The Story Behind the Story: Auspicium Melioris Aevi

This blogpost is long overdue, considering that the story it’s about, Auspicium Melioris Aevi,  has been live on the Internet for an entire month. My LKY-clone academy story, first conceived years ago, is finally free loose on the Internets! Here are the first three paragraphs:

Singapore stank. The last Asian post of the British empire stank. It was a country at war, a country under occupation, and it stank. It stank from the musk of the Chinese men milling on the road, it stank from the sewage cooking in the open drains, and it stank from the diesel burning in puttering lorry engines. Every breath the fiftieth new Harry Lee drew reeked of festering, tropical stink.

Separated from the others, the Chinese men were being taken somewhere. The loud voices and glinting bayonets of the Japanese soldiers forced them onto lorries. A soldier gestured to Harry. You. Get on. Under his military cap his forehead shone, and the khaki armpits of his uniform were dark with sweat.

The fiftieth new Harry Lee already knew how this would end. Suspicious of these circumstances, he would ask to go home and gather his clothes. The soldiers, swayed by his erudition and respectfulness, would let him go. Harry Lee would walk away. The other men would not. They would be rounded up, brought to the beach, and shot. All of them, in all their faceless multitudes. The script of the original Harry Lee Kuan Yew’s brush with genocide was written in 1942, immortalized in the mythology of the nation that he raised, and burned into the minds of all his copies at the Academy.

Set in an Academy that produces clones of thinkers and world leaders from the early 21st century, the story follows the travails of one clone of Harry Lee Kuan Yew as he struggles to graduate. You can read the entire story here. Or you can listen to the podcast where it’s featured, read by the incomparable Amal El-Mohtar. The podcast also contains an interview with me, conducted by Julia Rios. So if you’ve ever wondered what I sound like when I’m flustered and failing to sound coherent or intelligent, there you go.

(Spoilers for the story’s plot beyond this point. You may want to read/listen to it first before continuing.)

This story was a long time in the making. For years now I’ve known that I wanted to write a story titled Auspicium Melioris Aevi and it would be an examination of the failures of meritocracy and a critique of the Singapore stitched into being by Lee Kuan Yew. What form this story would take, however, eluded me until some time in 2015, when the country went into a frenzy of performative grief when the old man passed. In between that and conversations with a friend about clone stories, enlightenment struck: of course it was going to be about cloning and nature/nurture and the eugenicist underpinnings of LKY’s ideas of meritocracy.

I wrote the first version of this story in 2015. It had a different ending then: I simply had Harry decide he would let his fate, and MM Lee’s, be decided by hand-to-hand combat, and cut to black as they leapt as each other with knives. The problem was, editors didn’t like that ending. I would get personalised rejections saying “Great story, but the ending didn’t work for me.” At least one of those letters was from Uncanny: Michael and Lynne said that if I revised the ending, they would be happy to look at the story again.

I fretted. I didn’t want the story to end with Harry beating the system, as some editors suggested. The point of the story was that Harry wasn’t supposed to beat the system! As a Singaporean that idea seemed second nature: of course the system isn’t meant to be beaten, no matter how smart you are. What if this was a narrative that American editors wouldn’t pick up just because it’d never fit their sense of story?

Plagued by these troubles, I thought about trunking the story, despite the R&R from a market that I was desperate to break into. In the end, I decided to get a bunch of second opinions: I brought it to Britain, to the first workshop of my MA at the University of East Anglia.

The class spent a fifteen-minute chunk of the hour I was allotted having a furious debate about meritocracy. That’s how I knew the story was effective, it just had to be fixed. My tutor for that workshop was Giles Foden, who had written an entire book about Idi Amin. During the tutorial we had a very interesting conversation about Singapore and living under a benevolent dictatorship. It was great.

The strange thing about this was that I found the solution to my problems, even thought it was never directly addressed. Of course the story had to end with Harry directly confronting the system that governed his life. The figure of the Administrator did not exist in earlier drafts, and in fact the question of who even ran the Academy was left to a vague, handwavey “them”.

