Rich and Strange: Sam J Miller's "We Are the Cloud"
Welcome to the first instalment of Rich and Strange, a weekly review of short fiction I’ve really enjoyed!
Set in a near-future New York where the disenfranchised sell a portion of their brains to “cloud-porting” — functioning as living nodes processing wireless data for rich people — “We Are the Cloud” is focused on Angel Quiñones, nicknamed Sauro, a 17-year-old in his twelfth group home and “inches away from turning eighteen and aging out.” While there he meets Case, a gay white kid of the same age, and falls in love, catalysing a process of reflection and discovery about himself and the place afforded him by the world in which he lives.
I wanted to tell him about what I had learned, online. How many hundreds of millions of dollars the city spent every year to keep tens of thousands of us stuck in homes like Egan House. How many people had jobs because of kids like us. How if they had given my mom a quarter of what they’ve spent on me being in the system, she never would have lost her place. She never would have lost me. How we were all of us, ported or not, just batteries to be sucked dry by huge faraway machines I could not even imagine.
I loved this story unabashedly: Sauro’s voice and vulnerability, the generosity of his character, and the integrity of his engagement with the unflinching awfulness of the premise are tremendously effective. It’s a heart-breaking, harrowing piece, made all the more so by that near-future vision’s many intersections with the present: in his Author Spotlight, Miller expands on the realities of foster kids’ prospects and the gross systemic injustices they face. It’s also a desperately elegant story, combining a careful structure with a depth and intensity of emotion that puts me in mind of ivy bursting from a brick wall; the very controlled, deliberate punctuation of Sauro’s present with moments from his past is a mixing of mechanical and organic reminiscent of the cloud-ports themselves.
As much as it’s about being a gay kid coming of age in dreadful circumstances, and about pain and betrayal, and about race and class, it’s necessarily also a meditation on different perceptions and realities of power. Sauro’s 6″6, dark-skinned, and muscular; in the story’s first scene he’s called Goliath, intimidating Case’s assailant with a word and a look. In literally the next moment, he’s utterly at Case’s mercy, helpless with attraction, and terrified by it, willing to do anything Case asks of him. Their relationship is a brilliant investigation of the Mandingo stereotype, exploring and exposing its projection on to Sauro as a damaging fantasy, an imaginary power conferred on him in order to justify his exploitation. This dynamic is repeated, reversed, and turned inside out over the course of the story with dexterity and skill.
If I felt the story had any shortcoming, it was in the ending, and this was only a matter of rhythm; I wanted perhaps two more sentences to wrap it up somehow, to bring it to a fade-out ending instead of an abrupt stopping. The stopping works thematically, potentially with a sort of clever ironic twist (not a plot twist, just a sort of arch meta twist) — but this is a story that’s been nerve-strikingly intelligent throughout rather than merely clever, so I’d rather not read the ending with the glibness I can imagine justifying it stopping the way it does.
Definitely rich, definitely strange, as well as moving, beautiful and intense, “We Are the Cloud” was an incredible read, and one I highly recommend.
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