The strange is made familiar and the familiar strange…
We’re thrilled to share a selection from Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, the debut story collection from author Kim Fu—publishing February 1, 2022 with Tin House Books.
In the twelve unforgettable tales of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, the strange is made familiar and the familiar strange, such that a girl growing wings on her legs feels like an ordinary rite of passage, while a bug-infested house becomes an impossible, Kafkaesque nightmare. Each story builds a new world all its own: a group of children steal a haunted doll; a runaway bride encounters a sea monster; a vendor sells toy boxes that seemingly control the passage of time; an insomniac is seduced by the Sandman. These visions of modern life wrestle with themes of death and technological consequence, guilt and sexuality, and unmask the contradictions that exist within all of us.
Mesmerizing, electric, and wholly original, Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century blurs the boundaries of the real and fantastic, offering intricate and surprising insights into human nature.
Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867
—Welcome. I’ll be your operator today.
—I see this is your first time. Why don’t you start by telling me where you’d like to be, at the beginning of the simulation?
—A botanical garden. With my mother.
—Can you describe her? The way she’ll be in the simulation, I mean. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the way she is in real life.
—I guess—I guess I want it to be my mother right before she got sick. So she would be about sixty. Dyed-black hair, gray at the roots. She was short. Just barely five feet.
—Is your mother still alive?
—In real life?
—I’m sorry, but the simulation can’t include deceased individuals you knew personally. It’s in the handbook.
—It’s in the handbook.
—Can’t you just tell me?
—It has proven to be too addictive.
—Wait—I can include dead people that I didn’t know? Like celebrities?
—As long as they didn’t specifically request to be excluded from simulations in their will. Anyone who died more than ten years ago is generally fine. Historical figures, for example. Dinner with Mozart.
—Oh, it’s a lawsuit thing?
—It’s more of a courtesy. We prefer to respect people’s wishes.
—That sounds like a lawsuit thing.
—The requests aren’t enforceable. It’s functionally the same as you sitting around fantasizing about a dead celebrity—just enhanced a little bit by us. We don’t broadcast or record, so it doesn’t fall under life or likeness rights. You can’t control someone’s thoughts.
—What if I didn’t tell you it was my mother? What if I said,“I’m in a botanical garden with—a woman. She’s about sixty, short, dyed-black hair with white roots, looks kind of like me—”
—It wouldn’t be your mother in the simulation. It would just be a short woman who looks kind of like you, in an entirely different way. The simulator hooks into your brain and its projections, and I’d need to input that it’s your mother for her to appear as your mother.
—And people don’t get addicted to that? To people who kind of, sort of, meet the same description?
—What if I hadn’t told you she was dead? What if I’d lied and said she was alive?
—It’s very important that you’re honest with your operator. It’s in the handbook.
—But what if I wasn’t? What would happen?
—It wouldn’t work.
—What does that mean?
—Best-case scenario, the simulation just wouldn’t start up. Worst-case, you might experience something—glitchy.
—Have you ever been to a hypnotist show?
—What? Yeah, back in college.
—You know how they start out with a large group of volunteers and kick people out as they go? Until they’re left with just a couple people who can be convinced that they’re chickens or eating an ice cream cone or covered with ants?
—We have to do the opposite, here. We have to watch out for those people. We’ve found that the ten to fifteen percent of nonpsychotic people who are hypnotically suggestible also tend to have a looser grip on the difference between fantasy and reality. Personally, I wonder if those people have a keener appreciation of books, plays, movies, video games—if they have more immersive experiences.
—What does that—
—But the simulation, you see, requires you to have a firm grasp on what is and isn’t real. We need clients to make a clean exit, such that the end of the simulation is akin to closing the book, turning off the console, walking out of the theater. It’s important that you’re honest with your operator, because the simulation does—interact physically with your brain.
We, the operators, also need to be absolutely certain about what is and isn’t real. This is all in the handbook.
—So if I lied and said my mother was alive, and you spun it up, and we had our day at the botanical garden, what could happen?
—At the end—
—You might not know she died.
—And you’d go back to your life, expecting her to be there, and she wouldn’t be. And ideally, the memory of her death and everything connected to it would come back to you on its own, once you’d talked to your friends and family, or you’d reconstruct it in such a way that it felt real enough. But it also might not. There might just be a hole there, an uncertainty that followed you for the rest of your life, that unraveled your reality around it. And that’s assuming, of course, the simulation itself ran the way we scripted it.
—What do you mean? What else could happen?
—If I input the simulation on the assumption that your mother was alive, but your mind was very conscious of the fact that you lied, she could appear in both states simultaneously. Or not truly simultaneous, but flickering between them quickly enough as to appear simultaneous.
