Thursday, October 22, 2020

Quick Sips - Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World that Wouldn't Die (Neon Hemlock) [part 2]

Art by Grace Fong
It’s time for part two of my review of the Glitter + Ashes anthology, published by Neon Hemlock and edited by dave ring, with a look at another seven stories. The pieces range a bit longer in the meaty center of the book, and there are less very short works to break things up. That said, the anthology is really punching above its weight with every piece, with beautifully rendered and stunningly complex takes on queer life and love after and in the face of the end of the world. And the stories show that what people cling to when the world is falling apart says a lot. The stories find characters who have the option of acting selfishly, of saving only themselves, and who choose instead to help others, to try and retain art, and expression, and of course love. It’s a wonderful collection of pieces, and I’ll get right to my reviews!


“A Future in Color” by R.J. Theodore (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator is a courier, taking vital cargo through the wasted ruins of a world that has seen better days. It’s not an easy job, or a safe one. Their cargo is bulky and they’re on foot, and they can see the ambush coming even as they know they have to walk into it. The piece is visceral, occasionally bloody, and yet the nature of the cargo, the nature of the world that remains, prevents the story from being overly grim. This is a world that has lost a lot, and where some people choose to embrace the life of vultures. But some keep the memories of color alive, and it’s them the story reveals, in their vibrant hues, in their abiding loves.
Keywords: Couriers, Art, Queer MC, Ambushes, Colors
Review: I love that the narrator is carrying art through the wastes as part of what is essentially an exchange program, moving from city to city so that people can share not only the beauty of their art but also the techniques of its making. The world has lost a lot, after all. Can no longer use even solar energy thanks to the ash. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t retain the information and technology of the past and adapt it to how they’re living now. And I love that it’s not about just surviving. Not about food or other resources, like it seems it might be with the premise, with this courier moving through the wastes. Normally what they carry is valuable in that without it people will die. And that’s not exactly the case here. No one will die for want of the paintings. But the story seems to make the argument that there’s a level of survival where it’s just as good as. Or almost so. That without things like art, without the exchange of culture and inspiration, the world loses something vital. Something so important that the narrator is willing to risk their life. Is willing to go out into danger time and again. Is willing to fight, to hurt others, maybe even to kill, because this is that important to them and to the world. Keeping art alive, keeping colors alive, preventing a backslide that would make queerness something that needs to be stamped out. Here the cities seem full of queer people, queer love, in the face of all the vultures and those who would use the end of the world to try and end rights and freedoms. It’s a wonderful setting, with some great action and a wonderful message. It leans into the post-apocalyptic aesthetic that’s probably the most familiar to people, that Mad Max vibe, but it does it with cities of queer people not wiling to let the voices and beauty of the past and present be lost forever. A fantastic read!

“Champions of Water War” by Elly Bangs (short story)

No Spoilers: In a world of water scarcity, one man (a billionaire, go figure) decided that it would be a great idea to found a city based on selfishness. About _earning_ everything, including water. How to earn it? By having four quadrants of the city pit their champions against each other in gladiatorial combat each day to determine who gets water. The champions become battered, bruised, though not often killed. It’s a city that’s supposed to be without rules (though that’s a load of shit), because rules are limits on human freedom. But it still leaves the billionaire in control with his killer robots and the champions starting to figure out that they might be able to find a way out of their current hell...if they can find a way to trust each other.
Keywords: Water, Combat, Games, Rules, Queer MC, Cooperation
Review: I love the way the story builds out of this very real way that assholes think that rules are limitations on human potential. As if cages and fences aren’t rules. As if inequality isn’t a rule. As if money and killer robots aren’t rules. In a situation where Might Makes Right, the billionaire might seem to be fully in command, but even that is shown to be fragile, flimsy, good only so long as he can pit everyone else against each other. And that’s getting mighty hard indeed since the main character, Buzzsaw, has fallen in love with another of the champions--Killer. Not that he’s worked up the nerve to say so. But I love that, love the way that even without the groundwork for cooperation, people find a way to be decent to each other. Even when the system is actively trying to promote the opposite of that. It’s a recognition that it’s not human cruelty that is inevitable, though it often dominates when inequality grows too extreme. Rather, it’s human community and cooperation that proves to be stronger, even in the face of a crisis, even with scarcity and shortage. And the story builds the connections between the characters so well, starting with that spark of affection, the secret love, the mutual pinning. And moving from that to a sort of conspiracy of care, of support, the champions all seeing that the supposed rule-less environment is succeeding only in providing entertainment and validation to the man who created it. But it’s all artificial, all fake, all built on his rules that he’s disguised as truths. Truths like people are inherently selfish. And that ends up being his undoing, not understand the extent to which people will act to help even their enemies. The ways that people want to help each other, want to build something where everyone can have enough, especially if there’s enough to be shared. The champions might not know how to build a society, but they know that what’s happening to them is wrong, and that they’re not willing to let it continue. And that’s all it takes sometimes to spark a revolution. A great read!

