I read Alison Tam’s Beauty, Glory, Thrift in an aisle seat on the flight home to Tokyo. This was a mistake, given that I started crying and caused two very nice flight attendants and the man trapped next to me a great deal of discomfort.
Maybe that doesn't sound like a compliment, but I mean it in the best way possible. The Book Smugglers have put out some high-quality works so far, and this one, from their Gods and Monsters series, is no exception. Beauty, Glory, Thrift is a fast read that left me with what I can only describe as an afterglow. Tam checked a full line on my narrative bingo card: spaceships, unreliable narrators, f/f relationships, body-sharing, and characters that revel in small, commonplace pleasures.
A thief walks into a temple and picks up a girl. Well, not a girl, exactly; our thief finds Thrift perched on an altar, like her sisters (Beauty, Glory, Wisdom, and a handful of other virtues). Thrift begs and bargains to accompany her on her adventure. The thief, Pak, installs Thrift directly into her brain. Pak is the only one who can see and communicate with Thrift, who is delighted to experience the world through Pak's senses.
However, uninstalling Thrift is more complicated than Pak understands. Thrift is not, as the thief had believed, a bit of accounting software; Thrift insists that she's a goddess. While a charming narrator, in other words, Thrift is far from a reliable one. She's existed so long that she's lost sight of what she started out as: a woman who lived once, and died, and was never uploaded into the cloud to enjoy her digital afterlife.
The pair eventually return to the temple to free Thrift's sisters from their limbo, and the other spirits' presence grates on the comfortable symbiosis that Pak and Thrift have built between them. Thrift knows she needs to separate herself from the thief; there's only so much room in a person, after all. But Pak, having watched one of Thrift's sisters delete herself and the others preserve themselves digitally, begs her not to leave just yet, in an echo of Thrift's original pitch. Though her desire is reciprocated, the logistics of the situation trouble Thrift:
“You can take me anywhere you like, but it won’t make any difference. We can go anywhere, I can feel whatever you want, but, Pak, I am trapped in your mind. I am a wraith, insubstantial, inconsequential, and I can no longer remain but a shadow at the edge of your mind. I have to choose, Beauty’s path or Glory’s, before I begin to resent yours.” (p. 74)
But there's a third option, and Thrift takes it. She is after all data, and there are other places for her to inhabit, allowing her to remain by Pak's side and still exist as a separate entity.
Tam's prose keeps this narrative ticking along at a brisk pace, moving through a series of exotic locales. The fragments of world-building she weaves into the narrative hint strongly at a much larger and richer landscape. Diaspora stories will always have a special place in my heart, and Tam perfectly evokes the complex emotions of returning to one's ancestral homeland:
Everything we saw, I divided into familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar was a woman we passed, who looked so much like Glory that I almost called out my sister’s name. Familiar was the cadence in a street vendor’s voice as she called out the prices of the day, and immigrants from planets we had already visited, cooking up food that the thief had eaten on our travels. Some blurred from familiar to unfamiliar to familiar again: a many-headed woman (familiar, like the doctor the thief had brought me to the first day we met) climbing into a cart that moved along a set of silver rails (unfamiliar) who raised a hand, like Beauty would, to wave at a distant admirer. (p.40)
My only real complaint about the story is that Beauty and Glory don't get much "screen time" despite being given top billing. Thrift is the real star of the show, and she's well capable of carrying that weight: alien enough to be fascinating, human enough to be relatable. Her interiority is beautifully realized. Watching her and the thief grow comfortable with each other can't be called a slow burn at this word count, but the evolution of their relationship is never anything but charming.
So many fictional relationships progress from antagonism to affection, and given that the thief wants to uninstall Thrift from her brain, one might expect the pair to be at odds. Instead, Thrift and Pak revel in showing off to each other. Both women put intentional, deliberate effort into delighting each other. Thrift puts her mercantile wits to work, coaching Pak as she sells her loot. Pak in turn rewards Thrift with an array of exciting experiences:
We went to the androids’ opera, supposedly to steal pocketwatches and cufflinks, but she let us sit through the whole performance, as twenty-seven metal prima donnas sang in alternating harmony. We spent an hour in a planet’s atmosphere, doing barrel rolls. We went to see a waterfall, finally, and I had her place her whole body beneath the falling water just so I could feel it pounding against her frame. (p. 32)
Each instance of generosity which both characters contribute to their growing relationship set off a firework inside my heart. Even when they quarrel they are first and foremost gentle with each other—a virtue that many fictional relationships lack. Pretty girls being kind? Sign me up for more of this, please.
Tam cites the Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" as an influence on the story (incidentally, something else that reduced me to incoherent, joyful tears), and its fingerprints are obvious on Tam's conception of the digital afterlife. Although Thrift refuses to be uploaded into the simulated afterlife, she still follows in Kelly's footsteps by choosing to stay with the woman she loves. Tam has struck literary gold with Thrift and Pak's love affair, and as a queer woman I found it affirming to read a piece of sci-fi centered on queer love as a transformative force.