by Theodore McCombs
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Pub Date 30 May 2023 | Archive Date 19 Jun 2023
Astra Publishing House, Astra House
“I have been waiting for this sumptuous, prismatic collection for literal years. Theodore McCombs is a poet of queer pasts, presents, and futures, and Uranians is a formidable debut.”
—Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
At the end of the Victorian era, a handful of public intellectuals advocated for tolerance of the “Uranian”—a man who loved other men. Some went so far as to propose that these “intermediate sexes” might, in fact, constitute a totally different species, even serve as intrepid guides in our march toward an uncertain future.
The five speculative stories in Theodore McCombs’s kaleidoscopic collection span several possible worlds, teasing the boundaries between coexisting realities and taking up the question of queer difference from one surprising vantage after another. In “Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles,” a heartbroken gay man waits in line at an exclusive Berlin rave promising visions of parallel lives across the multiverse. In “Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women,” at the turn of an alternate 20th century, a policeman’s wife feels that if you want an execution done right, you just have to do it yourself. And in the operatic novella “Uranians,” an expedition of queer artists, scientists, and one trans priest embark on a lifelong interplanetary voyage that requires them to renegotiate their connections to a remote and hostile Earth, while keeping their ship’s biome—and each other—alive.
Each story unfolds with the depth and complexity of an entire universe; each is inhabited by characters learning to divest from a society that has marked and rejected them. Discerning which dreams of Western civilization to hold fast to and which to leave behind, these outsiders set their gazes on new horizons and prepare for the changes to come. Arch but tender, clear-eyed and compassionate, Uranians brilliantly illustrates the vital role that queerness plays in every possible version of our world.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 16 members
This was one of those rare occasions where I loved every story in a collection equally. Each one forced simultaneous isolation and interconnection with society flawlessly. Thank you to NetGalley and Astra Publishing House for the ARC.
Strong writing here, and entertaining stories. This won't find a wide audience but those that pick it up will likely enjoy it.
I really appreciate the free ARC for review!!
McCombs voice is solid - while each story was vastly different, the connection between them was tangible. I have a few standout favorites. I mean, an AI tutoring app bullying kids into suicide? 'Incognito Mode' for the internet in your brain, but it's paired with memory loss? What concepts.
I struggle with short stories sometimes because I feel left wanting for more. Not here. Each was built out with the perfect amount of world building and character development. Stunning.
*I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for the free book.*
I feel like I should've read the Netgalley or Goodreads description once more before starting this book because I was confused. A lot.
"Uranians" is about queer love in different worlds. The short stories seem to be somehow connected yet I can't really describe how. I should maybe read this again.
On a literary level, this was immensely enjoyable and the author exhibits a lot of skill, I really enjoyed the writing style. Yet some of the stories worked for me, others just confused/annoyed me.
As I was quite sick when reading this, my rating might thus be biased by it. Bronchitis is not a great starting point for complex world building and stories set in somewhat connected parallel worlds.
I enjoyed some of the queer rep yet some of the characters were in toxic relationships that I didn't understand. Just be happy and free, you don't need that asshole boyfriend, dude.
Anyhow, entertaining, a bit weird and quite different from other things I've read. 4 stars?
Theodore McCombs’s Uranians is a brilliant book, travelling through the web of the lives of individuals, flowing in a parallel yet in a different stream of consciousness. The book is about a journey into self-discovery and acceptance of one’s existence.
It revolves around different stories. The author’s style of penning down these stories is highly appreciated. Peter, a gay in Toward A theory of Alternative Lives. His strangled thoughts, broken heart, his yearnings open a window for the reader to read between the lines. There is a lot of depth in each and every story. The language is approachable and understandable. Every story leaves one occupied in thoughts over thoughts. I will leave it to the audience to experience this feeling.
