Monday, January 16, 2017

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Having finished all the books and stories I could find related to the 2015 Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, I branched out to the Locus awards.  Lots of fine material there.  I settled on novel nominee Karen Memory because it was available as an e-book from my local library and I have enjoyed many Elizabeth Bear novels.

Karen Memery is a "seamstress" in Rapid City, somewhere along the West Coast during the Gold Rush.  The seamstressing is done on her back.  She has the good fortune to work for Madame Damnable, an extraordinarily tough and fair madame who is well connected in Rapid City politics.  The setting is Gold Rush steampunk--we have mostly horsepower for getting around, but electricity, dirigibles and advanced engineering are readily available.  A Mad Scientist license in Rapid City costs about the same as one for being a seamstress.

Things get rough when Peter Bantle, a nasty local pimp, gets higher ambitions and decides to run for mayor with outside money and a steampunk mind control device.  He is also harboring a serial murderer of white streetwalkers that brings Bass Reeves, a black US Marshal, to town.

The story is basically a good one.  We have romance (lesbian--almost feels required), adventure, strong women and strong men.  Bear is a good writer and brings it together well.  But there are a lot of problems that detract from enjoyment. 

Most steampunk novels, and lots of alternate history novels, are based around a speculation about the effects of a technological advance that takes place several decades ahead of time, like flight, electricity or computing.  The story then flows from the logical consequences of that advance.  But Bear is not a steampunk author--she writes fantasy.  That seems to show here, since the steampunk advances feel random and don't coherently drive change.  We have dirigibles, "surgery machines" that somehow harness analog power to do advanced medical care, and sewing machines that are operated from the inside like a tank (literally so later).  And a mind control device that acts through a focusing device at a distance, like some sort of early Bluetooth.

The title character's name is after a friend of the author's.  She alludes to the name pun early on but doesn't do anything with it. Karen has memories, but she does not exemplify or otherwise interact significantly with Memory in the book.

Karen speaks in rural dialect, which I find kind of distracting. 

All in all this feels like a book that didn't come together nearly as well as it could have.  The afterword describes her research and adds a lot to the enjoyment, which is why in the end I will give it 3 stars.  Possibly a stretch to consider it for an award.

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