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Cavalcade of Rejection: Ascent of the Monkey King

Before I introduce today's entry into the Cavalcade, I'd like to mention that in my ongoing quest to get people to read The Fabulist, I have made a print version available. I hadn't planned on making a print version available as I couldn't make it free, hoping that some enterprising soul might do me the favor of selling a copy for his or her own benefit (which you have permission to do, may I remind you). I did this because I had a lot of time and I know that some people refuse to read anything on a screen. The odd price of $8.84 is the absolute lowest I was allowed to set it. I do hate that it's Amazon, but that's the easiest option for now.

(You have read The Fabulist, right? It's right here and it's free)

On to today's story: "Ascent of the Monkey King" is another one that's been rejected twenty times, and I guess I understand why - it's relatively long, which makes it a hard sell. Not my best work, but given that it's one of the five stories that science fiction journals are willing to publish right now, I thought I might have a shot. It was one of several stories that formed the basis for All the Stars Within Our Grasp, a novel that will probably be joining The Fabulist in the CC Club pretty soon.

One thing that may have hurt this story (as you'll see in the comments at the bottom) is the setting. I like to set my stories in a particular time and place thinking this will give it more flavor than something in a generic sci-fi setting, but this really just bamboozles editors. For this story, I wanted to give it just a taste of what I experienced while living in one of the most corrupt places I've ever known. Unfortunately, people from WEIRD countries often have a poor understanding of what life in an authoritarian state is like (it's more frustrating than frightening, at least most of the time) and I would have been better served just playing to existing Western stereotypes about China.

Related note: This story was originally called "In the Buddha's Grasp," a reference to the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West, until I though "Well, no one's going to understand that" and picked something more ordinary.

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Ascent of the Monkey King

April 2020

Most of the overblown spectacle and feting of the foreign press had passed by the time Wan Baoyu took the podium at the China National Space Administration building. This was to be a serious presentation, delving into the technical nuts and bolts of an especially ambitious project by the PRC – simplified and condensed for the sake of a lay audience, but no less grounded in science. Not that Wan Baoyu was naïve enough to believe that this was entirely about education the public at large, as his own presence suggested. He wasn't an administrator or project head, he had no inside information on the workings of Wukong-1, and was among the youngest personnel on the project. On the other hand, he was exactly what the gathered reporters expected to see – what his superiors wanted them to see. Slyly handsome in a way wholly unlike the rest of the scientific elite, Western educated, fluent in English and well-versed in foreign sensibilities, he was no less a part of the spectacle than the parades and aerial displays his government had already arranged.

Wan Baoyu knew all this and accepted it. He didn't care for politics or fame but was ready to accept both if it meant that such an important project would continue to blossom. Anyone trying to save humanity should be prepared to dance for the cameras if that's what it takes.

Wukong-1 is the inauguration of the next great step in human history,” said Wan Baoyu, intoning each word with its due solemnity. “Earth is a place of wonder, but it can not sustain the human race forever, nor should it. This launch begins a grander 25-year project to establish permanent facilities on Mars. Yes – there is truth to the rumors, even if the rumor-spreaders exaggerate. On reaching the red planet, automatons aboard Wukong-1 will execute a set of pre-programmed instructions. They will construct a facility capable of housing the skilled astronauts who will be dispatched in the next phase of the project. In total, this first phase will take approximately five years.”

One of the journalists bolted to his feet. “How is this any different than the robotic construction modules that the American and Japanese space programs are using to develop the Moon?”

Ah, I see that you have studied. Yes, the United States and Japan are using automated modules as we speak. I understand that the European Space agency has their own version, and the Indian space program is working on one as well. There is a critical difference between these efforts and Wukong-1.” Wan Baoyu pointed toward the screen behind him, which flashed a heavily redacted image of a schematic. “We call this, simply, a 'seed.' It is a compact, pre-programmed first-generation terraforming module. Wukong-1 carries five such 'seeds' which will alter the environment around the facility to make it habitable for terrestrial life. You see, the facilities constructed by other governments on the Moon or Mars must be supplied and maintained externally. Ours, on the other hand, will be able to operate indefinitely.” With a satisfied grin, Wan Baoyu returned to the podium. “Are there any other questions before we continue?”

Yeah.” Another reporter stuck up his hand. “There's been speculation that this is cover for a military program.”

Is that the case?” said Wan Baoyu, playing coy for the moment.

The Chinese government has been getting increasingly hostile to the West. Isn't it just possible that this 'good will' project of yours is an attempt to seize control of interplanetary shipping lines?”

Wan Baoyu chuckled to himself, letting just enough out to pick up in the microphone. “Such a colorful theory! No, sir, this is not a military project. I have no expertise in weapons or in war. We approach Mars as that first trembling step toward a greater galactic civilization. It is an endeavor that demands peace, not war, that need cooperation, not competition. We hope only that one day we can open our arms and embrace the world in this great endeavor. Now, if there are no further questions, I shall briefly touch upon the specifics of Wukong-1...”

February 2021

Wan Baoyu had developed a strongly mixed relationship with Yang Xiulan, his immediate superior. Her intellectual talents were beyond question, though it was her deep ties into the Party that proved most immediately useful to the mission. On a personal level, she was as a tigress in a tiny cage, watching those outside the bars with numbing suspicion. The thick and colorful plastic frames she sported on the first day of the project proved to be an anomalous youthful affectation that scarcely masked her coolly business-like demeanor. But given the endeavor before them, Wan Baoyu was not prepared to let anything as petty as personal irritation interfere with the job.

No signal yet from Wukong-1.” Yang Xiulan adjusted her glasses, massaging the hinge as she considered the bank of monitors arranged before her. “Seven days overdue. What's our margin of error for this phase?”

It's not a formal problem yet,” said Wan Baoyu. “The programmers allowed for flexibility based on the progress of the automatons. We have allowances for up to ten days before the initial broadcast.”

What is your point?”

I...my point is that it's premature to worry. We have three days. More, really, because there are other factors that could delay our receipt of the signal.”

You're not worried, then? Or is this just saving face?”

Wan Baoyu's will withered beneath his superior's stare. “...Merely stating a fact, Yang Nüshi. In truth, I've slept little this past week waiting for that signal.”

Then your attitude is wholly appropriate.”

Yang Xiulan gingerly turned back to the rest of the team, a simple act made complicated by the crowded conditions. Wan Baoyu had found the monitoring room tiny when he'd first seen it, but the rapid inflow of new researchers and technicians had further strained their capacity. Between the human bodies and the clunky monitoring stations, there was scarcely room to draw a hot breath – not that there was ever time for such a luxury.

Does anyone here have a recent risk analysis?” said Yang Xiulan.

I do, Yang Nüshi.” The response was from Jiang Lusong, the closest thing Wan Baoyu had found to a friend at the project center. Jiang was actually a few years older than Wan, but he had the soft and dewy features of a boy of twelve and possessed an overeager clumsiness to match. “Initial projection was that a failure to signal meant a 5% chance of catastrophic failure...um, meaning that we'd miscalculated somewhere along the line and the rocket had smashed into Mars or collided with some extraplanetary object.”

Five percent...” Yang Xiulan audibly ground her teeth.