—She would appear both alive and dead.
—What would that even—like her corpse?
—It would depend on your conception of death. She might appear at several ages at once. She might be a ball of light, or nothing at all.
—That doesn’t sound so bad.
—It can be.
—Have you seen this happen? This specific glitch?
—What did they see?
—Their loved one had died in an accident, and they had been present. Driving. They were the driver.
—So what did they see?
—Let’s get back to your session for today. Is there something else I can do for you?
—I just… I really only came here to see my mom.
—Perhaps you’d like to experience a particular environment? Outer space? Swimming with dolphins?
—Can I go to India?
—Absolutely! Where in India?
—I don’t know. You tell me.
—Are there specific cultural sites you wish to see? Foods you want to eat?
—I… don’t know.
—For travel experiences, I usually recommend doing some research first.
—I have to do research?
—Any place will be what you expect it to be. If you have a limited perception of what India is, that’s what you’ll experience. I can’t actually send you anywhere. We just manifest your fantasies. They have to be within your capacity to fantasize.
—Well, what else do you suggest?
—Sexual fantasies have a high satisfaction rate. Also flying, always a classic. Character role play, although for that I’d recommend at least an eight-hour session, if not a full weekend—
—Hold on. You said seeing dead people you know is too addictive.
—Yes. It’s in the hand—
—Sexual fantasies aren’t addictive? Sex with whoever, whatever, however you want? Flying isn’t addictive? What if I just said, “I want to feel perfect bliss and euphoria”? Could you do that?
—And that’s not addictive?
—The problems with seeing deceased loved ones are well understood. For everything else, we find it’s best to deal with problem clients on a case-by-case basis. Individual operators have the right to refuse any request.
—There are no other rules?
—There are de facto rules, things that no operator will do.
—Sex with children or real animals. Generally.
—“Real” animals? Generally?
—It’s hard to define—
—I can fuck a dragon, but I can’t see my mom?
—There are conditions under which I can fuck a child, but I can’t see my mom?
—No, no! Of course not! It’s… There’s a degree of discernment in… We live in a society in which anything intimate or unusual is treated as sexual, and that sometimes… If a client asks to be held in the palm of a giant, is that sexual?
—I mean, probably.
—So if they asked to be held in the palm of a giant child, you would refuse, if you were an operator?
—You can’t imagine a way in which being held by a giant child could be fun? Whimsical? In a nonsexual way?
—I guess it would depend on, I don’t know, where they were going with it? How they said it?
—See, that’s exactly—
—Can I murder someone?
—Are you kidding me? I can murder someone, but I can’t—
—If someone comes in here and wants to rehearse stalking and strangling his ex-wife or shooting up his office, the operator is going to say no. But if he wants to, I don’t know, be a gunslinger in an old western—
—Ah, so I can be an action hero?
—We can do that.
—Mow down bad guys, save the damsel?
—Is that what you’d like?
—Do I have to tell you what I want the bad guys to look like?
—Ideally, yes. In broad strokes at least.
—What if I want them all to be a specific race?
—I would say no to that.
—And if I didn’t specify? If I said that I didn’t care what they look like? What would happen?
—I’d sketch something in, but the simulation would be influenced by what your perception of a “bad guy” is.
—So if my perception of a “bad guy” just happens to be—
—I see where you’re going with this.
—And you would say no. But if I had a different operator, if one of my Klan buddies worked here—
—Nobody here would—
—Or just an operator with a different philosophy on the whole thing. “Oh, they’re just blowing off steam. It’s all in good fun. It’s not real.”
—The simulation is just a platform. It’s a machine, a venue. Your brain creates the majority of the content. We can’t dictate every—
—But there is one hard no. Violent racist fantasies, a naked hot tub party with Einstein and a unicorn, that’s fine. That’s up to the discretion of the operator. But I can’t look at some flowers with my mom. I can’t talk to her one last time.
—Shall we see about getting you a refund?
—The handbook said there are no refunds under any circumstances.
—You read the handbook.
—The refund policy is on the cover.
—Most people have a very positive experience.
—Having sex with unicorns.
—You’re really hung up on the unicorn thing.
—Well, what else do people do? What’s the best fantasy someone came in here with? That made them the happiest?
—There’s a section in the handbook on how to make the most of your—
—The best one you’ve seen, personally, as operator.
—No one’s ever asked me that before. [silence] It was a musical.
