Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century

by Trisha Collopy

A girl grows feathers along her legs. A swarm of out-of-season June bugs overwhelms a rental house. A sand creature tugs an insomniac into sleep. A giant blob of “brainless multicellular organisms” is spotted off the coast of Hawaii. Signs of the monstrous surface throughout Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, but it’s unmet human need, lurking in the subconscious like unexploded ordnance, that unleashes the true monsters in these twelve shape-shifting tales.

Fu’s opening story, “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” sketches a near future where technology has become a mediator for human emotions. In a stripped-down chat transcript, a nameless client and operator of a holographic simulator debate whether the operator can bend the rules to grant the client’s sole wish: a day in a botanical garden with their now-dead mother. As they tangle over the platform’s fine print, the operator reveals a world where those who can afford it, “the whales,” visit the simulator again and again to live out dreams of having superpowers or wild sex, of completing a creative work or acting out violent racist fantasies. The platform is just a machine, the operator says, “Your brain creates the majority of the content.”

Those words foreshadow many of the stories in the collection, where Fu combines unexpected creatures and awkward social interactions to build a sense of unease. One of her sharpest stories, “#ClimbingNation,” raises questions about social media, celebrity culture, and how both become proxies for our emotional lives. The story opens as April arrives at the memorial of a climber, Travis, who lived in her dorm in college, but who she’d never encountered until his posts exploded on social media. Though April has no interest in mountaineering, she’s fascinated to realize that “someone she’d plausibly known had five hundred thousand followers on Instagram, the population of a midsize city.” She watches hundreds of Travis’s short videos, the freeze-frame intimacy of the small screen allowing her to zero in on “his view of the world from above, geographic and breathtaking,” as she hides in her dark bathroom, eating chips alone.

But that illusion of intimacy is shattered when she intrudes on the private space of his family’s grief. As April makes her way through the room at Travis’ memorial, she worries that his sister, Miki, and his climbing partner, Zach, will catch her in the lie. When the room empties out, April lingers, hiding behind helpful tasks, cleaning up after guests, washing dishes. Then Miki makes a chilling confession, and April is suddenly complicit, burdened with emotions no longer mediated through a screen.

If the gothic stories of Carmen Maria Machado use the monstrous to reveal hidden desires, ones we’ve forced into the subterranean spaces in our subconscious, Fu’s stories serve to recreate the shock of feeling in a landscape of disconnection. A thread of emotional disconnection runs through many of the stories in this collection. Characters are unable to ask for what they want, whether it’s a traditional wedding (“Bridezilla”), sexual release (“Scissors”), or a good night’s sleep (“Sandman.”) In “June Bugs,” need becomes monstrous as a woman flees an abusive partner. In “Twenty Hours,” a couple kill each other violently to give a jolt to their relationship.

The collection’s final story echoes the opening, in a near future where a creator-technician tries to reconstruct what has been lost. A highly transmissible virus has hit everyone on the planet, erasing the pleasure of taste and “the push-pull addition” of food. [200] Allie, a web designer, starts a side hustle building elaborate sensory experiences for those who can’t let go. Word spreads of her abilities, and soon she has a furtive list of clients, each hoping to reexperience the shiver of delight they had found in their favorite meal. When one client challenges Allie, accusing her of being a con artist, she retorts that she doesn’t consider herself an artist at all. But then she realizes that isn’t true:

When she submerges a client in bouncy balls, when she carefully sets their leg hair on fire, when she contrives a thousand ways to make twitch this now-insensate limb, she feels like a poet, making concrete something that no longer has concrete manifestation in the world.

Fu ends her tales of the monstrous on a hopeful note: We can know joy even in a world that is failing all around us. Our spirit sparks in the ruins. 

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022