In a recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, hosts Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe invited Nina Allan and Paul Kincaid on the show to discuss, among other things, the state of speculative fiction publishing. Allan and Kincaid agreeing that commercial publishers use a heavy hand molding authors’ submissions into a shape they believe will better sell, the conclusion was that small presses are the place to find works that do not spoon feed, rather offer the spoon. And Aliya Whiteley’s short novel The Beauty (2014), published by the new small press Unsung Stories, is a perfect example. Though at times lacking the subtlety of pure literary genre, the poetic prose, thematic outlay, and sharply focused narrative nevertheless give it a leg (or two) up on the majority of factory produced speculative fiction currently being published by the big houses.
Though technically post-apocalyptic, The Beauty bears little in common with the titles the sub-genre is most known for. Feeling perfectly like the love child of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer, Whiteley uses fungal bizarreness in a dark woodland setting to overlay a story hitting a couple major touch points of feminism and gender relations. Playing things safe, Whiteley works within comfortable bounds, thematically. The story of an all-male group eking out existence in the aftermath of a catastrophe that wiped women from the Earth nevertheless purports ideas that bear repetition, the wisdom not perennial for all.
The Beauty is the story of one of the young men in the group. Nathan has aspirations of some day being a storyteller and is practicing the craft under the guidance of other, more experienced men. Taken to a graveyard one day by his Uncle Ted, Nathan experiences something which he cannot later explain. But the aftermath is even more inexplicable: sway-hipped, wonderfully acquiescent women made of fragile mold and fungus emerge from the woods seeking relationships. Though filling a gap in the men’s lives, their quiet, surreal subservience causes dissension: there are some in the group who don’t want the mushroom women to become part of the stories, while others hope to integrate the moldering, yellowed ladies. Discord only spreading, Nathan, his Uncle, and the other men eventually face a crisis that tells its own future for the group.
The Beauty is written in sparsely poetic prose that moves to the haunted rhythms and introspections of the dark side of society. The macabre imagery of the mushroom women, the procreative fate that befalls the men, and the overall graveyard mood are balanced by passages that by turns elucidate and detract from the ideas under discussion. The story elements most often explicated in sharp poetic tones, the musings are, by turns, not always delineated with the same clarity. “William, Eamon, the farmers, the older men: they all think there will be no baby and they hate the idea that there could be hope. Because hope takes the form of a joining rather than a continuation.” Not quite balancing with the expression ‘hope for the future’, fully baking the philosophizing would have more tightly pinned down the notion. But though there are other passages which do not fit so neatly as puzzle pieces—marrying the plot to poetry as it were, but overall Whiteley’s sense of narrative expands ideas, builds imagery, and creatively drives the story to a pertinent conclusion.
Gender issues have evolved through the initial waves of feminism and social revolutions which came to prominence in the 60s and 70s into the complex, contemporary age of political correctness. Save one significant aspect, reading The Beauty one would be hard pressed to tell. The idea of a world without women a science fiction conceit if ever there were, Whiteley advances it along the lines that women are necessary to continue the species and that men and women form a natural pair in doing so. This is not to dismiss the importance of the these ideas; there are obviously still many who think like dinosaurs in terms of gender relations. But Whiteley’s novel only confirms ideologies that have been presented in fiction several times before. (See Le Guin’s “Solitude”, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Joanna Russ’ “Souls”, and many others.) The significant aspect, however, is the press to include women in society's "stories". The most applicable and contemporary part of the gender discussion, the gender reversal that arises stridently sets this concept center stage (it’s ghoulish imagery that sticks in the head, in fact). But regardless whether one considers the themes familiar or cutting edge, it should be stated clearly that Whiteley presents the theme in a wonderfully symbolic form that uses the tropes of genre to effectively marry plot and theme, and in a piece of writing, this is to be considered a success.
In the end, The Beauty is a brief novel about the quiet power and societal significance of women. Written in edged, poetic prose, it features gender role reversals, ghostly fungal women, and a dark, primitive setting wherein mankind is literally what the term expresses itself to be. Focusing on the male/female relationship and perspectives of said relationship, it is not the most ambitious novel thematically, but what it does outlay is perennial, the message never old. Along with the aforementioned similarities to Le Guin and VanderMeer, readers who enjoyed Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, P.D. James Children of Men, and James Tiptree Jr. in general will enjoy Whiteley’s effort. With books like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire being lauded for what are actually commercial genre efforts with a sprinkling of gender issues on top to soften the politically correct crowd, it’s great to see efforts such as Whiteley’s, efforts which more effectively focus on gender issues and believe in and understand the power of prose. As such, it’s difficult to disagree with Allan and Kincaid: in The Beauty’s case the small press has delivered more substantial material than the big commercial houses.