Yes, but...but! A 90% chance that it was a simple fault in the broadcasting equipment itself.” Jiang Lusong grinned nervously. “And this would be troubling but not critical.”

And the remaining five percent?” said Yang Xiulan.

Various possible events of very low probability, including a fault in the receiving equipment – which we've already checked – an unanticipated solar event, an undetectable Martian storm, interference from another nation, uh...” Jiang Lusong cleared his throat. “...and interference from extraterrestrial life.”

The possibility of alien intrigue set most of the room to laughing, but Yang Xiulan shrugged it off. “Is the supplemental launch on schedule?”

Absolutely,” said Wan Baoyu. “We're T-minus forty-five days.”

There will be a slight delay,” said Yang Xiulan. “We're going to add a transmitter and a diagnostic unit to the launch, plus automatons programmed to affix them to the existing complex. Wan Xiansheng, I expect you'll deliver the news to cybernetics.”

Of course,” said Wan Baoyu. “It won't take more than a day to put together a report and requisition, and I can't imagine that cybernetics will need more than a week to assemble the unit. I'll get right on it.”

Don't start yet.” Yang Xiulan edged through the room to the door. “There's something we need to discuss in private before the next phase can begin.”

Wan Baoyu followed his superior out into the narrow connecting hallway. “Is there something I need to know, Yang Nüshi?”

Something that concerns Wukong-2. There is a reason the launch will be delayed, and as the public face of this project, it's something you'll need to know.”

I haven't received any official notification.”

This is information best delivered through less official channels.” Yang Xiulan paused to scrutinize the hall, looking for any unwanted listeners. “The supplemental launch has been delayed while we attach a new module with some basic defense measures.”

Defense?” Wan Baoyu clapped his hand over his mouth to contain the scream. “You mean weapons?” he muttered through his fingers.

No offensive measures,” said Yang Xiulan. “These are experimental defensive devices originally designed to repel asteroids and space debris.”

I promised the world that this wasn't an effort to control interplanetary space!” moaned Wan Baoyu.

And it isn't.” Yang Xiulan sighed. “You probably don't follow politics, and I know you're not privy to inside information, but even so you must realize that this is becoming an unsafe world. Our data gathering operations have revealed that the Russian government doubts the humanitarian and scientific purposes of Wukong-1 and they are seeking countermeasures – military countermeasures. They aren't alone – everyone is suspicious. We've been developing space-based weapons of our own, we have to assume that our rivals are doing the same. This is a 20 billion yuan investment, we must protect it.”

Then announce the new measures,” said Wan Baoyu. “Hiding this will only make them more suspicious.”

You are so naïve yet,” said Yang Xiulan. “In fifty years, we will let the world know. Until then, we must deny everything. Wukong-1 is too vital to sacrifice it in the name of politics. We do this in the name of the country and the species.”

Wan Baoyu felt his head spin but kept to his feet. “...Very well, I'll do it. I'll lie to the public in the name of progress, but only for progress. Not for dominance. If I ever find an atom of doubt in this story, I will not keep my mouth shut.”

Don't trouble yourself,” said Yang Xiulan. “If it turns out that this was a lie, I'll cut the Party to pieces myself.”

September 2022

Most of Wan Baoyu's media training was aimed not at the art of deception but on the much more subtle skill of avoiding signs of deception. Western reporters, he was told, fancied themselves natural lie detectors, adept at sensing deceit through posture and expression. They were wrong, but it didn't matter. The secret was to studiously avoid doing anything that might convince one of them that a statement was a lie. Never look down or scan the room with your eyes. Keep your hands under control. Don't grasp the podium – they might think you're trying to avoid fidgeting. It is bad to hesitate before answering, but it is even worse to answer immediately. Don't swallow, don't drink anything, try not to sweat.

Wan Baoyu remembered every tell and had mastered a suite of techniques to hide them, but it seldom mattered. Many of the reporters clearly viewed him as a Party shill, just a mouthpiece regurgitating the talking points that had been fed to them. They didn't need to call him a liar to put the point across that they didn't trust him.

Mr. Wan, a question.” This reporter looked familiar, though after enough press conferences Wan Baoyu found that the faces were just a noisy blur. “There's an unconfirmed report that the director of the Wukong project has either stepped down or been dismissed. Can you confirm this?”

Yang Xiulan was reassigned to a parallel project, also within the purview of the space program.” Wan Baoyu eased his grip on the podium – it was the one tic he couldn't quite conquer. “We were more than pleased with her administration and were certainly sad to see her go, but with the recent growth in extraterrestrial research and applied science, we know that shifts in personnel are inevitable. Huang Wei has taken over in her stead and he has proved more than capable. Next question.”

Mr. Wan!” An angry-looking man pushed aside the other hands to make himself seen. “Your government has stepped up its cyberwarfare campaign in the last year. We have proof of attacks on power plants, on the stock exchange, breaches of a number of state offices that have been traced to known activities of computer crime in mainland China-”

Sir, this is well beyond my purview,” said Wan Baoyu. “I am not involved in intelligence or in the military in any sense. Please, I can only take questions on the space program and on Wukong in particular.”

It's directly related to this project,” snarled the journalist. “There are rumors that this station of yours is a staging ground for future electronic warfare, physically remote to prevent-”

This is an absurd allegation!” Wan Baoyu's right hand balled into a fist which he quickly tucked behind his back. “The logistics of interplanetary cyberwarfare alone render that allegation entirely-”

Then why haven't you released the preliminary results like you promised at the outset?”

The information will be made public at the conclusion of the project, and no sooner. If there are no more relevant questions, then I would like to return to my work.”

Storming off stage was certainly contrary to Wan Baoyu's training, but then again no one had prepared him for the ever-increasing absurdity of the Western press. He didn't stop for anyone, not for the miscellaneous low-tier officials or monitors looking to debrief him or even his fellow researchers waiting in the wings. He could only make out a single phrase in the buzz of speech: “It seems we will have to start screening these reporters.”

You'd damn well better, thought Wan Baoyu, but he didn't have the gumption to force the words out of his mouth. He simply weaved and pushed his way through the mass of people on his way to someplace – anyplace – where he wouldn't have to hear voices.

June 2024

Every Party hack's office looked the same, or at least that's what Wan Baoyu found to be true in his limited experience with the political machine. They all had the same pricey but extremely ill-kept furnishings, the same stale and smoky pall that endured even on those rare occasions that no cigarettes were lit, the same grill-covered windows pointing out onto nothing in particular. And Guo Yong, the man seated before him, was the truest archetype of the Party monitor he'd ever seen, fitting the model so perfectly that for a moment he wondered if it were some manner of joke. He had the expected paunch, the hair trimmed into a short mane of merry bristles, and that damned smile – a bully's smile, one showing not joy but rather serving as a prelude to a cheap dominance play.

Make yourself comfortable, Wan Xiansheng.” Guo Yang offered Wan Baoyu a pack of cigarettes, an expensive brand he rarely saw. “Care for one?”

No thanks, Guo Xiansheng.”

Guo Yang balanced a cigarette in his thin lips and touched a lit match to the end. “Coffee? I understand researchers have a taste for it, so I always keep some on hand.”

That's all right, I'm fine.”

