Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear

I have a complicated relationship with Westerns. Raised in the wilds of Eastern Idaho, I grew up with a white-hot loathing for country music, giant belt buckles, and manhood-enhancing pickup trucks. (It wasn’t easy being a jazz musician, soccer player, and Democrat.) Westerns, while not offensive like the above, were still a little too close to the culture I was trying desperately to flee. In Japan however, a certain nostalgia for sagebrush, red rocks, and distant horizons herded me gently in the direction of movies filmed near my homeland and I found myself taking DVDs of Silverado, Unforgiven, or other such cowboy tales home from the video store. I’ve drifted from Westerns again, now that I’m back on the continent and have little time to spare for non-SFF genres, though I did enjoy Armless Maidens of the American West.

As such, I hadn’t really planned to read Elizabeth Bear’s newest novel. She’s on my list of must read authors, since until this point I had only started and abandoned Hammered. (I had it as a MS Reader lit file several laptops back; I think that was the one that still ran Japanese Win 98. Needless to say, the file is long gone.) Still, the plan was to start elsewhere, not on a steampunk Western. Then I heard Bear talk on a podcast, probably Skiffy and Fanty, and she immediately hooked me. Most of the conversation surrounded the political aspects of Karen Memory, about which more later. The clinching factors were a bit less idealistic though: Karen Memory basically takes place in Seattle, and there is a licensed mad scientist guild.

The latter doesn’t play much of a part in the story unfortunately, but its mere existence is enough for me. The former is front and center though, to my great enjoyment. Bear says in the acknowledgments that Rapid City is based on multiple NW locales, but in all the important ways it is Seattle. This makes me inordinately happy, especially as it focuses on Rapid City’s identity on the frontier (staging post for Alaska), the development of what is now the Underground in Pioneer Square, and the complicated racial mix that has always been a part of the area. Pike’s Place Market even makes an appearance or two, though I suppose Bear maintains plausible deniability with that. And even though the author lives on the East Coast, the book felt like a native had written it. I suppose it’s a shallow reason to enjoy a novel, but enjoy it I did. Sue me.

Bear has bigger fish to fry than hippie cities and mad scientists. Her stated aim with the book is to offer a correction to the whitewashed history of the era by opening a window into a more diverse, multicultural Wild West than one sees in John Ford movies. Our viewpoint character, Karen, is a, ahem, seamstress, working in one of the finer houses of, er, seamstressry in Rapid City. She even occasionally sews. The seamstress with a heart of gold is a worn Western trope, but Karen gives us a salty, confident, female perspective. Further, within the first twenty pages, we meet a few blacks, someone from China, Indians of both Native American and South Asian stock, some lesbians, a transgender character, and the johns that love them. (Or some of them – not everyone is a seamstress.) In other words, this book is a Sad Puppy nightmare. Even worse for them, this is a far more accurate picture of the day than we might be used to.

On the literary end, Bear writes an unabashed dimestore pulp. Lots of derring-do, dastardly villains, brave heroes, shocking twists, cliffhangers, and mad capers. She is both subverting and celebrating the genre, taking the best traits of what were often admittedly crappy novels, and replacing the junk with her own invention. The result might best be compared to a Japadog: gourmet hot dogs from Vancouver topped with a variety of Japanese sides. (Super delicious – everyone should try kimchi seaweed dogs at least once.) Karen Memory is hugely entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking. There are literary gags and historical references, frontier politics, power armor, airships, and the lawman Bass Reeves. (Yes, power armor. Just roll with it.)

I will say that Karen is upfront with her opinions, and a certain demographic may disagree with her politics. One might even accuse Bear of activism, which is reasonable, but in a first-person story told from Karen’s perspective, is it so unexpected to see her engaging in proro-feminist debates? Of course for me, arguments about racism and misogyny are perfectly acceptable territory. Times being what they are however, we seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against some awfully prehistoric attitudes, so I find it impossible to overestimate the stupidity of some dark genre alleys. We have yet to find the floor in this discussion. Fortunately for the Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang, our books are much wittier than the alternative.

