Triple-digit temperatures are blasting cities all across the Northern Hemisphere. A day before this blog posted, Paris hit its highest-ever recorded temperature—42.6 degrees Celsius, or 108.6 degrees Fahrenheit! Parisians are diving into fountains to cope. But why not have your heat and read it too? Find an AC-cooled coffee shop and dive into these four hot stories. You won’t even need sunscreen.
Mark Springer can’t stop thinking about “Lacuna Heights,” by Theodore McCombs
Andrew, a successful attorney in near-future San Francisco, is having an affair. Maybe. He can’t be certain, because he can’t remember specifics about his presumed infidelity—not the woman’s name, or what she looks like, or the adulterous acts themselves. But what else could be causing the feelings of anxiety and guilt that plague him day and night? If only Andrew knew what he was doing, maybe he could understand why he was doing it. His therapist is no help. When Andrew confesses the affair to her, she would rather talk about his relationship with his sister.
So begins Theodore McCombs’s “Lacuna Heights,” published in the July/August edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story follows Andrew as he worries over the gaps in his memory and tries to learn the truth behind the betrayal he feels he has committed. At the same time, Andrew is defending his client, the Aleph Corporation, against a federal subpoena seeking to force the company to jailbreak the Privacy Mode feature of its flagship neurotech implant. The implant enables users to interface with technology directly through their thoughts; it also enables the Aleph Corporation to record users’ thoughts and memories and resell them to third parties for data-mining and targeted ads. Creepy, and a massive privacy violation, if not for the fact that everyone consents to the Aleph’s terms of service (presumably without reading them). That’s the cost of progress, folks. If you want the convenience of searching the internet with the flicker of your synapses, you’ll have to give up something in return—namely, yourself. It’s the Faustian bargain at the heart of surveillance capitalism: you are the resource being exploited for someone else’s gain; appearances to the contrary, including Aleph’s Privacy Mode, are fabulation and misdirection.
If you’re familiar with McCombs’s contributions to this website or his story “Talk to Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy,” published last year in Lightspeed Magazine, then you won’t be surprised that “Lacuna Heights” is fraught with the conflicts and contradictions that arise from our ever-increasing demand for technological progress, regardless of the costs. What Andrew learns about himself and the world he lives in as he litigates to protect Aleph Corp and Privacy Mode doesn’t come as a comfort to him, or to the reader. He might not remember the details of his betrayal when all is said and done, but you won’t be able to forget.
Lisa Mahoney read “Two Sisters in Exile,” by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard’s The Universe of Xuya is a 2019 Hugo Award nominee finalist in the newer category, “Best Series.” De Bodard imagines Asians take humanity into the stars and bring their culture with them. Her stories reference Buddhism, and, like Confucians, its denizens revere their ancestors, imperial families, and scholars as well as high-tech science and engineering. From exotic names, like two mindships in this story, Two Sisters in Exile or The Tiger Lashes its Tail, the prose is lush with an Asian aesthetic that admires the ephemeral nature of beauty and grace contrasted with the universe’s lethal and arbitrary mortality.
This story is a brief snapshot of a moment in the galaxy after the empire has shattered into at least two pieces. The genius of De Bodard is that she unveils just enough history that we understand the moment in which a protagonist lives and what she must fight against. Nguyen Dong Huong, a tough Nam-culture warrior misnamed “Perfumed Winter,” is the officer of a ship involved in military exercises. She issued the order that launched the shot that, against impossible odds, ripped through the human heartroom of a mindship belonging to the Northerners, another remnant of their shared empire, and killed it when it happened to be traversing that very point in deep space, presumably at lightspeed. Dong Huong has been tasked to return the dead mindship to its home and descendents including Ahn, and to apologize without showing weakness. Here De Bodard beautifully and adeptly sets up the story’s stakes:
Two Sisters in Exile’s relatives and descendants are shocked and shaken to their core beyond anything Dong Huong can predict until she is forced by Ahn to attend the ship’s funeral. The story demonstrates the fundamental theorem that the universe is chaotic, because if this impossible accident inspires humans to decide to go to war to avenge their beloved, 400-year-old ship, then it is a decision that will annihilate the Nam people for no real reason.
