How did you come up with the idea of cloudporting in your story “We Are the Cloud”?
Like a lot of SF readers and writers, I got very excited by the concept of the Singularity, and all the science-fictional tropes that come along with it—brain uploading, AI, nanotech-medical developments, the whole utopian shebang of how really fast computers will allow human beings to transcend biology and become immortal data clusters . . . and then, at Clarion 2012, I heard Ted Chiang give a talk where he pointed out a lot of the flaws in the science of the Singularity as it’s popularly understood, and how lazy so many writers are about invoking its tropes uncritically. That jibed really well with one of my own personal fixations as a writer, which is looking at how tech and progress make things worse. “Progress” isn’t linear—one person’s breakthrough is another person’s nightmare. I love my smart phone, but the workers in the factories that make them are committing suicide because of how bad conditions are. Medical breakthroughs trickle down problematically—just look at Tuskegee, or people with cancer without insurance in the USA today. Every awesome new scientific development will be used by capitalism to exploit people, especially poor people. So I figured if we ever do find a way to tap into the human brain’s processing power, the reality of that will be pretty awesome for a small group of people and pretty crummy for a large group of people. Cloudporting is one potential way that a really big step forward for medical technology will also open up a new frontier to exploit people in tough spots.
Tell us some more about the boy on the rock poster. Why is Sauro so disturbed?
The boy on the rocks is a symbol of desire, and desire is a profoundly unsettling thing . . . a revolutionary force, even, if properly harnessed. For Sauro, seeing that poster is the moment where he realizes that his feelings for Case are just the tip of the iceberg of what it means to be gay. In giving in to the queer desire he’s been able to keep bottled up for so long, he’s become something different—stronger, in some ways, more powerful, but also vulnerable in a new way, with a whole new set of priorities.
The gradual awakening of Sauro is such an important part of the story. Did you begin this story with him, or with the setting and the idea of the cloud and cloud-diving?
When I lived in the Bronx, I walked past a foster care group house on my home from work every day. And it was horrible, seeing the youth who lived there hanging out outside—these were kids, playing and joking and laughing and fighting like kids do, but I know the realities of what life is like for boys and girls in the foster care system, the traumas they’re subject to, how statistically most of them are likely to end up homeless or in prison upon leaving the system. Sauro was the heart and the root of this story—somebody stuck in a profoundly fucked-up situation that unfortunately tons of people are actually in right now, trying his best to get through it, believing that if he plays by the rules everything will turn out all right, who realizes that the rules are not in place to help him.
The story extrapolates from the current reality of life “in the system” for a child taken away from his parents to a world where children are in barely supervised halfway houses and exploited by most everyone they come in contact with. How much of this was inspired by your work as a community organizer?
A lot, unfortunately. “We Are the Cloud” extrapolates from the very real and interconnected systems of exploitation that I was seeing up close through my work with homeless people. The people I met at soup kitchens had aged out of foster care; the moms I met in shelters had lost kids to the foster care system. The boys I saw hanging out in Morningside Park in Harlem were the ones who got arrested and fed into the prison system by cops looking to fill their quotas; they were also in the super-low-budget gay porno flicks some guys I worked with would share. So this is a marginally turned-up version of the world we live in now, where the systems that are supposed to help people end up hurting them, not for lack of resources (New York City really does spend four times as much to keep someone in a shelter as it does to provide someone with housing) but because these systems are in place to control and divide and disempower certain communities. A world where, as in ours, big businesses make a ton of money profiting off the poor decisions that people in a tough spot are forced to make to survive.
Sauro spends time at the end fantasizing different revenge scenarios, and has not quite decided which he will go with or to whom. What do you think he will do with his power?
I hope he uses it to smash the state and unite his exploited brothers and sisters to build a new world of justice. I think he might. But maybe not. For me and many of my activist friends, coming to understand what it means to have a sexual identity (or gender, or race, or class) that’s hated and oppressed meant deciding to fight to fix that oppressive system . . . the Magneto school of oppressed identity formation. But I also know lots of folks who face oppression but for whatever reason don’t believe that the status quo needs changing, or don’t believe that they can change it . . . or believe that the best way to change the system is to become its biggest boosters, tying oneself in knots to be tolerated by the people who hate you—the Professor X approach. The story leaves Sauro in that pivotal moment where you’ve finally understood who you really are and what a fucked-up world it is . . . and that realization can make you decide to fight to fix it, or focus on doing for yourself and screw everyone else.
What is next—are you working on more short stories or something longer?
Stories, stories, always stories . . . but also a novel, maybe, or several, it depends, I don’t know, wow, this is a pretty simple question, but I still don’t think I know how to answer it, so I’ll refer you back to my earlier responses, where I sounded like I knew how to use words.
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