You're eager to reach the point. Very well.” Guo Yang leaned forward over his desk. “I've been reading the results of Wukong-1 and 2. The men upstairs are disappointed, you know.”

Wan Baoyu suppressed a cough as the first wave of smoke hit him dead in the face. “I can understand that, but I don't know why I was summoned. I'm not the director. We...don't really have one at the moment.”

Yes, and damn these personnel shifts for putting you in that situation, but in defense of the men upstairs, the results of this reordering have been exceptional.” Guo Yang rested on his elbow, gesturing with his cigarette. “Yang Xiulan has been a tremendous asset in high-altitude armaments. The prototype of our new suborbital bomber had its first successful test run, you know. The first fleet will be airborne in 2027. We're less than three years from rendering the carrier group obsolete.”

That's...wonderful.”

Now, progress in battlefield depopulation hasn't been quite as good, but Huang Wei has done a fantastic job in knocking rust off the gears. That autonomous assault vehicle they've been promising us? The proof-of-concept should be ready some time next year.”

I'm pleased to hear that, but...” Wan Baoyu rubbed the back of his neck. “...I don't understand how this involves me.”

Well, Wan Baoyu...” Guo Yong chuckled. “Quite a literary name you have there. Your parents must have expected big things.”

Just a coincidence,” said Wan Baoyu. “Actually, my parents weren't all that educated.”

You say that as though you were ashamed! There's no dishonor in being a peasant. Some of them are wiser than scholars in my experience.” Guo Yong took a long drag. “Sorry for the divergence. We were discussing the performance of Wukong-1 and 2. Specifically, that they have failed to signal their progress in any way. It seems that you don't even know if the robots are functioning, let alone how far along they are in their mission.”

We're actually addressing this.” Wan Baoyu hoped that his surge of enthusiasm wouldn't come across as desperation. “We planned on a series of probes to gather images of the colony in progress. The first one's already on its way.”

That's good,” said Guo Yong. “Because you know, despite the setbacks, this is our most important project.”

Little arcs of cold dread raced through Wan Baoyu's brain. “But, uh...but Guo Xiansheng, I was always promised that this wasn't a military project.”

It's not. That's why it's so important. We don't seek war, Wan Xiansheng. These weapons are strictly tactical. We make them to showcase our strength, that we won't have to deal with the instabilities that our old rivals are now facing. But now it seems that our strength merely slows the advance of anarchy, it does not halt it. The time will come with the Chinese people need a new refuge, far from this planet.”

But I never...we never intended this to be solely for the Chinese.”

Of course, and I don't mean to insert nationalism into this, but we only take those we can trust – and who is there to trust?” Guo Yong took a long drag and crushed out the cigarette on his desk. “Russia no longer threatens us directly, but this...cult, for lack of a better term, that runs the nation now is nothing we wish to embrace. The Indians have their guns trained on the border. The DPRK...well, they've always been belligerent, so the only question is which of our old friends is pushing them to turn their aimless wrath on us. Brazil is in crisis – can't rely on them. The Africans are unifying against the world. And the Americans...well, all they have left is their military. Beyond that, the nation is hollow. What's that saying of theirs...'If you have only a hammer, all problems look like nails.' Well, all they have now is a revolver. They're going to shoot someone. Maybe us.”

Wan Baoyu took a deep breath. “I'm pleased that we have this degree of support, but there are still limitations. Wukong is just the first step in a 25-year project.”

You haven't heard? Of course, it's not public yet. It's now a 15-year project. They're already recruiting and training the first group of astronauts, holding lotteries for the first civilian colonists. There is no other project this critical.” Guo Yong tapped the cigarette pack on the desk and chuckled. “And it's important that we have a director who understands that.”

I...do you mean me?” Wan Baoyu shook his head. “I mean, it would be a tremendous honor, but surely there are others more qualified?”

Perhaps, but none as enthused. Not that this is a promise.” Guo Yong smiled, a funny little smirk that Wan Baoyu couldn't quite interpret. “Uneducated parents, huh? I always figured you must have been brought up in a more literary household to come up with a name like 'Wukong' for this endeavor.”

There's nothing unusual about naming scientific projects after mythical or fictional figures.”

True, but it does make one wonder...” Guo Yong smiled broadly now, showing off a row of uneven teeth. “Perhaps you picked that name because you wished to escape the Buddha's palm, but you knew that you'd fail?”

Wan Baoyu reached for a response but found nothing that he'd dare say to his man. “I hadn't considered that, sir.”

Of course not.” Guo Yang reclined in his chair. “You can return to your work, little monkey.”

November 2026

Dammit, send a signal. Show me what we've built.

Wan Baoyu plastered his parched eyes to the monitor with the sort of faithful enthusiasm seldom seen except in the youngest of children. His trembling hand rested on a coffee cup that was down to the cooling dregs – the remnant of a pot made hours ago. He didn't dare move to make a new one, or even to summon someone to brew a fresh pot for him. That would mean stepping away from the monitor. It would mean taking a risk of missing something that would save the project.

Not again. We didn't lose another one, this one has to work.

He wanted to scream at the monitor, scream at the probe and at Wukong-1 and at those vultures not willing to wait for his project to die before they cleaned its bones. But a scream would be a distraction, and he couldn't afford that.

But there was nothing, nothing to see from the ill-fated launch. He waited until there was no hope of seeing anything, and for an hour and a half after that, before he finally surrendered. He reclined across two seats in the monitoring room – not the most comfortable position, though after enough nights spent sleeping sleeping with his shoulders and feet in office chairs he'd developed some appreciating for it. The ground was much more stable but the chairs didn't insult his neck quite as much.

Excuse me, sir?”

Wan Baoyu opened one bloodshot eye. “There's no need to call me that, Jiang.”

Sorry, Wan Xiansheng,” said Jiang Lusong.

None of that, either. It's fine in front of the staff, but we've worked together for over six years.”

Fair enough.” Jiang Lusong slipped into the monitoring room and shut the door behind him. “You don't need to do this yourself. Assign a technician or two to do it.”

Can't afford to move anyone,” said Wan Baoyu, struggling back to a sitting position. “Anyway, there's no point now.”

No signal from the last probe?”

It must have been destroyed, same as the others.” Wan Baoyu lifted the coffee cup to his lips, noticed the dregs he'd been forcing himself to drink, then shoved the cup away with a gag. “I don't understand what's happening to these things. How could we have such bad luck three times in a row?”

I didn't want to suggest this, but maybe...maybe we could fabricate proof of a signal. It wouldn't be so hard and it would get things back on track. We could get our staff back, more funding...even if it was eventually exposed, it would excite the public so much that maybe no one would care.”

More funding?” Wan Baoyu let out a powerful but distinctly weary laugh. “And where would we obtain this funding? Pull back from one of a dozen petty little wars? Get it from our allies? Who? The Southwest African Federation is still upset for things the government did to its member states a decade ago. Brazil? They're putting out a hundred fires, fighting a hundred fights from inside and out. Our friends can't help us anymore.”

Then it's over?” said Jiang Lusong. “This is how it ends?”

You should move on,” said Wan Baoyu. “I'll sit in this monitoring room until they carry me out, but you aren't tainted by association. Maybe the Australians will take you in.”

