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Interview: Theodore McCombs on “Lacuna Heights”

Tell us a bit about “Lacuna Heights.”

In many ways, “Lacuna Heights” is an old-school science fiction fable. It’s about a specific technology that sets up a neurological private browsing mode—think Google Chrome’s “incognito” mode—and the potential moral and social consequences of that technology. But the story is really about anyone who goes around in conflict with themselves, cut off from what’s in their heart. I was interested in how privacy modes can create this duality online—that split between the “you” that’s your official search history, and the “you” you’d rather keep secret, maybe even from yourself. That’s not just about Internet pornography: we all have parts of us we’d prefer not to think about. Past mistakes we regret, or strong emotions that scare us. We walk around with our walls up and our senses dulled, simply because the world is so overwhelming. I think a lot of us need to compartmentalize the shame or anxiety we feel over our dependency on fossil fuels, exploitative labor, and inequality, just to keep our heads above water. So in a sense, we’re already living a split life, like my character Andrew in “Lacuna Heights.” He just has a gadget to help him.

And there’s no city in the U.S. that epitomizes that psychic split like San Francisco. The growing divide between the tech and venture capital elite, on the one hand, and the city’s working class, its gig economy, and the homeless, on the other, stands out so starkly precisely because SF is such a liberal, big-hearted city. Once I had San Francisco and double lives in the mix, my unwholesome love for Hitchcock’s Vertigo just ran away with the story. It’s really fun to write San Francisco noir.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

In an interview in Boston Review, Samuel R. Delany observed that technological “illiteracies are as fascinating as literacies.” That’s a pretty radical idea in science fiction, where so many classic heroes are technologically hyper-competent scientists, inventors, or engineers. But tech illiteracy is maybe the more common experience, and it definitely captures that contemporary anxiety over our consumer services growing less friendly, less intelligible, and less accountable. That got me thinking about the irresponsibility that even a genuine tech illiteracy could enable, where your clumsiness is as much a useful shield as an inconvenience. Like, maybe you can’t figure out how to tip your Uber driver on the app. Oh well! Guess you can keep that $3.

Income inequality, climate change, structural racism: so many contemporary problems thrive in ignorance. There are malicious actors, too, but a lot of us are genuinely unsure of how these things work, exactly—it isn’t clear to us how and when we instantiate the problem—and we benefit from that societal illiteracy. It’s easier to not learn more.

That said, I wrote “Lacuna Heights” at the Clarion Workshop, on a deadline, so all of this was unconscious at best. What prompted me to write was panic and note cards.

 

Was “Lacuna Heights” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Yes, absolutely: because being a closeted gay man is one major form of living a split life. As a teenager, I cut myself off so deeply from what was in my heart, I was essentially self-closeted. Living in conflict with one’s sexuality is such a violent self-erasure, it was natural to translate that into a broader, technological self-erasure.

And because of how I wrote “Lacuna Heights”—in a panic, pulling anything out of my brain that wasn’t nailed down—it’s maybe my most personal story stylistically. I can get pretty heady about ethics, religion, and metaphysics, but I’m also liable to fall in love with a really dumb idea if it makes me laugh. I doubt I would have thought of Twilight of the Gods in diving bells if I’d been in any sound state of mind. I loved it so much, though; as dumb ideas go, it was so gruesomely me; so it survived every revision.

 

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

I always knew what the tradeoff of Privacy Mode would be, but the science behind it was rocky in the first draft. I had some idea of how memory works neurologically, but not enough. Lucky for me, my mother has a Ph.D. in neurophysiology, and she explained the index mechanisms that governs memory recall. She had the idea that Privacy Mode would affix a recall “key” to the memory and “lose” it in ordinary mode. But this was a conversation over breakfast, so I had to fill out the details on my own as best I could.

My Clarion instructor, Cory Doctorow, helped enormously with the economics behind Privacy Mode. He pointed out how a lot of popular software, like Slack, began as internal corporate tools, not as consumer products. That means they’re designed primarily to solve the corporation’s problem, and only secondarily benefit the end user. So I reconceived Privacy Mode not as this slick product feature—because let’s face it, as a consumer product it’s terrible—and more as this kludge that emerges in response to aggressive corporate data-mining. Its very inelegance enables people like Andrew and the banker defendant to find surprising uses for it, because it wasn’t engineered with those uses in mind.

 

Why do you write?