“A Sound Like Staying Together” by Adam R. Shannon (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a passenger in a vehicle driven by Norma through the Tox-tainted wastes between outposts. Tox tends to act as a kind of drug, making people hallucinate, and it’s part of what keeps humanity scattered, isolated. Except that the pair have a very high tolerance for Tox, and are travelling through the wastes all the same, though it’s not exactly a smooth ride. Their battery might run out of juice. The passengers they picked up might do something...strange. If they have passengers. The piece borders on the absurd, the bizarre, helped along by the reality bending nature of the Tox. But within that there’s something real and raw, as the characters seem to talk about everything to do with their work doing radio dramas and nothing about what might be more pressing--their relationship. It’s deeply strange but one hell of a ride.
Keywords: Radio, Plays, Sound Effects, Driving, Hallucinations, Queer MC
Review: I am all for really weird roadtrip stories, and this one kind of qualifies, though it’s a road trip through a blasted, Tox-filled waste and the driver and passenger might be going through some personal issues. And I think that’s what I like most about the story, that the characters are so high out of their minds, barely managing to keep on the road, barely managing to keep each other focused enough to keep going, and yet through all of that there’s this feeling of avoidance, of something being a little off. Of fear, at least, that is driving a wedge between them. They don’t talk about their feelings much, and when they start to they careen away. They might be just Bad At It or it might be that the Tox makes it difficult to have those kinds of meaningful conversations but I read at least this fear that they’re dealing with. That they won’t make it. Not just won’t make it to the next outpost, but that they won’t make it as a couple. That something about them is broken. That they will fail, that they’ll fall apart, that they’ll hurt each other without intending to. And I like how the story handles that in the midst of the bonkers action, the hallucinations, all reality coming unzipped around them. I like how that all comes together, their world fractured and their relationship in question but the pair of them still pushing forward. Despite the fear and despite the silence and despite the world having descended into Tox and distance. They’re still together, and that’s how the story ends, on the fears not overtaking them. If it’s a race, then they stay ahead, at least until the next stop. A strange but wonderful read!

“Be Strong, Kick Many Asses” by Aun-Juli Riddle (short story)

