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?’”
David Cronenberg has directed more than 20 feature films in a wide variety of genres, but he remains best known for provocative ’80s sci-fi films like The Fly and Videodrome. Humor writer Tom Gerencer is a lifelong fan of Cronenberg’s artistic vision.
“He is an absolute genius, and he has merged that with an absolute mastery of craft,” Gerencer says in Episode 533 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Often you see one or the other. You see someone who’s very workmanlike and can produce a good movie, or you see someone who is a genius and is just all over the place, and there are good ones and bad ones. But he is both, and that’s rare.”
Science fiction author Matthew Kressel loves the way that Cronenberg films like Videodrome and Existenz blur the line between biology and technology. “Even though he’s talking about technology, often the technology is not what we think of as technology,” Kressel says. “We don’t see computers and flashing lights. Oftentimes it’s biological, or just sort of in the background, which I thought was very interesting. You don’t really see that take in a lot of film and TV and media.”
Cronenberg has worked with many of Hollywood’s top actors, including Michael Ironside, Jeff Goldblum, and Viggo Mortensen. TV writer Andrea Kail particularly enjoyed James Woods as sleazy TV producer Max Renn in Videodrome. “A lot of Cronenberg’s genius is in his casting,” she says. “He casts the perfect people for his roles. James Woods is perfect for that role. He looks sleazy, he acts sleazy. He’s the perfect person for that, that fast-talking, sleazy grifter who allows the story to get the better of him.”
Cronenberg’s most recent project is Crimes of the Future, a jaw-dropping exploration of sadomasochism and body modification. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley wasn’t a fan of the film, but he still admires Cronenberg for taking risks. “There are so few science fiction movies that come out now that aren’t franchises and that aren’t tentpole blockbusters and that make serious points and have artistic vision and are original, and this movie is definitely all of those things,” he says. “I wasn’t crazy about it, but you have to respect someone who has an artistic vision and doesn’t just want to put out formulaic films.”
Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer, Matthew Kressel, and Andrea Kail in Episode 553 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Tom Gerencer on Scanners:
It’s absolutely a classic. I was in sixth grade when this came out. Everybody in my junior high was talking about it, everybody was quoting it. Everybody was saying, “I’m going to suck your brain dry.” I had not seen that until later. My friend Greg showed me that scene and I was like, “Holy crap, that is horrifying.” And the scene where the guy’s head explodes, everybody talked about that for years—for years and years and years. And still, to this day, if I think of the word “scanners,” even if I’m thinking of something that has nothing to do with the movie, I will picture that guy’s head blowing up.
Matthew Kressel on The Fly:
The transition of Seth Brundle—Jeff Goldblum’s character—from this nerdy, confident-but-kind-of-shy guy who is clearly attracted to this woman to this insane, murderous fly creature, it was so gradual and perfect. … I had forgotten a lot of the body horror, like where he vomits on the guy’s hand and it dissolves or the arm wrestling in the bar, where he breaks the guy’s arm and the bone pops out. I was like, “Oh right, I forgot about that!” The body horror was, of course, grotesque, but somehow it managed to do it in a way that didn’t feel superfluous or gratuitous. It just felt like it worked with the story.
Andrea Kail on Existenz:
My first thought when [Jennifer Jason Leigh] walks in and everybody claps was, “Oh, a roomful of men clapping for a woman game designer. That is science fiction.” But I really enjoyed it. The story itself hung together really well for me, and I liked the world they create and the dynamic between the two characters. This was the first movie in this series where I actually gagged. The scene where he eats the food in the Chinese restaurant was horrific. And then the NPCs and how they move, when they’re waiting for the dialog. I just really enjoyed this one. I kind of put everything down and really watched it.
David Barr Kirtley on Crimes of the Future:
The idea of people adapting themselves to eat toxic waste is a cool idea. I don’t know if David Cronenberg ever read Paolo Bacigalupi, but it sort of reminds me of Paolo Bacigalupi’s story “The People of Sand and Slag,” which is one of my favorite science fiction short stories. So I think that’s a cool idea, and there were some striking images in here. There’s a scene where Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux are embracing nude while this autodoc kind of machine is cutting at them. I thought that was a cool image. And then there’s this artist who sews his eyes and mouth shut and covers his body in ears and does an interpretive dance, and I thought that was a cool image. So there were things like that in the movie that I liked.