Joan Didion said she writes “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” (There are lots of variations by different authors—Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”) Writing is a way to connect back to what’s been buried, or at least made less accessible, under the world’s overwhelming grind. It’s the opposite of what Andrew does. The writer practices radical honesty; runs toward strong emotion, not away from it; is not satisfied with the superficial reality at hand, but presses her perception into cracks, snarls, and shadows. That’s the goal at least, right? Even if the piece itself fizzles, that practice is worth the effort.

 

What are you working on now?

I can’t seem to stop writing stories of protagonists in morally untenable positions. Maybe because I was once a corporate lawyer myself. (I kid! I kid!) I’m now perpetually re-writing a story featuring a border patrol agent in the ecologically devastated salt marsh that stretches between Tijuana and San Diego, where I live. Frankly, it may end up being beyond my abilities, because the sheer extreme of human suffering at our southern border, inflicted by our government in our names, is so difficult to take in and hold, much less do justice by in a short story. But again, the effort itself is worthwhile. It’s important not to look away.

 

“Lacuna Heights” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1907.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: G. V. Anderson on “A Strange Uncertain Light”

G. V. AndersonTell us a bit about “A Strange Uncertain Light.”

It’s about two women, a century apart, whose lives intertwine on the Yorkshire moors. One is Anne, who elopes with a man she barely knows in 1938, and the other is Mary, who’s looking for her lost childhood friend in the 1830s. Each of them see visions of people, including each other, but they understand their gift very differently.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I came across ‘chime children’ when researching British folklore and knew I had to use it for something. The 20th century folklorist Ruth Tongue coined the term for children who were said to gain special abilities depending on when they were born, and these abilities ranged from seeing ghosts and fairies to having control over animals. It sounded really cool and I still think there’s a lot of potential there for another story in the future.

I’d also wanted to write a Gothic horror about an aging country estate with shades of Rebecca for some time; the two ideas came together really well in the end.

 

Was “A Strange Uncertain Light” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It’s personal in the sense that I felt I’d taken a step upwards in my craft while writing it. I also named my main character Anne in memory of my grandmother.

 

Was there any aspect of “A Strange Uncertain Light” that you found difficult to write?

This story touches upon several sensitive subjects, which required a lot of rewriting and a lot of generous feedback from beta readers. For instance, Anne’s gift is misdiagnosed as mental illness, so I wanted to portray that as carefully as possible. And although I based the action around a fictional country estate because I enjoy the aesthetic, it became impossible to write about Rannings without addressing the connection between Britain’s country estates and their owners’ roles in the slave trade.

It was difficult in other ways as well: This is my longest published story to date, so I learned a lot about pacing and how to build, and then sustain, tension.

 

Why do you write?

It’s a compulsion! I can’t imagine not writing, even on days when it’s hard.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Both in general and for this particular story, I would say Sarah Waters and Daphne du Maurier. I try to emulate their ability to convey tone because they do it so well. As for more contemporary influences, I’ve fallen in love with Helen Dunmore’s writing recently; I also admire Sarah Perry, Celeste Ng, Naomi Novik, and Carmen Maria Machado.

 

What are you working on now?

At the moment I’m writing a fantasy novel set during the Blitz. I’m also releasing a new horror story each month through my Patreon.

 

“A Strange Uncertain Light” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1907.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

You can reach Ms. Anderson’s website by clicking on her photo.  Her Patreon is https://www.patreon.com/gvanderson

Interview: Beth Cato on “My Ghost Will Know the Way”

What was the inspiration for “My Ghost Will Know the Way,” or what prompted you to write it?

I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s poetry. She had such a gift for bringing together memory and emotion and the natural world. I couldn’t help but be inspired, and I looked back on my own life for elements to draw upon. The words flowed from there.

 

Was this poem personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

The end result was quite personal, yes! I regard the poem as a fictionalized autobiography. It describes the very sort of thing I did as a child, and the facts align with my own life, down to the cats and my current distance to my hometown. The matter of magic and ghosts is the fictional element–presumably.

 

Beth CatoDo you find that writing poetry influences your work in prose?  How is writing a poem different or similar to writing a short story?

Poetry has taught me a great deal about storytelling in concise form. In theory, writers know that every word counts, but it’s easy to be lazy about those extra words when writing in long form. In a poem that’s maybe some thirty lines long, you can’t get away with superfluous words.

