Sewing Machine Battles: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s newest novel Karen Memory takes a different direction than her last several projects: it’s a steampunk romp set on the west coast during the late 19th century, narrated by the titular character, a young woman who works as a “seamstress” in a high end bordello.

One night, she helps (along with her housemates) to rescue two young women who have escaped the crib brothels down by the port—one the rescuer, one the rescue-ee. The incident brings the already-strained relationship between our antagonist, Peter Bantle, and the house’s Madame to a head; and, not long after, murdered women begin appearing around the city—also bringing to town the Federal Marshal Bass Reeves.

There are also dirigibles and steam-powered sewing machines like exoskeletons, of course, and the wider conflict over the future of the West lingers in the submerged layers of the narrative as well. There’s a mix of actual history and invented, real places and people and imaginary, that adds a certain depth to the fun—plus, there’s also a diverse cast, from our protagonist’s love interest Priya to the Marshal and his posseman.

The first and most direct thing I’d say about Karen Memory is that if you appreciated—or, say, really really loved—the movie Wild Wild West, but wished it had dealt more with the women of the frontier and their struggles, this is probably the book you’ve been waiting for. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a complex narrative with difficult characters and provocative concepts, something like Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder novels, this is quite firmly not that. Nor does it want to be. Karen Memory is exactly what it claims to be: a lighthearted and playful adventure yarn.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s actually even framed as a dime-novel; there’s technically something like a twist at the end, but it’s fairly clear throughout the novel that our narrator is writing this for some particular audience that appreciates conversational reading and crackling adventure—as well as a touch more social commentary than the actual dime presses probably would have printed.

Karen as narrator gives us the whole of the tale through a fairly direct and “unpolished” prose, which does manage to feel a lot like listening to a story be told during the reading process. It’s a fast read, also. Though it is certainly a full length novel, it read quicker and lighter—and treaded, in some ways, rather close to feeling like a young adult story with a lot of the adult bits added back in. Karen is a young protagonist, after all, as is Priya. It is made a point of quite frequently that the Karen writing the story is older and wiser, though, which is perhaps the thing that pushes this firmly back into an adult generic audience.

The plot is fast and has a surprising amount of stuff going on in it: murder and politics and rescues and stakeouts abound. It seems as if the problems just keep compounding on themselves, as of course they tend to in this sort of book, until they all coalesce and have to be dealt with in one grand finale. It’s a structure that works, and it works here too. I was perfectly willing to keep turning pages to find out what happened next in Karen’s adventure.

In the end, though—despite all that—I wasn’t quite sure if I felt one-hundred percent satisfied by Karen Memory. That’s perhaps implicit in the expectations the novel sets for itself: it isn’t a serious and intense read, it’s an action-adventure sort of Western with girls and guns and steam-powered trappings. (There’s such thing as a Mad Scientist’s license in this world, for example.) It skims over much of the potential for depth and reflection in favor of a fast-snapping plot, which makes perfect sense and wouldn’t likely work any other way, but it’s definitely a trade that’s been made. I found myself wanting to slow it down a moment, sometimes. Karen, for example, seems to fall head over heels for Priya almost instantaneously; there are also a lot of stakeouts and daring escapes and ambushes that all began to make me feel a touch fatigued.

On the same note, there was something about the lack of depth in the majority of the cast that unsettled me as well. It sometimes feels as if our primary engagement with the characters is just the knowledge of their (markedly Other) skin color or gender—and it’s difficult to frame that as a criticism while simultaneously appreciating the diversity of the cast in what was historically a diverse frontier. Yet, I wanted more than just the sensation that I was being informed of their difference, and I’m not certain that I feel I necessarily got that “more.” This goes hand in hand, though, with the pace of the novel and the surface-level engagement it offers. Hard to do that work of expansion and development in this kind of book, and I’d certainly rather see the frontier represented near its wide-ranging totality than have all the cast and crew filled out with entirely white folks, et cetera. So, perhaps it’s a mealy-mouthed criticism; it’s a difficult one to make, certainly, but it was a sensation that lingered with me after finishing the read.

Which is not to say that Karen Memory isn’t making its arguments and presenting its particular worldview and politics as well. The Karen of the story in particular is living through the cusp years of a young woman who feels generous and unprejudiced—except she hasn’t quite faced down some very basic and implicit things she assumes about the world. Near the end, for example, Marshal Reeves refers to the house’s male assistant, Crispin, by his last name—and Karen doesn’t know it, because she never bothered to ask a black man’s surname. It shames her, even after her victories and with her progressive opinions about women, that she could make such a mistake. And that’s a message I appreciated throughout the novel: that she’s trying, but it doesn’t make her perfect, and the world she lives in certainly isn’t. The use of historical language to present people like Reeves’s Native American posseman and Miss Francina, a woman who is transgender, is also an interesting choice—it gives us some insight, uncomfortably, into the blind spots Karen and her associates have regardless of their progressive intentions.

They’re products of their world, and they’re trying—which is perhaps the most depthy thematic message a reader could try to pull from amongst the mechanical exoskeleton (sewing machine) battles and the Jack-the-Ripper murder mystery and the Russian sabotage plots.

Overall, I think that Karen Memory makes for a good weekend read—curl up in a blanket, have some whiskey, and dive into some wild west adventures with the “soiled doves” of Madame Damnable’s house. It’s silly and fun, and that is worth something, particularly if that’s the sort of thing you’re feeling in the mood for. It also does manage to do something with steampunk I was willing to read, too, which is a high compliment after the recent years’ deluge. And lastly, it has a head on its shoulders about making its social criticisms and commentary through a historical lens and historical language—sometimes that’s interesting too, like peering back through time (though never stepping out of the contemporary experience). Bottom line: it’s a lesbian steampunk western, and if that’s your deal, you’ll enjoy it.

Karen Memory is available February 3rd from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com, and get a closer look at the cover design.


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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