Reading Theodore McCombs’ fiction is reality-bending, fever dream-ish: in his world, a space opera tethering a ship to Earth while serving as an analogy for queer radicalism is somehow able to work. In another story, an AI lizard downloaded to students’ phones supposedly to help them with math turns evil, threatening to expose their secrets unless they continually pay him, and in another, women evolve an evolutionary defense that allows them to become immune to men’s murder attempts. Despite only being 5 stories long, McCombs’ debut collection Uranians explores such a variety of topics, past, present, and (based on where we’re headed) futuristic — at once a warning and an examination of our culture.
Our Culture sat down with McCombs to discuss predicting future technologies and scandals, the combination of space and psychology, and extrapolating queerness to discuss larger themes.
Congratulations on your debut short story collection! You’ve published a number of short stories before, but how does it feel to have a book out there?
It’s incredibly exciting. I’m a little bewildered — I tend to wilt under so much attention, but I also really believe in these stories and I’m proud of them, brought them into the world, and I want to be a good advocate for them. It’s been exciting seeing people connect to them and I want to make more of that happen.
Walk me through how you prepped the stories for Uranians — did you set out to write around a theme, or were these previous stories you workshopped for publication?
The middle three stories emerged when I was at the Clarion writers’ workshop — those were ones that I developed specifically for that six-week insane period where they ask you to generate five or six original stories. Those found a home pretty quickly — I think the first and last story were the most trouble or the most work. The first story I wrote before any of these, but it took me a long time to figure out what I was saying with it, and it turns out that it needed the last story to truly make sense. They bookend the collection and talk to each other, and there’s even sort of a throughline from the first to the last, in the sense that the character in the first story ends up at the beginning of a journey that the protagonist in the novella ends up completing, which I really like as a structure, but it took the both of them to come into their own.
I really enjoyed how science played a big part in the collection — “Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles” explored parallel universes and quantum mechanics, “Lacuna Heights” concerned neuroscience, and the title novella, obviously, was about space, climate change, and forward thinking. What made you want to integrate these topics within fiction?
I think I’ve always been attracted to science writing: there’s a lot of beauty to be had in understanding how the world works and the elegance of the laws and principles behind our experiences today. I started as a math major in college, and so I’ve always been attracted to symmetry and the flow of a mathematical proof. It seems there’s a lot to be done poetically and aesthetically in teasing that out. Science fiction does a great job of that, not only in the hard, starships and robots fiction that gets hypertechnical, but I think of [Cixin Liu’s] Remembrance of Earth’s Past — it’s the trilogy that begins with The Three Body Problem. He does an incredible job of looking at physics and teasing out those principles, and it’s just breathtakingly beautiful. That was a real inspiration for these stories, to do something similar.
In the first story, Peter is reckoning with the idea of having a slow, subdued life instead of a ‘radical’ lifestyle his partner and queer friends are desperately trying to seek. I thought it was really charming of him to go with his instincts, to be okay with wanting stability and do boring things like shop together instead of nightlife raves — where did the inspiration for this character and his desires come from?
I feel a lot of sympathy for Peter — I tend to be more of a square queer myself. It’s all about the ability to choose, right? You want all of these options to be open to everybody so that they can find their fit. My fit happens to be a bit more domestic than the character Fran, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want him to be able to go out to those parties and to have this crazy, radical liberated lifestyle. We each need to find in where in the world we plug into best, and queerness is about empowering people to do that, no matter what the rules of any culture or subculture are.
There’s always that question of, ‘Am I being boring because this is how I want to spend my time,’ or, ‘Is there something that’s keeping me inhibited, something I could be braver about?’ And that question is salient for everyone, I think. Everyone owes it to themselves to not only ask that, but to also ask, ‘Am I pushing myself because I really believe in this, or because I think I should be more radical, more audacious than I perceive myself being?’ Working oneself out is a lifelong process and I think we owe it to ourselves to do that work.
So the story “Lacuna Heights” explored the invention of “Privacy Mode” — a technology that allows you to divide your brain to remember some parts of your life, and not others. It was previously published earlier than the very similar TV show Severance premiered last year — what do you think it is about memory that is such an attractive subject to write about?
Well first, I appreciate you going back and checking, because when Severance came out, I was like, ‘Oh, man, everyone’s gonna think I copied this.’ Same with “Two-Tongued Jeremy”: that came out long before ChatGPT was a thing, but now chatbots are all over the news.
Memory, I think, is a dominant theme of all fiction — the act of piecing together a narrative from your life is putting together an ensemble of sensations that fit to a certain account or a particular argument you want to make about yourself. That process of working yourself out is inherent in all of fiction, but I think for science fiction it has a great angle to tease out the strangeness of that sort of process by taking this speculative conceit and running with it, you can get a distance from it, run it under a microscope, and examine the false steps or the little lies in remembering and dramatize that process and make it more visible.
I think my favorite story is definitely “Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy”: it blends horror and comedy and is eerily similar to some of our problems concerning internet safety today. Talk me through how you came up with that concept.