The book has a universal element in it. And it revolves around each character. One can feel something of seeking in the whole book. Seeking one’s destiny, the meaning of their existence in the universe, and the weirdness which encircles them. The book gets interesting when it comes to narrating about a few scientists, artists, and gay and trans people, set on a voyage to discover a different world. The character of Lana, Arrigo, Mike, and Father Leo is well narrated. Their struggles, thoughts, their different approaches towards life take the story through twists and turns.
It seems to the reader that Theodore has brilliantly delivered what he wanted in this book. The strangeness of it makes it unique. The intellectual approach towards new dimensions is worth appreciating. The book is recommended for a mature audience who can dig deep and understand various intellectual aspects narrated by the author. A good read.
Requested from Netgalley almost entirely because of the enthusiastic blurb by Carmen Maria Machado, and at this rate I should keep an eye out for those because she's definitely steered me right. The title, shared with the last and longest story here, cleverly excavates an old name for homosexuals which also sounds right at home in science fiction*, and the collection opens with a quote from Edward Carpenter's 1912 The Intermediate Sex: A Study Of Some Transitional Types Of Men And Women about how "the superior types of Uranians – prepared for this service by long experience and devotion, as well as by much suffering – will have an important part to play in the transformation" of society. The first story gestures at continuing that theme with the high-minded title Towards A Theory Of Alternative Lifestyles. In reality it's about the argument between confrontation and assimilation, and about realising you're not quite matched to the person you love, reified and dramatised through Collider, a Berlin club so achingly cool you can glimpse parallel worlds there. It's an instantly seductive notion even before you realise how well theme and expression have been matched, with the many worlds interpretation explained thus: "Observation doesn't collapse the alternatives so much as pair off the observer with the particular value observed, like dance partners waltzing off in one direction, while in a parallel reality, the observer pairs off with a different partner in another direction." But even for the sort of reader less likely to be seduced by Stoppardian fireworks, there's the surface level of character, human emotions – you know, the less impressive stuff, but the things which can still banjax a story if they're done wrong. Here they work, the tension recognisable but not stereotypical between two men in something approaching love, one of whom is radically queer but where the other wants traditional romantic signifiers "not because he'd failed to grasp the false consciousness of the heteropatriarchy, but because he'd spent his life being shown and then denied this way of being in love, and now he was a grown-up, and he could get the things he saw on TV." It's not that it's the newest idea in the world to talk about how liberationist Discourse can become one more cage, but what I really liked was how perfectly unresolved it leaves its answer to the question "Is it so wrong to want to be normal?"
Next up, Lacuna Heights feels much more straightforwardly Black Mirror, and even more so like Severance – or so I assume, having never seen Severance (maybe I should say, having so far as I know never seen Severance?). A lawyer fights a case regarding the privacy mode on a neural implant – a mode where even the person themselves doesn't know what they were doing while it was activated. And then realises he is himself experiencing missing time, and unexplained deductions from his account... The rough shape of the solution is fairly obvious early on, and the concept probably works better as a metaphor for the things we all force ourselves to ignore to not go insane from living in a fundamentally horrific system than it does as plausible worldbuilding, but its vision of a world limping on in much the same fashion despite how much has "disappeared into the rising, dying ocean" still lingers. Of course, these days the amount that's survived obliges me to characterise it as an optimistic vision.
Six Hangings In The Land Of Unkillable Women is the sole historical tale, set in the wake of the Protection, whereby at some point in the nineteenth century, women mysteriously became immune to male violence – a situation which, like any apparent panacea, inevitably brings its own problems, even before you consider the awkwardness of a society and era still determined on making pious reference to the Weaker Sex despite increasingly glaring evidence to the contrary. Finally, for the shorter entries, the fabulously titled Talk To Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy. Back in Black Mirror territory, but for me more powerfully than Lacuna Heights, this is a story for all the people I know who've said that they worry their relationship with the Duolingo owl has become abusive. I'm sure it's an incredibly efficient generator of tech anxiety even if you have the sense not to read it with a New Year's Day hangover like I did.
