Friday, July 31, 2015

Seamstress without A Needle - Review of Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory

It's book recommendation time! This week we'll be talking about Steampunk which, for those who don't know, is a science fiction subgenre based on fantastic (and usually impossible) reimaginings of Victorian-era steam-driven technologies. At its worst, Steampunk falls into an obsession with Victorian and imaginary-victorian trappings - corsets and tophats, airships and brass monocles, the odd babbage engine. At its best, it uses these trappings to examine a point in history when old social orders were being overturned and, in the divide between rich and poor, look at today's world through a funhouse mirror. In fact, I'd say that the best science fiction is always a funhouse mirror through which we can view our own world.

Regular readers of this blog should know that I adore the writing of Elizabeth Bear; her work is always compelling with a great eye for character and for detail. I greatly envy her talent. Her Karen Memory is a "Wild West Steampunk" novel, taking place in the imaginary Alaska town of Cedar Rapids during a gold-rush in the late nineteenth century. Before we see any fancy steampunk trappings we meet our protagonist and narrator, "seamstress" Karen Memery:

Yes, she does what you think that she does, and it's handled as well as you'd expect; the work colors Memery's perception of men, but hasnt' twisted her into a misogynist. The work plays a significant role in the novel, both in terms of plot and theme, but it's never played for titillation. In fact, while the characters have plenty of sex (as they are working in a brothel) there are no explicit sex scenes. While there is empowerment in Memery and her peers earning a living and while they do have the good fortune of working at the Hotel Mon Cherie (the French is deliberately wrong),  the "good" brothel owned and run by a Madame Damnable - a  woman with an interesting past of her own -  it's not quite sugar-coated or sentimentalized. In fact, one important character refuses the chance at joining Madame Damnable's "sewing circle", even having few other choices. While she keeps a measure of her dignity, it remains clear that Memery's choice to earn a living on her back was no choice at all in reality; institutional sexism leaves few other choices for a young woman on her own.

The action begins with a girl rescued from a rival house of ill repute (this one of truly ill-repute, in which the girls were treated as literal slaves), brought to the Hotel Mon Cherie, triggering a major flare-up in the rivalry between Madame Damnable and her counterpart the odious Peter Bantle. Soon there's a Jack the Ripper style string of murderer persued by  a far-traveling US Marshall, literal rooftop chases, daring escapes and, yes, an airship. Wouldn't be a steampunk novel without one. There's not much sex but there IS a same-sex romance (oh, how I long for the day when such things are common enough that I can just say "romance". Alas, that day is  not today). This is not high-tea and top-hat style steampunk; the characters about whom we come to care are always on the peripheries: an (Asian) Indian woman saved from sex slavery by a Chinese-American freedom fighter of sorts (real-life sex-worker rights activists  would be glad to know that she has a perfectly healthy relationship with the voluntary seamstresses of Madame Damnables and does not equate all prostitution with slaver), an African-American marshall with his Native-American posseman. The latter character - Marhsall Bass Reeves - is based, according to the author's note, on an actual historical figure on whom the Lone Ranger myth was quite possibly based -- a myth which quite literally strips him of his actual skin.

For anyone who loves the wild west, who loves Steampunk, or simply loves a good tale Karen Memor is well-worth the reading. Very highly recommended. 

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