Kim Westwood's second novel, The Courier's New Bicycle, is perhaps more than anything else a story about identity, about the tension between who you say you are and who they say you are. The honor-listing of the book for this year's Tiptree Award points up that gender and sexuality are the most prominent axes along which this tension is explored, but as ever, attention from an award that seeks work "that expands or explores our understanding of gender" does beg the question of who is reading, whose understanding is being expanded or explored. People start from different places, after all; no two readers encounter the same novel. From where I started, I enjoyed it; I recommend it; and I'd like to read more work written from similar perspectives, with similar assumptions. But I also closed the novel experiencing a tension of my own: wanting Westwood to have gone further in some ways, while being aware that a few of the things I found buggy might be, for other readers, key features.
So I should start talking specifics. Set in Melbourne, an indeterminate but only moderate number of years into the future, The Courier's New Bicycle struck me as being like nothing so much as a hybrid of the last two winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. With Jane Rogers's The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011), Westwood's novel shares a world in which the rate of human reproductive success has plunged, albeit by accident rather than design. Widespread subfertility and infertility is the result of hormone-upsetting autoimmune reactions against a hastily developed vaccine that was intended to combat a flu pandemic. A little bit of handwaving later, Australia finds itself with a theocratic and ultra-gender-conformist government, even as the numbers of "gender transgressives" rise. That brings us to the thriving black market trade in fertility treatments—"kit"—and to the titular courier, Salisbury Forth, whose streetwise voice, sharply perceptive and tersely evocative of the urban edgelands, put me in mind of Lauren Beukes's Zoo City (2010). It's a voice engaging enough to justify Westwood's choice of first person narration (even if it's not clear who Sal is talking to, or why), but the choice is also a crucial bit of authorial sleight of hand, in that it allows Westwood to avoid deploying pronouns against a character who refuses gender identification:
For an evening, we'll "pass"; but that doesn't mean our antennae won't be up the whole time, gauging the reactions of the other participants in the glam parade and the varying safety of our surroundings. Maleness and femaleness are both performances that contain anxiety for me—but in different ways. Tonight, I pack my jocks and bind what little in the way of breasts I have to hide. It helps to have a strong jawline, and a stippled-in five o'clock shadow is less obvious at night, but it's my voice that's the giveaway—the timbre too light—so Inez will do most of the talking. (p. 150)
The directness of this passage, and its clear desire to convey the nuances of Sal's experience, is characteristic of the novel, and I've gone back and forth on whether it does or doesn't work: in fact that judgement depends on what you decide "working" looks like. I don't think, for instance, that I ever quite wrapped my head around Sal's neutrality, and haven't quite figured out why that's so: whether it's because we're told Sal was raised as a girl, or because I read "Sal" as a female name; whether there actually is something in the voice that I read as a "giveaway," or whether it's just that, in the absence of other cues, I subconsciously transpose authorial gender onto their character. I've read Kelley Eskridge's Mars as neutral, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Jean Genette (until definitive evidence to the contrary emerged); but for whatever reason I keep wanting to refer to Sal as she, her. I think a third person voice and a pronoun could have helped, in the sense that it would have provided something on which to build my perception of ser. At the same time, I'm fairly convinced the act of doing that mental work without any hand-holds was in itself valuable; and it would be easy to argue that a pronoun would mark Sal as other (for most readers), that the first person should allow a more direct, unfiltered connection.
In a broader sense, too, The Courier's New Bicycle seeks to normalise queerness, and to an impressive degree succeeds, creating a breathing social network operating in this future’s margins. Almost every major character is a gender transgressive of one kind or another, and in Westwood's future that doesn't just mean the categories we know—lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and so forth—but the new category of "infertile," and even those fertiles who opt not to pursue the "normal" happy-conventional-family lifestyle. Some characters are given vivid pen portraits (Sal's boss, Gail, "strides my way in executive black, her broad frame filling the space. Closer, a square jaw amplifies lush, colour-delineated lips below a patrician nose and plucked brows," p. 2), others sketched with a few well-chosen adjectives (Sal's trans friend Albee, "short, broad and very strong," p. 18); almost all gain depth and definition through their actions, the possible exception being Sal's girlfriend Inez, who felt to me slightly exoticised ("skin dusted cinnamon, her scented curves and hollows a subtle Koori-Irish mix" p. 15), and never quite as forcefully present as the text claimed her to be. It's not a huge surprise that the novel's most prominent antagonist (although there are several, of different stripes), is a "haughty cisgender hetero" (p. 16), but it's welcome that Westwood allows them some complexity, too. They are seen as being locked into a single performance, as Sal might put it, and forced into desperate acts to maintain a supply of the kit that allows them to avoid feeling that they are, in a striking phrasing, "stuck like a genie half out of a bottle" (p. 265).
The story all these characters inhabit clicks along with consumate professionalism, in at least three distinct threads. There's Sal's personal life, including Inez and the animal rights organisation that brought the pair together—a raid on a hormone farm is one of the novel's most impressive set pieces. There's the courier business, in which Gail assigns Sal to investigate an attempt to discredit her company, via the distribution of low-quality kit bearing her logo, and force it out of business. And there's a good samaritan act that leads to Sal becoming involved with an organisation that coordinates surrogate pregnancies, and a possible threat to their security. These strands interweave and eventually dovetail elegantly; but the plot is also the area in which I found myself wanting more. The overarching shape of the novel is signalled a little too obviously:
Despite the grimness of the night before, my spirits finally begin to lift. I have people—Gail, Inez and Albee, Max and Anwar—who care about me, and whom I can always call on for help. In this fucked-up world, I am not alone. I have family. (p. 105)
This sort of declaration, coming just under a third of the way into this sort of novel, can only mean there's a storm coming. And sure enough, before much longer Sal's family begins to be stripped away, raising the stakes. Some are taken out of action in targeted hits; others are collateral damages; others are driven away as a result of choices Sal is forced to make. As with the choice of narrative voice, the extent to which this works depends somewhat on what you think "working" means. In one sense it's an extremely sly move. The point of a strip-away-the-family plot, after all, is to allow the hero to rise to the challenge, to demonstrate their core heroic identity: which Sal does: and let's face it, there aren't many heroes out there with Sal's particular identity. But in another sense, it's also an overly familiar plot, driven more by external events than by internal conflicts, with the result that it does not dig as deep into a protagonist's soul as it might. Indeed, it's a plot that more or less guarantees a happy ending—Sal will save Gail's company, will win Inez's heart, will protect or avenge friends—which for me at least robbed chunks of the novel of tension.
I can certainly see why Westwood chose to write this story about these characters in this way. Bluntly, as a heterosexual white cis middle-class able-bodied man I'm not short of similarly identified heroes to project myself onto, when I'm in the mood for that mode of reading: I can't fully understand what a character like Sal, complete with basically straightforward heroism and victory, might mean to a person like Sal. The Courier's New Bicycle is an accomplished example of the type of story it sets out to be, but that it slots so neatly into the field turns out for me to be both its strength and its weakness. Using a recognisable story framework helps Westwood to make Sal an approachable narrator, and within that framework the novel does a fine job of exploring our (by which I mean my) understanding of gender; but I do wish she'd found a way to push a bit harder at some of the other conventions of genre at the same time.