‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Is Clever Sci-Fi About Internet Trolls

The new anthology The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 includes stories from leading authors such as Victor LaValle, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Charlie Jane Anders. Tobias S. Buckell, whose story “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” appears in the book, was particularly impressed with Ken Liu’s story “Thoughts and Prayers.”

“Ken is really a complete master of the short form,” Buckell says in Episode 452 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s always a pleasure to read a Ken story.”

“Thoughts and Prayers” is about a mother and father who advocate for gun control following their daughter’s murder only to find themselves targeted by internet trolls who harass them with violent deepfakes of their daughter. John Joseph Adams, series editor of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, says that “Thoughts and Prayers” is exactly the kind of story he’s always looking to publish.

“Sure, you could label it an ‘issue story’ and complain about it if you’re somebody who complains about those things, but it’s presenting it in such a way that I feel like it negates that argument,” he says. “This is art. This is 100 percent art, because of how deeply it makes you think about what’s happening in the story, and how closely you get into the heads of these characters.”

Elizabeth Bear, whose stories “Bullet Point” and “Erase, Erase, Erase” appear in the anthology, says that “Thoughts and Prayers” has become even more relevant in light of recent events. “I think the thing that struck me most about it is that it’s very much a comment on the abdication of responsibility from social media platforms,” she says. “As we have learned as a nation in the past month, filtering stuff out doesn’t make it go away, and it has real world consequences, which can include people dying.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley admires how “Thoughts and Prayers” is able to communicate the nuance and complexity of hot button issues such as tech censorship.

“I’m a huge proponent of free speech, and that’s why this is so difficult for me, because I don’t feel like I know the answer,” he says. “I’m genuinely perplexed about how to have a public discourse that isn’t toxic without impinging on free speech. I’m honestly sort of at a loss as to what to do about that.”

Listen to the complete interview with Tobias S. Buckell, John Joseph Adams, and Elizabeth Bear in Episode 452 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Tobias S. Buckell on writing for Doom: Eternal:

“When [id Software] approached me, I was like, ‘Even if I don’t get the gig, this is a great excuse to download it and play.’ So my poor family had to put up with me playing—because no one was leaving for school or anything in Covid lockdown—so I was just playing Doom and listening to that heavy metal and killing demons left and right. One of my daughters rolled by and was like, ‘Why are you even playing this?’ And I was like, ‘I’m on the clock.’ It literally was billable hours, because I was charging by the hour for the work I did, so I got to bill for the time I spent playing the video game to wrap my head around what the newest one was like. I got to work with the lead writer, Hugo Martin. It was one of the more fun creative gigs I’ve ever done.”

Elizabeth Bear on her story “Bullet Point”:

“I think probably the two biggest influences on that story are Harlan Ellison’s ‘A Boy and His Dog’ and Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To…, both of which involve that [last man on Earth] trope. … The story is mostly about the gender dynamics of this guy who just assumes that he can move into this woman’s life and sort of take it over and make it about him, because he is the last man on Earth. So as a writer, that’s really where the focus of my commentary was. And I think this applies to men, women, and people of other genders as well—sometimes it is much better to be alone than to be in a relationship that is probably bad for you. So if the story has a thematic freight—an unsubtle thematic freight—I’d say that’s what’s behind it.”

Tobias S. Buckell on his story “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex”:

“H.G. Wells wrote the aliens [in The War of the Worlds] to be like the British invading other countries, to show how hard it was to stand up against them. There’s this long history of playing with these metaphors in science fiction—both negative and positive—to try to get people to see what it feels like, and show what it feels like, if their country was treated the way their country is currently treating another country. This isn’t me just crapping all over tourism—I like to travel too—but there are these dark sides of tourism that do need to be tackled. And I thought, just running with that, ‘What does the [alien] invasion look like if it’s tourists?’ And let’s take this seriously, not all for laughs. … I wanted to show that this affects lives, this affects people.”

Elizabeth Bear on narrative:

“Narrative is how we understand the world. It is the thing that our brains are optimized to do. That’s why when people write history, they create a narrative, and inevitably those narratives leave stuff out, because history isn’t a narrative, history is a sequence of events. But our brains only really process information well as a story. And I know that at least for me, the healthier and happier and saner I am, the more challenging fiction I can handle. This past year, just reading any fiction has been incredibly hard, and reading challenging fiction has been even harder, because my brain is so busy trying to figure out how to get groceries without dying or killing anybody else. So maybe I just want to read an Agatha Christie story when I get home.”

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