Finally, the title novel (which will doubtless be widely referred to as a novella, but I shan't hold that against it), which starts out looking like a fairly straightforward generation ship affair, except maybe that a little more work will be required on creating those generations given the crew we see are mostly gay. This turns out to be precisely the point: the mission is not one of colonising the destination exoplanet, but simply of investigating it, sending a team of scientists and artists to report back to Earth, rather than mess it up. A plan which has gone down about as well as you'd expect on an Earth which is at least making faltering steps to rebuild its battered biosphere, rather than gaily chucking petrol on the flames as we currently are, but otherwise hasn't changed as much as one might hope, if one could still hope. So instead of descendants they've got some extra time, thanks to the wonderful device of anti-ageing tattoos. Which, isn't that just instantly more interesting than pills or surgery or the usual approaches? Not least in the way so many choose patterns to remind them of the world they've left behind, which then fade out in patches as the crucial vitacene is absorbed. The story is the work of someone who sees the alternative a sort of flying queer commune might offer to the workaday world – but also of someone who's seen queer communes in practice, with all the drama, forgotten chores and "rows of earnest pansexuals in loose-fitting tops" they entail. It also engages in a way surprisingly little SF does with the sheer headfuck of being out there in the dark, so far from home, with no way back – which often only gets treated as a threat once something goes wrong, but which would surely be a lot to cope with even on a mission going more or less to plan. Once again, theme and plot and character are braided together expertly; I don't want to give away any of the ups and downs, but put it this way – looking at my Christmas and birthday book haul, my one worry was that it was all short stories and non-fiction, and I felt like I needed a substantial novel for variety before I was quite in the mood for any of them. Something chewy, with scope and scale and ideas, tragedy and bittersweet triumph. Well, this one may scrape in under 120 pages, but it's absolutely scratched that itch.
*I'm reminded of the early Zelazny novel in which humanity exists in an uneasy state of detente with the Vegans.
*The publisher has provided me with an advance readers copy in exchange for an honest review.*
In a period where questions of queerness-as-other are battling it out with the notion of assimilation (kink at Pride!) "Uranians" feels uniquely suited to the moment. The five stories (four shorts and a novella) in the book are not all queer - all the characters in "Lacuna Heights" and "Six Hangings In The Land Of Unkillable Women" are straight - but they all engage with the ideas of family structures, justice, and how we interact with the world in a way that <i>feels</i> very queer. Story by story:
"Towards A Theory Of Alternative Lifestyles:" This was, admittedly, the story in the collection I was slowest to warm up to - I think McCombs' prose was still settling with me when I read it. It's for sure the most theoretical of the bunch (just look at the title) so even after I read it, I wasn't entirely sure I had grasped what the author was doing with it.
"Lacuna Heights:" Another reviewed compared this to "Severance," which is extremely apt. It's also when McCombs starts to engage with a theme that will run through the rest of the book: tech and capitalism and government, and how much we give up in exchange for the promise of ease and comfort. Remember what I said about the ethos being queer, even when there was no explicit queerness in the story?
"Six Hangings In The Land Of Unkillable Women:" I'm tempted to call this my favourite of the whole collection, just because the plot and themes are so specifically tailored to my interests - namely femicide (and the social forces that drive it) and the moral quandary of capital punishment. It's also basically a weird Western, which is one of my favourite genres. Actually, I probably would call it my favourite, if not for:
"Talk To Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy:" This is the most (really, only) straightforward horror story in the collection, and man does it pack a punch. It picked up the themes McCombs introduced in "Lacuna Heights," specifically regarding AI and corporate accountability for the uses and abuses of their product. Along the way, it also touches on social expectation, the trauma of growing up as a non-normative child in a conformist environment, and abusive relationships (with the robot that lives in your phone.) I loved it.
