF Audio and Comics Village, Charles Tan also posts book reviews, interviews, and essays at his personal blogsite:
Bibliophile Stalker
from the mouth of Charles . . . Do read
The chicken spits the cook or Charles Tan talks
a Virtuous Medlar Circle feature interviewish thing


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"A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale" copyright © 2009 by Charles Tan, first appears here with kind permission of Charles Tan,
whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
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