But once I realised that duh, how can you have a story about an oppressive system and never shed any light on the operators of said system, everything clicked into place. I finally got around to revising the story in summer 2016, sent it back to Uncanny, and they bought it. (I’d been sitting on this so long that I actually sold a whole other story to Uncanny before this one!)

Fast forward to now, 2017, and the story is finally out. When I dropped it on Facebook, the response from Singaporeans was amazing. People would say things like “this made my day”, and variations on OH NO YOU DIDN’T and YOU WENT THERE. And, like. I’ve gotten lots of lovely response to this story from non-Singaporean, mostly American readers. More than the usual, in fact! (Oh, don’t get me started on how a short story going live is usually met but a giant wall of crickets. Every damn time–) But I would have been fine even if no-one from the usual SFF community said a word about the story, I don’t think I would have cared.

The thing is, the story wasn’t particularly written for them. I knew this at its conception, I knew it when I was writing it, I knew it when I was sending it out. In fact, my main reason for putting it out was not because I wanted the SFF community I knew to read it. Of course, if they did, it would be a nice bonus. But really my main purpose was to have this satirical story out there, freely available on the Internet for anyone from my home country to read.

So this is one of the stories that made me think about audiences and who are you writing for? a lot. Admittedly, I write for a Western SFF audience almost all the time. This is an artefact of trying to build a career in Western SFF publishing– after all, my agent is in the US, my novella publishers are in the US, my short stories are published by American and Brits venues. I get paid in USD. Most of the people who read me are Americans.

This is not something I actively think about– mostly, I just write what I want to write, and hope against hope that there’s a publisher out there willing to take it. It’s not like I’ve never written stories set in Singapore or dealing with particularly Singaporean concerns– the take on classism and racism in Secondhand Bodies comes to mind. But I’ve never written anything like this story, whose title would make most Western SFF readers go “oh, huh, Latin”, and a Singaporean reader go “YOU MOTHERFUCKER.” (In fact, Uncanny did suggest changing the title during the editorial process, because Latin, and I had to be like oh no no no there’s a very specific reason why this story has that title.)

I’m not sure if this is story is a one-off, its circumstances dictated by its subject matter. Or could it be part of a growing (and perhaps unconscious) impetus to decolonialise myself? I suppose only time will tell. All I know is that, when Michael told me that they had the single highest number of visits from Singaporean IP addresses in a day, a kind of pleased warmth blossomed in me, that I’ve rarely felt even with other praise for my writing. Nothing feels quite like a dear story finding its very specific audience.

Why Singapore Literature Turns Me On (… in a manner of speaking)

(Full disclosure: I’m an editor with Epigram Books, and I’m also a published SFF author with my first legit books coming out this year. If you know me, you know that I pretty much don’t shut up about the latter fact, ever.)

This is a response to a blogpost that has been circulating in Singapore’s writing circles over the last few days: Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off. Ooh, clickbait-y title. I had a little stream of consciousness going through my mind when I was reading it, and it went something like this:

“Oh my god is this the Benjamin Cheah guy who was on the Rabid Puppy slate? He’s a real person, oh man. He’s around! Not hiding in shame! This blogpost is awful. What a massive cock. What a BELLEND. So has he read any SingLit published in the last 5 years or what? Oh I see he’s ~TOO GOOD~ for the local writing scene. Wait, is he actually touting his Hugo nomination to give his words a sense of authority? Oh good lord that is fucking embarrassing. I bet he thinks people here don’t know better… yeah, they probably don’t….”

I wasn’t going to waste any of my precious time rebutting it, but over the past 4 days I’ve seen people keep sharing it over… and over… and I was like, “so nobody’s going to mention that’s he’s basically published by a neo-Nazi?”

So I guess I’m writing a rebuttal. Oh dear.

Alright, so: if you didn’t know, Mr Cheah’s Hugo nomination was part of something called the Rabid Puppies, which was a nomination slate pushed by his publisher, the alt-right agitator Vox Day, who gets his followers to stuff the nomination ballots with pieces largely from his own imprint, Castalia House. These nominations are looked upon very, very, very poorly by regular SFF publishing, who have things like standards and a sense that cheating is bad. Nomination via one of the Puppy slates is generally seen as an indicator of anti-quality, really. Not a good look. More Hugo voters thought there should be no award given out at all, than voted for Mr Cheah’s story.

