Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What I Read: Karen Memory

I mentioned having reading to do for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club during my vacation in Austin, and how I finally tackled The Dispossessed maybe a decade after I first tried to read it. The other book on the docket for book club was Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory. I finished it in July, but you're reading this in August, after feminist science fiction book club, because book club gets first dibs on my thoughts!

Image courtesy Tor
Karen Memory is a steampunk Wild West version of Jack the Ripper, kind of. It says that on the back of the book, and I habitually re-read the backs of books as I read, and even still I was waiting for this to turn into a feminist steampunk version of Johnny Mnemonic. Should I have expected that? Obviously not. Was I letting myself get tripped up by the title? Yes, probably. Still, I have to admit to being just slightly disappointed in the book not delivering what I had promised myself it would be.

In a nutshell: prostitutes take on a serial killer and espionage in an steampunk alternate universe version of late 19th century Seattle.

Elizabeth Bear's writing is fantastic. Karen has a distinct voice that's just a lot of fun to read, and the book is worth it for that. This is the first book I've read by Bear and I'll have to find more in the future.


Small things bugged me.

  1. Insta-love!
  2. The amazing-and-brilliant-and-perfect-at-everything love interest
  3. Habitual asides about how life is hard/unfair for women. I'm here for feminist sci-fi in the biggest possible way, but I hate when authors don't have faith in the world they're building, or in the sensibilities of their readers, to just show-don't-tell that life is hard/unfair for women but instead have really awkward, add-nothing asides or commentary by characters or the narrator. The same goes for minorities. The Fifth Season handled that particular nuance much better.
  4. A perfectly needless dialogue aside about radium watch dial-painting, an industry that wasn't in full swing until around 1917, which is years after the book ostensibly takes place. Sure, I could write this off as "it's an alternate universe that found radium a little earlier," but what bugs me is that it's not an essential plot point; it's tossed in as an aside, I guess as a world-building thing? or Bear wanting to show off research thing? IT WAS COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. Like, nuclear-powered steampunk mechas would be fine with me, because you'll probably explicitly fold your universe around the "here we discovered nuclear power a little earlier and took it and ran with it" wrinkle and it'll work. But asides that are historical allusions in a universe with other real-world events and figures that are more or less contemporaneous with each other (the gold rush, Bass Reeves, Mary Ann Conklin, Orange Jacobs) better not be anachronisms because otherwise it just looks like a mistake.
  5. I still kind of wish it had been feminist steampunk Johnny Mnemonic.
Other people might complain that it's not especially steampunk-y enough, but I thought it was just right. (I also appreciate that the gadgets don't always work. Sometimes engineers get it wrong!)

No comments:

Post a Comment