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Review: Proud Pink Sky – Redfern Jon Barrett

Proud Pink Sky - Redfern Jon Barrett

Genre: Alt. History, Fantasy

Reviewers: Lucy & Eliza B.

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About The Book

QSFer Redfern Jon Barrett has a new queer cyberpunk alt-history book out: Proud Pink Sky.

Proud Pink Sky breaks down the binary between utopia and dystopia—presenting an ambitopian vision of the world’s first gay state.

A glittering metropolis of 24 million people, Berlin is a bustling world of pride parades, polyamorous trysts, and even an official gay language. Its distant radio broadcasts are a lifeline for teenagers William and Gareth, but is there a place for them in the deeply divided city?

Meanwhile, young mother Cissie loves Berlin’s towering high rises and chaotic multiculturalism, yet she’s never left her heterosexual district—not until she discovers a walled-off slum of perpetual twilight, home to the city’s forbidden trans residents.

Challenging assumptions of sex and gender, Proud Pink Sky questions how much we must sacrifice to find identity and community.

The Reviews


Proud Pink Sky breaks down the binary between utopia and dystopia—presenting an ambitopian vision of the world’s first gay state. 

Proud Pink Sky, by Redfern Jon Barrett, is a beautifully crafted story of the gay city-state of Berlin and the struggles of its denizens to create a queer utopia. It begins in 1998, recounting the woes of William, who is ruthlessly bullied by teachers, classmates, and even family, for being gay. Desperate to not feel alone, William listens to radio broadcasts coming from Berlin that convince him the only place he can be safe and happy and find others like himself is the Gay Capital.

The author, Redfern Jon Barrett, cleverly uses the radio broadcasts to give the reader a sense of what Berlin could be like and how it would appeal to the forlorn William. These radio shows harken back to the propaganda campaigns used by both sides during World War 2 and the Korean Conflict, giving this story a nostalgic feel. It was easy to imagine the time period being earlier than the waning days of the 20thcentury. 

When William’s world crashes around him, he grabs his boyfriend, Gareth, and they run away, relying on the kindness of strangers to point them in the correct direction. They become refugees who need the help of others to make their way to Berlin and become settled there in a neighborhood known only as ‘Q’.

In contrast, we also get the story of Cissie, who is married to Howard and has two small boys. The prospect of a good job in construction has brought this little family to Berlin to reside in the neighborhood of Hetcarsey, which is where the heterosexual residents of Berlin typically live. 

Throughout the novel, the author uses polari, which is a form of British slang that was created by the carnies and theater folks as a subcultural, coded language. For the denizens of Berlin, polari is the official language of the Gay Capital. And, for the readers, it acts as a measurement of how ingrained the culture is for a character. As they become more enmeshed in the culture of Berlin, the characters take on greater use of polari. At first, I found this slang to be a little distracting, but it was a necessary dissonance, similar to white noise while trying to study for an exam. Those odd bits of language kept me from becoming too complacent. Because this is not the sort of story that encourages complacency. 

It is a complex tale of struggle on many levels. Through William and Gareth, and also Cissie and Howard, we get personal growth and realization, the ebbs and flows of romantic love, and the barriers that people often face when wanting friendship and socialization.

Then there are the political aspects of Berlin, both internally and as part of the larger world. It is not the gay utopia it would like to be. There are factions fighting for control: the older, more traditional gays who think that the best way to establish a society is to have married couples with children; younger, single folks who want the freedom to express themselves in many ways, including shucking gender norms; and the trans folks who are shuffled into shadowy existence in a gated, restricted community where they fight for resources and struggle to survive. 

This is not an easy, relaxing story that you kick back with and let go of when you’re finished. It isn’t meant to be. Redfern Jon Barrett holds up a mirror and says, “Take a look. How well do you know yourself?”

The characters in this story come to realizations about themselves which they’ve been afraid to acknowledge, even in the quiet of their own minds. They find strength, they face disappointment, they burn bridges and build new paths. It is not an easy, relaxing journey, but it is an important, well-written, complex tale that will grip you, shake you, and give you a different view of what makes a utopia, and at what costs. 

