It’s been a while since I last read steampunk—and by “a while”, I mean almost three years. The last time I read anything steampunk was all the way back in 2012, when I picked up Sam Starbuck’s Dead Isle and fell head-over-heels in love with it. Up until that point, I had been reading in the genre on a fairly regular basis, though I admit that I didn’t necessarily read everything and anything that came across my path. Most of it was rather bland, except Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy, which I thoroughly enjoyed because of Westerfeld’s excellent writing and artist Keith Thompson’s incredible illustrations.
But Dead Isle showed me something else: it showed me what steampunk could do. At its best, it can be a vehicle for addressing issues of racism, imperialism, and feminism, grabbing hold of long-neglected corners of history and bringing them into the light, or turning established history upside-down and inside-out in order to better showcase the issues that troubled us in the past, and continue to trouble us today. At its worst, however, it can ignore, or further reinforce, harmful stereotypes and conventions.
Unfortunately, the latter appears to be something a lot of steampunk writers out there still do quite frequently, and is the main reason why I haven’t picked up anything steampunk in a long time. Dead Isle, in a way, spoiled me for everything else in the genre, giving me standards that I now expect all steampunk writers to meet. And in the last three years since I read that novel, nothing has even come close.
But in 2014, Elizabeth Bear announced that she was releasing a steampunk novel in February 2015, and I sat up and took notice. I’d already read Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy and loved it, so I had a good idea, more or less, of the kind of quality to expect: which is to say, top quality work. This made it easier for me to decide to pick up Karen Memory when it finally came out—a decision that I do not regret making, not least because it has renewed my interest in a genre that I thought I’d almost completely lost interest in.
Karen Memory is set in an alternative version of American history, roughly during the Klondike Gold Rush, in a place called Rapid City (a fictional city that reads a lot like Seattle, but isn’t). Karen Memery, the lead character and narrator of the novel, works as a “seamstress” in Madame Damnable’s Hôtel Mon Cherie. It’s not the most noble kind of work, but it’s work nonetheless, and Madame Damnable’s house is a good place to be—certainly far better than any of that Peter Bantle’s dockside cribs. But when a pair of women stumble into the parlour of Madame Damnable’s establishment, injured and pursued, Karen and her companions in the Hôtel Mon Cherie find themselves caught up in a whole world of trouble.
I’ve already mentioned that one of the things a lot of steampunk writers appear to get wrong about writing their books is that they don’t take the time to write good, well-rounded characters. Karen Memory certainly does not have that problem—in fact, the main reason I love this book so much is that I adore the characters to pieces. Karen is everything I could want in a main character: intelligent, practical, with enough gumption to get her both in and out of trouble—and a soft-enough heart to worry if the girl she fancies is even interested in the “rites of Sappho”, as she calls it.
It can be hard, getting the balance right to make a character come off as genuinely good while at the same time making them human, but Bear manages to find that balance with Karen, and that’s what makes her so endearing—something a great many steampunk writers can’t seem to manage as well as they can manage their descriptions of steam-powered analytical engines. It’s easy to love Karen almost from the get-go, when she declares that “You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway”, and proceeds to tell her story with the sort of easy nonchalance that is the gift of the born storyteller, all in a charming (to me, anyway) “country girl” accent.
The accent is another thing that Bear has managed really well. Writing an accent has always been a difficult proposition, and can lead to books like Trainspotting, wherein one must necessarily read aloud to oneself if one wants to stand any chance of actually understanding the book in the first place. Fortunately, Bear doesn’t go to such lengths, choosing instead to play with word choice and syntax in an attempt to recreate the accent for the reader, and in this, she succeeds. Karen’s voice—accent and all—rung clear in my head as I was reading the book, and though there were times when I had to reread a sentence in order to understand it, it wasn’t a very great obstacle to reading the book.
The other characters are equally fun and well-drawn, and more importantly, are diverse in race, gender, and sexuality. Many of the characters are people of colour: Beatrice, another one of Karen’s fellow seamstresses, is black, the daughter of a courtesan from New Orleans; Crispin the bouncer and Connie the cook are also black. Merry Lee is Chinese. Priya is Indian (as in from India, not Native American). Madame Damnable herself would be considered black according to the laws of the time, but passes for white. And that’s just the characters that appear in the first chapter, not counting any of the others who come in later.
And then there’s Miss Francina. The “man in a dress” gag is one that pops up in adventure stories (and consequently in its descendants, Westerns and steampunk) quite often, and has rightly been viewed as hurtful and damaging to trans women everywhere, to say nothing of the murkiness of the history of trans people down the years. But Miss Francina is not presented as a gag: instead, she is presented seriously, addressed always as “she”. Right from the beginning Karen makes it clear that it hardly matters that Miss Francina has “a pecker” underneath her dress, because as far as she and everyone else is concerned, Miss Francina is a woman because she says so, and that’s that. The only time she changes the pronoun is when Miss Francina goes undercover as a man, and even then the “he” is very distinctly put in quotation marks.
