The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey Review

Alexander Wallace is uptight, out of sight.
Take Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, put them in a blender with Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, and sprinkle it liberally with Mad Max. That’s the best way I can describe Sarah Gailey’s novella Upright Women Wanted. This book is a mashup of all sorts of genres, resulting in something that defies any of them and is deeply human at the core of it all.

Gailey (who uses they/them pronouns) has decided to blast the United States into a war-torn wasteland where technology is rare and the government is openly authoritarian. The plot kicks off when Esther, a young woman escaping her past, barges into a wagon train carrying precious knowledge. She wishes to join the Librarians, the keepers of knowledge in this ruined United States. They are all women (or present as such).

There’s the apocalypse, as stated before, which gives the whole book this desolate, vast feeling. This is bolstered by the fact that Upright Women Wanted is in many ways a Western, enhanced by how it is set out west. There are a lot of horses in this book, and they pull carriages. There is a pivotal combat scene fought on horseback.Water is a scarce resource, as are many other things. You can imagine everyone in bandanas and wide-brimmed hats and vests.
Upright Women Wanted is a book about new beginnings. Most obviously there is Esther, who wishes to make the librarians her new home and spreading knowledge to this apocalyptic ruin her new vocation. She has to learn the ropes of this trade, and the secrets within it, in order to build a life free from the things she fears and regrets. This expands beyond Esther, however; you get this feeling that the winds of change are blowing across America, and that it may not be the same after all this is over.

The reader will quickly take a liking to Esther; she is anyone who has ever had to escape an awful living situation, and anyone who has ever wanted to escape (and that’s a lot of people). She is also bold enough to strike off on her own, damn the consequences. She has a lot to learn, but she stumbles and improves in a manner that feels very realistic.

This is also a book about knowledge, and about libraries. Modern libraries do not (usually) roll around on wheels and are not pulled by horses, but the services they provide are invaluable all the same. I even got this book from a local library! In our day, they are having their funding cut and their branches shuttered, for we do not value knowledge nearly as much as we should. For the inhabitants of this fallen country, the caravans bring news of the outside world and knowledge of whatever is needed, and for that they are critical to survival.

Upright Women Wanted is a masterclass in how to write a novella of this sort. Gailey knows very well how to use language economically, and to pack as much meaning as possible into every scene. I ended this book feeling deeply impressed with what was accomplished, and I will most certainly have to read more of their work in the future. Reading the Hugo nominees has its benefits to the reader who wants their horizons expanded, and Gailey shows you exactly why that is the case.

The 2021 Hugo Nominees: Reviews
'Finna' by Nino Cipri
'Ring Shout' by P. Djèlí Clark

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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