Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Voice of Their Generation

On their ninth rewrite of the third act of Detective Pikachu vs. Predator, it occurred to Thicket that they might just be the voice of their generation.

In a fever, they swiped together the final epic speech where Detective Pikachu refutes Predator’s cynical attempts to turn him against his human partner, arguing that the Pokémon relationship with humanity was one not of servitude but of guardianship, for every Pokémon can see within each human the potential to rise above their flawed nature to embody something the world truly needs: hope.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you space jerks try to knock humanity down,” Detective Pikachu said, voiced by John Stamos. “Because when they fall, we Pokémon will be there to catch them. We’ll catch them all.”

Tears streamed down Thicket’s face as they hit submit. They had hated the algorithm the first six times it had kicked back their copy, but now Thicket could see that all that rejection was exactly the push they had needed to make them really do this story right. Thicket was awed by their own genius, the hyperproductive fugue of the last four hours. It had been like being unleashed, like seeing the Deep Code behind all language, the leylines of meaning, and reaching out to knot those leylines together into something perfect and glowing and sharp as a stiletto.

If only Thicket could bottle that feeling—or, ah ha, capture it in a pokéball—to be deployed at will, they would surely rise through the ranks of the Machine-Assisted StoryTelling (MAST) platform, be able to compete for mid-tier franchise possibilities, get noticed, reach millions, really speak to people. Voice of their generation.

But Thicket knew there was no bottle that could hold the font of pure creation. No nootropic cocktails, no shortcuts, no easy answers. Thicket just had to Do The Work. But that’s why, for all the banal consistency and alien novelty algorithms could produce, MAST still needed humans in the mix. Only humans could understand the moral core of a story, character, or fandom. Like how Thicket had seen that Venom Pirates of the Caribbean: Across Symbiote Seas was really about reclaiming the aesthetics of manifest destiny for queer liberation. Brave inner honesty was required, a willingness to reckon with the burden of being a person in the world. Because stories—whether about Pokémon or catgirls or slimegirls or Skrull wizards or haunted mechasuits—were always about people.

These potent truths rolled over Thicket while they refreshed their email, waiting for the MAST approval confirmation to come in. MAST owned the rights and data for a vast trove of daring intellectual property crossovers. It was a gold rush of potential stories, to be brought to life by MAST’s proprietary Deep Make video technology. Anyone could stake their claim with a high quality spec script—if their treatment passed muster with MAST’s QA algorithm.

Thicket considered taking a break, maybe ordering another CBD chai from the sleepy barista, at least getting up to stretch. They had seen a TweetTok the other day about a fellow MASTer who had died of deep vein thrombosis after a marathon session plotting out seven seasons of Where the Red Fern Gully Grows, which was now being optioned by Disney XD. Now Thicket too had gone late into the night, judging by the moonlit pallor of the wall screens. Animated foxes reading in cozy armchairs twitched their tails in time to the Starbucks’ lo-fi chill beats to study to—paragons of relaxed focus that Thicket both admired and resented.

The email arrived. Thicket pounced for it, but stopped, finger hovering over the chin-stroking, thinky-face emoji in the subject line. They opened it, but knew already what the message within would say: “Thanks for your contribution, but this wasn’t quite what we’re looking for. Here’s some tips for making your story the very best it can be.”

Thicket went to the bathroom, waved their hands under all the taps until the water was a white noise shush, then crouched down with their head between their knees and quietly screamed.

Ten rejections. Ten variations of Predator and Detective Pikachu playing cat and mouse, matching wits in an abandoned power plant or atop the Eiffel Tower, the hunter becoming the hunted. All to feed and please MAST’s black box content maw. All spat out.

Did Thicket have the fortitude to attempt an eleventh? Yes, Thicket decided. They’d crack this. Tonight.