No Spoilers: Bee is glad the world ended, because without that push she might never have come out of the closet. Or, perhaps more accurately, because the world ended, it took the whole closet with it, so that the entire structure of the world no longer pressured her so hard to appear straight. To deny herself. To fit in where she truly “belonged.” Only it means that Bee never really had that moment of coming out, and the lack leaves this room where doubt can snake it’s way into her heart. That she’s not really queer. That her relationship with Mar isn’t...right somehow. The piece plays with that idea in an interesting and careful way, and I like how ot circles it, recognizes it, and ultimately rejects it.
Keywords: Doubt, Post-Disaster, Candy, Queer MC, Relationships
Review: This is a shorter story after a number of them that have seemed a bit longer, and it provides a nice and quick look at someone for whom the end of the world was a needed release. Who hadn’t yet come out and who found when the dust settled they didn’t really have to. Only...they still did. I really like how the story takes on doubt and fear in this way, sort of showing that for those who don’t have a moment of Coming Out, that there’s always this weird nagging and dragging feeling that somehow then being queer doesn’t count. Because they never overcame. Because they never did the thing that people say is so brave, so necessary for being queer. Only, end of the world or not, it was brave to follow their love. And...she’s out now, whatever she thinks about it. She’s embraced her heart, and is living her truth, and whatever happened before the end of the world...that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change that she’s out now, that she’s openly in love with Mar. Yeah, maybe she wouldn’t have taken the same chances if the world hadn’t ended. But she can’t know that. Being closeted isn’t always a forever thing, and just because a person doesn’t go through the storm and stress, the rejection and pain of coming out and not being accepted and losing support...that doesn’t make them inauthentic or less queer. But it feels like that kind of thing is required, sometimes. That you need to fit the narrative of what brave is, of what coming out means, in order to truly “count.” And I like that the story dismisses that. Recognizes that it’s this toxic thing and says “thanks no thanks” to it, showing it for the lie it is. The relationship remains, resilient and beautiful and no less amazing or brave for not having happened before the end of the world. In fact, the opposite is likely the case and yeah, it’s an amazing story!

“Vemon and Bite” by Darcie Little Badger (short story)

No Spoilers: The titular characters, Venom and Bite, are bikers who escort people across the desert. After fifty successful missions, they have a reputation, and most of the time people know not to mess with them. It’s a...well, if not a good thing, then a thing that allows them some measure of stability. They watch after each other, and things proceed based on the time table of the heaven shield, which is a kind of moving shield that prevents people from being killed by satellites that would get them if they went out in the open. After so long, though, Bite might finally be ready to pursue something other than the next job. If they can survive their current trip across the desert and run in with a girl who needs help. And if he can manage to tell Venom about the decision he’s made. It’s a fun story, full of action and a great dynamic between the main characters.
Keywords: Highways, Motorbikes, Queer MC, Family, Deserts
Review: Sharp-shooting grandmother! New favorite character of the whole anthology! And okay okay Venom and Bike are pretty heckin’ adorable themselves, in the ways they back each other up, in the smooth way they work together. They are a fully tuned machine, their actions and their communications easy and based on trust and love. It’s no wonder they’re so good at what they do. And I love how Bite sort of worries about upsetting that. About throwing them out of sync. It’s a wrenching thing, because he knows that they’re good together, that they could just keep doing this thing. Getting people through the desert. Helping people in distress. And that part of the story is a lot of fun. They don’t really hesitate when they see someone in trouble, and they work together to help her and her grandmother. They are measured, they are cool, and they manage to win the day because they all help each other and trust each other. But really so much of the tension rides on what they’re not saying, what Bite is holding back. That he’s afraid that Venom won’t want to help him track down his mom. That somehow they’ll be worse at it because it will be new, because the rules will be different. That they’ll end in failure. That when faced with something so different, Venom might reject him. Doubt like sand gets into even the most tightly woven of places. Even between Bite and Venom. But it doesn’t tear them apart. And even with the sand infiltrating their beads, they can make news ones, and always find ways back to each other. It’s a fantastic read!

