Steampunk, like any other kind of science fiction, can get top-heavy. Elizabeth Bear may or may not have had this in mind when writing Karen Memory, her new standalone steampunk novel, but she addresses it anyway. While a certain percentage of the genre dwells too much on anachronistic technology and tropes, sometimes at the cost of a winning story, Karen Memory — set in an imaginary city of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s — deploys its steam-driven marvels sparingly and with pinpoint precision.
At first, it's barely a steampunk novel at all. The book's titular hero is a young prostitute who lives in a peaceful, prosperous brothel run by the coarse yet kind Madame Damnable, and the technical wonders she encounters are restricted to a small scale: An electrocuting glove wielded by a devious pimp and rival of Damnable's, or a steam-powered, surgical "knife machine" installed in the brothel itself. Instead, Bear relies on a more solid foundation to capture the reader — the strong, sympathetic, charismatic voice of Karen, the narrator.
Karen's an orphan, but hard luck hasn't robbed her of spark. Her narrative is sharp, sly, and full of heart, and her rougher edges as the daughter of a frontier horseman haven't been filed down. Life at Madame Damnable's isn't a cakewalk, but she bears it with grace and an empowered sense of her place in society that dovetails nicely with the stirrings of first-wave feminism across the country.
Still, Bear keeps the story's scale local and small — at least at first. The details of Karen's domestic life and romantic passions are painted vividly and evocatively, and it's a treat to simply spend time with her and her sisters-in-trade. But when Peter Bantle, Damnable's bullying rival, runs for mayor, the balance of power in town is thrown into doubt — and the tiny elements of steampunk that have been accumulating in the background begin to take a central role, up to and including a mind-control device and breathtaking airships. By story's end a plot of geopolitical proportions has been unearthed, one that Karen and her fellow prostitutes find themselves embroiled in — even as the focus remains squarely on Karen's growing sense of her own identity, and a destiny that's far more ambitious than her lot in life will allow.
The plot isn't complicated, nor does it need to be. Bear is paying homage to the dime novels of the era, forerunners of pulp fiction packed with larger-than-life heroes, scheming villains, and gritty action. But she's subtly subverting this tradition, just as much as she's giving steampunk a gentle, loving twist. An African-American marshal and a transgender prostitute are just two members of the book's diverse cast, and it's clear that Bear is making a point about the way history, like literary subgenres, can steamroll over anyone who falls outside the norm. She makes that point engagingly and effortlessly. Karen Memory breezes by at a leisurely pace, a bracing yet charming adventure yarn that never feels forced, despite the brassy confidence of its delivery.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Cluband author of the novel Taft 2012.