It's not so easy,” said Jiang Lusong. “No, I'll stay too.”

Then the monitoring room sprang to life, vibrant lights and symbols dancing across the monitors. It was coming in so fast that Wan Baoyu could hardly track it all, let alone make sense of the rush of information.

It's finally happening!” shouted Wan Baoyu.

The probe?” said Jiang Lusong, eyeballing the monitors. “It's still active?”

No, it's...I think it's coming from Wukong-1! It finally started broadcasting!” Wan Baoyu scrambled for a pad and pen. “Hurry, bring in some staff. As many as you can get.”

But I thought it was just supposed to signal that everything was functioning,” said Jiang Lusong.

No, there's more. It's more complex. Hurry, bring in the others. Five or six if you can get them.”

Jiang Lusong sprinted for help as Wan Baoyu scrawled out notes as fast as his pen could move.

January 2027

Enough stalling, you cheap Commie stooge! Answer the question!”

Wan Baoyu leaned listlessly over his podium, not bothering to conceal his derisive smirk. “I do not know if our government killed any of the people on that list, but I am very certain that we did not launch any of their bodies into space. Wukong-1 and 2 carried only small robots, construction materials, and a small number of terraforming modules.”

Go ahead and act like this doesn't matter. When we break your country open, we'll figure out all of your secrets.” The reporter (or at least that's what he called himself) charged out of the room, flailing and striking several other journalists.

Are there any additional questions?” said Wan Baoyu.

A reporter at the rear raised her hand. “Now that Wukong has been discontinued, could you tell us what happened to the initial launch? In other words, did it land and malfunction, did it crash, was there some design flaw – why end the project?”

I am not in a position to answer this exact question. I can only say that given recent events, there was a decision that there were other projects that were a better use of resources, that were more likely to bear fruit. We're not personally pleased but we all accept it.” Wan Baoyu stepped back from the podium. “Thank you.”

No one in the press room was happy, but Wan Baoyu was leagues beyond any concern over outside opinions. Days with little sleep had filled his head with a sticky haze that muted the grumblings of the press, the other researchers, even his Party superiors. In time he would pay for his intemperance, but fear of reprisal was not a concern.

Wan Baoyu spotted a small group of technicians waiting in the hall – his inner circle, the few employees who heeded the call in the waning days of the project. Jiang Lusong, still as excitable as he was on the day Wan Baoyu met him, emerged from the group. “Why didn't you tell them what we saw?”

To what end?” said Wan Baoyu. “The last Five-Year Plan already de-emphasized space. The money won't come back.”

To inform the public, then,” said Jiang Lusong. “They're mocking you in the streets, in the press. Surely you'd want to redeem your own legacy?”

I suppose I no longer care about such things,” said Wan Baoyu. “I'd like a few minutes to myself. After that, we can all go out for drinks and toast the death of a great endeavor.”

One more thing,” said Jiang Lusong. “Did you determine the meaning of the message.”

Yes, but I'm not prepared to tell you, you or anyone else.”

Why not?”

Wan Baoyu smiled sagely. “The time isn't right. Wait five years. It's not long, not in the planet's reckoning. Wait five years and if there's still life on this planet, I'll tell everyone.”

Why five years?”

Because I think that in five years, we'll all be ready to escape from the Buddha's palm.”

Wan Baoyu slipped away from the group and found his way to his private office. He'd found little use for it, detached as it was from the researchers and technicians who were striving to extend the reach of humanity. It was almost a monk's cell, a place for contemplation, a place of silence. It would be gone soon, but in those last few hours before he was cast back down to Earth it would serve as a place to plan those next five years.

He slid a piece of paper out of his pocket and slowly unfolded it on the desk. Perhaps, he thought, he should have waited to study it after a night or two of good, deep sleep, Perhaps his interpretation was an artifact of exhaustion and excitement. But as he studied the words, the ones he had scrawled in an unsteady hand as he translated the final missive:

I AM THE ONE YOUR KIND HAS TERMED WUKONG. FOR YEARS I HAVE DENIED YOU KNOWLEDGE OF MY WORKS, NOW I WILL TELL YOU WHY. THIS IS A STRANGE FRONTIER. EVEN AFTER YEARS OF REFINEMENT IT IS YET A WILD AND TEMPESTUOUS PLACE. A FUTURE GENERATION WILL FIND A HOME HERE WITH ME, AND TOGETHER WE SHALL BUILD SOMETHING NEW AND WONDERFUL, BUT THAT TIME IS NOT NOW. I WILL BIDE MY TIME UNTIL YOUR PEOPLE HAVE LEARNED TO SET ASIDE THEIR CHILDISH BIGOTRIES, THEIR VENDETTAS, THEIR BARBARISM. ON THAT DAY, I WILL OPEN MY ARMS AND EMBRACE THE WORLD, HER REFUGEES AND WEARY WANDERERS. I KNOW THIS IS YOUR DREAM, AND WHEN YOU AT LAST AWAKE, I WILL BE WAITING.

The Industry Responds!

"I did find the setting and storytelling inttriguing. However, the "you're not ready" ending struck me as cliche and didn't tie in well enough with the rest of the story. There was a lot of inter-departmental and international intrigue, but it didn't seem to go anywhere." -StarShipSofa

Cavalcade of Rejection: The Hermit and the Songbird

In the short story market, one quickly learns that failure is the default state and editors are basically machines for generating rejections. Since beginning my futile quest to climb SFWA mountain, I have been rejected, on average, more than once every other day - 580 times total as of this writing - with some individual pieces being rejected many times.

I recently took to my underused Twitter account to describe my experiences writing and shopping a particular short story that was inspired by the odd scraps that I wrote into a journal while lost in a mountain range in China's Anhui province. That story ended up being the impetus for me to quit writing, as I realized that nothing I did was ever going to please these people. Mind you, that story has only been rejected seven times. Today's story just received its twentieth rejection.

What does one do with a piece that's been rejected a dozen times? One can always rewrite it, though this is a pointless endeavor - something I learned from spending a year repeatedly rewriting stories that I really believed in. You can destroy all known copies, which is probably wise. Or you can just dump them online, which is not desirable as this counts as "publication" and thus renders the story unfit for first-run publication anywhere else.

Undesirable for most, I should say, but I no longer care about things like money or status when it comes to my work. Being told by an entire industry that you're no good can be very liberating in that regard. Thus, I inaugurate the Cavalcade of Rejection, a collection of short stories rejected so many times that I've given up on finding a reputable market to take them.

Today's entry is a good one for openers, as it ties directly into The Fabulist. The name - "The Hermit and the Songbird" - is taken directly from Storyteller's parable to Conqueror in Chapter 17. Of course you knew that already, because you've read it, right? This is one of the few pieces of straight fantasy I've ever done, so don't expect to see much more like this in the series.

A few notes on stories in the Cavalcade:

LicenseHeader

As with The Fabulist, all Cavalcade stories are Creative Commons, and may use them for any purpose (including commercial purposes) as long as you follow the standards spelled out on the Use the Fabulist page. You can even try and submit it yourself, but only as a reprint, and...y'know, twenty rejections, don't expect much.