There’s a scene in the story where [David, the protagonist] is sitting on a bus looking at advertisements, and every single product is anthropomorphized, and has this garish smile on it. I had a similar bus ride where I was coming home and it was late, and I was seeing the bizarre things we tack faces onto. Why do we have to project a human face and characteristics onto our consumer goods? It creates some horrific effects. It came from that, and the bizarrely social relationships we have with consumer goods, and therefore capitalism. The market and forces of consumerism are really trying to sell us on a personal relationship with a product that’s not for our benefit. It’s for the benefit of their shareholders. I thought, I’d already seen Her and that sort of exploration of falling in love with a non-human AI, but a story that really hasn’t been told is an abusive one. That’s what we needed to see.
I love that there was this battle of morality between the two sides — the parents are obviously fuming that this dangerous scam is lodged in children’s phones, but the company behind the technology says that the machine learning model simply evolves based on feedback and data coming from the user. It reminded me of that thing that happened a while ago, where they put an AI on Facebook and within a day it came back a Nazi or something.
Yeah, and it’s eerie to see the way in which the fictional discourse in “Two-Tongued Jeremy” anticipates some of the discourse we’re seeing now from the tech firms behind the chatbots, where the rhetoric of ‘AI is coming to kill us all and take our jobs’ is not true, and it’s being touted by the tech companies themselves to make them seem more interesting and powerful than they are. If you say that it’s a huge concern that AI will be able to replace screenwriters, that is not true, but the narrative will allow the company to sell its product to production studios, and production studios to say, ‘Well, we don’t need to replace our writers, because we can replace them with AI.’ None of it is factually supportable, but the narrative is overtaking those facts.
So let’s talk about “Uranians”, the 100-page novella. Narratively, it combines a lot: a space opera, a romance on the Ekphrasis, a ship hurtling towards Qaf, a planet thought to be able to sustain life, and micro-influencers using a Vine to transmit messages from Earth. How did these ideas evolve over time and what made you want to combine them in one story?
Amazingly, this started as an idea for a flash fiction story — it was going to be under 1,000 words. It was really just going to be the tattoos — this idea of the medicine that’s retarding their aging and extending their lives so that they can see planetfall after 80 years of travel. The tattoos release microdoses as the ink breaks down. That creates this image set of the forms of Earth drawn on their skin and fading away, symbolizing their detachment and further alienation from Earth. I thought that was really pretty and poetic. But as soon as I realized it needed a plot, it started expanding into a love story, following this operatic story that the two male leads are reenacting, based on La Traviata, but that, too, is a form borrowed from Earth that is breaking down over the course of the story. It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and incorporating more ideas around structure and shape and coherence, so that the incredibly exciting passage about the interstellar medium, it’s one of my favorite in the book, but the idea that space is not empty, and these tiny particles that are exhaled by stars trillions of miles away, form these huge structures that we can recognize, with the right telescopes, I thought that was impossibly beautiful. So I just kept finding more stuff along those lines and the story wanted it, so I kept giving it to it.
One new idea I really enjoyed was that the idea that humans in space experience ‘mass somato-melancholic events’, due to biome imbalances and can lead to psychological damages. Stemming from the idea that these are caused by continued connection to earth, our protagonist Arrigo proposes that the ship should cut off contact from Earth entirely in order to fully live in space. What did you want to explore with this idea?
The whole story works as a way of exploring notions of queer difference, and there’s this radical queer argument that sounds a little like separatism, you know, ‘We should be trying to sever our community from the straights because they are hostile to us and we just need to get away from them and build our sense of self away from them.’ There’s a way in which the Ekphrasis and its link to Earth serve as a way to dramatize those ideas and work out some of the stuff that I’d been thinking around it. But I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. Any outsider experience needs to understand the self as such, and needs to establish its own vitality away from the center, but it also needs to understand its own community with the center, with the norm. I think that’s where we get the healthiest relationship. You know, spoilers, but that image of the ship orbiting around the planet it never actually touches, is one way of thinking about that. I think in general, the imagery throughout the story of orbits and solar systems and our relationships with other astral bodies was continually fruitful.
The concept of aging is brought up a lot here, as some members of the ship age at a slower rate than others to balance out space-time vs. Earth time. Elkeid, Arrigo’s child, is born on the ship and is “made more of starlight and void than of Earth.” I’ll quote this really interesting idea: Elkeid “isn’t twelve or six or something in between but the whole range at once. His interior life is illegible. Like hearing a poem in an untranslated language: you can only enjoy the words’ musical quality.” What do you think the effects of this adulterated time will have on the citizens of the ship, and on the kids born there?
Our sense of time is one of those things that’s so baked into the fabric of our own existence, that to really tease it out and play around with it, it has to create some insane psychological effects. Of course, science fiction deals with time travel and weird time all the time, but I hadn’t seen as much interest in the psychology of a different relationship to time would do to the quality of our lives. I wanted to be sure to come up with something really different for the people who had never experienced Earth time, the ‘starbabies’, and to really isolate time as a human experience and as a quality of life.
Finally, what’s next? Do you want to continue doing short stories or are you working on a novel?
I’m working on a novel, which will come out through Astra House, which was a two-book deal. It’s based on a short story I wrote that was actually going to be in this collection, but when we understood that story would be fleshed out into a novel, we took it out, which was definitely the right call, because it’s getting bigger and weirder. It’s about an alternative medieval world where a very different Catholic church controls all of mathematics. There’s a lot of queerness in it, and the combination of those ideas, math, queerness, religion, put it in a blender, and it’s extremely exciting to write and also very bad taste, and I can’t wait to see how it works out.
Uranians is available now.