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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.

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