Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Flash Fiction Podcast

My flash fiction "Fami's Watch" was podcast on AntipodeanSF July 14 and is available at: https://antisf.libsyn.com/ My story comes at about minute 6 (intro at minute 5) into the podcast. The story was originally published in Polar Borealis #20 (2021), and reprinted in AntipodeanSF #301 (2023).

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Two Time Travel Stories Published

My short story, "Sermon on the Mount" and my drabble "Deja Vu" were published in the anthology, A Stich in Space Time: Time Travel Stories, edited by Jay Chakravarti, is out from Culture Pulp Press, July 2024.

"Sermon on the Mount" originally appeared in On Spec Magazine #106, Vol 28 (3) (January, 2018) and "Deja Vu" originally appeared in ScribesMicro #31 (July 15, 2023).

Epub from https://www.lulu.com/shop/jay-chakravarti/a-stitch-in-spacetime/ebook/product-2m5898q.html
Paperback from https://www.lulu.com/shop/jay-chakravarti/a-stitch-in-spacetime/paperback/product-e786k52.html

Friday, June 28, 2024

"Summoning Demons" Out

My humorous horror shot story "Summoning Demons", was included in the first episode of the Lost Poetry Club, a new dark SF/F podcast, June 27, 2024. The theme of the first episode was "chronicle". Audio production of my segment stared Adam Kotz and Ollie Uglow which made me very happy and shows up about 47 minutes into the show.

Monday, May 27, 2024

A Review of R.F. Kuang's Yellowface

I have just finished listening to the audiobook of R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface (not to be confused with the novel by Henry Hwang) and I’m completely blown away. It is the most brilliant novel I’ve come across in a decade and the best about writing and publishing ever. Anyone interested in writing or editing or publishing has to go read it, RIGHT NOW--or better yet, listen to the excellent audiobook narration by Helen Laser.

First and most obviously, it’s the most thorough, balanced, nuanced discussion of cultural appropriation and ‘representation’ I have ever come across. Every perspective is covered by at least one character in the novel, so we hear all the arguments, counter arguments, and the often subtle niggling underlying issues that arise to screw up even the most confident proponent of any side. It’s awesome.

But for most of us, all that is secondary to the thorough evisceration of the writing life and the publishing world. It alternates between wincingly funny and painfully accurate. Everything from writer’s block to the maddeningly brutal impact of social media on one’s confidence is laid out in excruciating detail. Every wonderful and painful thing that can happen to one navigating their book through agents, editing, book tours, readings, interviews, and initial sale numbers is laid out. I can’t think of anything that has happened to me as a writer, editor, working for a publisher, or listening to any of my author friends/clients’ anecdotes that doesn’t turn up sooner or later in this novel. If you ever had questions about what happens after you finish your novel, good or bad, this novel lays out what it FEELS like, second by second. Absolutely brilliant!

Maybe a touch discouraging at times, but forewarned is forearmed, eh?

But wait, there’s more!

Yellowface is the best example of the use of an “unreliable narrator” I have ever encountered. I love unreliable narrators and have written/published a bunch of flash stories using the technique myself, but I have NEVER seen a writer able to sustain that for an ENTIRE novel. It is a tour de force performance. The closest I have ever seen before is the classic noir film, Detour, in which our narrator keeps telling us he had no choice but to make the choices he does, even though it’s obvious to the viewers these are really, really bad choices. Yellowface’s protagonist, June Hayward, is similarly inventive in coming up with rationales for her questionable choices, and Kuang convincingly portrays Hayward constantly slipping into believing her own propaganda, how Hayward constantly sees herself as the victim. We have all met people who do this, and I suspect we’re all guilty of it ourselves sometimes, but watching Hayward cycle back and forth between guilt and rationalization is a compelling case study.

Kuang makes Hayward a sympathetic character with whom we can identify, even though she’s being kind of awful. Because we get it. Writing is hard! Publishing is harder! And it’s all totally unfair! One has so little control! We can see why Hayward is more than a little tempted, and how she gets trapped once she starts down her particular road.

How much do you want to read a book on the writing life, publishing, the technique of unreliable narrator and the modern issue of representation/cultural appropriation? What if we threw in, absolutely free, a section on what it’s like to teach writing?

