Could you talk about where the idea for this story came from?
I remember first seeing the trailer for Detective Pikachu and feeling like it was a sign that we’d reached a new stage of what my friend Jay Springett calls “cultural fracking”—the capitalist process of endlessly extracting new value out of the sedimentary layers of meaning that comprise mass culture from the past. I wanted to jump ahead a few stages, to a future where this process had been mostly automated and was now just mashing together genres and franchises more or less at random. The phrase “Detective Pikachu vs. Predator” came into my brain. I walked around the house muttering it for weeks. It was a phrase that felt to me both intensely delightful and deeply cynical at the same time, and that seemed like a good place to write from.
I imagine a lot of writers fear a day where an AI will learn how to tell stories and market them, though I’d also imagine they wouldn’t feel quite the same as one written by a person. Is that fear justified?
There’s a Jack McDevitt story, “Henry James, This One’s for You,” about a computer that can generate the great American novel. In the end (spoiler) the protagonist, a publisher, pushes the machine and its creator in front of a bus. So, that story was on my mind a bit when I wrote this. But what I see a lot more of and find more interesting is human-algo collaboration. Algorithms can produce a lot of novel material that humans can either curate into something interesting or be inspired by. So I’m not worried about writers getting entirely replaced by machines. One of the ideas that my story really holds onto is that telling stories people connect to requires authentically engaging with our shared human experience. The only question is: Will doing that work be valued? In a way, this story is the inverse of McDevitt’s, because what’s been automated here isn’t creativity—it’s judgment and curation.
This story can sometimes feel like a meta-commentary of the writing process. Thicket has their idiosyncrasies and rituals that they go about while writing, and it appears to help them with all the rejections. Are there any parts of Thicket’s process that were based off of your own?
I’m not quite as dramatic about it as Thicket, but the story gushed out of me in a moment of frustration at the grind of submitting my writing and receiving lots of rejections. It’s really dedicated to all the talented writers who come up with brilliant ideas but have to trawl through the markets in Submission Grinder to get them out into the world. That process can be very impersonal and opaque, in a way that I think feels reminiscent of engaging with an automated system. That’s a feeling that’s so in contrast with the sensation of doing the writing, those moments of flow when you discover connections and meaning in your own ideas that you’d never realized were there. So I tried to tap into that tension to tell a “person versus algorithm”-style story about engaging with a system that doesn’t quite recognize your humanity.
I would watch Detective Pikachu vs. Predator in a heartbeat. Just saying.
So would I! I love mashups. I’ve got some “what if Bruce Wayne went to Hogwarts” fanfic floating out there somewhere from a decade ago, and I’m still weirdly proud of it. And I have devoted way too much brainpower to thinking about the meta-meanings of franchises like Star Wars or the MCU. I don’t intend this story as a condemnation of mashups or fanfiction or even franchise culture. I very much think that the genius voices of younger generations are more likely to be writing in AO3 than The New Yorker. The question I think the story asks is: What do we lose by having a mass media so built out of these towering franchises (or else so fragmented) that those few really talented voices can’t make a dent in the culture?
What’s next for you? Any projects you’d like to share?
This story is coming out around the time that I’m defending my master’s thesis, which is actually a whole book of climate fiction, a fix-up novel of five different scenarios about the future of the UN climate negotiations. It’s been over a year of work that I’m very proud of, but I haven’t tried to publish anywhere yet. So I’ll soon be looking for ways to actually bring that out into the world. I’ve also got an itch to write a couple more stories like this one, which I’ve been calling to myself “cyber-loser” stories. I had a story in this vein called “Zooming” out last month in the MIT Technology Review. Cyber-loser stories are about the people who live in our present-day/near-future cyberpunk dystopia, but who don’t get to look cool or act badass or buck the system like the punk antiheroes of cyberpunk stories. These protagonists aren’t hardboiled cyborgs or street samurai or master hackers. They’re just people like us living under the bootheel of the algo, the platform, the stack. They struggle, sometimes brilliantly, but their triumphs never challenge the essential power relations that dominate their lives. Maybe that’s grim, but it’s a niche I’m feeling called to write into. Oh, and I have another brand-filled story, co-written with my partner, that I suspect should be coming out in Lightspeed at the end of this year.
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