June bugs and haunted dolls: the strange and fantastical world of Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century

“After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs.” The opening sentence of “Twenty Hours,” one of twelve audacious stories in Kim Fu’s debut collection, displays the author’s preferred stylistic approach: a straightforward, direct extrapolation of fantastical subjects or situations. In the case of “Twenty Hours,” the conceit is contained within the narrator’s declaration: engineers have developed a 3D printer for human bodies that allows the user to effectively raise someone from the dead . “The printer couldn’t save you from cancer, or heart disease, or aging, or even a slow, festering wound,” we are told. “It didn’t make you immortal. It didn’t protect you from the ways most of us go, only from a slim category of quick, unlikely deaths.”

It is also, the narrator informs us, “outrageously expensive” – a status symbol for the ultra-wealthy. Or for the narrator and his wife, Connie, who are “that other kind of rich”: spendthrifts who have accumulated money through self-conscious austerity and decide to splurge on one grand “frivolity.” Purchased originally as a kind of insurance against fatal accidents, it becomes an outlet for the couple to release the tension from urges that most people can relate to – those fleeting moments when one thinks, “I could just kill you.” (Connie kills herself on a couple of occasions; that it is the wife who experiments with suicide seems like a subtle comment on gender dynamics in a heterosexual marriage.)

Any story with such a fantastical scenario needs grounding in the concrete and Fu accomplishes this on the level of language, which is clear and unadorned, as well as the specifics of how the mechanism works:

You embedded a device under the skin of your thigh that performed a full-body scan, drawing up specs for a printed copy of your body. The device re-scanned every ten seconds, noting changes and rewriting the data from your last checkpoint accordingly. The specs for your next printed body changed with you, ten seconds at a time. When you died, your consciousness would be uploaded at the moment of death. A body would be printed based on the most recent checkpoint with complete, coherent, functioning data – the most recent version of your body that wasn’t already dying.

As a vision of the so-called singularity – when technology and humans merge – Fu’s story offers a provocative premise that pushes suspension of disbelief a bit too far in its attempts to explain away a notion that is difficult to countenance: the possibility that technology might one day figure out how to clone personality. “Consciousnesses were too large to be stored for long, only immediately transferred,” the narrator explains, “and the compatibility window was a matter of minutes.” The notion of a subject rejecting consciousness the way a body might reject an incompatible liver or kidney is provocative, though the narrative doesn’t go quite far enough in making the premise completely convincing.

It is nonetheless a sharp satire of technological ennui and the limits of intimacy; the process of reprinting also restores a mysterious aspect to the spouse who undergoes a mechanically mediated death and rebirth, the other partner being fundamentally incapable of accessing the individual experience of dying or being dead.

The nature and subjectivity of human consciousness is a unifying fascination among the disparate stories in Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, a collection that comprises a panoply of satirical, speculative situations, each commenting obliquely on our contemporary, postmodern dilemmas.

Photo: L. D’Alessandro

The opening story, “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” told entirely in dialogue, focuses on an operator at a business that provides virtual reality simulations tailored to a client’s wishes and a prospective user who wants a scene at a botanical garden with their deceased mother. As the conversation unfolds, Fu interrogates notions of identity – the two speakers appear as disembodied voices on the page and we are not supplied with their genders, ages, or physical attributes – as well as the core distinction between technology and what is essentially human. The artificial intelligence that underpins the VR system’s administration is incapable of detecting sarcasm, untruths, or irony, allowing the operator to subvert the computer in a distinctly human way to assist the client.

In “June Bugs,” a woman recovering from an abusive relationship moves into a rental property that is infested with the titular pests. Fu constructs the story as a triptych, with the central section devoted to the development of the relationship in the past. This section draws the contours of the romance – from accidental meeting to eventual breakdown – with scalpel-like precision, allowing the reader to understand the various ways in which the man uses emotional manipulation to coerce his inamorata to hang around and continue to put up with him. “The Doll,” about a haunted child’s toy inherited by a group of neighbourhood kids after an entire family dies violently, would not be out of place in any anthology of contemporary ghost stories.

And “Scissors,” one of the collection’s highlights, takes up another investigation of consciousness and subjectivity, this time via a performance artist who has her partner blindfold her and invite members of the audience onstage to grope her. This is meant to be a perceptual trick, with the audience in on it from the outset – the only person who is supposed to have physical contact with the bound and blindfolded woman is her onstage partner. But robbed of her visual acuity, she becomes suspicious that her assistant has transgressed the rules and actually allowed audience members onstage to physically interact with her naked and vulnerable form.

“Scissors,” which first appeared in last year’s R.O. Kwan and Garth Greenwell–edited anthology Kink, is a challenging exploration of desire and the line between consent and surrender. The scenario recalls the performance art of Marina Abromovic, while the specific interactions between El and her assistant (and lover) Dee unfold on the razor’s edge between disclosure and withholding. “[I]t’s the not knowing that makes her core sing,” writes Fu about her protagonist’s experience of pleasure bleeding into fear and vice versa.

Some stories in the collection work better than others. “Do You Remember Candy” starts out as a provocative metaphorical take on social responses to Covid-19, via a strange ailment that robs its sufferers of the ability to taste or appreciate food, then morphs into a satire of the self-help industry in which a woman tries to provide clients with sense memory experiences for a price. “Bridezilla” is a romp about a shipboard wedding that goes awry due to the bride’s cold feet and a marauding sea monster; whether the ending appears savagely funny or merely savage will depend on an individual reader’s sensibility. And the wings the eponymous character in “Liddy, First to Fly” grows as a metaphor for female adolescent change flirt with cliché.

As a whole, however, Fu’s short fiction is a potent blend of satire, speculation, and waking nightmare. The author has stimulating things to say about consciousness and the dangers of technology, as well as the human impulse toward manufactured placebos as solutions to our most intractable existential dilemmas. Barbed and occasionally quite funny, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century examines the way we live now; what it uncovers is as discomfiting as it is incisive.

June bugs and haunted dolls: the strange and fantastical world of Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
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