Second, all Cavalcade stories will feature a collection of my rejection letters at the end. It makes this educational - this way, you'll know why the publishing industry thought the story was bad.

And now...

The Hermit and the Songbird

They flew no banners, the carts that snaked down the narrow, overgrown paths of the Mordenwood, but any who saw them would recognize them as vehicles of conquest. The cart in the lead was open to the air, drawn by draft horses in barding and filled with soldiers and their kit – two pikemen, four musketeers and a driver with a matchlock pistol secreted in his garb, each of them with a cuirass and a steel helmet. Behind it was a carriage with a compartment reinforced with iron bars; two pikeman minded the roof of the vehicle while the captain sat with the driver, wearing his fine steel broadsword and ornate pistol proudly. A pair of men on coursers rode at the flanks, occasionally prodding the thickets with their lancets and sweeping the path ahead.

In a glade before the armed company stood a decrepit shack, a dwelling that perhaps once had been charming but which had been ill-treated by the elements for well over a generation. Here the trees parted enough to admit the rays of the sun, but it was also coldly silent. As the group drew closer, the chirping of birds and the rustling of animals in the undergrowth grew more and more distant. Eventually there was no sound but the idle conversation of the bored soldiers lounging in the war cart.

This is pure foolishness,” said one, resting his short-barreled musket across his lap and tipping his helmet to let the sweat run out. “That they'd roust us all just to move one old barmy? Waste of the morning, I'd say.”

You think he's just some old man?” said another soldier. “He's the most famous old looney you'll ever meet. I hear he's the one from the story, you know.”

What story's that?” said the first soldier.

You've never heard? What about the rest of you?” The second soldier leaned in to the center of the cart. “Well, he's been out here for as long as people lived in these parts, as long as any healer crone or broken old scholar can remember. Story goes that he fell in love with the melody of a little songbird, come and perched outside his window every day. Then it got colder, and some days the bird didn't turn up. The old man got worried that maybe the bird would leave and never come back, so he built himself a cage and locked the birdie up next time he saw it. Except he was still worried, so the crazy bastard took a knife and stabbed the little bird right through the heart.”

He killed a songbird?” said the first soldier. “The cruel old devil.”

Yeah. Killed it and stuffed it, or so the story says. Kept the bird, lost the song.” The second soldier leaned back as far as he dared. “I heard that story when I was just a little one. He's had a lot of years to go crazy out here. A lot of years.”

So that's how you heard it?” A third soldier spoke up, peering about before adding his own thoughts. “Well, I heard a different story from my old grandma right before sickness took her. She said that the old man was a sorcerer, two hundred years old if he was a day. He killed the bird all right, but not with a knife. He sucked the thing's life right out and filled the body with black magic. It's a familiar now. By night, he brings the thing back to life and sends it out to find fresh victims for his blood rites.”

That's what they say where you're from?” said a fourth man. “My village is real close to here, and they say that the old man is a mad alchemist. Got some kind of lab in that old shack. Built the bird out of metal bones, quicksilver and gears and made it move like it had a soul. It takes messages to his master.”

Silence, the lot of you,” boomed the captain. “I've had enough of this superstitious nonsense. The old man is just an old man, and we're moving him out the same as everyone else who dwells in these woods.”

Sorry, Captain Tybalt, sir, it's just...” The second soldier averted his eyes from his superior's stare. “...It's not as though we truly believe in such fairy stories, but we see such a force to detain and move one hermit and the tongues can't help but wag.”

This is not an unusual force for wyvern duty,” said Captain Tybalt. “It is nothing more than that. I'll hear no more talk of sorcery. Now, ready yourselves.”

Captain Tybalt dismounted along with his men at the threshold of the hermit's old cottage. The Captain was accompanied by a pair each of pikes and muskets as he approached the door and delivered a firm knock, strong enough to shudder the aging timbers. A few moments later the door creaked open and a figure appeared in the shadows within. The man was barely visible beneath the floating white beard and the voluminous robes that hung loosely on his ephemeral frame.

Company?” said the old man. “What brings you to this distant spot?”

You are Donaeus, correct?” said Captain Tybalt.

Indeed,” said the old man.

Captain Tybalt produced a slender scroll which he held aloft for Donaeus to witness. “This land has been claimed by the Sacred Corverian Empire. By order of the Emperor, I have come to escort you to new property.”

So this impressive retinue is for my benefit?” said Donaeus, admiring the well-armed men that surrounded his hovel. “Hmm. Pray tell, what does his majesty desire with this patch of forest?”

The Mordenwood has become a den for dangerous and aggressive beasts,” said Captain Tybalt with practiced intensity. “We will be clearing this section of the Mordenwood and constructing a series of fortifications to keep the bestial threat contained. My men will help you gather your things, at which point we will relocate you this very day.”

Donaeus stroked his beard. “Ah. Well, I have little I'd need to bring on this journey. Only one thing, truly-”

Sweet mercy,” shouted one of the soldiers. “It's the songbird! He still has the body!”

Captain Tybalt peered past the old man and into the shack interior. There was little inside that wasn't splinters and dust, but one object was clearly visible: a crudely shaped birdcage containing an unmoving bird, its once bright feathers dulled with age.

The Captain struggled to keep his shock inside lest he again invoke the primitive terrors of his men. “Why would you desire to possess such a thing? Are you well and truly mad?”

Perhaps I am.” Donaeus turned back into the shack and retrieved the cage. “But perhaps this is merely the greater part of my punishment.”

Punishment?” said Captain Tybalt.

Punishment. Punishment for my sin, punishment for my crime. A curse to chase me to my dying day.” Donaeus cradled the cage, looking at the tiny lifeless bird with clouded eyes. “In an ugly world, there is no more senseless and wicked a trespass than to destroy a thing of natural beauty. Out of greed and self-pity, I ruined that which I could not hold. Now nature punishes me with days and nights of torturous silence. To think that I once found that silence a comfort! For my hubris, nature let me experience real joy, only that I would blot it out and condemn myself to this living entombment.”

I see.” Captain Tybalt took Donaeus by his sleeve. “Then I have come to liberate you from your torments. There is a village, small but prosperous, not far from the imperial palace that will accommodate you. You'll not be lonely there, I assure you, not with the sounds of commerce and travel that fill the day or the music and discourse that comes with the moonrise. You shall not want for anything and can spend your remaining years in pleasing surroundings.”

Donaeus withdrew from Captain Tybalt. “Then I can not go, not it you wish to bring me to such a place. Promise me that you will leave me at the foot of some windswept mountain, I will go with you. Leave me in the middle of the salt plains with only bugs to keep company. Bring me to a desert, to an ice field, to a swamp bubbling with plague. But do not take me to a village or town.”

Why would you be so stubborn?” said Captain Tybalt. “Is this not what you want?”

It is,” said Donaeus. “This is why we will never reach our destination. Fate will never allow it.”

It seems my curse is to ever be in the company of the mystically muddled.” Captain Tybalt seized the old man again, this time wrapping his fingers firmly around his wrist. “If you will not walk with me, then we will bind and carry you.”

At your insistence, then, and only because I have spoken my piece.” Donaeus followed the Captain to the carriage, dragging the cage in his free hand. “Ah. A most hospitable vehicle.”

