A Review of Proud Pink Sky and World Running Down

Kelly Jennings on new novels by Redfern Jon Barrett and Al Hess

The premise of Redfern Jon Barrett’s Proud Pink Sky (Bywater Books, 2023) is intriguing: an alternative-universe Berlin, one in which, as the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, trans people rose up against them (as, later in New York, trans people rose up against the police). Though suffering heavy losses, the LGBTQ community eventually defeated the Nazis, and Berlin became The Gay Republic of Berlin. This novel is set later, in the 1990s. Berlin has been an independent city-state for decades, to which Lesbian and gay people worldwide have the right to immigrate and where they can become citizens – but there’s a catch. In 1953, we learn, a law was passed in Berlin: the Migrant and Asylum Act. This act made same-sex marriage a requirement for full citizenship.

We might expect, as naïve readers, a Gay Republic, populated with refugees who met persecution and oppression in their own countries, to be more accepting and tolerant than the societies they come from. But as one of the characters notes late in the book, ‘[T]hey need some of us to be on the outside, because people […] can only understand themselves by what they’re not.’

The novel follows two main characters: William, a young man from England who immigrates with his lover, Gareth; and Cissie, a young woman from America who comes to Berlin with construction worker husband. Berlin is divided into districts: Cissie and her family live in Hetcarsey, while William and Gareth end up in Q, where immigrants who are ‘undeclared’ live.

The immigration of William and Gareth is our first hint that the Gay Republic of Berlin, while having utopian aspects, is also a dystopia. William, bullied not just by his schoolmates but by his teachers and his parents, convinces Gareth to immigrate to Berlin. While being processed by Berlin immigration, they learn that they must marry if they want citizenship. Gareth is fine with this. He and William are a couple, he says, so why not marry? But William sees marriage as a thing straight people do, he thinks, and something his parents – his first bullies – did. For him, it is a trap. Also, although William does not understand this at this early point in the novel, he is still working out his gender and his sexuality. Gareth is upset by William’s refusal to marry, but William remains adamant. So their visas are stamped Undeclared, and they are sent to live in Q – for queer, I assume, though this is not made explicit.

Q is a slum. Like Hetcarsey (where non-citizen straight people live) and Remould (where the ‘gender subversive’ live) Q is subject to deliberate systemic oppression. These areas are not maintained by the city or policed. As we continue through the book, we learn that ‘gender subversion’ is illegal and heavily persecuted. Gender subversion includes being trans or genderfluid, or being polyamorous. Q is simply a slum, but Remould is a literal ghetto, gated and surrounded by a high stone wall. Even within Remould, ‘gender subversives’ are not safe from persecution and physical threats.

Kenneth Luvvie leads the increasing persecution of those who have been labelled gender subversives. Luvvie has a radio program, which is broadcast worldwide, in which he paints an idyllic picture of life in the Gay Republic, filled with happy families and healthy married citizens. He coaxes Lesbian and gay refugees to come to the city – it is his voice on the radio that saved William in his darkest hours in England, and it is Luvvie’s show that convinced William he and Gareth should emigrate – and for those already in the city, he argues for an oddly conservative lifestyle: marriage, children, clean living, hard work, and so on. His persecution of trans and genderfluid people arises from this worldview; toward the end of the novel, he advocates for their expulsion from the Republic. Indeed, a throw-away line lets us know that some people have already been deported for the crime of gender subversion – deported back to countries where they may be imprisoned or killed.

Not everyone is happy with a Republic that has such a narrow definition of gender and sexuality. Early in the book Cissie runs into protests and civil unrest, pushback from those who want a different sort of Berlin. Cissie sees graffiti on the walls even within Hetcarsey – Nix Boxes, it says. William and Gareth see the same graffiti. Neither they nor we are sure what Nix Boxes means at first, but eventually we come to understand that the graffiti means something like ‘Don’t make boxes and force people to live in them.’