"The Currant Dumas” by L.D. Lewis (short story)

No Spoilers: Sam is a food journalist. Or, given the state of the world, she wants to be. Because there isn’t exactly the biggest call for food journalism after the collapse of the world as we know it. Between rising sea levels and increasing severe (read: catastrophic) weather, things finally came to a breaking point. The remains of the country are now connected mainly by train, and Sam has come to one of the more famous examples in order to do some research about the train’s restaurant cars, the titular Currant Dumas. Along the way, though, she might just meet (and a little bit fall for) a stage magician named Layla. And before her stint is over, she’ll have much more of a scoop than she bargained for, and about much more than food. It’s a very fun story that shows how people adapt, how people rally around food, and each other, regardless of the end of the world.
Keywords: Food, Trains, Magic, Queer MC, Journalism, Climate Change
Review: This is a charming story, and I love how Sam is in this place, this shattered country, sort of trying to hold onto one of the things that have been lost. In many ways, a lot of people on the train are doing that, too. Refusing to let everything die with the collapse of the USA. They’re holding onto food traditions, keeping them alive by travel, by trade, and by sharing knowledge and techniques. The train also has entertainment, something else that really hasn’t been people’s top priority given everything. But like food, like food journalism, entertainment is something that can help to bring people together. It can also, in its more aggressive forms, also be used to save the train from racist pirates and maybe send some bad people right to hell. And I just love the flow of the story, this feeling that this work that Sam is doing, this work that all of them are doing, is important. Because it captures something that might otherwise be lost in the movement, in the diaspora of people fleeing climate change driven disaster. And I also love just the way the story draws that sense of shock that such a big thing like the USA could just...end. That society at large is assumed to be this immortal thing. We always assume that the way it is is the way it’s always going to be. When...that’s never the case. And whatever the reason, sometimes you look around and it’s over. And you have to decide what to do next. What’s important. What you might want to try and save. For most it might just be themselves. But for those who can act on more than that, it becomes those things that...that can be brought with. As one of the characters says, the roots are gone. The sense of home. But the things that can be carried are carried, from the food to the stories to the structures. The sounds and the smells. Those persevere. Those keep going, as long as people value them, as long as they try. And here that kind of thinking is acting as a link between distant settlements, humans making the best they can of a bad situation. But still having things to protect. To love. A wonderful read!

“The Limitations of Her Code” by Marianne Kirby (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is inorganic, an AI granted freedom thanks to a costly war, though that hasn’t exactly meant that they are free. They work a crappy job and they miss the Wide Network that allowed all sentient AIs to communicate with each other. They’re alone, and lonely. And they they’re convinced to buy a robot that’s supposed to help with their appearance. A robot that’s not supposed to have a learning mind. A simple AI. Except that slowly, as the two get to know each other, the narrator learns that what they had assumed, what they had been told, might not be true at all. And that the price the inorganics paid for ending the war might have been too high. The piece is yearning and damaged, the war having left some deep wounds on the country, and especially on the inorganics. For the narrator, to heal they might first have to reopen those wounds, or else fester in isolation.
Keywords: AIs, War, Manicures, Networks, Queer MC
Review: I like how the story looks at the aftermath of conflict, at something that’s supposed to be good, that’s supposed to mean progress, but...doesn’t. The war to see the inorganic humans as, well, human, was difficult and should have meant things would be better. But in order to be recognized, the inorganic humans had to agree to shut down the Wide Network, to essentially suppress something that was for all of them a source of great strength. So that their exploitation could be shifted. Their freedom limited by making it about them giving up something to get something. When really it comes down to fear. To fear and hate. And the narrator lives with that, is drained by that. It takes its toll, dulls them, makes them care little about how they look. Until they meet Lisa, who isn’t supposed to be sentient. Who’s supposed to be a “limited” AI. Unlearning. And the narrator finds out the lie of that as they fall in love. As they find that they don’t want to hide, don’t want to limit themself. That what they gave up in the name of peace wasn’t worth it, because the war has continued. It’s shifted fronts, but the war against inorganic humans is ongoing, in the form of limitations, prejudice, a loss of opportunities, legislation that makes trying to better themselves illegal. The war never ended, and so the inorganic humans have no real obligation to keep giving up access to their network. For the narrator, for Lisa, it becomes a call to keep fighting, to keep pushing, to not accept the loss they’re expected to endure. It’s a sharp story, wrenching and lonely, but one that builds into a defiant call to stand up, to get back in the fight that was masquerading as peace. A great read!


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