—In the simulation, he was the writer, composer, and director of a Broadway musical. I suggested that he choose a specific musical, and we’d make it so that in the simulation, it would be as if he wrote it. He insisted that it had to be an original show. I explained that everything in it, then, would be vague. Just the feeling and suggestion of music and dance, blurred and nonspecific, cobbled together out of other things he’d seen and heard—much like India would have been for you. But it turned out I’d misunderstood him. He’d actually written a musical, in the real world. Sort of. He’d been working on it most of his life. He had the main melodies and lyrics. He could see the choreography and costumes in his mind.
—Was it any good?
—Of course not. It was terrible. But we put together a hell of a show.
—I don’t understand.
—In the simulation, it wasn’t what it was, but what he dreamed it could be.
—Are you okay?
—That was a good day. That was a day that made me feel good about being an operator. [silence] It is a lawsuit thing.
—The reason you can’t see your mom. The simulator is inherently addictive. Everything people do here is addictive. A small number of our clients make up the majority of our business. The “whales,” rich people who come as much as they can afford, and then some. People who come every day until they’re bankrupt. But the ones addicted to superpowers or sex or the simulator itself don’t win in civil court. Nobody pities them. Everyone says, “Oh, the simulation is just a platform. They ruined their lives themselves with how they chose to use it.” But if we—if we advertise that someone can see their dead child again, they can see their village before the war, they can have a version of their life where their family is intact, go back to before it was shattered, they can live just one ordinary day without grief… And if they choose to live inside of that fantasy, if they choose to forsake the real world and all its sorrows—then we’re the bad guys. We’re exploiting the bereaved. It also just… happened so much. Especially around certain disasters. And it wasn’t… Operators would quit.
—Did the musical guy come back?
—No. Not that I know of. He just wanted to see it once.
—What if I promise never to come back?
—I can’t. I’m sorry. I’ll get fired.
—Is it hard-coded in? The rule?
—No. We’re just not supposed to.
—But you said the simulations aren’t recorded or broadcast. They’re supposed to be one hundred percent confidential. That was also on the cover. How would anyone know?
—When you come back. When you keep coming back.
—What if I just tell you about it, what I want? And then you decide?
—I’m telling you, I can’t.
—It’s nothing. It’s really nothing. It’s boring, it’s easy. It’s so small, what I want. [silence] Okay. So my mom and I are at the botanical garden, inside the conservatory—
—What does it look like?
—Yes, where you are. You have to describe it for me. All the details that matter to you.
—It has a domed glass roof, made of triangular sections.
—What time of day?
—Early afternoon, middle of the day. A weekday. I took it off from work. Blue sky.
—How big is the building? Can you see the whole thing from where you’re standing?
—What plants are immediately around you?
—We’re in the tropical rainforest section. Pink bromeliads, dwarf palms, a banana tree. Butterflies.
—What else is important?
—We’re walking through the gardens together. She’s holding my arm. She’s telling me plant facts, boring ones, like “Did you know bamboo can grow a full inch in just an hour?” And she’s gossiping about relatives I don’t remember, and kids I went to elementary school with. “Little Russell is a newscaster now! Aunt Sandy is pregnant!” That sort of thing. And I’m just listening. I say things like, “That’s interesting,” and “Russell did love to hear himself talk.” I’m not getting snide or impatient, or looking at my phone, or thinking about work, or picking a fight.
—Nothing. That’s it. We do that until my time is up. [silence] Are you surprised it’s not something more dramatic?
—No. I told you, it’s often—ordinary things.
—So what do you think?
—The simulations aren’t recorded, but these conversations are.
—Pre-simulation consultations are recorded as a text transcript.
—I thought everything was confidential.
—The transcripts are anonymized, and they’re not reviewed by a human being, just an AI. And it tends to be—somewhat literal-minded. It’s not very good at telling when people are lying or being sarcastic, and the transcripts obviously don’t contain our expressions or gestures. Do you understand?
—So, no, I can’t do that. I can’t simulate a walk in the conservatory with your mother. Under the distant domed roof, triangles of blue sky, palm leaves overhanging your path. Your mother delighted when a butterfly lands on her shoulder. And you, patient and kind and present as you wish you had been, just once. I would get fired. Tell me something else you want.
—The only thing I—
—Just tell me something else.
—I want to… ride a unicorn.
—Great. I’ll start the input and mapping process. Please head next door, where you’ll be fitted for the simulator cap. Usually, if I have any questions, I’ll use the room-to-room communicator, but this time I expect I—won’t have any.
—Will you—see what I see?
—Will I see you again?
—No. If you keep your promise.
—Then, thank you. Thank you.
—Enjoy your unicorn.
Excerpted from Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, copyright © 2021 by Kim Fu.