Like most utopian/dystopian novels, the main point of this novel is showing us a hypothetical universe – what would the world be like if LGBTQ people had defeated, or at least helped to defeat, the Nazis? What would a city-state run by and for LGBTQ people be like? What would that city be like if Gay and Lesbian conservatives took such a city over in the 1950s and began walling out any sort of sexuality except masculine cisgendered gay and cisgendered Lesbians. (Lesbians can be both femme and butch, but they too are not allowed to be poly or trans or fluid.) How would straight conservative cisgendered men, brought to this city as workers, react to a city-state in which they are the oppressed, rather than the oppressors? Utopian novels tend to be weak when it comes to having an actual plot, but Barrett dodges that problem – there is also a plot here, to add tension to our tour of the Republic and its ways – almost too much tension, toward the end of the novel. But I’m glad to report that Proud Pink Sky had a relatively happy ending, and both Cissie and William find their way to the lives they deserve.

Cover by Al Hess

Al Hess’s World Running Down (Angry Robot, 2023), set in a future Utah, follows a trans man, Valentine, and his cisgendered business partner, Ace, who are trying to earn enough money to buy visas into Salt Lake City. They work at scavenging and at making deliveries of scavenged goods to the communities trying to survive in the wasteland around the city.

Salt Lake City itself is a relative paradise, where Valentine’s medical needs, including HRT and top surgery, would be available at no cost to him, and where both of them could live in safety and comfort. But saving up enough money for visas into the city is slow-going. The wastelands are filled with pirates (including a band of Mormon pirates), and much of their money goes to expenses: food, weapons, the fuel cells needed to keep their van running. Valentine has lately begun skipping his T-shots, in the hopes of adding to their savings more rapidly; the resulting dysphoria haunts him. Near the start of the novel, while they are making a delivery, Valentine encounters an android, Osric, with a job offer: retrieve a group of androids stolen by the former manager of a brothel, who are out in the wastelands somewhere. (Androids are non-sentient robots with no civil rights, housed in biologically human bodies.) Payment for this job includes two visas, one for each of them. This is the score they’ve been waiting for.

Much of the plot involves the attempt by Ace and Valentine to find these androids and bring them back to Salt Lake City, and it’s a good plot, with complications and surprises. But the real matter of the novel is dual. First, there is the burgeoning romance between Osric and Valentine, who share, among other things, the experience of being trapped in bodies which do not match their interior selves.

Osric is a steward, which is to say a powerful AI used to help run Salt Lake City. Through an error, he has been downloaded into an android body. In general, androids lack self-awareness and the ability to reason. They are, as Ace puts it, ‘rudimentary robots in meat bodies.’ Stewards, on the other hand, have both self-awareness and a great deal of intellectual power, and are recognized as citizens of the city. Stewards, beings without biological bodies, have no trouble understanding that gender is located in the intellect and in the spirit, not shaped by a physical form; so Osric understands Valentine’s gender at once. ‘I know how it feels to have people look at you and not see how you really are,’ he tells Valentine. ‘Or refuse to see it.’ And Valentine understands what it means for Osric to be trapped in a body which does not match his identity. Early on in the novel he forms a commitment to getting Osric out of his android body and back into the AI network.

The second major concern of the novel is the issue of self-determination, that ability that humans have and, it turns out, stewards share, to make decisions about their own lives. This is hinted at by a number of small details – the Mormon pirates wearing CTR jewellery for instance. (CTR means Choose the Right, and it’s part of the LDS belief in individual agency: we may be born into or find ourselves with terrible options, but by making the right choices, we can reach better circumstances.) About midway through the novel, Osric and Valentine come into conflict when Valentine makes choices for Osric without consulting him; and later, when they find the missing androids and some of them turn out to be self-aware, Valentine and Osric unite in their commitment to helping the androids be free to make their own choices, even if that means abandoning the visas which are nearly within their grasp.

There’s nice world-building here – I especially like the Mormon pirates – and a happy ending for nearly everyone, but the best part of this novel is the focus on those two subjects: what it tells us about gender identity, and what it tells us about people’s ability to make choices, including choices about their gender identity. Hess’s understanding of trans issues, and what being trans is like, also make this book very much worth reading. Highly recommended! ∎

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings now lives in the Boston Mountains, where she writes, teaches about, and reviews science fiction. Her short story ‘History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs’ appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 35th Annual Collection. Her most recent novel In the Deep, was published by Candlemark & Gleam in 2021. Follow her blog at delagar.blogspot.com

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