Abby Goldsmith’s science fiction novel Majority tells the story of a group of young people from Earth who get abducted by the Torth, a galaxy-spanning civilization ruled by merciless telepaths.
“There’s a galactic empire, and these people are all neurally, superluminally connected,” Goldsmith says in Episode 550 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They can communicate instantaneously, and they vote on everything. It’s mob rule taken to an extreme.”
The Torth mentally surveil each other at all times, competing to build audiences of “orbiters,” and summary execution awaits any Torth who goes against public opinion. Parallels between Torth society and the internet are obvious. “Here in the information age, in the social media age, we all see more and more what’s happening,” Goldsmith says. “Social media’s not the best for mental health. We see dogpiles online and that sort of thing.”
Goldsmith has been working on Majority and its sequels since the early 2000s. She says that even back then she had a bad feeling about the direction of internet culture. “I had a friend in high school, and we would get on AOL chat, and she would just lie to people, straight up fool them,” Goldsmith says. “She’d be really manipulative, and I would watch her do that. It was very easy for her to sucker people in. And I was like, ‘Wow, lying is going to be a thing.’”
She hopes her books will serve as a warning about the dangers of social media. “We’re just at the beginning of, I think, an age of this, so I really wanted to explore that and take it to its logical conclusion,” she says. “Mob rule, where everyone votes on everything, we don’t even have that yet in our world. But I think it’s going to come. I think we’re going to see it at some point.”
Listen to the complete interview with Abby Goldsmith in Episode 550 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Abby Goldsmith on emotions:
[The Torth] don’t want intense emotions in their society, so they’ve outlawed that, and by extension a lot of friendliness, that sort of thing, is just out the window. So love doesn’t exist. … I think in science fiction there’s always been kind of a vibe that emotions are bad, and having family and having friends is terrible, like with the Jedi Knights. To be a good Jedi Knight you should reject family and friends, basically. And with Vulcans, it’s like, “Oh, we don’t have sex or relationships. Maybe once every seven years we have an orgy, and that’s it.” And that’s supposed to be a good thing? So I was always like, “Eh, I don’t see that leading anywhere good, personally.”
Abby Goldsmith on the film industry:
I wrote to Disney as a 15-year-old, “How can I work for you?” They sent back a list of all the colleges I should go to, and I was like, “All right, number one on the list is CalArts. I’m going there.” … The year before I graduated there was a job fair, and I got an offer from LucasArts, and they were like, “We’ll pay you $50,000 a year to start, and you can work on the new Star Wars films.” And I was like, “Nah, I’m going to finish my schooling because I’m sure it’ll be easy to get a job, no problem.” And then the very next year Disney laid off 800 feature film animators, and the industry was flooded with those people. So students like me didn’t have a chance. It was pretty ridiculous.
Abby Goldsmith on the Torth series:
Having the whole series prewritten I think in a lot of ways is a superpower. I’ve noticed Michael J. Sullivan with his Riyria series, he did that as well, and the series he wrote is very cohesive for that reason. I think a lot of series authors, they start to meander or lose the thread if they are publishing as they go. You see that a lot with series authors. It’ll dwindle into stats or melee battles, or they’ll just not finish the series, or they’ll end it with a giant, tragic accident where everyone dies. … With the supergenius [characters], I was able to go back and make sure that those supergeniuses were on top of things. So they do come across as smart. They always know what’s about to happen.
Abby Goldsmith on Royal Road vs. Wattpad:
I relaunched the entire series on Royal Road, and part of the reason is that Wattpad has kind of lost a lot of the discoverability features that made it so great. I still had the same readership, but nobody new was coming in. And I’ve heard that from a lot of Wattpad authors as well. People that had a million reads on their series were unable to get anyone to notice their next book. And meanwhile I’m hearing all kinds of crazy stories from Royal Road of authors who would gain a million fans overnight. I knew writers that were earning a full-time living on Patreon from advance chapters from Royal Road. So I was like, “I absolutely have to try Royal Road. It’s no question.”
