Chapter 16
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The stories in Matthew Baker’s Hybrid Creatures are perfectly tuned to the twenty-first century

Matthew Baker’s star has been heating up for several years. As an M.F.A. candidate at Vanderbilt, he helped launch the eclectic literary magazine, Nashville Review. In 2015, his debut middle-grade novel, If You Find This, made Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels for Youth. In recent months, he has sold production rights to his sci-fi stories to the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

Baker’s new story collection, Hybrid Creatures, pokes an ambitious toe into the ocean of literary fiction. The book offers four finely observed stories that track the quests of four brilliant, lonely misfits. Together they add up to something like a collage of one anguished archetype.

Youngest among the protagonists is a preteen math genius named (a bit cutely) Tryg, who feels like “only a fraction” as he shuttles between divorced parents and their new families. He hates odd numbers and can “recite the first hundred decimals of π”—bringing to mind the main character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though neither Tryg nor his grownups seriously misbehave.

Next is a collegiate hacker, an unnamed, ungendered ex-foster child who spies on strangers and hunts for a missing mentor. Then we wrap with tales of old men: one a fiercely lucid classical composer, the other a senile philosopher who gave his heart and mind to an industrial livestock conglomerate. Both blunder around after the deaths of their spouses, trying to connect with young strangers in the night.

The four main characters’ thinking meshes English with the symbols of their passions: numbers, exponentiations, computer code, and so on. Baker and his publisher have gone to considerable trouble to depict these signifiers, sometimes in ways I can’t make my keyboard reproduce. At their best, they have an elegant, illuminating simplicity—as when Tryg’s mom, “whose current state = preoccupied and whose driving record ≠ amazing, nearly plowed over a cat.” But elsewhere the effort can be a strain for readers. The composer, for example, peppers a single paragraph with thirteen Italian musical instructions, ranging from {marcato} to {pianississimo}.

Baker pulled off such experiments in his previous book, which was aimed at middle-schoolers and featured a prodigy who sounds like a mashup of Tryg and the composer. “I just want to invent new tricks,” he told Chapter 16 at the time. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time used some similar tricks fifteen years ago, though they remain far from the fiction mainstream, and my hat’s off to Baker for taking such risks.

In a recent interview with BOMB magazine, Baker said that in writing each story in Hybrid Creatures he “started with the artificial language that I wanted to use, and then I searched for a corresponding structure.” Plot and setting came later, he said, with character emerging last. It’s a bold conceit, one that might turn out to be perfectly attuned to a world in which human and artificial intelligence merge inextricably.

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