(If that last sentence makes no sense, please read here and here. I hate to tie everything back to this debate, but Bear’s book is yet another attack on Valiant Brad’s position. There’s really no way to ignore that aspect of the novel.)

So yes, if the gentle reader has not yet picked up Karen Memory, I strongly urge him or her to remedy that as quickly as possible. It’s massive fun. Even those turned off by Westerns or steampunk will have a good time with this, since Karen and her crew shine so brightly. There are a few who will be turned off my Karen’s unrepentant progressive views, but, realistically, nobody who thinks like that is going to hang around this blog for very long. The rest of you are almost certain to have a riot.

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In Conquest Born

In Conquest Born
C.S. Friedman

Perusing the archives here in The Attic, I discovered a shortage in my book diet: a potentially serious deficiency of the 80s. Fortunately for me, C.S. Friedman came through with a book that satisfies several urgent needs: it’s from 1986, it’s by a woman (yay equality), and it comes from the Two Dudes personal library. I have to dig into that once in awhile, or Mrs. Pep casts increasingly baleful glares at the shelves and asks just what on earth I propose to do with all of the books.

In Conquest Born has the feel of a world long in the making, and a story worked out at great length. This being Friedman’s first novel, I imagine she mulled it over for years; this is somewhat backed up by comments I have seen in interviews. While the book is character-centered, it is space opera at heart. This is the rise and fall of galactic empires, war spread over centuries, men and women larger than life, and a battle not just between governments, but between two diametrically opposed philosophies. It’s not bug-eyed alien invader space opera, or sweaty palms while gazing at the armada space opera; it feels like the New Space Opera coming out of the UK recently, though I doubt Friedman had any connection to that at the time. Very much ahead of its time and holds up well thirty years on.

The book is a series of vignettes, almost a short story collection. The structure might be a turn off for those look for chronologically focused arcs, but allows Friedman to catch the grand sweep of history. Because we are looking mostly at the two most influential actors in their respective societies, the only other option would be to write an interminable series; compressing the changes that wash over the empires into a comfortable, bite-sized narrative would rob the book of its grandeur. On the other hand, it does make the book easier to put down. The individual chapters can be compelling, but the long breaks between can dull the momentum at times.

No apologies from the author though. Conquest is a demanding book in many ways, not just the dedication required to plow through the long decades it covers. It is also a dark, almost brooding novel. No clear cut heroes, no shining knights, or cities on the hill. The Azean empire is nominally the good side, but it is uncompromising and weird in all sorts of ways that make contemporary readers uncomfortable. The Braxin empire is much worse however, as though Friedman tried to cook up the most vile culture imaginable for a feminist. Misogyny and cruelty are the very foundation of the empire, about which the reader sees a disturbing amount. (Never gratuitous or gleeful, I should add. Just present.) Anzha and Zatar are the respective representatives of their homelands, though their places within are fraught and convoluted. This is a morally twisted universe and is, at best, a very prickly place to spend five hundred pages.

Of course the best parts for me are the political systems and their interactions. The Braxin empire in particular is train derailment level compelling; so hard to look away from the awful carnage. Beneath the goth horror exterior is a complete societal edifice that has convincingly survived for a few centuries, but is equally convincingly on the brink. Zatar’s quest to preserve the empire through reformation is easily the best part of the book for me. Anzha is a racial outsider in Azean, but forces her way to prominence by sheer, bloody-minded, stubborn brilliance. She is no more likable than Zatar, and while the Azeans are at least not godawful, I wouldn’t want to live there either. They are the only group unified enough to oppose the Braxins though, so we must grudgingly cheer for them and their whacked out eugenics. Miles Vorkosigan fans might see the seeds of his universe, if Lois Bujold were to repaint all of her novels in gray, black, gray, and the colors of torment.

That said, Anzha and Zatar, who despise each other utterly, churn more electricity into their relationship than seventeen romance novel couples combined. “Planet destroying obsession” sounds overly dramatic, but it’s pretty much dead on. “Dear, I hate you so much that I crisped this Earthlike world for your birthday.” “Thank you for the gesture. Here’s a plague.”