"Uranians:" The title novella is a slow burn, more of a character study than a plot-based one. A group of people - almost entirely queer - board a spaceship for a hundred-year mission to a distant planet. Of course, each of them carry their earthly baggage onto the ship where they're meant to be building a gay utopia, and the idea of assimilation vs. separatism is made manifest in the split between those who want to maintain their connection to Earth, and those who believe they should fully divest. McCombs packs a LOT of disparate threads into this one - queer concepts of family! Climate change! Aging! Opera! - and up until the three-quarter mark, I was sure he wouldn't be able to pull it all together, but what do you know, he surprised me.
This was an amazing collection of short stories, all centred around queerness. Each story was so different yet they all left me with so many new ideas to think about. I was absolutely blown away by how real the characters felt in their short time on the page, plus the dynamic assortment of settings and situations that all contributed to the central themes.
The majority of the book is the novella from which the collection gets its title. In my opinion this was the weakest story but still quite stunning. Charting characters over 60 years in a sci-fi setting, it very smartly incorporates queerness into a premise that is already quite familiar. It's very clear what McCombs is saying with these stories: art is central to the queer experience. I loved it.
This book is a collection of speculative fiction, some histories are more gay themed than others, but is told in a way that is very fluid, and I did enjoy the book, I don’t usually like to comment each of the stories because that often spoil the story or even If I don’t want to, I’ll end talking more than what I was supposed to do. I will just mention that the first story, the peter in the story reminded me of will from the show will and grace, you’ll need to check that out to understand what I mean.
It feels like a much more shorter book that it really is, I recommend it, this stories enter much more in the speculative and sci-fi type of stories.
Thank you NetGalley and Astra Publishing House Books for the free ARC and this is my honest opinion.
I am a sucker for Carmen Maria Machado pull quotes, and honestly, this didn't disappoint. Most of this book is the title novella, which focuses on the inhabitants of a long term travel space ship, all of whom are artistic and queer in various ways, and how their relationships with each other, their art, their destination, and each other all unfold as they make their way towards their new home. It's a pretty fantastic novella that is going to stick in my mind a while, and doesn't shove trans individuals to the side, and has the fun side effect of "shit what if you were stuck on a ship with your ex for the rest of your fucking life". There are also four short stories that are fairly solid - a club in Berlin that reveals alternate versions of your life, women who are unable to die, what if a privacy mode on an app was used to hide a horrible knowledge from yourself, and an education app replicating the experience of an abusive partner (this is the only one I'm a bit iffy about, as it feels like "oh what if technology could replicate an experience that women get to experience on the regular, spoooooooooooky". Still, overall, definitely a collection I'd recommend, and McCombs is someone I'll be watching.
Thank you to NetGalley, Astra House, and Theodore McCombs for the eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Uranians is a collection of stories that embody the essence of queerness and how the queer experience is impacted by various themes such as societal/familial values, technology, law, etc. Even when the characters themselves weren't queer, the message of each story still seems to apply to what it is like to navigate the world as someone who is.
I was immediately drawn to the concept, even more so when I discovered the glowing commendation left by one of my favorite authors, Carmen Maria Machado. Unfortunately, I do feel there was a gap between my expectations and the reality of the collection, but that is no one's fault but my own. There is no doubt that McCombs is a talented writer, but something about his style feels rather impersonal to me and prevented me from fully connecting with the material. Despite that, I still appreciated his style as I think it gave the collection a unique, eclectic feel that suits the content.
Each story is full of depth, with sci-fi elements that give the overall collection an interesting twist. Some were more compelling then others; "Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women" and the title story "Uranians" really stuck out to me, whereas I found "Towards a Theory of Alternate Lifestyles" a bit lackluster.
McCombs also avoids the pitfall a lot of other authors do not when writing short stories: he manages to develop a well-written narrative where the ending seems satisfying despite not being entirely fleshed out in a full-length novel.
Overall, Uranians was a really enjoyable read despite my personal grievances and I would readily recommend it to whomever is intrigued by the concept.
A hugely entertaining, fun, and engaging read all the way through. McCombs's stories are full of life and joy, pain and strangeness. It's like entering a surreal parallel universe where you never quite know what to expect. A wonderful, page-turning collection of stories.