Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories (ed. Masha Gessen & Joseph Huff-Hannon)

-By Richard T. Watson

[Ed: This post, its subject, the distributing/promoting/reading of this post and of its subject, are probably illegal in Russia – a democratic major world power with 142.5 million people, holding a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and the host in February 2014 of probably the world’s third largest sports event, the Winter Olympics]

The democratic credentials of Putin’s Russia have been getting shakier and shakier in recent years (cf. Pussy Riot). After the suppression of pro-democracy protests in 2013 and the Kremlin’s ongoing support for Syria’s President Assad, the last thing President Putin needs is a new law that crushes the basic freedoms of millions of his own people at the same time that Russia enters the global sporting spotlight.

Unfortunately, in June 2013, Russia passed a law banning the promotion of ‘non-traditional’ lifestyles and the implication that homosexual relationships have an equal footing with heterosexual (read ‘normal’) ones. While homosexuality remains legal, there are fewer and fewer protections against hate crimes, and greater implication that being gay is not ok.

As I sit writing this (in relative safety in Britain), tens of millions of people around the world are watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. There were some good bits with huge, floating Soviet heads and a ring that failed to open up. It’s traditional for Olympic Opening Ceremonies to celebrate the achievements and values of the host nation; you might remember London 2012’s Opening Ceremony celebrated the Industrial Revolution, the NHS, British film and Shakespeare. With a global audience, you want to put your best wares out on the market.

Gay Propaganda by OR Books

The multi-lingual cover of Gay Propaganda, featuring images which may distress some viewers…

Campaigners around the world are using the Sochi Games to draw global attention to Russia’s new homophobic law. That campaign includes a rapidly-constructed collection of Russian LGBT love stories from OR Books, published in English and Russian, just in time for the Opening Ceremony. They call it Gay Propaganda, but it’s not shout-it-from-the-rooftops brainwashing, and it won’t try to change the world. But it might change people’s lives – their personal, intimate lives, if not public, global lives. It’s not as loud or bright as Pussy Riot, but it might have a longer-lasting effect.

Like the best propaganda, this isn’t about trying to change people’s minds; it’s not trying to persuade homophobes or even to legitimise gay relationships. It’s a book for the people in Russia (and dozens of other territories with homophobic laws and practices) whom this law punishes, reminding them that they are not alone. There are people who share their worldview, even when it seems that their friends, neighbours and their state are set against them. This is a book that knows homosexual relationships don’t need outside validation. Its distribution – illegally in Russia – is underground and covert, with the Russian-language ebook freely available for download. It is a book with a small printing run, to be read underground, on the edges of publishing; genuinely dangerous in the challenge it offers to attitudes and authoritarian dogma in Russia and around the world.

You can get an idea of what the introduction by Garry Kasparov’s like by reading this piece from the Guardian’s website today. But the stories aren’t as overtly political as the chess-grandmaster-turned-political-activist. They are honest, real and personal, deeply personal. They’re told by gay, lesbian and transsexual Russians in Russia and by some who’ve left for one reason or another – usually because Russia wasn’t a country that accepted their sexuality.

They’ve got their touching moments – people discovering their feelings, surprising themselves with their sexuality, deciding to make a go of relationships that don’t conform to the society around them – but although they’re love stories, they aren’t fairy tales. The lives are still being lived, the new law makes those lives difficult – if not illegal – and there aren’t happy endings here, as such. Sure, the couples who contribute their stories feel safe enough to do so, but the editors admit they spoke to people too scared to share, and it’s clear that the trend in Russia is not towards greater tolerance of ‘non-traditional’ lifestyles.

All Out's vans outside Coca-Cola's HQ

All Out’s vans outside Coca-Cola’s HQ

I urge you to read this if you can get hold of it. But more importantly, I urge you to take note of the issues raised and the freedoms at stake. There are organisations (like All Out, currently pressuring Olympic sponsors to speak out) working against Russia’s homophobic law and similar laws elsewhere, particularly during the two weeks of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Check them out, support them, and don’t stay silent while laws like this are allowed to stand, and state-sponsored prejudice goes unchecked.

Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson

-Reviewed by David Sheridan-

Whew. Just let me sit down a second, catch my breath. Whew, okay, yeah. That was Mason Johnson’s Sad Robot Stories, a free PDF (donation if you’re feeling so inclined) published by the Chicago Centre for Literature and Photography, and absolutely nothing to do with any other sad stories featuring robots by the same author with the same title that you might have encountered elsewhere.

It’s a hell of a ride, this hundred-page jaunt through the heart of the human experience. Following our eponymous sad robot through a journey both apocalyptic and messianic, this story touches issues of gender and species identity, love and affection, the forms and categories of faith and religion, the end of functioning and the desire to be ended (which Johnson doesn’t hesitate to call ‘death’ or ‘suicide’).

sad robot stories Mason Johnson

The meaningfully nameless ‘Robot’ begins the story, as far as he knows, the only robot in his factory (and quite possibly his culture) to have become dissatisfied with its place. Like modern-day robots his initial purpose is simple and repetitive: to check that washers are the right shape, and discard those that aren’t. We have robots that do this nowadays, but they don’t have burnished bronze skin and identity issues, just a light and a flicking metal finger. It’s a worthy and ancient sci-fi convention, making robots human-shaped even when they really have no need to be, and much of Johnson’s book revolves around the consequences, big and small, of that hubristic decision.

A listless dreamer, Robot is shunted from one job to another, functioning just as well as his co-workers, but fundamentally unsatisfied with any of his mindless work. He befriends the human Mike, who works in the same factory, and shoots pool and the breeze with him after their shifts end. Mike is a coarse former loser reformed and redeemed by love, and bit by bit, Robot finds himself being installed in his family, reading endless pulp novels, and learning the meaning of love.

Now, unlike most, I mean that very literally. Johnson’s Robot has feelings (in fact, all of the robots in this story have feelings, but seem mostly unaware). Robot, a functionally-immortal bronze colossus wracked with Marvinesque ennui, is the only one to learn the meaning of love. But love, for Robot, is a necessarily unrequited thing; he’s never told how to love, because nobody even imagines the possibility. Lacking membership of that emotional paradigm, he’s left alone, outside, Othered.

Exiled from human culture by his metal skin and alien mindset, and exiled from robot culture by his self-aware emotionality and longing after sensory experience, Robot is left entirely alone when the apocalypse exterminates humanity. In the hands of a less devoted author, the resulting suicide attempt – putting himself through an experience which would kill a human in moments, but surviving thanks to his own resilience – might have been darkly comic, but Johnson leads the reader through every thought. As the pain of loss wears off, the will to keep living returns. It’s harrowing and awful and you just can’t stop going, and that’s exactly the point. Robot’s life is harrowing and awful, and he just can’t stop, and he doesn’t even really have the language to express his sorrow.

For the most part, humans can only guess at the purpose of their existence. To fill the void in our understanding we tell stories, and it’s from these (not some inner instinct, like programming) that we learn the meanings of our emotional qualia. Johnson’s robots (particularly Robot himself) have picked up memes from their parents’ societies, but without any offer of adoption, both of the subcultures we meet suffer from powerful, alienating uncertainty. Each has, for example, either a ‘male’ or a ‘female’ chassis, to make their masters more comfortable, but since each individual has identical programming and no education about human culture they struggle to understand what, if anything, this means.

Johnson seems to zigzag around this idea. Robot, which identifies as male, has two loves in this story: Mike the human and Denton the mostly-androform female-identifying robot. Talking about Mike, Robot’s idea of his own gender seems irrelevant, and since he never confesses that love, we never really see the issue laid out. But Denton, who vividly describes her subtle, uneasy sensation of possessing the wrong chassis, obviously has an idea of her own gender as a relevant feature of her identity. I’m fairly certain that Johnson’s robots possess epiprogrammatic thoughts – let’s just call them ‘souls’ for now – but I have no idea if those souls are gendered or not.

Down each fork of this road is a different story: in one, a bisexual, species-queer protagonist struggles with the impossibility of confessing his love for his human friend. In the other, a robot adopts enough human ideas of gender to suffer dysphoria issues despite having neither gender nor sex. Both are fascinating, and both are brilliant, and like the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, I don’t really want to know which fork the author took. I’ll gladly discuss them both down the pub.