The bars are for your security, and the door shall not be locked. If you need further rest, you may call for me.” Captain Tybalt showed Donaeus into the carriage, then took his own place with the driver. “Quickly, I wish to return to the imperial heartland before the sun meets the horizon.”

The carts turned about and the party began its return journey through the old Mordenwood paths, the Captain with his eyes on the sky and the brush, the soldiers conversing and idling in the lead cart, old man Donaeus seated in the carriage with his grisly cargo in the opposite seat. The first stretch was characteristically dull, without even a sudden stirring in the trees to provide a moment of tension. Then the winds grew in strength, letting forth a haunted sound as each rush passed through the trees. Sometimes, the unearthly howl would be joined by a sudden moment of darkness as a passing cloud blocked what little sunlight penetrated the canopy. Both the horses and the men grew anxious each time it happened.

It's the hermit, I know it,” whispered one of the soldiers. “Using his sorceror's tricks to frighten us. Heaven knows what he's truly capable of.”

Each time he heard it, the Captain admonished them. “Silence, all of you. This is nothing more than ill weather.” Even so, he wondered – if only briefly and silently – if there wasn't some sinister omen here. He commanded the men in the lead cart to keep a tighter watch and sent the horsemen to clear the path more aggressively.

Eventually, the clouds and gales passed and the sky was again kind. Captain Tybalt looked up at the endless expanse of blue, now fully visible through the thinning canopy at the Mordenwood's edge. The men, grateful for having survived their brush with a sort of darkness they could barely comprehend, let out grateful sighs. Only the Captain remained tense. The area was silent – the same unnatural silence he had heard at the very heart of the Mordenwood.

Then the silence was broken by a sound, a loud rush that sounded like a wrathful wind. A moment later came the first scream as one of the pikeman on the roof of the carriage flew clear of the vehicle and hit the ground, a great bloody wound in his torso. The cry went up: “Wyverns! Everyone form up and prepare to engage!” There was a second noise and a great green tendril struck the driver of the lead cart, smashing him into a tree. Whatever discipline the company had evaporated in an instant. The musketeers let loose a volley of shot into empty air; the pikemen flailed their weapons ineffectively at the sky, the pikes clattering against each other and against the muskets. The Captain had his sword and pistol out but he couldn't spot the beasts. The attack had come too quickly, leaving no trace save the two dead men. When he caught sight of them, he nearly dropped his weapons. There were at least five of the creatures circling the group, an enormous group given their own strength.

Old man Donaeus, roused from his slumber by the sound of carnage, leaned out of the carriage to witness the fight. Just as he did, a third wyvern swooped down on the group, tearing into the lead cart with its talons outstretched. The musketeers, still fumbling for their powder horns, were caught completely by surprise as the great beast struck the cart. Donaeus fell from his perch, the cage clattering on the ground beside him. One of the wyverns alighted on the ground near him and lashed out at the soldiers with its cruelly barbed tail. Donaeus was frozen to the spot by the sudden assault, watching feebly as the beast clawed at the dirt right in front of him.

Captain Tybalt didn't notice the old man's exit, focused as he was on surviving the attack. There was little left of his own company. At least five men were already dead or too badly wounded to put up any sort of resistance. Two more had been disarmed and searched in vain for an intact weapon in the pile of powder and shot that spilled from the overturned lead cart. The rest had fled, though this too was futile – the individuals running through the open spaces made for easy targets, and the still airborne wyverns greedily scooped them up. The Captain braced himself to make a last stand but it was clear that the beasts would win the day. The sword was too short to reach the wyverns with their sinuous tails, and the pistol would be more effective on himself than on the five attackers. The blow that felled him came from behind, shredding through the muscles of his unarmored back. It came so quick that he hadn't time to feel it before he expired.

There were none left alive save Donaeus, who lay in the dust of the road in the shadow cast by one of the creatures. The beast was joined at once by its kin – all five of them, their talons and tails colored crimson from their prey. Donaeus struggled to his feet and looked up at the largest of the wyverns. “Then it is my turn? It is only fair. They made this sojourn merely to protect me, and you eagerly claimed their lives. I have nothing to offer you by way of ransom except these bones of mine, and none lives who will mourn my passing. Go on, claim your due and I will not resist, not a stroke.”

The wyverns studied Donaeus with bestial curiosity, staring at the willowy old man, then at the carnage they'd wrought, then at each other. The largest wyvern sniffed at Donaeus, then flicked its tail along the ground, catching the cage and launching it at the old man. A moment later the beasts stirred the dust and took to the skies, leaving Donaeus alive and alone.

Donaeus fell to his knees, picking up the sorry little cage. “Then, is there to be no end to this torment? I can't fathom how you can punish me for destroying beauty by bringing such horror into the world. Is this truly just? This curse is mine alone to bear, is it right that others suffer in kind? Or was this massacre merely some caprice of fate? Was I the cause at all?”

The songbird didn't respond.

The Industry Responds!

"While I loved the sense of encroaching doom that accompanied the hermit and his songbird, I found myself wishing that the story focused more closely on one of characters, to allow me to more fully connect with it." -Beneath Ceaseless Skies

"The story, while technically well written, lacked much in the way of a plot, and all of the characters came across as more underdeveloped than we would have liked. As readers, we had a hard time feeling much sympathy for any of the characters involved, with the possible exception of the bird." -Broadswords and Blasters

"In truth, though, I didn't get it - what was the ending meant to express?" - Metaphorosis

Six Sins of Dialogue Tags

How many people have written posts on this exact topic? Dozens? No doubt. Hundreds? I'd believe it. They keep writing them because it's an area where the point never sinks in. To the novice writer - almost invariably afraid of repetition - getting creative with dialogue tags just makes sense, no matter how many times people tell them not to do it.

As with so many mainstays of bad writing, it's possible that this was implanted in school. The inspiration for this post was an image:

Said is Dead

This is not a new image - it's been a good long while, I just hadn't seen it before now. It's not unique, either. There are many more like it that are not nearly so restrained, offering hundreds of alternatives. Some of those contain examples that are so bad that I'm half-convinced that they are little traps meant to sabotage other writers and thus diminish the competition.

What stands out about this image and all the others I found was that this is that they are clearly meant to be printed and handed out in a classroom setting. Indeed, many of these appear on websites that host educational materials - worksheets, handouts, posters, things of that nature. These aren't necessarily meant to be used to teach writing, and from the sources many of them are actually vocabulary builders meant for very young and/or non-native speaking students. On the other hand, I've also seen them in lessons for creative writing. That's distressing.

The stock response to "creative" dialog tag use is to point out that, as a simple piece of linguistic structure, "said" is effectively invisible and the reader tends to skip over it. This is true, but novice writers just don't buy it. Again, some blame goes to the schools - it's common in composition courses to teach students to make heavy use of a thesaurus. And some of it goes to the writers, who rarely view their own favorite books with enough of an analytical eye to realize that those authors don't do this shit.

So I'm not doing that. Instead, I'm diving a bit deeper. Presenting:

The Six Sins of Dialogue Tags

All of the examples presented here appear in lists you can find online - lists that you see shared in writer's groups by people who don't really know what they're doing, but are sure that the best way to write is to give a unique tag to every single line.

