Author Playlists

Theodore McCombs’s Playlist for His Story Collection “Uranians”

“The progression of stories in Uranians works as an argument about queerness’s place in the world: they move from anxiety and disorientation to a hard-won utopian confidence, with each successive story’s protagonist getting a little further down the path. I’ve structured this playlist to track that same progression, as well as to offer a sense of the core emotional experiences undergirding the high-concept speculative forays into parallel universes and evil chatbots.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Theodore McCombs’s collection Uranians is speculative fiction at its finest, set in other worlds that reflect our own. These stories taken together form an auspicious debut from a talented storyteller.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“Playful and provocative . . . McCombs’s mix of heart and zany ideas is often reminiscent of George Saunders. Readers will find plenty of earthy and unearthly delights.”

In his own words, here is Theodore McCombs’s Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Uranians:

The progression of stories in Uranians works as an argument about queerness’s place in the world: they move from anxiety and disorientation to a hard-won utopian confidence, with each successive story’s protagonist getting a little further down the path. I’ve structured this playlist to track that same progression, as well as to offer a sense of the core emotional experiences undergirding the high-concept speculative forays into parallel universes and evil chatbots.

I should also disclose—not because it’s important, but because it’s really funny—literally all of these artists came into my life via boys I had a crush on. You know who you are.

  1. “Noir Désir” by Vive La Fête

C’est la manie!

I picture the protagonist in the first story, Peter, as having a coming-out story similar to mine: study abroad at 19, the Spanish gay club scene of the early aughts, sexual rebirth in that amniotic Eurotrash electronica of the time. If you want to know the song I was dancing drunkenly to, it was Golden Boy’s “Rippin’ Kittin,” a song I stand by twenty years later but which, for some reason, is not on Spotify. If you dial that aesthetic a bit less circuit, a bit more punk, you might get Vive La Fête, which could be common ground for Peter and his edgier ex, Fran. But, importantly, it’s still not anything like what they’d play at Collider, the queer techno club that Peter’s trying desperately to get into, which promises visions of parallel realities happier than his.

2. “Costumbres” by Rocío Dúrcal

No cabe duda que es verdad que la costumbre / es más fuerte que el amor

Peter and Fran’s story (“Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles”) is about a breakup’s aftermath, and this gorgeous torch song by ranchera legend Rocío Dúrcal is perfect for Peter’s devastated, overwhelmed state of mind. But it’s also a terrifying portrait of a marriage in decline—“no doubt it’s true that habit is stronger than love”—scored with a triumphant sadness in the strings. (Oh my God, those strings.) Which captures the state of the central relationship in the book’s second story, “Lacuna Heights.” For Andrew and Madeleine, the force of habit (and some invasive neurotechnology) paves over even the most shocking emotions.

3. “Half Light II (No Celebration)” by Arcade Fire

Really, this playlist could just be Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, their great autopsy of suburban alienation,and Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. The track “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” for example, captures the strangeness and spiritual decay of the unnamed wealthy exurb in the book’s fourth story, “Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy.” But I chose this track because it so viscerally gets the specific, real-time tragedy of San Francisco, which “Lacuna Heights” is preoccupied with. Rising seas are problem enough, but its devolution into a Big Tech campus breaks my heart. “Pray to God I won’t live to see / the death of everything that’s wild.

4. “The Morning Fog” by Kate Bush

Because it’s unthinkable that a playlist for Uranians would omit Kate Bush. Maybe I’d perceive this song’s sunny fogginess less ambivalently if I were British and this were my peaceable-kingdom weather, but I don’t know. It strikes me as a good track for “Lacuna Heights,” and Andrew’s blithe, precarious happiness outside of Privacy Mode.

5. “Bachelorette” by Björk

“I’m a fountain of blood / in the shape of a girl

Surrealism and fairy-tale logic are powerful apparatuses for depicting women’s experience within a misogynistic world, and Björk’s gut-wrenching “Bachelorette” showcases both. I am in awe of what musicians like Björk, visual artists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, and so many writers—Angela Carter, Anya DeNiro, Sarah Rose Etter, Nalo Hopkinson, Carmen Maria Machado—have achieved with these tools. My third story, “Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women,” tries to achieve something similar in the fantastical counter-adaptations that women’s bodies undergo when men attack them.

