Virtual Reality for Closure: The Regeneration of Stella Yin by Kristen Loesch

From the moment you enter the world of The Regeneration of Stella Yin, a novella-in-flash by Kristen Loesch, you are in an immersive and dark place. From instructions on how to make a shrine, to an interview about AI, to a welcome letter to a remote island project, each chapter reveals something intriguing and slightly unsettling about the world you find yourself in. It's an impressive and hypnotic creation.


Kristen Loesch had a spot here last year, when I devoured her epic historical novel The Porcelain Doll in the dark days of last winter. This couldn't feel more different in tone and style, and it's impressive to see a writer handle such different genres with such finesse. Stella Yin feels very futuristic and fragmented, an exploration of the possibilities and pitfalls of giving ourselves up too much to our own emotions and the possibilities of technology. In its explorations of grief and the implications of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, it touches on that most human of desires – the need for closure and acceptance in the face of things we cannot comprehend.


With the ideas so frankly unusual, I wanted to find out where she got her inspiration and how she found writing in such an different form. Read on to find out more.


Your novella takes place in a world where you can interact with virtual versions of real people in order to find closure or resolution from difficult situations. It's a dark and intense place! Where did the idea come from and how did it develop?


I live near Seattle, an area that is dominated by the tech industry, and over the past few years I’ve noticed how many virtual reality (VR) ‘experiences’ have popped up in and around the city. These ‘experiences’ might be escape rooms, arcades, adventure quests, or games of some kind, but essentially you go in, you pop on a headset and hand controllers—or whatever kind of equipment that that company provides—and then you’re immersed in whatever universe you’ve signed up for. As some point I vaguely wondered: What’s the point? You can visit a real-life escape room, or lie on a real-life beach. You can play a character in a video game from your sofa.


But what if VR could give you something you absolutely can’t have in real life?


The novella explores the darker side of VR

We are taken through the world of the story in various voices and stories as the book is all told through flash fiction. Which of the voices was central to the initial story? How did you develop the different perspectives and were there any you found harder or more challenging to write?


The Regeneration of Stella Yin was written as a ‘traditional’ short story to begin with, not a novella-in-flash; as such, it was told in a single, first-person perspective, and the narrator did not have a name. With subsequent drafts, that narrator became Liyun, who is still my favourite character in the story. The novella is as much about her—as the creator of the tech that underlies this ‘world’—and her narrative arc, as it is about Stella Yin’s journey. Part of the challenge in writing Liyun is that she makes difficult and perhaps problematic decisions from a moral point of view, but I want the reader to sympathize with her at the same time, to understand what made her who she is. Stella, by contrast, is a more typical and relatable main character.


I started writing this a year ago, in autumn of 2021. At the time I was just getting my feet wet as a speculative fiction writer—there’s a very subtle speculative aspect to my debut historical novel (published as THE PORCELAIN DOLL in the UK), but my second full-length book was shaping up to be a ghost story. I worked on this project on the side, and once I decided that it would be told in flash fictions, I wanted it to be a space where I could write without constraints; I allowed myself total freedom to explore my chosen themes and to experiment wildly. I wanted the challenge of varying perspectives and story forms—and it definitely was a challenge, but an incredibly rewarding one; more on that below!


This utterly captivating novel featured on the blog last year

There is a central theme of grief and the effect it can have on people in your novella. Why did you choose this and why do you think it was so powerful to use in the context of this futuristic world?


There’s an episode of the Netflix television series Black Mirror about a woman whose boyfriend dies. In her grief, she orders an artificial intelligence version of him, one that is extremely convincing, for better or worse. I’ve seen other stories out there along similar lines; I think we innately sense that grief is something that might lead someone to be desperate enough to turn to the unreal. Of course, in the context of the present day, the tech just isn’t there. You’d need a slightly futuristic, maybe slightly dystopian world, where it is there, and if it is, it might be irresistible. In one of the stories in the novella, Liyun has the thought that: “It’s not really a feeling at all. It’s a place. A place from which you could scream forever without losing your voice” —she’s not talking explicitly about grief, but it’s the people in that “place” that her company preys on.


I wanted to do something a little different, something I’d never come across, so in the world of The Regeneration of Stella Yin, you can interact not only with someone you love, but with someone you hate; someone you want to destroy. You can ‘solve’ your grief (or at least bury it further down) by seeking revenge. And because it’s virtual, obviously, you can destroy that person again and again, with no consequences. (Or so we believe at the start of the story.) As you say—it’s dark.

At the end of the book we are left perhaps doubting our sense of reality. To what extent did you want to unsettle this in your readers and how do you think using flash fiction helped to create and amplify this?


The use of flash fiction in this novella was partly for me, and partly for the reader. I say for me because I feel on the one hand that it was a selfish choice, that I did it because flash is something I find fascinating, and because in writing my novels, I consciously adhere to certain rules and try to meet certain reader expectations. I threw all of that out the window while (re)writing The Regeneration of Stella Yin, and relished doing so. In my opinion, there is no freedom like writing flash.


But on the other hand, I think the use of flash really opens up the story. For one, it gives angles on the characters’ lives and on the narrative that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s also jarring, even disturbing in places; reading a story in bullet points or in the form of a Wikipedia article breaks up the narrative rhythm. In a way, the different, shifting forms, and the white space on the page that results, are designed to make the reader uncomfortable, to keep you looking over your shoulder. I hope that they add to the atmosphere of the story world, this bleak landscape, this desperate situation, this particular slice of life of these characters.


Here are some of the novella-in-flash titles that Kristen recommends


What was your route to publishing your novella-in-flash and how do you think this genre might develop in the future?

As a short story, this was shortlisted early on in a horror/thriller competition and that was when I thought, okay, there’s something here, but instinctively I knew it needed more. The transformation into a novella-in-flash is really where the story came to life, and I already decided as I was doing so that I would be submitting it to the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, as I own and have adored so many of the NiFs that have resulted from that competition. Being Commended was such an honor, and being offered publication by Ad Hoc Fiction after the competition ended was a dream come true. We’re seeing greater and greater recognition of the form; I think that the longlisting of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods for the 2019 Women’s Prize was a turning point. Overall, I hope and believe that the novella-in-flash is really coming into its own and I can’t wait to read many, many more of them as time goes on—if anyone has any recommendations, I’d genuinely love to know! Please reach out!

 

Kristen Loesch is an award-winning short fiction writer and novelist. She holds a BA in History, as well as an MPhil in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her debut historical novel, THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL (US)/THE PORCELAIN DOLL (UK), was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and longlisted for the Bath Novel Award. After a decade living in Europe, she now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children. Find her online at www.kristenloesch.com, on Instagram @kristenloeschwriter, or on Twitter @kristenloesch.


 

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