Monday, January 11, 2016

Phandemonium- Karen Memory

I finally made it to a non-Windycon meeting of Phandemonium--they're the folks that run Capricon every spring, and also hold book club discussions in Northern Chicagoland. For January's meeting, a fair number turned out to discuss Elizabeth Bear's 2015 novel "Karen Memory".

It's an alt-history steampunk tale set in the Pacific Northwest, with a diverse cast of characters (primarily sex workers) and a plot that slowly builds to a fairly mad-cap, dime-novel action story. A theme that is repeated throughout is "the powerless taking power", although I'm not sure how much has really changed by the end.

We generally liked it! Discussion & spoilers below:

The story begins by framing itself as Karen's journal, which didn't click for most of us given the style--but by the end, it's explicit that her journal was instead the basis for a dime-store novel which we are reading. There seemed to be a general feeling that "the book had trouble finding out what it was" in terms of tone and genre, but once it hit its swashbuckling stride it was quite fun. We discussed the tendency (possibly general or increasing) of novels taking this sharply-rising action pattern, noting that it can be hard to tell if the approaching narrative cliff will be one of resolution or merely a set-up for the sequel. Here, at least, everything ties up pretty neatly, with no obvious sequel-threads left hanging.

We talked about the style and tone of the novel a fair bit, including Karen's grammar, "upping one's chuck", and the likely-anachronistic use of "hot rod". There are also large chunks where it verges on camp, particularly in its use of winking euphemism. I found the relative prudishness of the narrative both intriguing and frustrating--it takes place primarily in a brothel, and most of the cast are sex workers, but sex and indeed anatomy are mostly elided. I found that made it hard to read certain aspects, particularly Karen & Priya's relationship.

I wasn't alone in hoping, in vain as it turns out, that the simplistic "reciprocal love at first sight" trope would be exploded or at least complicated. But nope!  I did seem to be the only one at the table who was...weirded out, shall we say, by the fact that Karen seems only capable of thinking of Priya in terms of "breaking" or, slightly less creepy, "gentling" a horse.

A little bit of confusion in visualizing exactly what
the "modified sewing machine" in the novel looks like.
The novel is steampunk--the cover has an airship on it, already--but those elements are fairly muted until late in the narrative. Then, suddenly, all the steampunk tropes comes out. Steam-powered exoskeletons, mechanical squid-submarines, airships, mysterious malevolent mesmerizing machinery. Name-dropping both Nemo & his Nautilus was an interesting move, and we talked a little bit about early film adaptations of that (which had a potent impact on the aesthetics of later steampunk, it should be noted). The 1916 silent film (dir. Stuart Paton) was recommended, as well as the more widely-known 1954 Disney version (dir. Richard Fleischer).

Cherie Priest's 2009 "Boneshaker"
brought up as cover-to-cover
steampunk tale set in the NW.
One of the thing that interests/irks me about much steampunk (and, to be fair, many other SF genres) is the seeming desire to have its (weird/wondrous) cake and eat it too. It needs to introduce these big, visible, intriguing technologies--steam-driven sewing machines that double as power armor, for instance--but then also needs to maintain its historical backdrop enough that we can perceive it as such. Thus, the technologies need to be contained, limited, either explicitly in the plot (as in the destruction of the Mesmerizer here) or implicitly by failing to extrapolate the revolutionary impact of these technologies. Having inventions with clearly society-altering potential only developed by isolated geniuses and/or villains is one way to effect that limitation, in this case preserving the "Wild West" setting for us readers.

(This reminds me of some of my comments on Crichton at the last Sulzer SF/F group, by the way.)

Whitewashing at its
finest. Er, most blatant.

The diversity of the novel is one of its primarcy features and strengths, and we dove into that a bit. The theory was floated that this "checks enough SJW buttons" that it is actually doing a bit of Puppy-baiting--that is, trying to get a rise out of the primarily patriarchal/conservative group that tried to hijack the Hugos to much ado last year. And Bear certainly has a good checklist here--sex worker protagonists, trans characters, non-heterosexualities, black U.S. Marshalls, Native Americans & Indians & Chinese characters, all in a setting (broadly speaking, the Western) that is traditionally one of the most white/male-centric. And we talked for a little bit about how this area and time were incredibly diverse in a way that most media--particularly the Hollywood Westerns of the '30s and '40s--left out.

I really liked when Karen's own inadvertent racism--the fact that she never learned or remembered Crispin's full name--because it's not only jarring for her, it's jarring for the reader as well.

I am intrigued by David's idea that "Karen Memory" is in a kind of dialogue with Leckie's "Ancillary Justice" (the 2013 novel & Hugo-winner that in many ways pushed the Puppies into Gating, as it were), particularly as they are quite generically distinct. Leckie's character Breq essentially begins as a disembodied presence and struggles with becoming an individual, while Bear's characters are sex-workers struggling to assert themselves as more than mere bodies. The language in "Ancillary" erases gender by making it all feminine, making us question both "what's really behind" the pronouns and, more importantly, why we care so much; "Karen Memory" starts from a kind of all-female world, Madame Damnable's brothel, and examines its flexibility and limits. And there's probably other fruitful comparisons here, especially in terms of power dynamics.

"Ancillary Justice" was one of those novels that it seemed like every group read at some point; you can find Positron notes on the Blackstone, Think Galactic, and (very brief) Phandeomonium discussions.

I'm skipping much discussion of the plot itself here, including much untangling of what the Russians et. al were up to, the lovely deus ex machina (and name!) of Minneapolis Colony, how we never address Priya's (granted, temporary) absconding with Karen's journal & funds, and the difficulty of actually riding into the sunset from Seattle. Also, whether or not the raised street system would result in Rapid City rapidly turning into a sort of water-logged waffle iron writ large, given the climate. Also, why don't they just build walkways across to the upper stories?

All in all, a fun work, although it may fail the "share-worthy as opposed to merely enjoyable" test.

Next up on Phandemonium's agenda is Capricon! February 11-14, up in Wheeling. In addition to all the connishness, they'll be holding a book club there Saturday at 10am: discussing guest of honor Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora". For March, back in their Evanston spot at Cosi, they'll be discussing Niven/Pournelle's "The Mote in God's Eye".

No comments:

Post a Comment