David L. Craddock is the author of more than a dozen books about video games, including Break Out, about the history of Apple II games, and Rocket Jump, about the history of first-person shooters.
“I tend to write a lot about games made in the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s,” Craddock says in Episode 481 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I love to write about creative people who had big ideas but very, very tight restrictions, and I think that from that comes some of the most enduring products—most enduring experiences—ever made.”
One of Craddock’s most recent books is Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II, about the making of Blizzard’s classic action RPG Diablo II. Craddock says this volume was a much bigger undertaking than Stay Awhile and Listen: Book I, about the original Diablo. “There was just so much more to juggle in terms of timeline, in terms of game,” he says. “I think that a good 10 chapters in Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II focus on Diablo II‘s development. The game was just that massive, and things happening within Blizzard and Blizzard North were that important as well. It’s just a much bigger undertaking.”
The creation of Diablo II was an exhausting process that involved a brutal 18-month crunch. Employees were handed sleeping bags and provided regular meals so they never had to leave the office. The experience took a heavy toll on everyone involved. “You miss your home, you miss your bed, you miss your significant other, you miss your friends, you miss your favorite TV shows—actually watching them live with the rest of the world,” Craddock says. “These people sacrificed a lot to make this game.”
Listen to the complete interview with David L. Craddock in Episode 481 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David L. Craddock on Diablo II: Lord of Destruction:
“Diablo II launched on June 29th, 2000. One year later, to the day, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction—the one and only official expansion for the game—launched. Diablo II is great, but Lord of Destruction made it even better. Everyone who worked on Lord of Destruction considers it the high point of their time at Blizzard North, because for the year after Diablo II‘s launch, when a lot of other people at the studio—most of the rest of the studio—were drifting, getting very frustrated and very burned out, the Lord of Destruction team was really living every game developer’s dream. You have a successful product, you have a pipeline in place to make more content for that product, you’ve already gone through the labor pains of putting all this stuff in place, now you can just create more stuff.”
David L. Craddock on David Brevik:
“He was one of the people most burned out by Diablo II, because he put so much pressure on himself to succeed. It was kind of controversial, because toward the end he kind of checked out. He was playing a lot of Everquest, and a lot of the other developers, who were still burning the midnight oil, were upset with him. But his marriage was falling apart, he’d put a lot of pressure on himself for both games. He just kind of needed to check out mentally. … He said, ‘I was a ‘seagull manager.’ I would stay home most of the time, and when I’d come in I’d crap all over everything, squawk a lot, and leave.’ And he said that, that’s by his own admission. I have a lot of respect for people who put the truth—the creative truth—ahead of their own ego.”
David L. Craddock on business:
“Blizzard North didn’t want Blizzard Entertainment—the much larger company—coming in and telling them what to do, and so [Blizzard North] shielded their developers from the other Blizzard. On the one hand that’s something that a good manager does: If you’re working on a game and you’re not management, the last thing you want to worry about is, ‘Are we going to get paid?’ or ‘I hear we might be sold.’ You don’t want to worry about that, and the managers don’t want you worrying about that, they want you working. But the downside of that is that if and when those managers leave and a new regime comes in, they don’t know you. You’re just another face in the lineup, and so they have no problem letting you go.”
David L. Craddock on storytelling:
“The Diablo II cinematics were developed at Blizzard Entertainment—they were completely separate from the development of the game itself. … You could play Diablo II without watching any of the cinematics and not miss a beat, because the beauty of Diablo II is that you don’t have to pay attention to the story—you can just kind of click through and pay attention to the loot. Those games are inherently replayable, and each time you play you pay less attention to the story, because it’s just old hat by that point. That was actually one of the problems with Chris Metzen taking such a prominent role on Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo III—the version that eventually came out in 2012. The story really got in the way, and that’s a mistake that Blizzard North never would have made.”