I tend to write the majority of my poems during April and November (I usually choose one month each year) when Writer’s Digest’s Poetic Asides Blog does its Poem-A-Day prompts. I also have a few bonus times a year when moods strike and I churn out several poems in the course of a day. That’s how “My Ghost Will Know the Way” came about. I read Le Guin, and then had three poems pour out of me in the next few hours. It’s marvelous when the Muse cooperates. That’s not often the case. Usually I need to bait a trap for it so I can make my monthly short story goal.

 

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on two big projects and I continue to develop short stories and poems. I need to keep busy! I also bake a lot and share recipes on my Bready or Not food blog. If people are ever in need of a good cookie or bar recipe, I can hook them up at BethCato.com.

 

“My Ghost Will Know the Way” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1907.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Molly Gloss on “The Everlasting Humming of the Earth”

Molly GlossTell us a bit about “The Everlasting Humming of the Earth.”

Joyce is a woman who has an unusual *gift*:  She can feel a tremor in her body when a major earthquake is about to happen somewhere in the world—but she cannot know where in the world the quake will strike.  This means, even if she could persuade everyone that she’s not a crackpot or a nut, she’s helpless to give any sort of useful warning—what good is it to have advance warning of a quake if you can’t say where it will strike?  It’s a story about dealing with the burden of helpless knowledge; and also a story about a middle-aged woman dealing with loss and grief, and finding community.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I live in Oregon, close to the Pacific Subduction Zone, where it’s generally thought that The Big One is already overdue. So earthquakes were on my mind even before I began reading about the continuous sound the Earth makes, a kind of humming, below the level humans can hear but picked up on scientific listening devices; and reading theories that this might be the sound of the globe turning, or the continuous swish and sway of the world’s oceans. And that the sound changes during and after an earthquake, as if the whole Earth is reverberating like a struck bell.  I began to wonder, what if a human could hear the humming of the earth, and the reverberations of an earthquake? Then what? And how would that person deal with the knowledge?

 

Was “The Everlasting Humming of the Earth” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

The horse who appears late in the story represents my own experience of horses acting as empathetic listeners to one’s troubles…does that count as “personal”? And there’s the Pacific Subduction thing—I travel with a fully-stocked preparedness kit in my car and another in my house, enough to survive without outside help for up to three weeks. Oh, I’m ready!

 

Was there any aspect of this story that you found difficult to write?

From a writerly standpoint, do you mean?  I struggled, a bit, figuring out where the pieces of Joyce’s backstory ought to go. I tried scattering them throughout the story at first, and then decided to front-load most of it. But I held back one piece—the scene in which her husband learns the source of her tremors—until very late, when the memory is triggered by something Raylene says.  Finding just the right place for it was like turning a particular piece of a jigsaw puzzle, trying and trying until your eye lights on a subtle variation of color and shape, and suddenly you can see where it needs to go.

 

Why do you write?

Ha ha! I imagine almost everyone has the same answer to this question. I write because I can’t NOT write. Oh, and of course I write to be read.  There is a kind of magic in storytelling, no? Immaterial words creating worlds that do not exist in our ordinary reality, people and sometimes places that are alive only in story. And we write to share those worlds, the worlds of our imagination, beaming them, in a way, from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader. Magic. That’s why I write.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear me say Ursula K. Le Guin has always been a model for me, especially in science fiction, and especially for showing me that the science in science fiction need not always be physics or chemistry but could be centered in biology, or in the human sciences—sociology, psychology, anthropology.  But of course there are many other writers who’ve influenced my writing—too many to name; I’ll just call out Willa Cather and A.B. Guthrie, Jr., for showing me what Western writing could aspire to be.

 

You’ve been a published writer for more than thirty years: how have you noticed the industry change, and how has it had an impact on your work? 

The publishing world has changed dramatically since I began writing seriously in the 1980s. In those days (and when did I get old enough to use the phrase “in those days…”?)  much more of the marketing and publicity effort for a book was done by the publisher;  now the burden is largely on the writer. I’d never heard “platform,” or “brand” mentioned in connection with writing until a few years ago;  and now a writer’s social media presence is the primary focus of marketing.  And of course there are many fewer newspapers reviewing books now, reviews having become primarily the province of GoodReads and book bloggers and readers commenting on Amazon.  But there have been some very good changes as well—lots of thriving magazines, both print and on-line, especially in the science fiction and fantasy realm—and many of them are still reviewing books (F&SF!).  And with social media there’s more direct communication (if you wish it) between writers and readers, and which I do love. None of this has had an impact on what I write, I have always just written the stories that I wanted to read. But I do feel a bit at sea when it comes to the marketing piece of the puzzle. I’m comfortable tweeting good news, announcing an upcoming publication, and so forth, but beyond that I’m not very savvy about strategies that might draw in more readers. One thing that hasn’t changed:  the joy of seeing my work in print!  Magic!

