Book Reviews Non-Binary Authors To Read Smuggler Army

Non-Binary Authors to Read November/December 2019

Non-Binary Authors To Read is a regular column from A.C. Wise highlighting non-binary authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.

L.X. Beckett is a Toronto-based author, and my recommended starting place for their work is Gamechanger.

In the Bounceback generation, humanity is recovering from the environmental and social damage done by prior generations. Everyone is networked, every move and conversation recorded for the sake of transparency, and the currency of the day is social capital – strokes and strikes for good and bad behavior. Instead of single jobs, there is a gig economy, where individuals can sign up as needed to pilot drones, work clean-up crews, provide security, and more. Family units consist of multiple spouses, elders, and there’s a strict one-child policy in place; the right to have children must be earned. AI and VR are ubiquitous, with the majority of human interactions taking place in personal e-states, public gaming gyms, and other virtual spaces.

Rubi Whiting is one of the top gamers in the world. She’s also a legal advocate, currently balancing work for her client, the mysterious Luciano Pox, her rivalry with Gimlet Barnes, her in-game arch nemesis, and protecting her father, Drow Whiting, the so-called Mad Maestro, a musical genius, with extreme PTSD and a history of trauma and attempted suicide. Rubi’s pet cause is SeaJuve, a project to rejuvenate the oceans and put an end to oxygen scarcity. In the course of trying to secure funding for the project, unravel the mystery of her client’s true identity, and care for her father, Rubi becomes embroiled in a much larger plot than she ever imagined – one that may involve a secret immortality cult and the emergence of sentient AI. And the key to unravelling it all is winning a match against Gimlet Barnes in a Revolutionary France-inspired sim, a proposition complicated by Rubi’s growing attraction to her best frenemy.

“Rubi had lost big in their previous battle, a superhero thing. She’d apparently lost perspective, too. Once Gimlet was in, there was no chance she’d stop, not even for a better shot at levelling her mash-up of careers into a single permajob as a public defender. Thrill of adrenaline, rat-a-tat of machine guns, crossbow-driven stakes. Sim blood spraying as buildings collapsed. Players and audience tooning in by the tens of thousands.”

Beckett weaves together multiple threads and storylines in Gamechanger to create a story that feels truly sprawling and epic. Their characters and world feel deep and lived-in, and the future they offer up a highly-plausible, extrapolating forward the way society currently engages with social media. The novel’s scope can almost be dizzying at times, but the story is always engaging and at over 550 pages, it still manages to be a fast-paced, page-turning read. The characters are fantastic, and each gets their own journey and arc to complete. Beckett writes them all with compassion, allowing them to be simultaneously strong and capable, but also vulnerable and capable of leaning on each other. Gamechanger is a wonderful read, and I’m already looking forward to Beckett’s next work!

Omar William Sow is a queer, trans Sengalese writer and poet, and my recommended starting place for their work is “Promise Me This is Ours” recently published at Strange Horizons.

“Promise Me This Is Ours” © 2019 by Sarah Gonzales

Abdou is a programmer, coding realistic virtual worlds. He maintains his own private world as well, one where he torments himself with visions of his lost friend, his love, Mamadou. Under the new government, being gay is a crime that can get one sent to the mines, which are fraught with danger and prone to collapse. Abdou is caught between fear and hope, wanting to search for Mamadou, but afraid of what he may find if he does.

I stop at his side, tilting my head, trying to read his face. His gaze is steady and fixed on the star far beneath us. Light dances across his face and the sea of a galaxy around us, smaller stars and violet and pink and gold dust spreading out of sight. The farthest dots circle slowly, but all else seems still. But still, there is so much noise. So many voices, a sea of yelling, laughing, whispering beings.

“Promise Me This is Ours” is beautifully-written and dream-like, moving through longing-filled dreams and virtual reality, contrasted with the harsh realities of day-to-day life. Sow paints a gorgeous picture of a budding relationship cut short, and Abdou’s paralysis in the face of what seems like impossible odds. He knows how dangerous the mines are, but he can only take his inquiries so far without risk of exposing himself. He feels like he’s betraying Mamadou’s memory, and at the same time, he fears finding out Mamadou’s ultimate fate. He desperately wants resolution, but that resolution frightens him– as long as he keeps seeking without finding, there’s still a chance that Mamadou is alive, but if he stops short of definite answers, there’s no chance of a reunion.