The world is full of stories detailing how robots, in the guise of anthropoid metal golems with human minds, might feel about identity and slavery. But this novella takes the golem conceit and skates around the big-T Themes, rather than going through them in the usual way. It winks meaningfully, even flirtatiously, as it passes them by, but you’re too busy with the experience to give them the attention they deserve on the way through. Only once it’s over do you look back and realise, whew, quite what a journey you’ve just been on.

Through love and loss and the end of the world, Robot endures. But as tough as his physical body might be, his soul is filled with sorrow. He pines for the return of experiences he never felt, and feels both the loss and the lack as fresh wounds. Reading along with him, I felt much the same, and it hurt so good.

Mosaic of Air by Cherry Potts

-Reviewed by Andie Berryman

Mosaic of Air is a lesbian collection originally released in 1992 with its re-release in 2013. So why re-issue stories from a particular era, in this case the 1980s: would the stories now be a bit dated? In her foreword, author Cherry Potts examines this decision herself, she points out which particular lines are now mercifully obsolete (such as ”He couldn’t very well marry Phillip, could he?”), but also points to the stories which still, sadly, portray elements of contemporary lesbian life.

Mosaic of Air by Cherry Potts

There’s a short piece called ‘Second Glance’ about a woman ‘cautiously searching for the cues’ before speaking to a woman in a bar (which the author points to in the foreword), I passed it around some LGBT friends (in their 20s and 30s) to gauge a reaction, they all read the piece, nodding their heads and simply saying ‘yes’.

The ground-breaking era of the second wave of feminism and the elements of women’s lives is present throughout the collection. In ‘The Ballad of Polly and Ann’ that element is incest. Not many words are wasted on the perpetrator, rather the main protagonist’s unorthodox journey takes precedence. This (to my mind) mirrors the rise of rape crisis centres during the 1970s and 1980s, which started life primarily tackling incestuous abuse.

Then there’s the reclaiming of myths. The great joy in reading a Feminist collection like this is the re-imagining, from Woolf to Winterson, Cherry Potts also reimagines Helen of Troy as a mere beautiful pawn in the powerplay of the ancient world, but who, like most women in today’s society, negotiates the system. If you read nothing else in this book you must read ‘Arachne’s Daughters’; this takes apart a myth about Arachne (a human) challenging Athene (the goddess): ‘ ”Now, can you believe anyone would be so stupid?” ‘. It’s set as a speech given at a women-only meeting with a clever twist on why so many women shouldn’t fear spiders despite the extra legs and pincers ‘ ”Forgot something though didn’t they?…[Men]… How many Cancers and Scorpios are in the audience?” ‘.

Throughout is the filling of silence through the writing of experience. That’s quite clearly laid out in ‘Winter Festival’, a piece about being alone on what should be a day of being with a loved one: ‘ ”A day like any other, except perhaps for our expectations of it: unreasonable, companionable expectations”. One couldn’t imagine that story being relevant to the here and now, but it’s happening somewhere, to someone.

Another element in the canon of feminist writing is science fiction. There always seems to be a reaching out to space, a place which shouldn’t replicate patriarchal norms, but somehow does and distorts them slightly. ‘Mosaic of Air’ is an interesting parable featuring a proto-post-feminist lead, a computer programmer whose programme becomes sentient which surprisingly encases an abortion debate.

There is longing, there is the blessing of lust requited, written to my mind on a low frequency; this is what happened, it’s important that it’s displayed as an everyday facet of life. Cherry Potts’ writing quite rightly points out that lesbian life has been portrayed like an old postcard left behind the carriage clock on the mantelpiece for years; visitors have noticed it and yet not bothered to pick it up and discover the message on it, because it’s from Hebden Bridge and not Brighton’s clubs.

Steam-Powered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

If books are like airships, and let’s say they are (both being imaginative human constructs, soaring above the reliable quotidian and carrying their passengers off on adventures), steampunk books are reality-hopping, time-tampering airships – rollicking good stuff, right? And yet my reproachfully teetering to-review pile contains several steampunky tomes that I haven’t yet brought myself to pick up, knowing from past encounters with their ilk that they’ll contain all of the steam and none of the punk. That suffix should imply a subversion that is often all too lacking in Brit-centric gears-n-gaslamp offerings. Thankfully, the crew of authors assembled by editor JoSelle Vanderhooft for Steam-Powered II put some of the punk back in – and some of them take the steam away entirely.