If Mr Cheah wanted to bung local writers for subpar writing, he might have started by looking in the mirror first.

As I said. Embarrassing.

(I actually wrote a much longer, much meaner take on this, which devolved into a five-paragraph rant about the Rabid Puppies. Decided to nix it because dear lord that is one hornet’s nest I do not want to kick over.)

Look, the local publishing scene has its issues. I have issues with it! For one thing, it’s also insular, and when communities are very small and everyone knows everyone and people are generally all friends, people don’t criticise works that are published as much as they should. So if I think something’s rubbish or overrated, I’m more likely to keep my mouth shut, or share my opinions very, very privately with a small group of friends. I think that’s a problem. I think we need to be willing to push each other to do better, even if it will hurt feelings. I also think that publishing is too reliant on government grant money, which results in a whole slew of other issues.

…generally, publishing being so broke in Singapore is an issue, because it just means often publishers don’t have the resources and time to push the work they put out to their full potential. We take so many shortcuts and make so many compromises just to get books out of the door. It really is, in a lot of cases, a labor of love. Do I think it’s unfair to compare local literature to stuff that’s put out by the Big 5? Well no, I think literature has to stand on its own merits, and local lit can be just as good. (Have you read Balli Kaur Jaswal? Or any number of our really excellent short story writers?) There’s quality here, no doubt about it. But at the same time you don’t really complain that a kit car put together in somebody’s shed isn’t as good as a Mercedes SLS. I mean, that’s just churlish.

(THIS is also why #BuySingLit is a thing, because if you invest money in the products that local publishers are putting out, then local publishers have more money to produce even better products for you in the future! Instead of, you know, going belly-up and everything.)

Seriously, if there are problems with the local publishing scene, the way to solve them is not by shitting on Singaporean writers in order to elevate your pet white-people idols. Don’t think people can’t see what you’re doing.

Some of the things that have bothered me about local publishing also appear to be changing. I’m glad that there is greater diversity in the voices being published and lauded. And the famed resistance against genre writing–it’s no longer what it is. I’ve worked on four manuscripts this year at Epigram and three of them are just straight-up sci-fi/fantasy. There’s Altered Straits, which came out this month, and it’s got alternate universes, a post-apocalyptic nanobot-invasion setting, and tons of weird body-horror-mutation shit. Also merlions. Because we just have to have merlions. There’s another one coming out in a few months, one of the finalists for the book prize last year, that’s a spy-thriller type about a man who’s immortal. (Surrogate Protocol, that’s what it’s called.)

And then there’s The Gatekeeper, which won the book prize last year, and I’m super excited about. Secondary world fantasy (fantasy Singapore, really, with all the racism and classism intact!) about a pair of medusa sisters & their struggle to fit in a world that won’t accept them. It’s got maps! and a conlang! It comes out in Singapore next month and in the UK I think September-ish. Can’t wait for y’all to read it, because y’all, you have to read this book.

By the way, these are just titles being put out by my employers in the first months of the year. There’s more! There’s way more. Ethos had a wonderful anthology of fantastical fiction out last year, This Is How You Walk On The Moon. Math Paper Press has been publishing spec fic titles for yoinks. Genre fiction in Singapore is alive and well, my friends.

More than all of that, I’m really encouraged by the energy I see around SingLit, in both readers and writers. Of the manuscripts I’ve worked on so far this year, three out of four are debut novels, and the authors’ excitement is palpable. Young writers fresh out of the new writing programs at our schools are getting published, and their work is excellent. I know people who are sitting themselves down and getting out that novel they’ve had in their head for years. People are aware of local books now. People are buying local books. People are reading local books. Not everything is a masterpiece, no. Not everything has to be a masterpiece. Singapore literature– the good, the bad, the ugly– is growing into an ecosystem. It’s maturing, expanding, flourishing.

Why would anyone want to discourage that?

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