The new anthology The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2021 collects 20 of the best short stories of the year. Series editor John Joseph Adams was particularly impressed with Ted Kosmatka’s story “The Beast Adjoins,” which presents a fresh take on the idea of an AI uprising.
“It’s so great,” Adams says in Episode 492 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It pushes all the sense-of-wonder buttons; it’s got all this cool character stuff in there. It feels enormous. There’s so much going on in the story. I just love it.”
The story riffs on the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics, positing a future in which advanced AIs are unable to function without humans present. Guest editor Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, found the story extremely creepy. “I reached the part where the machines were using people attached to the front of themselves to keep time moving, and I was like, ‘This is revolting. I love it,’” she says. “It has haunted me ever since I read it. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Fantasy author Yohanca Delgado agrees that “The Beast Adjoins” is an unsettling story. “It’s such a beautifully realized and chilling premise, this reversal of what we imagine AI can do for us,” she says. “There’s a passage where [the AIs] are creating human tail lights—humans in jars that are just an eye and a blob of flesh. It’s such incredibly horrific writing. I’m a huge fan.”
For now “The Beast Adjoins” exists only as a stand-alone short story, but Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley wonders if the story could be expanded. “I just feel like this is such an interesting premise—these AIs that can only function when humans are observing them,” he says. “I feel like there are probably a lot of other narratives you could spin out of that.”
Listen to the complete interview with John Joseph Adams, Veronica Roth, and Yohanca Delgado in Episode 492 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Yohanca Delgado on the Clarion workshop:
“At Clarion I skipped a week, and was just rocking back and forth in a panic in my room, because I was like, ‘I have to write something. I have this idea, and I can’t seem to write something else, but I also feel—you know that feeling when you want to write something, but you’re not quite ready? Like, you don’t feel like you’re the writer you need to be to tackle it yet … And the schedule at Clarion is relentless. I’d already missed a week, I couldn’t miss another one. I talked to Andy Duncan, who is a wonderful human, and basically he was like, ‘I don’t understand why you’re not just doing this.’ Which is sometimes what you need to hear. You need somebody to shake you by the shoulders and tell you, ‘Just go do it.’”
Yohanca Delgado on her story “Our Language”:
“My family is from the Dominican Republic and Cuba. I didn’t know of any Latin American or Caribbean monsters, so I set off on this research project to find them … The ciguapa is this woman—there are some stories that have it be male as well, but I was interested more specifically in the idea of it being a woman—who is very small and charming, in a feral way, and whose legs grow backwards. I found that to be a really interesting monster to think about. What would her powers be? What does it all mean? In researching this, I found that it’s really rooted in indigenous and enslaved folks’ stories. Because her real superpower was being able to escape. And I thought that dovetailed really beautifully with some conversations around gender and gender oppression.”
John Joseph Adams on the pandemic:
“Most people who are publishing a science fiction/fantasy magazine are not doing it as a job—it’s a side thing that they’re doing. They have some other regular job that pays the bills. So maybe because they were saving an hour commute to and from work every day, they had more time to work on their [magazines]. I honestly would have expected there to be a lot more closing up and ceasing publication, just because a lot of people lost their jobs once the pandemic hit, and there was just a lot of belt-tightening that was needed for almost everyone. So I was really surprised to see that everyone was so resilient. Maybe it was partly because everyone was thinking, ‘People need this right now.’ So it was more important to stick around, rather than close up, because we need this to look forward to when we’re dealing with all this scary bleakness out in the real world.”
David Barr Kirtley on “The Pill” by Meg Elison:
“One way in which this story is science fiction, in a really good way, is it doesn’t just present an idea then stick with that static situation, it keeps complicating it and keeps introducing these new twists … One of the things that is often said about science fiction is that a science fiction writer’s job isn’t to predict the automobile—anyone could predict the automobile. Your job is to predict the Interstate Highway System and the suburbs, to look at the second-order effects of these technological changes. And I thought the story functioned really well in that way as a science fiction story, where it’s not just about ‘How does this new technology affect the protagonist?’—though it certainly goes into that—but also ‘How does it affect the wider society?’”
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