The HBO series Avenue 5 is a sci-fi comedy about a cruise ship that gets knocked off course on its way to Saturn. Humor writer Tom Gerencer was impressed by the show’s witty dialogue.
“There were some extremely funny lines in Avenue 5 that I couldn’t help laughing out loud on,” Gerencer says in Episode 463 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “My hat is off to the great comedic minds behind the scripts.”
Avenue 5 is the brainchild of Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep. Fantasy author Erin Lindsey was amused by Avenue 5‘s zany absurdism, but prefers the humor of Veep, which operates on many different levels. “For me, it doesn’t matter how much I like the flavor, I want more than one flavor, and I just felt like the jokes were almost all the same flavor,” she says.
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that Avenue 5 would benefit from a more varied approach. “I feel like there should be one character who’s normal and sincere, and who we identify with,” he says. “So that there’s a contrast between the absurdity and non-absurdity. Whereas I feel like everything in this is absurd—all the characters are absurd, all the scenes are absurd, and everything about the ship is absurd.”
But science fiction editor John Joseph Adams loves Avenue 5‘s wacky humor, and is looking forward to seeing where the show goes from here.
“The Office and Parks and Rec both ended up as two of my favorite comedies of all time, but the first seasons were not good,” he says. “I think the first season of Avenue 5 is way better than either of those. So if Avenue 5 has any kind of growth from Season 1 to Season 2 on par with what either of those shows did—which were run by similarly talented teams, so it’s reasonable to expect that they could make such improvements—I think that could be amazing.”
Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer, Erin Lindsey, and John Joseph Adams in Episode 463 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Erin Lindsey on accents:
“I kind of have a thing about accents. I notice them a lot, I do accents, I’m just really into them. One of the things that always impressed me about Hugh Laurie is that in his however many jillion seasons of House, you almost never, ever questioned that he was American. His American accent is amazing. And so these first couple of episodes, you have him running around playing an American captain, and my first question was, ‘Why?’ And my second question is, ‘Why is he so bad at it? Has he lost his touch?’ So he totally sold it. He did a great job of a Brit doing an almost-but-not-quite-perfect American accent. And it turns out that that’s in fact what’s going on. Which I loved. I totally loved that.”
David Barr Kirtley on plot:
“I feel like in Season 2 they’re going to have to have a story, and there’s not really a story in Season 1. You go and look at the episode synopses, and it’s like, ‘I’ve never seen such short episode synopses.’ I just feel like there needs to be some sort of mystery on the ship, something where you’re wondering what’s going to happen next. The structure right now really reminds me of Gilligan’s Island, where every episode there’s some hope that they’re going to get back sooner than they thought, and then something goes wrong, and then it turns out it’s going to be longer than they thought, and it’s just kind of that over and over again.”
Tom Gerencer on cruise ships:
“I was playing video games, and loving it, and there’s this little boy next to me, and he’s playing video games in a suit, and these two kids run through the arcade, chasing each other, and one of them bumps the little kid in the suit with an elbow, and barely touches him. … The father of the kid in the suit bends down and grabs one of the children who was running, and starts shouting, ‘My son is a child prodigy! He plays the violin in concerts around the world, and if you’ve damaged his arm I’m going to sue your parents until there’s nothing left!’ He screamed this in this 8-year-old boy’s face. That was an eye-opening moment for me. I was like, ‘Who am I on this boat with?’”
Tom Gerencer on the Starship Titanic novel:
“I started googling it, and at some obscure online bookstore I found a copy of it that said it was by Robert Sheckley, and like an idiot I emailed the guy who owned the bookstore and said, ‘Hey, if that’s true that’s a really rare book. Can I buy it?’ It disappeared off the site that day, and the guy never answered any of my emails after that. I was like, ‘Hey, I was checking back on this,’ and he never answered me again. … It was ironic to me because the Titanic was something they said was unsinkable, and it sunk, and then Douglas Adams made this game about it that was supposed to be awesome—because he’s Douglas Adams—and then that vanished, and the two books also vanished.”