Author Kuang assassinates every mean and useless writing coach any of us have ever had in her portrayal of Hayward’s good intentions versus how the class actually goes. Hayward’s complete lack of self-awareness in her plagiarism of cliched workshop techniques and her shift from mentor to monster is howlingly funny— ‘howling’ because I was wincing the whole time.

[It reminded me of a long-since departed colleague who taught writing workshops for years, even though he had never published a single word in his life, never finished a draft, merely attended so many workshops he was able to reproduce them verbatim. It literally never occurred to him that stealing other people’s exercises is, you know, plagiarism, and that his workshops were entirely inauthentic and inappropriate as he had no personal experience with which to respond to questions. And even real writers can turn mean under the guise of being ‘brutally honest’ with students about their work. (Indeed, I can think of one example where the professor was so damaging, his students so traumatized, that they processed their PTSD by banding together to start a magazine, now in it’s 35th year.)]

Kuang is obviously familiar with such colleagues and finally got the chance to skewer them here. The whole thing is only a single chapter, but nails an entire industry to the wall.

My all-time favourite scene, though, is when Hayward is working with her editor and together they completely undermine the novel Hayward has stolen and now rewritten. The whole point of the original is to represent a little-known historical event through an own-voices account. But the editor pushes Hayward to up the role of the white saviour characters (so ‘readers can better identify’ with the story), and calls for Hayward to downplay some of the crucial cultural elements (that ‘readers won’t care about’). Hayward, of course, has no problem with that at all, believing she is improving an otherwise likely unsalable book. Again, neither character gets the irony of how outrageously racist they are being, how they are destroying the entire purpose of the original. This one very brief scene cuts to the heart of how the lack of representation and the ongoing cultural appropriation remain key components of the industry among legacy publishing. It’s hilarious and gut-wrenching and so accurately portrays the subtleties of the issue, I am left wondering how many readers will miss the scene’s significance entirely.

The whole book is like that: each scene blows up some aspect of writing, publishing, movie options, social media, fickle audiences, families, and cultural portrayals. Kuang is a satirical genius.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to all these unbeatble themes and insights, Kuang throws in a page-turning, edge of seat narrative, so filled with unanticipated twists and turns that it leaves the reader breathless. Whenever I thought, ‘Oh, well, Kuang has beautifully made the case for ___, there’s no possible response to that’, Kuang switches gears and we meet a character who demonstrates why that argument was full of holes, why this other viewpoint makes perfect sense (at least to those who hold it). Anytime we or the characters start to get comfortable, Kuagn throws them (and us) down a completely new rabbit hole. Each new development pops up out of left field! The only thing we ever know for sure is that things are going to get even worse for June Hayward.

I laugh-groaned out loud at the penultimate resolution because it was completely, outrageously believable, but then Kuang threw that one out as well and pushes us to the very edge. No spy thriller could come as close to making my head spin as did Yellowface.

In the end, we as readers are left questioning everything we thought we knew about publishing, and more importantly, questioning every decision we have ever made about which books are worthy of our attention, why we actually choose to read what we read.

Act now, and for no more than the price of the hardcover, you can receive the audiobook voiced by Hellen Laser. Seriously, I recommend Laser’s performance over trying to read this yourself. Laser gets every nuance, every subtlety of Kuang’s purpose and carries the listener along past the bits were I might have been tempted to put a print copy down as 'too much' to cope with. One can’t “Yes, but...” the text if it is being spoken and the speaker just carries on.

My apologies to readers who are too young or not Canadian and may not be familiar with the ‘but wait’ format of the old K-Tel ads. I wanted to portray the same level of excitement, if not the dubious quality of most infomercial products

I confess that parts of the novel came a bit close to home for me, as following the passing of the late, great Dave Duncan, I have half a dozen of his partial manuscripts on my desktop to finish, though I came by them honestly. And I have run a lot of writing workshops/courses in my day and have been guilty of advising authors to take or add in this or that element (though not cultural ones, I don’t think) if they wished to increase the book’s commercial potential. I have even confronted own-voices issues of including trans themes or characters not of my culture in my own writing. Reading Kuang has helped me articulate what I’ve been trying to say on these matters in a more articulate way, and appreciate the way Kuang has shown that none of these have clear cut lines.

Though clearer than June Hayward believes....