It all makes me wonder who the target audience was. Or, for that matter, what the editor thought when he/she picked this up for publication. (I suppose the target audience is me, but how many of me are there?) If forced to sum it up in two words, I have settled on “grimly magnetic.” After about three hundred pages, I couldn’t stop reading. The buildup is very slow, with an extensive foundation that must be laid, but Conquest provides a steady buzz once Anzha and Zatar key in on each other. Yes, it is ethically compromised from start to finish. Yes, the Braxins are disgusting in every way, and yes, there are few if any white hats. On the other hand, the evolution on parallel personal and societal levels is several steps beyond most SF out there. I probably can’t recommend this to everyone, but I thought it was great, so potential readers can make of that what they will.

Used Bookstores

Used Bookstores

One reason (among several) that missives have been scarce lately concerns the business side of Two Dudes. Not to say that the blog is much of a business, but both Dudes are coincidentally involved in a book related, money making venture. My mostly silent partner is the President, CEO, and Unopposed Dictator of a used book store; I am the non-salaried part owner. We have something like 15,000 books sold mostly on Amazon and one employee, about whom more will be said later.

The store is stocked primarily by raiding thrift stores and garage sales across Southern Idaho. We seeded things with one massive purchase of art books from a local collector and a smaller purchase of aviation books, but since then most has come from strategic scrounging. Surprisingly, the area overflows with profitable books. Unfortunately for me, SFF is a fairly small part of the collection; we deal mostly in non-fiction. (For various reasons, very little fiction holds its value over time. SFF is better than some genres though.) We specialize in Mormon books (popular and scholarly) and Western history/social sciences. This is mostly a reflection of the stock available to us, but if anyone out there is in the market for, say, a first edition of some early Mormon leader’s writings, there is a very good chance that person would buy from us. We’ll acquire anything that sells though – popular books include Metals and How to Weld Them and Underwater Explosions. We’ve seen the former come in and out three times now.

The store has a few rare books in stock, but aside from a deal I brokered for $3000 from a Japanese bookseller, we don’t get too involved in the rare book world. It’s a whole different game.

In the beginning, my dad and brother ran the show together, with me as part owner and investor. They were based in my home town of Idaho Falls, ID. I flew in periodically from the Northwest for business meetings, but have my own unrelated career. In the good old days, everything was run from the basement of my parents’ house. I imagine that my mom was much relieved when my brother closed the deal on a lease for an actual “store,” thus removing a couple thousand books and maybe sixty boxes from the downstairs. The “store” is in an old government building, saved from disrepair by a random real estate investor and conveniently located next to the main post office.

And by “government building,” I mean “Cold War era, hardened fallout shelter with some offices.” It’s amazing. We recently added storage space, which gained us a room in a basement that looks straight out of Saw or some other ghastly horror movie. The store itself is not for public consumption, though an occasional customer pokes a head in. We are working towards a presentable store space elsewhere, mostly to boost incoming stock, but for now, the bomb shelter is perfect. In fact, my brother calls it the secret weapon at our disposal; the amount we pay for the lease is the true silver bullet that makes everything profitable. And if it is intimidating and dirty, well, we sell online. Nobody knows the difference.

A few years ago, my dad decided to move to the wilds of Utah. He initially ran a branch of the store there through the same Amazon account, but that quickly became too unwieldy. We spun off my dad’s store, leaving my brother and I in charge of the original. He handled things by himself in Utah. Fast forward to a couple months ago, and my dad found himself moving back to Idaho. As a result, my brother and I bought out my dad’s store, added him as an employee, and moved 4-6000 books from a forgotten corner of Utah back to Idaho Falls. This is great for the business, but means that I had to make two trips in a large U-Haul, with the attendant loading and unloading on each side. Spoiler alert: multiple thousands of books are collectively very heavy.

Anyway, two grueling trips later, I am back in the Northwest for the time being. Hopefully I can get back in the saddle so to speak, since the posts are backing up and the blog withering a bit from neglect. Stay tuned as we get things back on course.