Abdou’s dilemma is heart-breaking, but given hope through the idea of a haven, a private place where Abdou and Mamadou promised to meet each other again. The story pairs nicely with Sow’s “Ibrahim and the Green Fishing Net” published in Fiyah #11, another story of loss and longing, but set toward the end of the titular character’s life as he comes back to the love he lost as a youth, and finally reaches closure. Both shares themes of loss, longing, secret love, and reunion, and would make good back-to-back reading.

H.E. Casson is a Canadian library technician and author, and my recommended starting is their flash fiction piece “Seeking Same” published in Apparition Literary Magazine.

The story opens with Lumi receiving the message “I’m dying and I need your help.” Rather than alarm, their first reaction is frustration. The message is from Kit, their first love, who they met when they were fifteen via the online dating app Krushd.

My screen name was Lumi, which means snow. The base was so far north, it seemed right. Snow trapped me. Snow covered everything. Still, when I was sad, I would go up on top of one of the buildings and lie down. The small white flakes would dance and glow as they hit the lights from the base. Even the army couldn’t tell the snow how to fall.

After months of exchanging messages, Lumi discovered Kit was a bot who scammed thousands of Krushd users, leaving Lumi broken-hearted and humiliated. Now, Krushd is preparing to shut down the servers and wipe Kit’s program, effectively “killing” Kit, and Lumi is uncertain how to react. Is their plea for help another scam, or do they owe Kit something for the relationship they shared and the love that felt real at the time?

Even at flash length, Casson still packs an emotional punch with this piece. They perfectly capture the feeling of young love, and the idea of falling into it passionately and whole-heartedly. This first love and first heartbreak are doubly poignant for Lumi as a trans teen at a time when trans rights were actively under attack, thinking that they’d found someone like themselves, who they could open up to, only to find their relationship was based on a lie. Casson balances the heartbreak with the strength, love, and acceptance Lumi finds with their current partner as an adult. “Seeking Same” offers up a touching exploration of love and relationships, and what counts as “real” when it comes to emotion. If a relationship feels real, and you gain something from it, it can still have meaning. As Lumi’s partner Akilah tells them, “Love can exist on only one side. Love can break every piece of your heart. Love can even be a lie. That doesn’t mean it isn’t love.”  

Akwaeke Emezi is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree for their adult fiction, however my recommended starting place for their work is their Young Adult debut, Pet.

Jam lives in a world without monsters. Her parents’ generation rose up to make the town of Lucille a better place, so Jam and her best friend Redemption are growing up in a kinder, a safer world, or so they think. When Jam accidentally cuts herself in mother’s art studio, and blood lands on her mother’s newest painting, it awakens a terrifying creature of horns and feathers and golden talons that crawls out of the canvas. The creature tells Jam it is there to hunt a monster, and that the monster is in Redemption’s house.

Jam’s parents recognize the creature; not the specific creature – who tells Jam to call it Pet – but they’ve encountered something like it before during their days as young revolutionaries. They tell Jam she needs to send the creature back into painting, but how can she possibly do so when her best friend might be in danger?

Maybe it had something to do with whenever this had happened before with Bitter’s work. Jam had no idea, and she could tell her parents were busy thinking in a small, separate bubble that was about protecting her but didn’t actually include her, the bubble that was their relationship, their marriage, somehow none of her business.

Pet is absolutely beautifully-written, poetic, but clear. At the same time, Emezi uses gorgeous language to confront difficult subject matter – the idea of the monstrousness hidden within the mundane, and the greatest danger coming from those you trust and love. The situation Jam is faced with is heartbreaking – not only the idea that a monster may be hidden among those she loves, but that telling her best friend the truth may hurt him and that uncovering the monster will tear his family apart.

The characters are wonderfully written and fully realized. It’s impossible not to root for Jam and Redemption, and for their friendship. Pet is suitably threatening and other, terrifying and awful in the true sense of the word. Emezi makes incredibly effective use of sound and silence throughout the novel. Jam’s largely non-verbal communication is paired with her ability to hear things others don’t, communicating mind-to-mind with Pet, and being attuned to her house in such a way that it sings to her, letting her know where others are, and when something is wrong. Because Jam is largely silent, and communicates through signing, when she does use her voice, it has extra power. This idea is extended in the way Jam shares or withholds information. Pet is largely a novel where characters communicate with each other, where parents believe and support the children, and where friends talk to each other. This makes Jam’s occasional and usually temporary decision to hold back information all the more painful and effective. Overall, Pet is beautiful and powerful, and has important things to say about the nature of evil, and the cost of rooting it out.

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