Kim Westwood is an Australian author who is getting a lot of positive buzz online right now. In particular her latest novel, The Courier’s New Bicycle, has received huge praise from the ladies of Galactic Suburbia. Given that the book has strong gender themes, I decided that I had to get hold of it. This proved easier said than done, as it currently is only published in Australia, but Donna Hanson kindly sent me a copy so here’s the review.
The book is set in a near future Melbourne. That, of course, makes me happy, but knowledge of one of my favorite cities is not necessary for understanding the book. Indeed, as most of the streets have been renamed by the religious fundamentalist government of the time, even if you have been to Melbourne for Worldcon you probably won’t recognize the place, and it doesn’t matter. There are a few instances where, for example, a US editor might replace “ute” with “truck’, but I don’t think that there’s anything quintessentially Australian about this book that means it won’t travel well.
The fact that HarperCollins hasn’t chosen to make the book available in the UK and US markets is probably far more to do with the subject matter. Marketing departments are doubtless looking at it and muttering sadly that it will never sell because the characters are too unconventional. And if by “never sell” they mean “won’t be a huge mass market hit” then they are probably right. Again that doesn’t mean that the book won’t find an audience.
The setting for The Courier’s New Bicycle is essentially The Handmaid’s Tale as seen by queer folks. A global pandemic has decimated fertility in most countries, and as science has failed provide an instant solution people have retreated into religious fundamentalism instead. Australia is now ruled by the Nation First party (with a nod to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation) and the thugs of the Neighbourly Watch perform a role similar to that of Hitler’s brownshirts. Everything immoral is forbidden, except where it is convenient for the members of the patriarchy that it should continue to exist but not ever be talked about (yes, I do mean brothels). The main aim of all good, upstanding families is to have children; the only acceptable way to achieve this is by prayer; and everyone who can afford to do so cheats by paying for surrogates.
Our story, however, is not about the Faithful, it is about the social outcasts of this society: the queers (or as Westwood terms them, “gender transgressives”, a term that appears to include anyone whose is either not heterosexual, doesn’t conform to the gender binary, or even just enjoys sex). The central character is Salisbury Forth (Sal to friends, Sally to enemies) who works as a bicycle courier for an illicit pharmaceuticals company. Hormone replacement therapy is illegal, but as it can help with fertility the black market trade is very profitable. Sal’s job is essentially to deliver the goods, cunningly hidden inside cute marsupial soft toys, to clients in an efficient and unobtrusive manner. Other characters include Albee, a trans man who runs a bicycle repair shop; Gail, Sal’s boss; Inez, Sal’s femme girlfriend; and Savannah Rose, a brothel madam.
I should note here that several of the characters are fairly recent immigrants to Australia and not fair of skin. Also Inez is part-Koori (i.e. descended from indigenous people). Not being white appears to rank along with being queer on Nation First’s list of undesirable traits.
A central element of the book is whether a pharmaceuticals company is ethical or not. Gail’s company has a reputation for spotless moral standards as well as quality. Rival companies are less squeaky clean, and Sal is also a member of an underground animal rights group. This gives Westwood an opportunity to expose one of the dirty secrets of the hormone business. From the early days, one of the best ways of sourcing estrogen has been from pregnant horses. The product is known as “Premarin”, and the conditions in which the poor animals are kept has tended to be horrendous. These days the controversy has led to somewhat better living standards for the animals, and a number of alternative products. I’m happy to say that I have never taken Premarin, but I know trans women who were given no choice in the matter save to not have treatment at all.
The plot of the book is that a rival company is seeking to destroy Gail’s business by seeding the market with fake copies of her product that are poor quality and animal-based. Sal has to find the bad guys before the company goes under. The action moves commendably quickly, and the description “page turner” is entirely accurate for this book. I’m happy to recommend it on that basis alone.
The more complex question (and one I suspect the Tiptree jury will be asking itself) is whether the book says anything interesting about gender. From my point of view the answer is probably no, but then I come to this from a fairly unusual angle. People like Sal, who are not comfortable as either male or female, though they may adopt aspects of both, are well known to me; as are people like Albee. Given the way she writes about them, they are familiar to Westwood too. For most readers, however, these are unusual and exotic characters. The mere fact that they are central to a novel, and are portrayed as perfectly ordinary people, is different and challenging. Westwood’s honest and informed description of the way in which society, in particular their families, treats these people will hopefully be beneficial in the long run. It should at least open a few eyes. And quite frankly, why can’t we be heroes for once?
The thing I like most about this book is that it isn’t judgmental. There’s no suggestion that there’s a right way and wrong way to be trans; no suggestion that being heterosexual or binary-identified is somehow inherently bad. As far as the book is concerned, good people are those who are honest about themselves, and treat other people (and indeed animals) with dignity and respect. Bad people are those who lie about aspects of their lives, or let down their friends for fear that they’ll be thought socially unacceptable, and who exploit others.
Westwood’s willingness to bring in allies from all over the social spectrum even extends to petrolheads. Fossil fuel shortages have hit Australia badly by the time of the book, so now anyone wanting to race a souped up motor does so illegally. Goodbye Albert Park, hello illicit midnight drag racing in abandoned industrial areas. If I didn’t think it unlikely that anyone much in Australia has ever heard of Julie Bindel, I would suspect that Westwood did this deliberately. As they are now on our side, the petrolheads have joined the community. Sal says:
On first look, the drag-racing fraternity is an eclectic mix of dress codes. The racers themselves favour motocross clothing stitched with a multitude of defunct brand names, while their groupies appear to divide along rather old-fashioned lines — the butch and the femme; although it would be a mistake to assume only one sex is being represented within those categories. Briefly I wonder where I’d fit in, until I catch sight of the ‘ghetto’ set in baggy clothes with caps and hoodies.
You won’t see that on Top Gear.
Whether the book will ever get distribution outside of Australia is an open question. I don’t think it will hit major award short lists, because while it is a very good it isn’t spectacular, and of course most people who might vote for it won’t get to see a copy. Nor do I see HarperCollins being willing to take a risk on it. Hopefully Westwood still owns the rights outside of Australia. If she does, I hope that someone like Aqueduct or Small Beer will make her an offer. I can’t afford to do so, but it is a book I would be proud to publish.