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Arts & Culture

Sci-fi, fantasy, crime fiction blend in 'Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century'

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, by Kim Fu
Tin House Books

Kim Fu's Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a wildly imaginative collection in which elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even crime fiction blend together in a maelstrom of entertaining darkness that peels away layers of normalcy to reveal the weird, creepy things at the core of each story.

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century contains 12 stories that are very different from each other but that share cohesive elements that give the collection a sense of unity. The strangeness starts with the first story, "Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867," a tale consisting entirely of dialogue in which someone wants to spend time with their dead mother in a simulation. Unfortunately, that's not permitted because those in charge think it would easily become addictive and they don't want to deal with lawsuits that could stem from users getting hooked on that kind of experience. However, things like having dinner with a dead historical figure or riding a unicorn are allowed. With a heavy dose of humor and a dash of philosophical questioning, this story sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

If the first story sets the mood, the second, titled "Liddy, First to Fly," cracks open Fu's style and makes a statement: Everything is possible. The story follows a group of young girls as one of them grows wings near her ankles. While the story is fun to read, it also offers a look at something Fu does time and again — setting up a wild premise and then using it to make a deeper statement. In this case, the author looks at what it means to transition into womanhood and the accompanying loss of innocence and the ability to believe in the impossible:

"The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked through around the edges. Everything was baffling and secretive then, especially our own bodies, sprouting all kinds of outgrowths that were meant to be hidden, desperately ignored and not discussed, hairs and lumps that could be weaponized against us. On some level, it seemed like this would just be part of Liddy's eventual adult-hood, tucking her wings beneath sensible slacks and off to the office, just as our mothers scooped and flattened and plucked themselves raw."

There isn't enough space here to talk about every story, but there are several standouts that deserve attention. The first one is #ClimbingNation, one of the few narratives in the collection that remains entirely in the real of reality. After the death of a climber who was also a social media influencer, a woman who barely knew him goes to his wake and embeds herself into the dead man's small group of real friends, only to discover a murderous plot at the end and realizing she's powerless to do anything about it.

"The Doll," shows Fu fully embracing a horror fiction cliché with a story about a haunted doll. Despite the theme, the approach makes it feel unique and there are a few observations about suburbia — "In our neighborhood, in the absence of real difference, we seized on the minute, the unnameable, the imaginary" — that make it standout. Similarly, "Sadman," a story about a woman who struggles with falling and staying asleep, starts out as a regular tale of someone dealing with a common problem and slowly shifts into a dark, eerie tale where true sleep comes attached to the appearance of a man made of sand.

While each story in Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century takes place in a different world and feels unique, Fu's obsession with infusing the normal with the supernatural, the weird, the bad side of technology, or the grotesque gives the collection a wonderful sense of cohesion. The perfect example is "Twenty Hours," in which a couple kill each other because they can print a perfect copy of the deceased at home, and that sort of keeps things interesting:

"After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs. I thought about how to spend the time. I could clean the house, as a show of contrition, and when she returned to find me sitting at the shining kitchen island, knickknacks in place on dusted shelves, a pot of soup on the stove, we might not even need to discuss it. I could buy flowers. I could watch the printing, which still fascinated me, the weaving and webbing of each layer of tissue, the cross-sectional view of her internal workings like the ringed sections of a tree trunk."

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century has people driving wood-paneled station wagons, kids going to work, and folks getting unhealthy breakfast at a drive-through, so it feels normal, like something we know. However, it's also full of surprises and strange new things — and those make for truly addictive reading. This collection cements Fu as one of the most exciting short story writers in contemporary literature.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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