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.


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!


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.