 

This is the second volume in what looks like it will be a yearly series, and it builds impressively on the foundations laid by the first. For a good idea of the Steam-Powered ethos, it’s worth looking at Amal El-Mohtar’s afterword, ‘Winding Down the House: Taking the Steam out of Steampunk’. The argument is an important one: wanting steampunk to be all about steam robs much of the world, and many groups of people, of the chance to join in with everything that’s good about the genre – unless they corset their stories up in Victorian-style trappings. El-Mohtar talks about the writing of her own (excellent) story in the first volume of Steam-Powered, ‘To Follow the Waves’, set in Syria – where ‘there are better things to do with water than make steam’ – and how making the story’s technology steam-driven ‘would have meant my Damascus would be London with Arabic names tacked on, and that Syria could not participate in the exciting atmosphere of mystifying science that characterised Britain in the same period without developing precisely the same technology.’ She concludes: ‘I want a steampunk divorced from the necessity of steam’. Steam-Powered II, while not totally divorced from steam, offers various ways to question its necessity.

Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories Tori Truslow JoSelle Vanderhooft

‘The Terracotta Bride’ by Zen Cho is a steamless story, set in a Chinese afterlife that seems part-traditional and part modelled on contemporary society, featuring a corrupt demon bureaucracy, paper hell-houses, and a living terracotta construct whose arrival changes everything. Is it steampunk? My first thought was, ‘who cares; it’s glorious!’ But what steampunk does (among other things) is to present worlds and eras changed by anachronistic technology – hopefully in a way that asks questions about those eras, and by extension about the present. Cho’s hell is an afterlife altered by technology in a way that also asks questions about the world of the living – steampunky in spirit, but no steam required.

 

Of the stories that do contain steam, several subvert the romanticisation of the steam age that characterises much of the genre. C.S.E. Cooney’s ‘The Canary of Candletown’ gives us the dark side of steam power with a harsh tale set in a Wild-Westy coal-mining settlement, where love blooms in cruel working conditions with heartbreaking results. Others point to the imperial overtones of steam power, as in Stephanie Lai’s ‘One Last Interruption Before We Begin’, set in an alternate Malaysia with water-driven technology. The British love-interest, an airship captain, quizzes the Chinese-Malay protagonist on their eschewal of steam:

“So what do you do with coal?”

Don’t have,” Shun Ping says. “We don’t have it, so we had to not need it.”

Surely we would have kept trading with you,” Elizabeth says. “The Queen would never have left anyone without sufficient resources!”

The story’s polemic comes out a little heavy in the dialogue, but the points are well made – not to mention that the setting is just really damn cool.

 

Stories like this one, and ‘The Terracotta Bride’, and Shveta Thakrar’s ‘Not the Moon but the Stars’ – set in a world where Siddhartha Gautama does not become the Buddha but a great king who employs wonder-working court engineers – make it clear that this anthology is not intended to cater to a homogenous readership. This cultural diversity is one of the anthology’s great strengths, as is the general diversity of the characters – ‘lesbian’ certainly doesn’t mean just one thing. Even more so than the first volume, this one presents a real range of protagonists and relationship structures. A few follow a fairly straightforward girl-meets-girl pattern, but there are also established relationships, some stable, some dysfunctional; all-woman love triangles; and other types of female relationship – familial or professional ties, rivalries, and even, in ‘Journey’s End’ by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall, a partnership between an engineer and a sentient ship. Two Western-style stories feature two beautifully drawn relationships: ‘Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues’ by Patty Templeton and ‘Deal’ by Nicole Kornher-Stace. The former pair make moonshine and give each other hell, and we only really meet one half of the latter, who spends the story spinning tall tales about her lover to throw detectives off her trail – both couples are totally believable, brilliantly voiced, and give a nice kicking in the teeth to the notion that the Western has to be a male genre.

 

Another highlight is Alex Dally Macfarlane’s ‘Selin That Has Grown in the Desert’. This one’s also low on the steam. As a whole it’s a brilliant, understated anti-steampunk tale – and structurally a kind of anti-romance – which manages to do all that and still be sweetly (but certainly not saccharinely) uplifting.

