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.