Friday 22 July 2016

Karen Memory

(July 2016)

A hugely enjoyable steampunk western, which inevitably leads me to draw comparisons with Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion, not least because that too was driven by a queer woman in her teens with a gloriously engaging narrative voice.

While Vermilion took place largely in the American interior, however, Karen Memory is set in Rapid City, an amalgam of various Pacific coast cities (most obviously Seattle) which served as key staging posts for the mid-nineteenth century Alaskan gold rush. Karen herself is a prostitute in a relatively high-class bordello who falls in love with Priya, a trafficked Indian girl rescued from one of the city’s less progressively managed brothels. Priya’s former pimp is the novel’s main (and in all honesty fairly one-note) antagonist, as Karen and her diverse array of colleagues and acquaintances, including the real-life figure of Bass Reeves, attempt to rescue Priya’s sister and in doing so inevitably uncover wider and more sinister machinations. There’s a lot going on, is what there is, even if the central plot strand is pretty straightforward: Event A leads to Event B leads to Event C, and those readers hanging on for a big twist are probably going to come away disappointed.

And that, I think, is both the book’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness. For all the vigour of the narration and laudable sociopolitical commentary, the actual plotting itself is all very, well… safe. A very minor supporting character dies relatively late on, but about a third of the way through it becomes apparent that this is not a work in which one of the principles will get offed just in order to drive the narrative; you know they’re all going to make it through to the end emotionally, if not necessarily physically, unscathed. As I say, this cuts both ways. As an antidote to the tiresome need for sub-GOT grimdark shock value deaths, I actually found it quite refreshing to read something and not have a constant, nagging concern that something awful was about to happen just for cheap emotional effect. This was exactly the book I needed at the time I needed it. But by the same token, the knowledge that all will indubitably be well does detract from the urgency somewhat, and if I’d been less in need of a reading tonic I might have found that more of an issue.

But I wasn’t and I didn’t, and so I instead I rollicked along on what I’m practically obliged to describe as a ‘romp’, while enjoying a diverting side quest of ‘spot the homage’. American dime novels obviously have a fairly major influence (not least in the clear-cut morality and that certainty our heroes will triumph), and, as a close examination of that gorgeous cover should suggest, Jules Verne gets pretty heavily referenced (and at several stages implicitly invoked). The steampunk trappings are administered with a fairly light touch though, to the point where the story could have worked almost unchanged as a straight-up historical novel. The SFnal elements expedite events but aren’t, upon further examination, really necessary to the plot at all.

[Newish book, so spoiler warning for the next couple of paragraphs, if you care]

This of course raises the question as to why this is a spec-fic novel. What purpose does the fantastical technology serve? Is it just adding to the fun? That’s certainly possible, and an argument with a good deal of validity; the ‘Why the hell not?’ defence. What we’re looking at here though is, I think, another installment of the discussion about the role of technology in both reinforcing and subverting social power structures. The antagonist runs for mayor, and uses a form of mind control tech to persuade people to support him which, it transpires, might have been far less effective than the more traditional methods of vote rigging and ballot stuffing.

Karen, meanwhile, spends most of the dénouement kitted out in what the youngsters among you might recognize as a mecha suit, but for me is inescapably a riff on Ripley’s power loader from Aliens (with shades of Ned Kelly). As a token nod to their putative profession as ‘seamstresses’, Karen and her colleagues keep a steam-driven sewing armature, which one of their more technologically-minded number soups up over the course of the novel. Karen then dons this suit to perform various power assisted acts of derring-do, much as Ripley repurposes a mechanism of dull workaday utility to more dramatic effect. The added nuance here being that while the power loader was determinedly unisex, the ‘sewing machine’ is an unambiguously feminine object (at least in common conception). There are some fairly obvious subtexts for its use here as an enabler of ass-kicking and name-taking.

[And you’re back in the room]

All that aside, however, this book is above all fun. Karen herself is a joyous companion who, and this is a truly rare feat, propels the plot without ever really making irrational decisions simply for the sake of moving things along. There is a wealth of detail, if not exactly complexity, and nothing feels all that contrived; things progress as they should and how they should. To say that this was an undemanding read feels slightly pejorative, but it was, and in doing so it stands as evidence that a book doesn’t have to put its readers through an intellectual or emotional wringer in order to be thoughtful or progressive. This book will not change the world. It will, however, go a small but tangible way towards making yours a little brighter.

1 comment:

  1. I was a big fan of the book as a souped up pulp novel. In fact, my comparison to a NW specialty, gourmet Asian-fusion hot dogs, drew a retweet from the author herself. Yay for occasional validation.
    I think there's just something fulfilling about lesbian prostitutes stomping around in mech suits, beating the poop out of misogynists and abusers. I suppose not everyone feels the same way I do though.