Three-A-Week (4.2): Sam J Miller’s “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History”

Published in Uncanny Magazine (Issue 2)

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

This is a really incredible story. I knew a little about the Stonewall riots, but I found myself pushed to find out more in order to really appreciate “The Heat of Us,” which is a good thing, I think. So often, the speculative work I read seems desperate to leave the world behind, to disavow its influences and divorce itself from reality. This, of course, is impossible, and the works that attempt it miss out on what speculative work excels at: escaping to better understand your present. Good fantasy, in particular, leverages magic or the supernatural to help understand reality; I think it’s actual better at doing reality than most real fiction. (That all sounds very academic-y and sterilized–I think, though, the love and joy found in those speculative elements is really important, too. I just want to recognize the other side of how awesome fantasy is!). “The Heat of Us” is a story that understands perfectly its orientation toward reality. It’s so steeped in a historical moment that the speculative element is at once powerfully emotional and importantly political.

I’m so completely torn in my reaction to this story. I loved it–totally. But both times I read it I had a weird, dual reaction. The story resonates so profoundly as a consideration of systems of discrimination, parallels between pain and suffering, and the Stonewall riots, and it is also a really stunning and flat-out *cool* entangling of form and content. On the one hand, I feel like this story should be read and digested in quiet, alone. On the character level, Ben is absolutely (heart)broken over the death of his brother and his part in it; on the thematic level, the audience is asked to really critically and carefully think about how suffering between distinct populations is or isn’t similar. Is the pain of oppression universal or specific to the oppressed (or the oppresser)? This is serious stuff, and it should be considered with the full weight of the thick silence that comes after reading a powerful story.

But on the other hand, the content twists with the form in such an exciting and interesting way that it makes me want to chatter endlessly (to myself, since there was no one else around except for Cassie (who is a cat) when I finished). There’s so much coolness in the way Sam perfectly adopts the oral history form without becoming servant to it. The form accentuates the nature of the content: a story about people coming together to have their story told truthfully, to have themselves told truthfully, begs to be told this way. It’s so great. Seriously. Just go read it. And if you’ve already read it, reread it. I know I’m going to.

One thing kind of related to what I was talking about above: I was really fascinated by the varying positions on suffering/pain espoused by different characters in the story. Sargent Abraham Asher, even as he makes his really homophobic comments, asks what is an important question: if the deaths at the Stonewall happened because a group of people decided, communally, that they had had enough, why did the same thing not happen with those imprisoned in Auschwitz? In other words, what he’s really asking is whether or not this explosion of communal pain and sorrow and anger was specific to this group of people or whether it’s universal. Craig, whose opinion and perspective we trust more as readers, suggests that the lack of these incidents in history is actually the fault of those who read and write history. His suggestion that this sort of thing has happened before but not been recorded or understood implies a certain universality to pain that certainly resonates with the focus on community and interconnection present in the story. But at the same time, I wonder about this question of suffering. Is it something that isolates, that belongs to a single person, or a single community? Is feeling individual pain and suffering the privilege of those already connected and systematically supported? Or is it something that brings people together, something that forges connections? I’m not sure I have an answer, and I’m not sure “The Heat of Us” provides a conclusive answer, but it certainly believes in something hopeful about pain. And not only pain, but joy, both of which are working on the same kind of idea I saw in “We Are The Cloud,” which is this notion of powerful emotions enabling (or limiting) an individual’s ability to connect to those around him or her.

So much to think about! What could be better?

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