 

Of the stories where both romance and politics play out in parallel, some pay more attention to the complexity or their interplay than others; stories like ‘One Last Interruption Before We Begin’ and Nisi Shawl’s ‘The Return of Cherie’ – a tantalising extract from a novel set in the Belgian Congo with characters navigating postcolonial concerns, global politics, and old love – worked better for me than ones like Sean Holland’s ‘Playing Chess in New Persepolis’, which features some enjoyable political intrigue via larger-than-life steam-driven chess games, plus some romance, but without the two ever quite meshing to the interesting and difficult degree that it does in the Lai and Shawl stories.

 

While certain stories shone out for me above others, they were all strong – this anthology was a marvel to read, a real magical mystery airship tour crewed by rebel mechanics and guerrilla historians. If the first Steam-Powered was daring, the second is dazzling. Go on, let it take you for a spin.

‘Do Not Pass Go’ Crime Stories by Joel Lane

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

‘Do not pass go’ has been chosen as the title for Joel Lane’s short story pamphlet, the first in the new Hotwire imprint by Nine Arches Press. But that other Monopoly phrase, ‘Go to Jail’, would have been just as suitable; for these are works of crime fiction and throughout the pamphlet there is a sense of foreboding, a fear that someone’s going to get hurt and it’ll all end in tears.

Do Not Pass Go: Crime Stories by Joel Lane, published by Nine Arches Press and reviewed for Sabotage by Richard T. Watson

But each of Lane’s stories is also shot through with the blues and an accompanying sense of regret, of sadness. Sometimes this is explicit, like when blues band Nine Below Zero play a gig in ‘No More the Blues’ – a brief story that burns as slowly as good, soulful blues and gradually reveals more about its narrator before sidling offstage and subtly leaving him to his fate. The first story, ‘This Night Last Woman’, though much longer is similar in the way that music and regret go together.

“Memories don’t stay the same. That’s why people need music, to help them remember.”

‘This Night Last Woman’ gently ties memory with melody, before letting the association slide, never to return; it feels like Lane’s missing a trick there.

At other times, Lane’s writing is oblique as he fills in one or two details and leaves his reader to plump out the rest of the picture themselves. This is probably most telling in ‘The Black Dog’, a sweaty and morbid story that eventually reveals itself as a Police report documenting a sweaty, sticky death. As with all the narratorial voices in Do Not Pass Go, this one reports back on life/crime seemingly at one remove, as though the speaker is never quite in contact with the life going on around him. There’s a certain disconnect between story and teller, between life and human – and a sense that the one isn’t fulfilling the other.

My favourite example of Lane pitching small details comes in ‘Blue Mirror’ (the story’s name is taken from the – this time fictional – blues band at its centre). David, the band’s singer, slips past two men to whom he owes money and bursts out of a club onto the street…

“Outside, he turned on a loaded shoe and ran in the direction of Hurst Street”

The inclusion of that single word, ‘loaded’, is enough of a small detail to not only remind the reader of the weight David carries about him (literally if he gets arrested with drugs hidden in his shoe, but metaphorically as well), and also of the reason he is now running for his life. With that one word, Lane effortlessly captures the world of music stardom crumbling around David through his drug-fuelled behaviour, as well as pointing up that the drugs cost and David can’t pay the men who are chasing him.

The final story, ‘Rituals’, digs deepest of all into the effect of crime on the psyche – as a gang member deals with the consequences of interrupting a gay porn film before the money shot. That makes it sound more comedic than it is: any laughs found in Lane’s pamphlet are dark and grimy. ‘Rituals’ shows Lane at his most insightful, though, treading close to the edge of showing sympathy for the criminal while the title denounces the habits and face-saving that characterises a life of crime. Indeed, in this case, those rituals seem to be the beginnings of such lives – lives wasted to serve no real purpose but crime.

That sense of regret, of loss, plays all the way through Do Not Pass Go. The abiding impression is that of lives wasted away and ended. Really, though, these aren’t people whose lives have abruptly ended, whose journeys have been pulled up short; they are people who never really had the chance to pass Go.