Thicket zoomed out of the third act and scrapped the Pichu flashbacks voiced by Haley Joel Osment, the comic relief on the magnet train between Goldenrod and Saffron City, even Predator’s tragic love story with Magmar, whose fiery body was the most beautiful thing the extraterrestrial’s infrared vision had ever seen. While developing these scenes had been an important part of the creative process, Thicket could see now that they were extraneous, distractions that neither advanced the plot nor made the audience really fall in love with the characters. Not good enough.

Swiping away storybits with abandon, Thicket got the eleventh draft down to a tight eighty-seven minutes. Then they revisited the third act, really punched up Predator’s dialogue. “We’re not so different, Detective,” Predator said, now voiced by Idris Elba, whose premium audio package Thicket had been saving for a rainy day. “We both thrill to the chase, above all else. Join me! Together, no prey could elude us. The universe is full of wonders. Let’s take to the stars and hunt . . . them . . . all!”

Thicket then forced themself to buy a Marshmallow Dream Bar and watch the whole thing at 4X speed using the blocky preview tool. Even without Deep Make hyperrealism, Thicket was entertained. The script beats popped. This was the one. Voice of their generation.

Again MAST kicked it back. “Try again! Every contribution helps MAST learn about the kinds of stories you care about,” the reject email said.

“Can you watch my stuff a minute?” Thicket asked the girl at the table next to them, who lifted her headphones from one ear and nodded noncommittally. Thicket went outside, did thirty jumping jacks in the Starbucks parking lot, shoved their face into the snow.

For the twelfth draft, Thicket dialed the violence way up. No more PG-appropriate near-misses with Predator’s spear gun, no more plasma-caster bursts deflected by a Charizard’s flamethrower attack. This time Detective Pikachu led a kill squad of the meanest, toughest mercs on the Indigo Plateau.

For twenty minutes, Thicket fell down a casting rabbit hole, trying to find just the right multicultural combination of actors and Pokémon to get ripped apart in the Viridian Forest, blood splattering across clusters of uncaring Metapods. It didn’t matter. MAST flagged the explicit content as disqualifying for the expected franchise fanbase of youth ages 11-21. Even if MAST had signed off on the script, none of the distribution platforms would want it.

On the thirteenth draft—lucky thirteen!—Thicket deleted all their custom storybits and pieced together the plot entirely from MAST’s database of pre-approved dialogue modules. There was a chance the algorithm was glitching on some novel bit of Thicket’s wordplay, a joke or metaphor the system couldn’t parse. This rewrite was returned with the warning that a nearly identical script had already been submitted by someone else—probably one of the bots that generated millions of combinations of standard-issue storybits, like Mankeys typing after Shakespeare.

Numb, forlorn, but also filled with a clarifying zen calm, Thicket pulled up a fourteenth blank document. The Starbucks was almost empty now. The foxes on the wall had fallen asleep in their armchairs. The barista was glancing at Thicket with concern. Thicket reflected on their own hubris, the belief that they had seen the Deep Code. No combination of franchises had taken Thicket more than nine drafts to get right—not Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Giant Peach, not Power Rangers/Overwatch: Ultimate Team Up. They weren’t the voice of their generation; they were washed up.

Just who was Detective Pikachu? Who was the Predator? Why were they destined to do battle? Why did either of them have a stake in this fallen, fucked-up hellworld?

“You okay, hun? Can I get you anything?”

The barista had wandered over to wipe down the tables and—it was obvious—check on Thicket. She had tiny, funky glasses and a cute nose tattoo of a bumblebee. Thicket appreciated that she’d said “anything” and not “anything else.”

“I’m great, thanks,” Thicket said.

“Whatcha working on?”

Detective Pikachu vs. Predator. It’s really kicking my ass.”

She peered at the blank document. “That’s cool. Does the Predator join Team Rocket or something?”

“I tried that. Didn’t get it right, though, at least not for the machine. The algo has all these metrics about quip frequency and dialogue novelty and narrative structure and fan service, and you have to balance them all just right, and I—” Thicket choked up. “I want to tell a real story, you know? A story that actually means something, that says something true about . . . life. I just . . . feel trapped.”

