Uranians by Theodore McCombs

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The hardest kind of review to write is one for a book which you wholeheartedly enjoyed. Yet that is the challenge I face with Theodore McCombs’ Uranians. The book is composed of four short stories and a novella, all of which are so different, yet so complete in themselves that they elicited a feeling of inevitability as they each ran their course. There is not an out-of-place word anywhere in these 207 pages, and each story ended in a terrifically satisfying way — though not always in a happy way, to be clear.

My favorite of the short stories is “Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women”, which is set in Boston in the early 1900s. For reasons no one is able to fathom, it has become impossible for men to kill women. Several attempted murders are described, from a drowning (the woman grows gills) to a stabbing (the woman’s body absorbs the blade and breaks it down internally) to a poisoning (the woman becomes a thornbush, is chopped into pieces, and resumes her human form none the worse for wear). The story follows a woman named Edith as she takes on the role of hangwoman to execute a woman who has murdered her own son, but, due to the aforementioned immunity, cannot be executed by a man. The story delves into the many ways society perpetuates violence and ends on a chilling note that still makes me shiver.

The titular novella, Uranians, tells the story of a group of queer artists and scientists who have been sent on a mission to another star system to send back new art and knowledge to a struggling Earth. It is primarily narrated by Arrigo, a gay poet, though the point of view does dip into others in his social circle. I could see some readers being frustrated by the frequent and lengthy time-skips (several decades at a go for most of them), but the focus on poetry and music makes what could be simple gaps into lacunae instead, silences which underscore the rest of the work. The story is painfully, gloriously human, taking readers through the gamut of love, faith, betrayal, hope, art, and everything in between.

As you’ll find in pretty much any anthology, there are common themes which McCombs favors in multiple pieces. Identity, alienation, and transformation are often primary, but technology and innovation, social and gender roles, and situations without clear emotional resolutions all feature strongly as well.

Of course, in any review there has to be a moment of ‘well, I guess this could have been a bit different’ or ‘now that I think about it, that felt slightly out of step with the rest of it’ but I’m going to break convention: I enjoyed every bit of this book and it felt all of a piece with itself. I’m hereby telling anyone who enjoys short fiction, queer fiction, or speculative fiction to go read this right now.

Sophie is an MFA student at Emerson College. She spends her free time reading and writing science fiction and fantasy.