I have not read anything by Redfern Jon Barrett before, but I thoroughly enjoyed Proud Pink Sky and hope to read more from this author in the future. 

Eliza B.:

I read the last two-third of Proud Pink Sky à la Margo Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums: deep in a bubble bath, feet up, smoking an illicit cigarette. My (husband’s) Kindle accumulated some bubbles, but this book deserved that ridiculous indulgence.

Proud Pink Sky left me with so many feelz I had to spill them at author Redfern John Barrett or tag this with a spoiler alert.

Proud Pink Sky posits that post-WWII, Berlin became not a city split between East and West Germany, but a free state all its own—a safe haven for gays and lesbians worldwide (sucker for alternative history, here). Set in the grand old year of 1998, the novel follows the dual storylines of William and Gareth, teenage gay English runaways, and Cissy, a het mom of two (I’m also sucker for dual storylines).

Divided into different districts for young twinks, hairy bears, career-driven lesbians, lipstick lesbians, and every other take-it-back, LG stereotype you can imagine, Berlin has a gay language (total sucker for made-up, alt-world slang), a formal history, and  . . .  notice that’s “LG,” not LGBTQIAP+?

But Berlin’s real unrest comes from those excluded from gay society: the BTQIAP+ people, who are relegated to their own slum, denied rights, and J. K. Rowlinged as “not real women/men.” Bisexuality and polyamory’s illegal. William, Gareth, and Cissy, swept up in Berlin’s identity politics, have to decide who they are, and what sacrifices they’ll make to find and keep those identities.

One of this book’s strengths lies in its amazing world-building. I’ll admit it: hand me a well-done, not-really-a-dystopia but not-really-a-utopia and I’ll give it extra brownie points. But Proud Pink Sky’s especially well done, with a believable history and a glossary. Oh yeah, I believe in Berlin. I want to go to Berlin. The bridge sections written as travel guides are *chef’s kiss*, and details as simple as pedestrian reactions sew it up as real.

Proud Pink Sky’s other strength lies in its characters, who leap off the page. Gareth and Williams begin as adorbs little gay runaways and develop through character arcs as believable as Berlin.

And I think I’ve met Cissy. I think I may be Cissy, or at the very least I can step into her so easily I’d believe it. Other characters are huggable or hateable or bartender-y or protester-stoner-y or maybe-she-was-a-prostitute-y as they need to be, achingly believably so—yet Barrett never drags them down to tropes. I think I’m in love with a leaflet-distributing, German political activist girl now. Thanks, Redfern. 

I almost-maybe-sort-of saw the denouement coming, but it was no less (redacted) for it. But that was the only thing I saw coming in this novel. I finished it two days after I got it in my greedy little paws.

Random observations: 

No Bowie in gay Berlin?! I get it, he’s bi, and he never wrote “Heroes,” but I don’t know if I can live in a world without Low.

Did we have to name the het girl “Cissy”?! 

I know the Polari word for “precum” and did I need that in my life? I’m genuinely unsure (It’s only in the glossary. Yes, I read the whole thing. I’m a nerd.).

It’s refreshing to see polyamory depicted by someone living in a polyamorous relationship—Barrett neither glorifies nor sexualizes it. Thank you.

Overall verdict: Read it or regret it.

The Reviewers


I’m an avid reader who loves pretty much all genres except math textbooks. As a kid, my parents exposed me to everything from fairies, hobbits, and dragons to the biographies of interesting people around the world, interspersed with poetry, plays, and music. Into adulthood, I spent a lot of years with my nose buried in various textbooks. Now, I read whatever grabs my fancy.  

Eliza B.:

After earning a master’s degree in creative writing, Eliza swore, like Lev Grossman, “I’ll never write anything without breaking the rules again, because now I understand that’s the whole point of everything.” To the dismay of her literary fiction professors, she spent six years as a staff writer for Scary Mommy. The author of several LGBTQIA YA novels and numerous speculative short stories, Eliza has a mainstream literary novella publishing this spring; she lives the South with her children, her dogs, her very patient partner, and a hell of a lot of Talking Heads records. Only one of her five tattoos is a David Bowie lyric. 

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