Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

There are a lot of books that I have had rough relationships with the past little while. Those I struggled with partially liking, and partially being upset by. Books that didn't live up to their promise, and didn't surprise and amuse or challenge me. And then there's Karen Memory, which was so utterly delightful that I think I was only fifty pages in or so before I started telling people how much fun I was having reading this book.

It was hard to explain why without it sounding just a little odd. "It's about steampunk prostitutes! With a really diverse cast of characters!'s just so much fun!" But that makes it sound like someone checking boxes, hoping for cookies, or like I liked this book because I feel somehow like I was supposed to like it. But on the contrary, the diversity that comes across in the book just feels as natural to the world Bear is creating as breathing. It's not the point of the plot, but it is a very enjoyable backdrop to it. 

Why shouldn't we have a lesbian main character? Why shouldn't there be a transgender prostitute in the house where Karen works, and why shouldn't that be perfectly fine by everyone who lives and works there? Why shouldn't the book take into consideration the prostitutes who live in terrible working conditions, and the ways in which those places might be more likely to prey on non-white women brought over for the purposes of trafficking? Why can't we deal with all these issues like adults, letting them be complex?

And then why can't we include airships, submarines, and steampunk sewing machine/mechs all at the same time? No reason, that's why. And it's because Bear has mashed all these disparate elements together so elegantly that I kept being happy that I was reading this book. Happy to be reading something that, although the prostitutes are in danger from the asshole who runs the worst cribs in town, didn't center around extreme descriptions or threats of sexual violence. (Interestingly, although the prostitutes are in grave danger from a serial killer stalking the streets, it's their lives that are being threatened. We don't get a rape threat in there to make sure we know that the psychopathic killer is really a bad guy.)

The storyline can be a little heavy, but it doesn't read that way. Even when Karen and Priya (the lead and her love interest) are in very deep danger, it's the kind of adventure story that is still entertaining. Karen's narrative voice (and she's very self-consciously the writer and shaper of this story) isn't doom and gloom. It's matter-of-fact, often funny and wry.

For a book about prostitutes with a very sweet love story at its core, there's remarkably little sex in here, and while I kind of wanted some, it was also perfectly in keeping with the tone of the book. 

I haven't connected strongly with steampunk before, often because a lot of it seems to want to have all the fun stylistic features of Victoriana with none of the unpleasant social context. I am delighted to find a book that is a lot of fun while not minimizing inequalities and oppressions. 

Plus, sewing machine mechs. I mean, come on. I don't know how you couldn't love that.


  1. It's sort of ironic having a story about prostitutes that doesn't include an element of overt sexual violence. One of the things I liked about Karen and the other women was the way they were portrayed as fully in charge of their own sexual agency. They weren't victims, and so Karen in particular was still able to exude a genuine sweetness of character.

    1. Yeah, I agree, but I certainly appreciated it! I have not been happy with how much rape has crept into my reading list this year.

    2. Agreed. It's such an easy device for writers as you've pointed out. The fact that it's an unfortunate reality for so many women doesn't make it the first or best one to reach for. I wouldn't want to say never make it a part of the story, mostly because it makes me uncomfortable to make such a blanket statement that effectively silences potential engagement with a very important subject, but at the same time, I mostly see it being used as a source of vicarious titillation more than anything else.

    3. I absolutely agree. It shouldn't be off the table, but authors should think long and hard about why they're telling the story that way and and how before using it. Of the 20-30 books I've read that have included a rape in the last year, I can think of two that I thought handled it well, and for a reason the book needed.