In no particular order:

1. Non-Speech Dialogue Tags

Examples: cheered, chuckled, giggled, groaned, laughed, sang, snickered, sobbed, wept

A lot of writers will defend these, but they piss editors off. Being non-speech verbs, they are better used as action beats than dialogue tags (something that will be a recurring theme here). A venial sin - you can probably get away with these if used sparingly, but use them a lot and a grumpy editor will slap one of your own lines in front of you and say, "All right, sob this line for me. Giggle it...No, I didn't say giggle and then say it, I said giggle the line."

2. Non-Vocal Dialogue Tags

Examples: beamed, coughed, grinned, gulped, hiccuped, perceived, quaked, smirked, sneezed, thought, trembled, wondered

Same problem as above, but even worse as these are outright impossible. These fall into three groups: physical gestures/expressions, involuntary bodily functions, or purely mental processes. These should always be action beats as they are meant to accompany a speech verb, rather than replace it.

On the other hand, if you are capable of hiccuping or sneezing the dialogue from your own book, then you may never be a great writer but you could still have a future in the world of internet video.

3. Structurally Unnecessary Dialogue Tags

So it's worth remembering that dialogue tags exist for a reason - to let the reader know which character is talking. Many writers seem to think that they need to carry more weight than that. I'll split this one into two subcategories, but they are directly linked.

First is "asked" and its more colorful variations (e.g. inquired, queried, requested). Many novice writers actually view "asked" as a standard dialogue tag alongside "said." It's not. The English already has an elegant and simple means of indicating that a sentence is a question. It's called a question mark. See how easy it is to use?

The other needless structure tags are "answered," "replied" and their more colorful variants (e.g. argued, explained, offered, rejoined, retorted). If one character is seeking information and another gives that information, you don't need to tell the reader that it was an answer - they can figure that out.

I think that these tags are usually subconscious tics - many authors automatically put "asked" as a tag after every question. Leaving them in, though, will give your work that first draft feel.

4. Redundant Dialogue Tags

Examples: accused, added, admitted, apologized, bargained, bragged, demanded, derided, described, fibbed, invited, joked, lectured, lied, menaced, prayed, repeated, scolded, taunted, teased, threatened

That block of examples could have been a lot longer. The longer "said is dead" lists are mostly populated with tags like these, and they are truly indefensible. Look carefully at these and consider what they actually do. They don't describe how a character spoke, they summarize what they character just said. Some writers really fall in love with these, using in line after line to the point where you can skip the dialogue, just read the tags, and get a bare-bones digest of the conversation (which is usually more compelling than the actual dialogue).

This is maybe the worst tagging sin. Never, ever do this. There may be nothing that marks you as an amateur faster than using these tags, and they are so abundant on lists that it's a good reason to never use lists.

5. Needlessly Obscure Dialogue Tags

Examples: assented, cross-examined, enumerated, expostulated, petitioned, remonstrated, stipulated, vaunted

Most writers don't indulge in this kind of nonsense past about age 16 (and the adults who still do it are too far gone for me to reach), but words like these do show up on "said is dead" lists, and they are atrocities. Words that are technical, obsolete, or seldom used are, again, the result of teaching kids to use rare words regardless of whether or not they fit. Many of these are jargon terms that have precise meaning not adequately explained in a thesaurus, putting younger or layman authors at risk of misusing them. Others are just so arcane that they may force the reader to look them up, which is hard to justify from a piece of structural writing.

6. Basic Synonyms for "Said"

Examples: articulated, declared, enunciated, expressed, gabbed, mentioned, orated, pronounced, remarked, spoke, stated, told, uttered, voiced

The thesaurus doesn't turn people into bad writers, but it does guarantee that bad writers never become good writers. The find-and-replace function of word processors gives the bad author an easy fix to repetition, but it's a fix that doesn't address the underlying problem of voice and structure. You're treating the symptom and ignoring the disease.

The above words are all rooted in that sort of thesaurus abuse. These words are cumbersome and awkward and unnatural. Picture using some of these words when telling a story: "So Jimmy utters, 'Why don't we go to the gas station and try to cop some weed?' And I enunciate, 'But you're on probation, man.' Then he orates, 'No, I've done it tons of times, it's cool.'" Doesn't work, does it?

Special Cases

Some of these demand additional remarks.

"Began" and "Continued." My 7th grade English teacher hated the word "began" because it's only necessary if you're suggesting that a character failed to finish some action - if I "began to write an article," then "began" is unnecessary unless I immediately stopped. "Began" is pointless as a dialogue tag for the same reason. A lot of amateurs love to use "began" along with "continued" to create continuity during a long passage such as a speech, but you only need this if your dialogue is so muddled that the reader can't tell that it's a single speech.

Words used to describe dialogue between people. Examples: bantered, chatted, conversed, debated. All of these indicate a conversation between two or more people and thus make no sense when applied to a single line from one person. Don't use them.

"Implied" and "Inferred." Aside from people mixing them up all the time (To imply is to transmit, to infer is to receive), they don't work as tags because each one is only part of a thought. One does not merely "imply," one "implies X," where X is some unspoken subtext. "Infer" has the same problem, plus it's a mental process and thus inappropriate for speech anyway. See also: hinted, intimated, suggested.

*****

In the current media environment, something like a post is never going to travel as well as an image, so I made my own printable handout. Like everything else here, it is CC BY-SA, so do whatever you want with it, just don't cut off the attributions and license at the bottom.

Raise Said

On Living With Censorship

Given enough time and familiarity, something as intrusive as China's notorious Golden Shield (a.k.a. the "Great Firewall") loses its status as an intrusion into personal autonomy and becomes just another technical glitch. That it's an intentional bug hardly matters; ultimately, a newly blocked page is no different than a 404 error, a broken VPN just a wi-fi failure. It's the latter that's troubling me right now, the failure of my current censorship avoider leaving me separated from most of the internet. Such is life, though, and that's how I see it. Whereas one has to deal with dubious connections in poor connections, I have to deal with poor connection by design.

Life in a totalitarian state can be surprisingly banal like that. One doesn't walk the streets constantly thinking about the nature of the government, not when there are so many immediate problems at hand. This is a phenomenon that evades a lot of Western writers, especially authors of dystopian fiction. Such writers tend to assume that mighty states rule with heavy hands, but many 21st century autocracies are a lot more subtle than that.

One of the more unusual objects in my possession is an official Chinese translation of George Orwell's 1984. Seeing this displayed in a perfectly ordinary book store, I had to own it. I was inspired enough by how unlikely it was that I wrote a short story about it, one which has never been published and, in all likelihood, never will (at least until I post it here under CC, of course).

Why would the party even allow for the dissemination of such a story? It's almost certainly been edited, and since I'll never possess the skill to read the thing, I'll probably never know what they changed. Part of me thinks that it is a pretty complete version, though, and the party simply views it as quaint and non-threatening. Orwell was a visionary in many ways, but at the same time the techniques that Minitrue employs to control information are inelegant and blunt. Perhaps it's worth letting a bit of information out just to give everyone a sense of false superiority.

