Karen Memory

Karen Memory - Elizabeth BearThe latest novel by Elizabeth Bear is set primarily in the rootin’ tootin’ best little whorehouse in Washington Territory. I shall attempt not to review Karen Memory in Wild West vernacular, because Bear does it so much better than I do. She manages to straddle that fine line between sounding authentic and being irritating. How accurate a representation of history it is, I can’t really tell. It may be romanticised somewhat, but then it is Bear’s history to play with. We British are forever tarting up Ye Olde Englande for sale to Americans. It is only fair that they should get their own back every now and then.

What is important, however, is that the reality should not be whitewashed, and here Bear seems to do an exemplary job. The multi-cultural nature of West Coast society, with its Chinese immigrants, close relations with Russia, and so on, is well represented. So is the multi-cultural nature of those moving west from the more heavily colonized parts of the USA. There is also representation of the Native American people.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, though. I should give you some background on the story. Our heroine lives in Rapid City, a fictional location based heavily on aspects of Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Being somewhat down on her luck, she has ended up working at Madame Damnable’s establishment for “seamstresses”. I say “somewhat” because Madame runs a tight and clean house, especially as compared to the “crib houses” down by the docks where trafficked girls are kept prisoner in small rooms. Madame’s respectability is enhanced by the fact that the Mayor is a regular, though secretive client. However, the villainous crib house owner, Peter Bantle, has political ambitions. He also has a powerful piece of mad science at his command.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the book is steampunk? Well Bear goes light on it for quite a while, teasing us only with snipits like this:

“I flipped open the morning paper to check the Mad Science Report. No experiments were scheduled, and no duels had been announced — at least among the Licensed Scientists — but you never knowed when a giant automaton was going to run rogue unscheduled.”

I can assure you that the book goes full-on steampunk towards the end. Indeed, our Karen becomes quite the steampunk equivalent of James Bond, having fantastical and dangerous adventures battling evil megalomaniacs equipped with truly Mad Science. Of course she is far more modest about her achievements, but then she is telling her story in the first person so it behoves her to be so.

Meanwhile, back in Rapid City, I need to introduce a few more characters to the plot. Firstly we have Merry Lee, a young Chinese woman on a mission to rescue girls from the crib houses. It is her arrival on Madame’s doorstep one night, a starving and beaten young woman in her arms, that is the catalyst for the whole thrilling tale.

In addition we have Bass Reeves, a former slave and now legendary US Marshall, who has come all the way from Indian Territory with his trusty native sidekick, Tomoatooah. If those two seem a little stereotyped for a Western, well there is a good reason for it, which you will find out when you get to the end of the book. Also Bear is doing good work exposing one of the most egregious pieces of whitewashing ever perpetrated by Hollywood.

(By the way, on the subject of Tomooatooah, I have acquired a new respect for the Numu people, for it appears that the word “Comanche” means the same thing as “Welsh”. I have to balance that against a source I have that fingers them as one of the few Native American peoples not to have a Two-Spirit tradition, but I’m hoping to prove that wrong at some point.)

The Marshall is hot on the trail of a serial killer, a man who likes to flog whores to death and leave their bodies next to brothels pour encourager les autres. Naturally Madame and her girls are somewhat alarmed by this development.

How all of this hangs together, and what connection it has to the Yukon Gold Rush and the security of the United States of America, I shall leave you to find out. I am fairly sure that you will enjoy the process. Bear is having a lot of fun with this, and is hugely entertaining.

There’s much to applaud in this book besides the entertainment. As I mentioned earlier, it is strongly multi-cultural. The good guys are, on the whole, intersectional feminists; the bad guys are nasty racists, misogynists, anti-sex-work unless they are profiting from it, and worst of all Democrats. Because back then, of course, the Democrats were the party of the slave owners and still angry over the result of the Civil War. There are other diversity elements too — Karen is a lesbian, and another character has an artificial hand.

On the technical side I think things are a little too rushed. It doesn’t help that we see the whole affair through Karen’s eyes, and therefore gain little insight into the other characters. In particular I would like to have known more about the mysterious airship pilot, the unlikely-named Minneapolis Colony. Then again, maybe there will be a sequel or two. I am sure that Karen is keen to write them.

It is possible that people who identify more closely with other characters in the book’s highly diverse cast will find issues different from mine. Being white, able-bodied, and not having been a sex worker, I don’t have a lot of perspective on many of the issues. However, there is one aspect of the book that didn’t work for me. Very obviously, that is the trans character,

Bear starts off well enough. Karen introduces her as follows:

“…the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.”

So far, almost so good. Note that final qualifier. You see, Miss Francina might be a very feminine person, but she’s also bigger and stronger than the other girls. She might be young enough, lucky enough, and skilled enough at the girly arts to not be ugly, but in other ways she is very much the hulking-man-in-a-dress stereotype. The girls take her grocery shopping with them because she’s able to carry much more weight.

So while the girls might indeed think that they fully accept her, she’s still marked out as different. That’s particularly the case when it comes to the job. Karen notes:

“Miss Francina gets almost nothing but regulars and special requests, and Miss Francina’s requests don’t want any of the other girls.”

How does Francina feel about that? We are never told, but I know that if it were me it would be heartbreaking; to be reminded every day, in the most important way possible given my line of work, that I wasn’t really one of the girls.

I note in passing, by the way, that girls like us can play the slide trombone just as well as anyone, and perhaps with rather more enthusiasm when we don’t have surgical options. Lots of us have no option but sex work, and to make a living you have to get the job done somehow. There’s more to sex than sewing.

The thing that really drew me up short, however, was Miss Francina’s role in the plot. For the most part she’s just there in the background — carrying the groceries, helping Crispin the Bouncer deal with rowdy customers, and so on. She’s also one of the more sensible, steadying influences amongst the cast. The one time when she steps out and takes a really active part in the plot is where the girls decide to rescue another of Peter Bantle’s victims. And to do this, Miss Francina has to disguise herself as a man.


To be fair, Bear handles it pretty well. I would have lost it totally if Francina had cut off her beautiful, blonde ringlets for this escapade. Thankfully, male fashions at the time dictated that she could get away with washing her hair straight and tying it back. Also Bear does some really great work with Karen seeing the transformed Francina as a woman in a very effective man-disguise, rather than an actual man. All in all, however, I would have been much happier if poor Francina had not had to do this. It so marks her out as not “really” a woman.

For most of you, of course, this will not be an issue. Indeed, I guess many of you will read Francina as male throughout the book because her trans nature is revealed so early on (something I would probably not have done). What you will find in Karen Memory is a hugely entertaining steampunk adventure with a political edge to it. I’m not in the least bit surprised that I’m seeing lots of people saying how much they love it.

For more information about Elizabeth Bear, see the SF Encyclopedia.

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