April 23, 2015

Review: Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read much steampunk until now. I knew the genre existed, knew that it involved an alternate version of history with airships and steam-powered clockwork automatons, generally set in Victorian England. Cherie Priest, I know, is a prominent steampunk author, though I haven't read any of her Clockwork Century novels (though I have read, and loved, her ode to H.P. Lovecraft, Maplecroft).

Unfortunately, now I'm rather spoiled. Because if any steampunk fiction tops this book, it had better be bloody fantastic.

This book is so many things. It's an alt-history Western that includes real people, specifically the African-American US Marshal, Bass Reeves. It's a meditation on family: the family you make for yourself rather than the one you're born with (the protagonist, Karen, is an orphan, and since most of the main characters are prostitutes, and this is set in the Old West around 1880, most of their biological families are non-existent). It's subtly but unabashedly feminist; Karen mentions not being able to vote and how deeply she resents this, and has several snarky asides about the mayor of their town, Rapid City, being able to walk all over the owner of Karen's "sewing establishment," Madame Damnable, simply because he has a prick. It's an ode to the incredible bonds women can form, and it's such a delight because almost all of the main characters are women, including a transgender or perhaps intersex woman. It's a wonderful slate of diversity; the "crib girl" Karen falls in love with is an Indian (as in being from India, although there is a prominent Native American character, and of course the main male character is the aforementioned Marshal Reeves), and it's one of the very few books I've ever read where the author makes a point of mentioning whether a character is white as well as when a character is not-white. This simple thing jarred me tremendously, because it drives home how much white is the default in our fiction. That is not the default in this book, and I appreciate that more than I can say.

But more than that, I can sum up this book in three words. This is a Rollicking. Good. Story.

I mean, what's not to love? There's Karen's marvelous, distinctive voice that sucks you in from the very first sentence; there's a mystery; there's a steam-powered Surgery Machine and a steam- and kerosene-powered Giant Singer Sewing Machine (which becomes very important indeed in the climax); there's a gaudily decorated airship; there's political machinations; there's an early steampunk version of the Cold War, complete with Russian spies who are plotting to return Alaska to its rightful owners; there is a fantastic homage to Jules Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with an octopus-inspired submersible which is, I daresay, even more badass than the Nautilis; and last but not least, the climax involves Karen donning her multi-armed Singer sewing machine like female bodyarmor and going out to fight the bad guys with it! (This sounds ridiculous, I know. Trust me, given the entire context of the book, it isn't, and by that time I was turning the pages too fast, and chortling too loudly, to care.)

As far as I am concerned, this book is Hugo-worthy, and given that I am brandishing my brand-new voting rights for next year, I plan to nominate this book (along with others, I'm sure) for Best Novel.

Not to wade into the Hugo mess too much, but I must say this. To oversimplify greatly, the complaint is that the "message" books have overwhelmed the "story" books. I think that is nonsense, but in any case, this book, in my opinion, disproves that entire notion. I for one am damned tired of Boring Generic White Male Protagonists Doing Manly Things. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life. In this case, as far as I am concerned, the Rollicking Good Story came first, and the diverse cast is the frosting on top of a well-baked cake--and the entire book is the richer, and the better, for it.

For the geeks among us, just think of IDIC. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Science fiction can only benefit when we challenge ourselves to think in this manner, as Ms. Bear has done.

I salute the author. I think she's just added herself to my Auto-Buy List.

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