by Neve Mazique-Bianco
From the first page of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, the debut short story collection from Seattle-based writer Kim Fu, the author has my attention. Although “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” is nowhere near my favorite story in the collection, it’s an appropriate opener, the unassigned dialogue floating in space and yet coming in as clearly and intimately as if one was listening in on their own phone. The story also establishes what world we are living in and what’s essential in this world. The answer: We are everywhere, and everything is vital.
Speculative fiction can cover a lot of ground. Some of it is very “science fiction double feature” indeed, and some of it is more akin to what European-centric critics and scholars have labeled “magical realism,” in this way seeking to describe authors of the global majority (Black and Indigenous People of Color) who acknowledge the supernatural fluttering behind the eyelids of the mundane. The stories in Monsters straddle this false divide and, in so doing, give the future of speculative fiction shape. Just as Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes,” so do the characters, places, technologies, and creatures of Fu’s stories assert their elemental complexities. The best speculative fiction seeks to decenter, decolonize, and disrupt what many have taken for granted as the universe’s natural order. Or at least, that’s what I decided after reading Monsters, because in it, Fu leaps so nimbly from story to story, center to center, taking whatever perspective necessary to take nothing in the multiverse for granted.
I’ll admit, I wanted more from about half of the stories, but that’s mostly because I’m a word-slut for visual and philosophical opulence. Fu can be sparing in her descriptions of face and place, but I sense that this is intentional. Octavia E. Butler, the oracle, often taunts me with the brutally straightforward way she describes horrific or wondrous circumstances, and Fu similarly possesses this uncanny skill. She also occasionally enters the darkened, eerily rose-scented halls of the gothic fairy tale, dancing with queens of yesterday and today, like Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, and Helen Oyeyemi.
The back cover of the advance reader’s copy of Monsters compares my favorite story, “June Bugs,” to Kafka, likely because of the beetles. To me, though, that’s where the similarities between “June Bugs” and “The Metamorphosis” end. “June Bugs” connects in my mind to an even more beautiful and unsettling novel, The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. Both stories explore the horror of trying to be accountable to oneself, to one’s tethers, and to the universe. “June Bugs” compares the impacts of abuse over time to one house’s trouble with an unseasonal infestation. Are microaggressions really “micro” when you already feel so small? Unlike Kafka’s lonely bug, the protagonist’s connection to the shiny-backed, soft-bellied creatures of her undoing becomes her salvation. In this way, she joins the ranks of fairy-tale heroes like “The Boy Who Drew Cats,” witchily knowing what she might need all along to be free.
While it’s not uncommon to encounter queer characters, queer contexts, and queer aesthetics in speculative fiction today, I was pleasantly surprised to find not only a queer story in this collection but also two stories about sex work! As a sex worker, my bar for positive representation in art is honestly so low, I’m just relieved when people know we’re called “sex workers”! In “Scissors,” a professional submissive performs with her collaborator, lover, and scene partner in a show they’ve done a thousand times before. Only this time, the speculation lands on that unpredictable beast called “trust” and all the things she might do. This show wasn’t any different, yet blindfolded, the protagonist opens up to the seductive fear and thrill that anything is possible.
In “Do You Remember Candy?” the whole world loses the ability to taste. For some, like the protagonist’s daughter, this happens when they’re so young that they don’t remember another world. They don’t yearn for flavors through their taste buds, down through jawbone, throat, esophagus, solar plexus, and, finally, right in their hearts — but their parents and grandparents do. Our narrator becomes a provider of multisensory immersion experiences, utilizing set dressings, lighting, textures, and sensations on the body to draw up the olfactory memory of eating some beloved thing. She describes a just-underripe pear that you long to bite into, but it turns to cardboard ash in your mouth. If that’s not the most poetic description of a kink provider, I don’t know what is!
“Liddy, First to Fly” was the story that let me know that Fu is a potential kindred of mine. This is speculative female puberty at its finest! Reminiscent of the 2000 Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps, which imagined a girl’s coming of age as a kind of werewolf transformation, Fu brings in yet another fierce element, another raw, necessary tool for the cruel world girls must stumble into as they grow. The kids who crowd around one girl’s pimple get way more than they were prepared for. Or were they? Can the next generation fly? As a person who has referred to my growing pains of body, heart, mind, and soul as “molting” ever since I had a lime-green budgie as a companion, I was especially moved by the slow-burn lighthearted body horror of possibility that “Liddy” pursues. Like “Do You Remember Candy?” too, “Liddy, First to Fly” proposes a young generation with, on the one hand, struggles unimaginable to their predecessors and, on the other hand, a boundless potential for a different kind of joy.
Secretly, my most favorite story in Fu’s collection is “Bridezilla,” but it unfolds so beautifully that I don’t want to tell you anything about it. Fu, who has published two novels and one book of poetry previously, excites me as an emerging speculative fiction author of unique voice and considerable talent. Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, publishing Feb. 2022, is available for pre-order now.
NEVE (they/(s)he) is a multigender, multiracial, multiply Disabled, multidimensional, multidisciplinary terpsichorean artist of the stage, street, field, stream, and screen. They are an Indigenous African living in Duwamish and Coast Salish lands and traveling wherever they have access and an invitation. (S)He is a 2020 Pina Bausch Fellow and a 2022 Arc Artist Fellow. Visit them online at nevebebad.com and beyond.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Tin House.
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