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.
Welcome back to Non-Binary Authors to Read! To my great shame, I let both this column, and its sibling column, Women to Read, lapse in the first half of the year. I don’t really have a good excuse. I’ve still been reading tons of fantastic fiction that I want to bring to people’s attention, but somehow I blinked and half the year is gone. But, better late than never! So without further delay, here are four new recommendations for your reading pleasure.
Richard Ford Burley is a speculative fiction author and poet, as well as Deputy Managing Editor of the journal Ledger. My recommended starting place for their work is “The Stealing Gift” published in the Summer 2021 issue of Kaleidotrope.
Thea is a war hero, or so the narratives about her claim. She’s retired now, but once she used her Gift to stop a bombardment of shells and bombs, saving hundreds of lives, though at the cost of her vision. Max, a former friend and the journalist who contributed to her legend, and Esme, an army Engineer whose own Gift allows her to use technology to replicate the Gifts of others, have come to beg Thea to explain how she did what she did in hopes of saving more lives and maybe even ending the war.
She closes her eyes again, remembering what she’d done with her Gift that day. She can still see the wall of shimmering, golden light, the brilliant incendiary explosion she couldn’t look away from—that she’ll never be able to look away from again. And she remembers the way that Max and the other embedded press had reported it. “Thea White, National Hero,” the newspapers had proclaimed. But the headlines were as accurate at the stories that followed. As they’d squawked on about Heroism and the National War Effort and her Great Sacrifice, they’d never once managed to approach the truth.
The story is at once beautifully-written and heartbreaking, examining the cost of war, and the narratives surrounding it that forward a picture of heroism while denying individuals their lived truths of grief, guilt, and suffering. Thea has already given all can for the war, and lost so much, yet the world wants more of her. From the outside, her refusal looks like selfishness, or cowardice. The popular narrative of her great heroism only increases her own feelings of powerless and guilt, as if she should be able to stop the war, save more lives, and protect those that matter to her, but she cannot.
In contrast to Thea’s suffering, Esme could easily have been a flat character caught up in idealism and believing the propaganda fed to her. However, Burley gives us something more nuanced – a character who still holds on to hope, who genuinely wants to help others, and who sees Thea’s pain and wants to help her as well. Neither of them are wrong, and the understanding they build over the course of the story adds another layer of richness. While the subject matter is painful, dealing with loss, survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and the horrors of war, the darkness is balanced with characters caring about each other and genuinely desiring to do good in the world.
Kel Coleman is an author and editor, and my recommended starting place for their work is a bit of a cheat as I’m recommending a “A Study of Sage” published at Diabolical Plots in February, paired with “Delete Your First Memory for Free” published in Fiyah Magazine #17. As I already reviewed “Delete Your First Memory for Free” in my May 2021 Words for Thought column in Apex Magazine, I’ll focus on “A Study of Sage” here, while touching on why the stories make for excellent paired reading.
“A Study of Sage” opens with the main character using a simulation to practice breaking up with their girlfriend, Sage. But no matter how many times they try, nothing ever seems to go right – they end up feeling clumsy, guilty, apologizing, wanting to take Sage back and smooth things over. All the while, Sage delivers passive-aggressive comments and cutting remarks, twisting the protagonist’s words and making them feel small.
I don’t remember the exact words, how she explained that I needed her more than she’d ever needed me, but each syllable pecked and nipped until I was shredded. I tried to dredge up the script from dozens of simulations, reply with something smart and insightful, but the real Sage was more vicious than the designers could’ve gleaned from her social media profiles or my account of our relationship. I hadn’t seen her clearly, not after six years, not even near the end.
The story pairs nicely with “Delete Your First Memory for Free” in that both showcase Coleman’s talent for stories with incredibly personal stakes, where technology is used in an innovative way to solve one person’s problem. There are no apocalypses on the horizon; humanity is not at stake, and maybe no one else will even notice the change wrought by the story’s end, but to the protagonists of both tales, the change matters deeply. It’s an intimate kind of storytelling that we don’t always see in science fiction. Stories where protagonists employ technology to save their community, or even the world at large, are lovely too, but it’s nice to see a story one person’s life is altered and it is enough. Coleman does small-scope stakes very effectively, underlining that stories whose events impact just one person are still well-worth telling.
M. B. Hare is an author of weird fiction, and my recommended starting place for their work is “You, Tearing Me Apart on Stage” published in Fusion Fragment #4.
Terry Weldon is a pop icon, forever young-looking through a variety of enhancements, and forever beautiful. Every aspect of his life, his image, and his career is heavily managed.
Brand consistency is what sells me. Biweekly hormone suppression. Luxury iris reconfiguration. Hair re-glossing, liposuction, selective liquification pills. A carefully curated avatar in meatspace and the digital that maintains broad demographic appeal without appearing to change over the years in any significant way.
Celebrity holds little appeal anymore, but neither does real life. Terry goes through the motions every night, performing as if watching someone else. Then one night he receives an invitation to a club on a shady server. Even knowing it’s a bad idea, he goes for the sheer fact that it’s something different and new, only to discover that the club’s specialty is virtual celebrities, including John Lennon, Britney Spears, and himself, who die and or dismember themselves on stage in a gory and realistic fashion in front of a wildly cheering crowd.
It’s a short and powerful story that explores the dark side of celebrity and the idea that their bodies and lives are public property. A nude pictures leaks, and the celebrity themself is blamed. Paparazzi follow them everywhere, and if they dare complain, they’re called ungrateful. They’ve been paid in fame and recognition and therefore owe the public access to every single aspect of their lives. Hare takes this line of thinking to the extreme, as Terry’s image is literally dissected for the pleasure of the crowd, and of course, it’s Terry doing it to himself, because who does he have but himself to blame? By being famous, he asked for this. He’s made himself into a commodity for his fans’ approval, who is he to object when he’s consumed? It’s an effective exploration of the ways in which the line between public and private, product and producer, can blur, and the unhealthy relationships that can develop between fans and content creators.
Nhamo is an author of dark, speculative fiction, and my recommended starting place for their work is “Before Whom Evil Trembles” published in Anathema Magazine.
This story pairs nicely with Hare’s, showing another side of celebrity, and the darkness – both metaphorical and literal – that can lie behind a public persona. The protagonist is a ballerina, relentlessly driven and highly successful, but behind the façade of her success, her life is miserable. When she was a child, her mother was murdered, reduced in the headlines to a “dead prostitute”. Her mother’s profession, murder, and the fact that she’s Arabic lead the ballerina to be bullied as a child and mean she has to work at least twice as hard for every scrap of success.
Even now, those around her primarily perceive her worth based on her skill as a dancer; she is still treated with suspicion, questioned as to whether she belongs when staying in a hotel with the rest of the company, viewed as an outsider and possibly a criminal due to the color of her skin. She is not seen as a human being, rather as a dancer or a threat, depending on who is perceiving her, until ultimately it is revealed that she may indeed something more than human after all.
The fur begins to sprout about your neck and face while you stand in the center of the stage, struck prostrate. En pointe. The toes that form the foundation of your grace—battered, bruised, black beneath satin slippers. Black with and without the bruising.
The story is full of striking imagery and beautiful, poetic language. As with Hare’s story, Nhamo’s explores public versus private identity, but also the question of a person’s worth and the way people are too often valued by what they can do for others, rather than being valued for themselves. The story also looks at ideas of monstrousness and beauty, and what is considered acceptable in society (the monstrous ballerinas and their treatment of the protagonist) and what is not (the supernatural nature of the protagonist, and her mere existence as a brown woman).
I’ll try not to let things go so long before the next column, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy these stories. Happy reading!