Monday 19 October 2020

Turns out I'm a racist... I had no idea...

I've recently had a couple of near misses, short story-wise.  I've hinted at the frustration caused before and, mentally, I'm in the same territory that I was a year ago.  Must be an October thing.  The only difference between a near miss and a swift rejection is that the former wastes so much more time.  Otherwise, it gets you to exactly the same place.  An inch really is as good as a mile.

One was from token-paying Wyldblood, for a short that started off life as an exercise to see how many of Clarkesworld's rules - the bit here that's prefaced with "this is not a challenge" - I could break in one story.  It has a talking cat and, originally, even a punning title: Catmandon't.  

On the back of that rejection, I had a fascinating email exchange with editor Mark Bilsborough, in which his take on the reality of the cat was quite different to mine.  I'm not saying he was wrong and I was right - as Ursula K. Le Guin's said, "The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp.  The reader reading it makes it live: a live thing, a story" - and Mark's take was quite legitimate, although I’m not completely at the extreme end of the ‘if a story is read in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it makes no sound’ spectrum.

Incidentally, Mark and I are the only two British silver honorables(sic), in fact, the two highest placed Britons, in the latest quarter of the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Congratulations to us, although I guess that's another near miss if you're being glass half empty about it.

The other rejection I had in mind was from Flash Fiction Online, who published my Product Recall some three and a half years ago. This story, which was with them for over seven weeks rather than the fortnight it usually takes them to put me back in my box, made it to the final 5%, and, as I assume is reserved for the cream that isn’t the creamiest, editor Suzanne Vincent offered me feedback.  A nice touch, much appreciated, thank you.

I’m used to the editorial trope that there are more publishable stories than they had space for, so expected something along the lines of good but not good enoughtoo similar to something elsedidn’t quite do it for me...

But, fuck me... “Tension is lacking... started off quite well but didn't get going after that... much of the story is little more than internal monologuing, without much really happening. And when something does happen, I'm not sure about the significance of what happened... interesting but not developed in a convincing way... the resolution isn't satisfying because the character's reaction isn't one of understanding or empathy... I think the story is trying to do too much... I didn't find this believable... I’m not really engaged in the conflict here or the science behind the solution. It just comes off as kind of bland overall... This for me is bland... I'm not really sold. The conclusion isn't great...  I started skimming near the end. The writing wasn't bad, but there was nothing to hook me... the end falls flat for me.”

Christ.  What do they say for the ones they don’t like?

I can take all of those on the chin and, once you've had several gins and a good cry, it's all grist to the rewrite mill.  You can’t please all of the people all of the time, although those people do seem to be disproportionately more populous amongst slush pile readers.  But I do think there’s a sense of proportion missing here.  I’m writing sci-fi.  Hand-waving, rubber science, sci-fi.  I’m not writing the Great American Novel.  It’s not my credo that I'm setting out from my hermitage high in the hills.  It’s meant to be a throwaway 1000-word entertainment.

I'd hate to see what these people make of Star Wars - or, perhaps they think having your spaceship attacked by your estranged father-in-law and throwing a message in a bottle into space to be found by your unknown brother is convincing; that Jawa sandcrawler looks perfectly stable on the Tatooine surface; that the best freighter pilots in the galaxy are bound to be found on a planet with no evident industry or other obvious need for interstellar logistical infrastructure; that there’s nothing odd in an armed freighter; that Mos Eisley spaceport clearly has at least another 93 docking bays; and that it is perfectly, naturally normal to get out of your means of transport within sight of your destination and talk about it, as though to an unseen audience.  Oh, hold on...

But what got me were the readers who felt they were reading a story about beauty, and that I’d set my Malay-German heroine, Lilly, up to be a white man’s demonstration of how ugly Asians are.

This rather threw me.  Actually, threw me an extremely long way.  As far as I was concerned, I’d written a story about the disconnect between internal emotional states and facial expressions as externally perceived.  Aesthetics wasn’t even on my radar.  I don’t think there’s a single element that steers the reader that way, except in a seeing your parents fighting in an inkblot kinda way.  You can be Mila Kunis frowning, or one of life’s unfortunates grinning; the two aren’t related and if I didn’t clearly say they weren’t, it’s for the same reason that I failed to point out they weren’t correlated with the price of fish, either.