As a writer and reader, this kind of broadly imagined universe appeals to me, a universe in which sociological forces push changes that, despite the best efforts of peace-loving rulers or brave heroes, often result in unforeseen, catastrophic consequences. The trajectory of history is often changed not by the rational decisions of individuals, but by outside events, much as the sudden arrival of millions of Syrian refugees has unexpectedly radicalized the political environment of today’s Europe. De Bodard built her Hugo-nominated universe not in the usual SF/F way with a sequential series of mega-novels with the same action-figure heroes, but in small pieces, short stories and novellas that take place in vastly different times and spaces of galactic empires. Each story or novella is a standalone, giving readers a taste in just the right proportion, of the vast, supporting superstructure of the universe De Bodard has either penned or imagined. Read one, or two, or twenty, and relish the Asian flavors.
(Editor’s note: “Two Sisters in Exile” was originally published in Solaris Rising 1.5, edited by Ian Whates, and was reprinted in Clarkesworld, the June 2019 edition.)
Theodore McCombs on Karen Osborne’s “The Two-Bullet War”
The queen lies dying and her twin sons are already talking civil war. Mila, the “Queen’s Gun,” is doomed to be a pawn in their succession contest, a duel which pits her life against the life of her secret husband and her own deeply felt political convictions. Karen Osborne’s “The Two-Bullet War,” published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies earlier this May, is not just unafraid of big conflicts: Osborne’s stories take ruthless delight in pitting their characters against impossible choices, then ratcheting that tension even further. (Disclaimer: I saw a first draft of this story when Karen and I were at Clarion together, and have a particular affection for it. Anti-disclaimer: this version is even better, its plotting muscled in images of old revolver hilts, diamonds, sand, and guts.)
The story’s setting is gunslinger feudalism, an exciting anachronism that gives fresh grit to the political conscience story. But that story is old as Aeschylus and Shakespeare: how far does an individual’s duty to change an unjust world go? It’s a question all too timely today, and Osborne candidly teases out the painful subtext: that whichever of many terrible sacrifices Mila makes, it may all be for nothing. The world’s cruelty may be more powerful than any one person’s courage.
But maybe not.
C.H. Lips recommends “The Tornado Auction” in Karen Russell’s new collection, Orange World and Other Stories.
Twenty years after one of his tornadoes escaped its housing and nearly tore his family both literally and figuratively apart, Robert Wurman buys a young funnel at auction and reignites his passion for cultivating tornadoes. His friends think he’s crazy to get back into this dangerous business—he’s seventy-three and lives alone. But Robert justifies it in his mind: “I’d outlived my life. The girls were grown; Estelle was gone. There was nobody left to hurt.”
Most people wouldn’t want to live with the constant threat of their lives and homes being ravaged by an escaped, farm-raised twister. But Robert’s father was a veteran of WWII and was addicted to the all-consuming roar of cyclonic winds, needing them to counteract PTSD. Robert explains:
But choosing a life of consistent instability has consequences, and Robert’s family suffers from his obsession. He’s too involved growing his baby tornadoes to engage in the raising of his own daughters. And the inevitable finally happens—one of his tornadoes escapes containment and his youngest daughter, though she survives, is never the same.
Every one of the stories in this collection is imaginative and astoundingly original. Karen Russell’s incomparable prose never disappoints—if you’re like me you’ll be stopping often to copy down lines to savor. I especially love the juxtaposition in “Tornado Auction” of an old man at the end of his life, musing on the mistakes he made as a father and husband, set against the volatile, whirling violence lurking in a metal storage shed just outside his home. Another aspect I love about this story is how Russell highlights the hubris of humanity’s misguided belief that we can contain and/or alter nature’s most violent forces, yoke them, and put them to work for us. We always pay for that hubris, and Robert is no exception. In trying to achieve his last, unfulfilled goal of watching one of his young tornadoes rise up into a mass of churning clouds and join with a natural storm, he realizes what his obsession has cost him and what it could cost him. But even with this realization the damage he’s already caused is real and Robert will have to address it.
It’s not a happy ending, but if an old Nebraska tornado farmer can change his ways, isn’t it possible for the human race to change too? The City of Lights is sweltering. There’s nothing even slightly romantic about that.