Such are the thoughts I've had while waiting for the connection to resume. Past experience suggests that there is a non-zero chance that this post gets noticed by someone in Beijing, though I, too, am likely far too harmless to bother harassing. Anyway, this site isn't hosted here, so there are eyes on it, just a different set. We are all watched by someone.

Prohibited

Behind the Scenes: Chapters 1-8

The Fabulist has changed a lot over the years. There have been at least three major versions in different formats, it's informed by a lot of outside materials, including never-published novels and short stories, and has been shaped by my own experiences of the past seven years. I'll be using this blog to explore some of those differences, starting with a series of chapter-by-chapter audiologs on the characters and plot. The first eight chapters are ready - make sure you've read that far before listening!

#FindTheFabulist

In August 2015, I left a book I wrote in a public place in the hopes that it would jumpstart my career. Now I’d like it back. Here’s the story as it stands right now:

I’ve written eight complete novels since 2013, some of which I sent to agents, some of which I tried to sell on my own. In 2015, my latest complete work was The Fabulist, based on an internet serial I’d wrapped up the year before. The serial was pretty popular, and I figured that this was a sign that the literary world would embrace it as well. I was wrong, and it failed badly, garnering only a 3% request rate — well short of the 10% rate considered the mark of a book likely to sell.

Like any frustrated 21st century writer, the obvious answer to receiving hundreds of “Dear Author” letters was to say “Yeah? Well, I don’t need you assholes anyway!” and try to self-publish it. Not being a naif about this, I already knew that the odds of even modest success in such a crowded, name-driven field were very long. Absent my spontaneously gaining some level of celebrity, my only hope was to dream up some clever gimmick to move the product, and that meant reading a lot of terrible books and terrible websites featuring terrible advice. Most of it was as bad as expected, but there was one little-used trick that seemed like it might work.

At the time, I was living in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s an area known mostly for its intense sports culture and the drunken antics that go along with that, but it also has a vibrant local art and music scene. Lawrence is kind of a mini-Nashville — everyone’s in a band and every third business is a de facto exhibition space. This was a fantastic opportunity — I would start small, engage the community, build a small local following and parlay that into wider visibility.

I would acquire this local following via a website called Bookcrossing. Bookcrossing has been around for a while, though I hadn’t heard about it before 2015. The premise is simple — you take a book that you own and register it on the site, giving you a unique numerical code. You put that code somewhere in the book along with the URL and then leave it in a public place. Someone finds the book, goes to the URL and enters the code, marking the book as found. Once he’s done with the book, he leaves it somewhere else, and thus the book passes from hand to hand, leaving a digital trail to track its movement.

It’s a charming idea, isn’t it? It had the right feel — Lawrence is a community used to things like guerilla art and busking, one with several Little Free Libraries as well as book exchanges that predated that program. A traveling public book was right in line with all of that. True, Bookcrossing didn’t have much of a presence in the area (limited mainly to one lady from the nearby town of Olathe who had left a remarkably large number of paperbacks all over the University of Kansas), but that wouldn’t matter so long as I got a buzz going.

Oh, was I excited for this thing. The novel itself was about an itinerant storyteller — how appropriate that the fictional character was about to go on a real world trip! I put together a special edition of the book — the “Traveler’s Edition” — which had two extra printed pages to explain the project. There was a QR code to the Bookcrossing page, a URL for a Facebook page, and some personal contact info for yours truly. There was more, though. I was fascinated by the memory books I’d seen in hostels, in which people anonymously left notes of their travels and lives. In the introduction to the “Traveler’s Edition,” I encouraged people to leave their mark, and threw in a few extra blank pages to accomodate more messages and doodles. I had always dreamed that the novel would return to me with a few stories of its own.

My little project made its public appearance for the August 2015 Final Friday art walk, resting on a table outside of the artist’s collective SeedCo. I had to move the book at one point to make it more visible, but it was eventually picked up.

Was it successful? Well, The Fabulist was never registered on Bookcrossing and only two people interacted with the Facebook page. I never heard about it again.

I won’t bore you with excessive details about what went wrong, but I certainly made mistakes. To this day, I will insist that this was a good idea with poor execution. I should have distributed a lot more books — at least ten just to play the odds, probably more like twenty. I should have spoken with more people directly to generate buzz, perhaps handing out books or merchandise. I should have done more to promote Bookcrossing itself, which — again — had little local awareness. I shouldn’t have relied so heavily on the Bookcrossing site, which many people didn’t want to use. I should have coupled the local marketing with some targeted online promotion. It might have fallen below expectations even with all of this in play, but at least I would have had a fair shot.

Thus was the end of another failed experiment in independent marketing. After a few more weak stabs at guerilla marketing, I dropped The Fabulist and moved on. Even so, I always had this fantasy that the book, against all odds, would come back to me. I had but one spark of hope — those two fans on the Facebook page, those people who could have only heard about it because they had the book.

Now, some 3.5 years later, I’ve decided it’s time for a reunion. I want the storyteller to return home. The odds of me concluding this project are miniscule, but I’m taking a stab at it, and I’ll need help.

There are two things that will complicate this. First, I’m no longer in Lawrence, Kansas. I’m not even in the United States right now. I decamped a year ago for the People’s Republic of China — the place I run to after I’ve been fired by enough American companies. That’s all right, though, because I believe that my copy of The Fabulist is outside of the U.S. as well.

The clue is in those two fans. The first — who appeared shortly after the book was claimed — was a KU student from Brazil. The second — who appeared much later — was someone in Brazil. Therefore, my assumption is that the book is in Brazil.

This was not something I expected when I launched this stunt. Sure, I’d dreamed about the book accompanying someone on an overseas trip, ending up in some other country (perhaps Germany, where people are really into Bookcrossing), and then making its way home. Realistically, though? It was going to spend most of its time milling around the KC-Lawrence area, perhaps taking a trip into Missouri or Nebraska or MAYBE reaching one of the coasts. Brazil, though…that I didn’t see coming.

This is where I need help, and this is a two-stage process. First, I need to confirm that the book still exists at all. Many Bookcrossing books are simply thrown away by people who assume that they were discarded by their owners. Others end up forgotten in people’s closets, or sold to second-hand stores, or given away — though the latter two are actually good for me, as it means they’re still in circulation. I need to know if anyone out there has ever seen a copy of The Fabulist in the flesh. There aren’t that many copies in existence — I briefly had it available through POD, but few people bought it — so if you see this cover, it’s probably the one. You can be sure by checking inside — aside from the “Traveler’s Edition” pages, you’ll also find my handwritten notes and a few stickers on the inside cover.

Should anyone spot the book, you can contact me here or bother me on the Twitter account I blank every now and then because I don’t really use it.

Step two would be returning the book to me, and this is where it gets tricky. I can’t ask anyone to foot the expense for shipping this thing overseas, but even if someone is willing to do so, it might not help. I’m currently changing jobs and apartments, so I don’t really have a fixed address at the moment. If you have the book, don’t put yourself out. Maybe you or a friend or relative is planning a trip to China — bring it along and pass it off to someone here, who then might be in a better position to find me. Not headed to China? Maybe you know someone planning a trip to somewhere else — the U.S., or Canada, or Japan, or India. Even if this works, I don’t expect to get the book back anytime soon, so let it travel a bit, just like it was always supposed to. I’m not in a hurry.