Plus, I’m rather fond of Lilly and, even though she’s fictional, I thought she was illustrating a universal truth, that we may be serene on the surface but we're all paddling like crazy underneath, and I feel slighted that there’s even a suggestion that I think she’s a minger.

The thought that I’m left puzzling over is, were my story genuinely about "anti-Asian stereotypes and Western standards of beauty", would any of the slush pile readers have mistaken it for a simple story about the (mis)perception of facial expressions?  I’m inclined to think not, because the woke aren’t on the look-out for that, are they, like religious zealots checking their toast for faces?  But mention in passing that you prefer Blonde on Blonde to Back to Black and you may as well put on a pointy hat and call yourself Grand Wizard.

So, yes, a story needs a reader and a writer, and the two together make the dance.  And if reader and writer muddle through and it transpires one was dancing a mambo and the other was working on the basis that it was a rumba, maybe something interesting might come out of it.  But if I’m coming to tango, don’t go complaining to the judges that I’m dancing a goosestep, because that may just start an argument...

Twenty-four sci-fi, slipstream and new weird stories.
Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.

Published by William Holly and available now on,, .de, .fr, .es, .it, .nl, .jp,, .ca, .mx, .au, and .in.   


Thursday 1 October 2020

Death - some thoughts

Death.  There’s a lot of it about at the moment. We've just passed a million Covid deaths (although, strictly speaking, that number is with Covid, not necessarily from Covid.  The BBC article linked gets that small but important detail right; it took me a few moments to find a link that didn't say 'from' - shame on you, Guardian, amongst others).

I suppose one thing I didn't imagine was that the apocalypse would be so drawn out.  I thought that the asteroid would hove into view around breakfast and we'd all be toast by elevenses.  Or the zombies would round the corner and rip our throats out before we even realised they were looking a bit peaky.  I didn't think it would take months...

Joking apart, this isn't the apocalypse, of course.  It's war.  The mistake of every war is that it would be fought like the last. We turned up with horses in World War One, dug trenches in World War Two, and have failed to realise that China's bio-experts kicked off World War Three some months ago, and it would be fought with a virus, not by soldiers.  Who'll dominate the world after this?  China.  (Say it in a Donald Trump voice: it makes such hokum sounds absolutely undeniable).

Whether the war theory is true or not, we're dealing with it in our different ways (or, as far as I can tell, the correct way if you're Korean or Swedish).  I appreciate most people reading this blog live outside these drizzle-swept shores, so won’t have seen the double act of Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the telly-box warm-up act to our beloved leader, Boris.  Boris: creator of whiff-whaff, writer of bollocks on the side of buses masquerading as promises to the credulous, father of the masses as well as to the masses.  Boris.  Don't get me started. 

Anyway, back to Chris n' Pat.  They’re good people, delivering spin-free science, guiding the politicos through pretty much unknown waters.  In one of their most recent gee-up the nation PowerPoints, one statistic stood out for me.  That was that somewhere around 6% of us have antibodies, possibly two or three times that number in the cities.

Very little was made of this, either by Whitty and Vallance, or subsequently in the media.  Why?  This sounds like great news to me.  Four million or so Britons with antibodies.  Given we've only had 400,000 positive tests, that means that nine times that number of people have had it, and not had a Scooby-Doo.

I've tested my theory that the significance of this has passed people by, by asking a representative sample of the nation (okay, my own children, but there's an even gender split) whether, if they were completely asymptomatic, they'd prefer a Covid test to come up positive or negative.

Negative, of course, they cried.

Why? Wouldn't you prefer to know that you're in the 90%, ill but not suffering, generating antibodies whilst you go about your day totally unaffected.  Otherwise you're still blind to how SARS-CoV-2 will hit you.  Roll on the day when we, like Manaus, have reached herd immunity.  It's either that or a vaccine, and the latter isn't guaranteed.