Later on, the story introduces Marshal Bass Reeves and his posseman, Tomoatooah. It might not seem obvious from the get-go, but after a while the reader may come to realise something interesting (or they may already know it, if they are well-versed in pop culture history): the duo are meant to be the Lone Ranger and Tonto, written right. I myself only put two and two together when I read Bear’s Author’s Notes at the end of the novel, where she mentions that Bass Reeves is a real person, and is thought to be the basis for the Lone Ranger—a character who is portrayed, sadly, as white in all his iterations. While it’s unknown if Bass Reeves was ever accompanied by a Native American in his work as a Marshal, the name “Tomoatooah” itself could be shortened to “Tonto” in the right (or rather, wrong) mouth. Either way, I’m glad that Bear has given credit where credit is due for one of the most iconic characters in American pop culture history, and for writing said character’s companion, however fictional, appropriately.
To say that I was ridiculously happy with all of the above is something of an understatement. After casually leafing through other steampunk novels and finding them lacking in any attempt to tackle the issues I mentioned before, to see Bear do so was a delight. It’s not just the presence of the characters themselves: it’s also the problems they run into and live around, the prejudice and the difficulty of the life they lead being who and what they are. Even better, Bear doesn’t try to cover up any of the nastier stuff—but then, why should she? Doing so would be a great disservice to all the people who had—and in many cases, have—to suffer and sacrifice under prejudice because of their race, or their gender, or their sexuality, or all of the above, in order to keep on living. Karen’s matter-of-fact tone when talking about these difficulties puts some distance between the reader and the issues at hand, but doesn’t make them disappear entirely, and thus makes the reader think about them anyway.
Backing up the characters is the setting. It might not be as richly described as it would be in some other steampunk novel, but in this case, I don’t particularly care. Bear obviously wants the characters to take centre stage, and for good reason: the setting fits around the characters, not the characters fitting into the setting. While it’s true that Karen describes Rapid City and its environs, and all the funky steampunk details like airships and mechanical gadgets and the like, all of that takes second place to the characters in the story—which is just as it should be.
Something that a lot of steampunk writers seem to forget is that all the details that make steampunk, steampunk—the airships, the clockwork, the analytical engines—all of those are just details, meant to be used sparingly to support a strong cast of characters and an equally strong plot. There is only so much time one can spend talking about an airship, after all; at some point one must begin writing about characters and actually telling a story, and unfortunately, quite a few writers appear to forget that. Thankfully, Bear is more than aware of how to write an actual story, and though there is an airship in this story, and it is important to the plot, it doesn’t take the place of a properly told story, starring properly-written characters.
If there is anything I might have to complain about in this book, it’s mostly to do with the plot. Given the richness and vibrancy of the characters I was rather hoping for something a bit weightier, but the plot Bear weaves for the novel is, while appropriately fun and exciting, rather light for my tastes. In truth I don’t really know what I was expecting. The plot moves along as it should, though it does go a touch too fast for my liking towards the end. That might be it, I suppose: I was hoping for a longer plot line, perhaps something with a larger scope with larger consequences, but that’s not the point of this novel. It’s meant, in the end, to mimic the dime novels that were so popular at more or less the novel’s equivalent period in actual history: short adventure stories featuring real people doing more or less real, yet amazing, things. It was, in short, too short for my liking, but that might just be me, wanting to spend more time with the characters.
Overall, Karen Memory is an amazing steampunk novel, showing what the genre can do when it’s put in the hands of a really good writer. Bear creates an incredible cast of characters, and is not afraid to tackle issues about race, gender, sexuality, and imperialism, without sacrificing characterisation or plot. Karen is an endearing character, as are all the other characters excepting the villains, who are appropriately, teeth-grindingly villainous. Karen’s voice as narrator is an excellent one, though some readers may find Bear’s changes in syntax to recreate a country accent somewhat difficult to get around. However, it’s easy to get used to it after a few chapters, at which point the characters will have sucked the reader in sufficiently enough that it hardly matters. The plot may feel a bit too light for some readers, but it’s well in keeping with the conventions of the dime novels that inspired the entire adventure genre in the first place, and quite entertaining to boot, so that’s really a minor complaint and doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the novel.
This is, in other words, the very sort of steampunk novel I’ve been looking for the last three years, and it is a very great pleasure indeed to get to read this and renew my faith in the genre’s potential.