 

“The Everlasting Humming of the Earth” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1907.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Molly Gloss has three reprint novels out from Saga Press in 2019: OUTSIDE THE GATES, WILD LIFE, and THE DAZZLE OF DAY, as well as a new collection of short stories, UNFORESEEN.

Visit the author’s website at https://www.mollygloss.com/

Editor’s Note for July-August 2019

Summer is here (or Winter, for our readers in the southern hemisphere) and so is the July/August issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction!

Many of our electronic and paper subscribers have already received their issues, but if you’re looking for a copy you can find us in most Barnes & Noble stores, as well as many local independent booksellers. You can also order a single copy from our website or buy an electronic edition from Amazon, AmazonUK, and — now, available worldwide and in every electronic format — through Weightless Books.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August, cover by Mondolithic StudiosMondolithic Studio‘s cover illustrates the inevitable robot apocalypse.

ROBOTS INVADE!

This month, humanity’s doom comes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Cassandra Khaw, who first appeared as the co-author of “Shooting Iron” in our Sept/Oct issue last year, returns with a story set in London in the aftermath of the great robot war to remind us that “Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad.”

And across the Atlantic, in the ruins of robot-ravaged New York, F&SF regular Alex Irvine relates “The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller.”

FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION,
AND THE DIFFICULT TO CATEGORIZE

Our other science fiction for this issue includes the F&SF debut of Theodore McCombs, who takes us to a near future where computer-aided memory enhancement leads us to “Lacuna Heights.” Dominica Phetteplace returns with another story of the near future at the intersection of social media and private healthcare with “Nice for What.” And another debut author, Eliza Rose, takes us on a colony ship to deep space for a visit to “Planet Doykeit.”

What robot-filled summer issue would be complete without some dragons for balance? On the fantasy side, Deborah Coates gives us an intimate look at the dragon invasion of South Dakota and introduces us to some “Girls Who Never Stood a Chance.” G. V. Anderson takes us to Yorkshire for a gothic tale of haunting and asylums seen in “A Strange Uncertain Light.” And Albert E. Cowdrey returns with another story of William Warlock, a New Orleans lawyer with supernatural abilities and a client who receives “The Legacy.”

And some stories are just too hard to categorize but that’s part of what makes them so interesting. In this issue, we have “The Slave” by Andrej Kokoulin, translated from the Russian by Alex Shvartsman. In 2017, “The Slave” won the FantLab Award and immediately prompted a lengthy debate about whether or not the story is speculative. We’ll let you decide what you think. We also have “The Everlasting Humming of the Earth” by Molly Gloss, whose fiction constantly invites you to forget about categories and consider the human experience instead. 


You’ll also find two new poems slipped into pages between the stories. Mary Soon Lee has a message directed “To Skeptics” and Beth Cato makes her first appearance in F&SF with the assurance that “My Ghost Will Know the Way.”

OUR OTHER COLUMNS AND FEATURES

Looking for summer reading? Charles de Lint recommends some Books to Look For, by Sarah Pinsker, Kim Beall, John R. Little, Melissa F. Olson, and Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography by Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi. Meanwhile, Michelle West is Musing on Books by Tim Maughan, Max Gladstone, K Chess, and Cate Glass. And for our monthly Curiosities column, rediscovering lost writers and books, David Langford reviews Charles Eric Maine’s The Mind of Mr Soames, a 1961 novel about science and the social contract.

In our latest film column, David J. Skal shares his delight in the new Mary Poppins movie. Jerry Oltion’s science column explains “How Vaccines Work.” And Paul Di Filippo has plucked another feather of the Plumage from Pegasus to tickle your fancy. The print version of the magazine also offers up new cartoons by Nick Downes and Arthur Masear.

LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

We hope you’ll share your thoughts about the issue with us. We can be found on:

Happy reading!

C.C. Finlay, Editor
Fantasy & Science Fiction
fandsf.com | @fandsf

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