Thicket put their forehead down on the table. The barista patted their back: there, there.

“Can’t you just skip it? Do another franchise?”

“But I did all the research!” Thicket moaned. “I really believed in this one. Detective Pikachu vs. Predator had so much potential! Loveable characters, a rich world, real pathos and stakes. And everyone loves Pokémon, right?”

“Sure,” the barista shrugged. “My little sister is crazy for them.”

The barista held her hand chest-high to indicate the sister’s approximate size.

“That’s exactly my target demo!” Thicket wailed. “Say, would your little sister happen to have any life-changing insights about Pokémon detectives? Or Predators? Could we call her?”

If Thicket were writing their own life, the barista would be the perfect B-story character to provide them with the key to getting out of this dark night of the soul. But the barista just pursed her lips.

“I don’t think so.” She headed back to the counter. “I’ll be on until six if you need anything else.”

The windowless café grew claustrophobic. All that work, stymied by the machinic indifference of the algorithm. Voice of their generation, silenced and caged.

Then something untwisted in Thicket’s mind. Sleep deprivation and creative frustration suddenly harmonized. Leylines of meaning twanged like a strummed guitar.

Thicket lifted their head, started typing and swiping. They pulled together a rough amalgam of the best scenes from their previous thirteen drafts, all of which shared the same cynical core insight. Thicket barely registered the next forty minutes. Next thing they knew, they were hitting send on draft fourteen.

In the bathroom again, Thicket scrubbed their hands up to the elbow, ran wet fingers through their dye-itched hair. When they came back out, the email was waiting.

“Congratulations!” it said, followed by fireworks and thumbs-up emojis. “Your contribution has been accepted! You can now view your story in the MAST Deep Make Archives.”

Thicket tapped play on the link and watched the movie start to finish. It barely scratched sixty minutes, and the textures, still rendering, pushed towards the uncanny. But to Thicket it was pixel perfect.

“You don’t scare me, alien,” Woody Harrelson as Detective Pikachu said in the film’s climactic moments. “Because Pokémon are always hunted, always prey. And when we’re caught, we aren’t killed. That’d be a mercy. We’re zapped into perfect cages, numbered and catalogued, carried around in some punk’s pocket. And when we’re let out, we do whatever they want, fight whatever they want—even though they never tell us why. Maybe we even enjoy it, just the chance to excel at something, no matter how constrained and arbitrary. We want to be the very best, because the alternative is being unseen, unheard in that little ball, forever. The trainers are the real predators. You’re just a tourist.”

After that, the ending was bittersweet. Thicket was crying again—they didn’t know why. On the walls, the sleeping foxes were stirring as sunlight began to peek in through cartoon windows. Thicket packed up their things, cleared away the refuse of too many hours. As they left the Starbucks, the barista avoided eye contact. But Thicket hardly cared.

Thicket felt glad that this last draft was the one that had made it. Maybe no one else would ever see it. No one would know that Thicket was the voice of their generation. It didn’t matter. They’d Done The Work.

Outside, it was that blurry morning dark. Waiting at the cold bus stop, Thicket pulled out their tablet again, opened their submissions spreadsheet, entered “accepted.” In the row below was the next combination: Detective Pikachu Meets Scrappy-Doo. Thicket opened a blank MAST story and began to swipe.

Andrew Dana Hudson

Andrew Dana Hudson’s fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Slate Future Tense, Terraform, MIT Technology Review, Little Blue Marble and others, as well as in a variety of anthologies and collections. He co-wrote “Sunshine State,” which won the 2016 Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest. He is a member of the Clarion Workshop class of 2020 and is a fellow in the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination’s Imaginary College. He also serves as an associate editor of Oasis, a journal of anti-capitalist thought in the desert. He lives in Tempe, Arizona.