But I have a gut feeling that the world at large will see it like my kids.  Minimise the infection rate at all costs, because we've come to believe that death is something we can escape - even if it's killing our economy and mental health, even if it's a natural part of the world, unavoidable unless you keep yourself wrapped up in cotton wool and clingfilm forever, that hunt for a vaccine notwithstanding.

I wasn't actually going to use this blog posting to talk pandemic, other than in the sense that we finished our lockdown voyage through the Marvel Cinematic Universe in viewing order, or at least the parts Disney+ allows us to see (wither Spiderman?).  I appreciate these films are old news to most people, that as a semi-pro science fiction author it's no doubt incomprehensible to most that I haven't already seen them all, that in all probability every definitive word has already been written about them.  But what struck me, and what I'd like to throw out into the blogosphere, whether previously penned or not, was how lily-livered the whole thing was about death.

Yep, he's on about death again.

When half the cast went the way of ash in the wind in Infinity War, I said that I would walk out if they somehow returned in Endgame.  They did, I didn't - but only because I quite like the way it was handled.  But my point remains: they didn't have the conjones to kill their characters.  Because they know we don't have the conjones any more to handle it.  There always has to be a way back.  Unlike in life.

I just don't think it's healthy, and I don't mean that ironically.  If you want irony, then I'd argue that we're seeing the taboo of death driving public policies that will cause more death and suffering than they avoid, and that is beyond ironic.  Poverty harms.  Poverty kills.  In the long term.  And, boy, will there be a lot of poverty about for a very long time.  But the politicos feel they have to do what they're doing, otherwise they have blood on their hands, despite pandemic deaths being above, but not multiples above, annual norms.  (Hint: people die all the time, every day.  Sad, but true).

This is made up on the cuff, without any great academic research (but if there's a PhD grant out there, I'll be happy to spellcheck it and add some footnotes) but I have a theory that the bloodiness of children's entertainment correlates to the proximity of death, the degree to which death as a normal part of life is in the zeitgeist.  Fairytales used to be darker and bloodier than we remember them.  Even more recently, there were some stunningly shocking children's movies when I was growing up.  Two words: Watership Down.  Two more words: fuck me.

It's noticeable how tame cinematic adaptations of fantasy literature are, with classics like Lord of the Rings or Narnia, written in a time when every able-bodied male got a chance to engage in politics by other means, having battle scenes reminiscent of children at play.  Fall over and lie still if you're dead.  Very few people ever get maimed; it's binary between dead and not-even-scratched.  Even worse, in our game over, put another coin in the slot world, we're used to getting up again and keeping on playing, resurrected.  Shock us, startle us, but whatever you do, don't kill anyone.

I'm slightly baffled by the lack of ripples in popular culture from the so-called Spanish Flu, which immediately followed the Great War.  My thinking is that it was because we'd become punch-drunk with mortality, rather than it not being worth writing about.  Different shit, same outcome.  Death was everyday, and whilst I'm not saying people were more resilient a century or more ago (okay, I'm thinking it), I don't think there was a taboo around death that we now have to get over first.  Death happens.  Live with it.

All hail medical science for pushing death so far away.  It's no longer prosaic, quotidian.  We've forgotten when it was a numbers game.  But out of sight doesn't so much mean out of mind, but can' remember what it looks like.  We think that it can be defeated, that we have a right to life.  It's like an exotic fruit in the supermarket that we can just walk away from - what exactly are you meant to do with it? -  until it gets served up to us unexpectedly and we need to grapple with it without knowing which bits to suck up and which to leave behind.  We've forgotten it gets us all in the end.

Now may be a really good time to reintroduce death in our storytelling as an everyday reality, not a false ending that our heroes can come back from.  I think we may be doing the world a favour.  Just a thought.

Twenty-four sci-fi, slipstream and new weird stories.
Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.

Published by William Holly and available now on,, .de, .fr, .es, .it, .nl, .jp,, .ca, .mx, .au, and .in.