6. “Free” by Sylvan Esso

To be free, in an illusion / In an illusion of your making of me

A recurring anxiety across stories is the distance between our self-perception and others’ perception of us. This song spins that into a positive with surprising sophistication; but the sadness of that distance still tugs the melody line downward. It’s a useful way to approach Edith’s dilemma in “Six Hangings,” because if the Protection means greater freedom for women, where does that leave someone who’s never really inhabited that category comfortably? Is Edith free only “in a deception, not crafted by me”?

7. “Rebellion (Lies)” by Arcade Fire

Come on, baby, in our dreams / we can live our misbehavior

Every character in this book, regardless of their sexuality or gender, is at some point offered queerness’s boon: the chance to break out of the social narratives that confine their lives by following a pre-rational, emotional, almost libidinal honesty that’s shown to them. I love this song as an anthem to that breaking-out. In “Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy,” poor David is trapped inside several social lies—including the manipulations of an advanced tutoring chatbot—but he gets farther than any of the preceding stories’ protagonists in casting them off.

8. “À quoi ça sert” by Françoise Hardy

The title means “What good is it”—literally, “What does it serve.” Up until writing this, I’d always heard the lyrics accompanying the majestic piano arpeggios that break over the third verse as Tu sers, tu sers: “You serve,” i.e., “You’re worth it.” Which gives that arpeggio passage a holy aura of profound, heart-cracking reassurance. But those lyrics are actually Tout seul, tout seul (“All alone, all alone”); I had totally misperceived the verse’s emotional content.

The song is about working up the nerve to make a connection with someone you could love, which is David’s struggle in “Two-Tongued Jeremy.” And maybe fusing self-worth and solitude into one idea, even accidentally, is a good intermediate step for him.

9. “Todo cambia” by Mercedes Sosa

Así como cambio yo / en esta tierra lejana”

The climactic verses are worth quoting in full: everything changes, we’ve been hearing, “But my love doesn’t change / no matter how far I find myself / nor the memory nor the pain / of my nation and my people // What changed yesterday / will have to change tomorrow / So too, I change / in this distant land.” It’s the emigrant’s song, the refugee’s song, and Mercedes Sosa’s throaty, elegiac voice gives its grief an incomparable regality. It’s Fran’s song, in the first story, and in the last story, it’s the song of the whole crew of the Ekphrasis, the queer generation ship traveling to a distant planet, negotiating their fraught and changing relationship with an Earth they’ll never see again.

10. “If It Be Your Will” by Anohni

The standout performance from the Leonard Cohen concert-documentary I’m Your Man is this showstopper by Anohni, the former lead singer for Antony and the Johnsons. As in so many of Cohen’s songs, you’re never sure whether the singer is trying to seduce a woman or be seduced by God, and that ambiguity achieves apotheosis in Anohni’s divine androgynous voice. This is how Milton’s angels must sound. This song is for my favorite character in the book, Father Leo, from the title novella: a trans voice yearning for divine connection, potent and abject, besotted with a heroic love.

11. “Starman” by David Bowie

“Uranians” is a dream of queer utopianism—the idea that maybe, out there in stars, we can perfect that vitality and potential that’s so difficult to sustain on a relentlessly broken Earth. The electric guitar and strings at the end of “Starman” are what that optimism sounds like in my head: exquisite, world-weary, not unscathed, but genuinely hopeful.

12. “Mi Libertad” by Monsieur Periné

Colombian ensemble Monsieur Periné is doing incredibly exciting work mixing jazz, pop, and regional Latin sounds, and this early song (from Caja de Música) shows off their ear for invigorating rhythms and inspired, expansive orchestrations. This anthem to existential freedom, defiant joy, and clear-eyed courage marks out the emotional space where I hope the reader of Uranians lands on the final page.

Theodore McCombs’s stories have appeared in Guernica, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the anthology Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Born in Thousand Oaks, California, he is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego, U.C. Berkeley School of Law, and the Clarion Writers Workshop. He lives in San Diego with his partner and their surly old cat and practices environmental law, with a focus on climate change.

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