Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey, isn’t your usual dystopian novel. It isn’t even your usual speculative fiction novel. But it IS a great deal of fun to read, and it’s only novella length, so if you’re in the mood for a quick visit to a less than great future, with shades of the Wild West and with heroic Librarians as your main characters, check out Upright Women Wanted.
The book is set in a somewhat dystopian future, but instead of the usual burned out cities and zombie ravaged countrysides, it takes place in the American Southwest. People live in small towns and ranches, connected to each other by the Approved Materials brought to them by bands of roving Librarians in horse drawn carts. Mores are old-fashioned and enforced rigidly; possession of unapproved materials is punishable by death.
At the outset, our protagonist, Esther, has just stowed away on a Librarian’s wagon, running away from her father, the leader of the town, and the man her father intends for her to marry. She’s been traumatized by watching the hanging of her best friend (more than just a friend) Beatriz, who had been found with unapproved materials. Freaked out by the death of a person she loved, aware of her own unapproved tendencies to love women rather than men, Esther hopes to be able to straighten her life out with the Librarians. She figures that such hardworking, upright women will help her get over any tendencies she might have toward deviance, physical as well as political.
Boy, is she wrong.
It takes a while for Esther to figure out what the reader can see almost from the outset. Far from being the instruments of the state Esther assumes they are, these Librarians are playing a double game, transporting potentially dangerous materials under the guise of approved ones, and sometimes transporting dangerous people from one place to another as well. Anyone who remembers how real life American librarians reacted to the requirements of the Patriot Act will have no problem imagining rebellious Librarians in the future. That they also feel no requirement to love in only approved ways just makes them even better role models for Esther.
When the Librarians pick up a trio of women to transport to Utah (and hey, points here for an unexpected twist, that Utah, of all places, turns out to be a hotbed of rebellion), they inadvertently take on more trouble than they anticipated. Amity, one of those women, is a well known rebel with a price on her head, and the group is pursued by a vicious posse of men who will stop at nothing to get her. Though Amity has killed people in the past, and Esther is shocked at some of the things Amity is accused of doing, the two women find a connection, and Esther is willing to stake her life to protect Amity.
This is a western without the stereotyping and racism, an adventure story in which the men are only secondary characters, a romance, a vision of a possible future. It’s full of action and humor and vivid characters, and also hope. I would love to see more of this world (the disadvantage of a novella in general) and these people, and I hope Gailey will give us more adventures of Esther and Cye and the other librarians, but even if she doesn’t, I had a lot of fun with the Upright Women here and heartily urge you to make their acquaintance, too.