No Award Reads: The Courier’s New Bicycle

The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood is a 2011 Australian SF novel set in a grim dystopian Melbourne approximately a generation into the future.  A bird flu pandemic ravaged Asia and Australia, and an untested vaccine rendered most Australians infertile.  (All we know about the impact in Asia is that Singapore went bust.)

Five years ago, the Generic Christian Oppressor Party (okay, they’re called Nation First) came into government, and along with their dodgy co-religionists (…something-or-other First), they have imposed an oppressive theocratic regime that bans artificial fertility, non-binary gender identities, and queerness in general.

The story follows agender bicycle courier Sal Forth, whose day job is making deliveries for the underground artificial fertility industry, and who is an animal rights activist in zir spare time.  Sal becomes embroiled in a set of mysteries: who is trying to destroy zir’s boss’s business; who is responsible for the beating of a surrogate mother; and who has poisoned zir previously only-once mentioned bestie with a contaminated T-shot.

Spoilers: the answer is, STRAIGHT PEOPLE, but especially STRAIGHT WOMEN, because if there’s one thing this book has, it’s spades and spades of misogyny.  Trans-misogyny, cis-misogyny, unexamined misogynistic treatments of women of colour, it’s all straight-up woman hatin’ here.

Suffice to say, Steph and Liz didn’t care for it.  Which is sad, because lots of people whose taste we normally share loved it!  But by coincidence, we started reading it at the same time, and sent colliding text messages going, “I’M READING THIS BOOK AND IT’S AMAZINGLY TERRIBLE WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT FOR NO AWARD”.

There’s some really awesome stuff around gender and sexuality. Lots of queer relationships and people, and a real consideration of how that impacts peoples’ lives. And so much of the book’s underlying messages are about found family and how great and valid they are. It’s a great look at different conditions and different situations, and the way in which Australia might change in our climate change dystopia (the proliferation of bike couriers, the constant warm weather, the creation of glow in the dark pets, good work CSIRO).

But despite the awesome stuff, Liz and Steph had to take turns encouraging each other to get through the book. And that rarely ever happens.

Spoilers. So many spoilers below.

No Award Disclaimer: When we go on rambles like the 3500 words within, it’s not because we want nobody to write anything new or fun or intersectional. It’s just that we have feelings about the respectful way to do these things, and everybody, even people we love, makes mistakes.

Steph:

I really struggled with the idea that Nation First would beat up pregnant surrogates. It felt like inconsistent world building. Surely, with the vaccines having reduced peoples’ fertility, Nation First would kidnap the surrogate, deliver the baby, and then kill the (brown) surrogate.

Further in surrogacy issues, the only actual surrogate mother we meet is brown, and in light of the problems around international surrogacy, and specifically Indian surrogacy, well, I don’t think it’s a surprise that I’m having some severe issues around the role of brown people, once again, in this Australian dystopic future.

Liz:

It is also specified that India is still fertile (still practising sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, too), and that until Nation First took power, Australia was very much welcoming immigrants from fertile countries, who are now basically outcasts in the new Aussie theocracy.  So I think it’s a logical conclusion that most of the surrogates are marginalised women of colour.

Steph:

But it’s an inconsistent one. Where are the other surrogates?  And of course there’s the fact that the surrogates have to live in the Red Quarter – the brothel/prostitution part of town – for the duration of the pregnancy, because the Red Quarter has taken over the industry. So brown people are breeders and sex workers? And it does particularly highlight the other problems with ethnicity in this: for starters, the bit where Sal goes on a rant about suttee, which is exactly what I want from a random white person.

Liz:

I thought it was the young Indian guy going on the rant about suttee?  Even so, it felt like we were getting A Special Moment of White Person Opinions.

Steph:

Double-check of the text shows it is Braheem going on the rant, but I don’t think that undermines my point that it’s a white person having some opinions.

Sal also exotifies zir girlfriend, Inez, who has grey almond eyes and cinnamon skin (she’s “a subtle Koori-Irish mix”). Sal comparing zirself to being an Untouchable, which Roshani/Geeta and Braheem actually are (naming themselves as Dalit in the text).

Liz:

I’m generally pro-legal and regulated sex work, but I’m also generally anti-unfettered capitalism, so my hackles started going up as soon as I found out that the sex industry was also running the fertility and surrogacy industries.

And the reason given is that the madams are accustomed to working illegally and in secrecy?  Okay, but prostitution has been legal in Victoria since 1992.  And the theocratic regime has only been in place for a few years when this book opens.  Sooooo … huh?

Steph:

One of the major issues we both had about this book was the speediness with which this world has allegedly been built. In one generation the streets and landmarks have all been renamed to be more religious (Angel Gate Bridge! Atonement Street! Pilgrim Lane and Little Beatitude!). In one generation pets have become illegal (PETS HAVE BECOME ILLEGAL), and were rounded up and killed because of bird flu mumble mumble.

I'm going to throw this pu-erh in your face
I’m going to throw this pu-erh in your face

Liz:

Quick bird flu-related digression — obviously, pandemics are a totally valid thing for SF to explore, but there’s this very old idea that diseases and epidemics only come from “backward” continents, ie Africa and Asia, and using bird flu as the catalyst for this very, very rapid social change is part of that tradition.

Part of the reason pets have become illegal is that there was a fad for genetically-engineered pets with weird traits.  Sal has an illegal cat named Nitro, who is bright purple and glows in the dark.

(Important spoiler: the worst thing that happens to Nitro is a trip to the vet where the cat is pronounced perfectly healthy.  Despite this book containing a ton of graphic animal cruelty, nothing bad happens to the cat.)

Anyway, Nation First has banned all genetic engineering and unnatural whatnots, so all the genetically engineered pets were rounded up and killed.

This is apparently meant to be a realistic bit of worldbuilding — Westwood is very into animal rights, and exploring human indifference to animal suffering — and so we’re meant to believe that the average Australian punter is just going to stand by and let their family pets be killed.

Yyyyyyeah.  Nuh.

Steph:

I thought the animal rights and animal welfare stuff was really interesting. (Please note: I am a vegan and very there for animal stuff) Sal is part of a group of animal activists that go on night raids to liberate animals (often horses) being kept in illegal, terrible conditions for the purposes of hormone cultivation for humans.

Liz:

I am still having trouble believing that horse hormones are the best alternative to human.  Pigs, guys.  Pigs are super compatible with humans, and not just because bacon is delicious.

Anyway, much as I am opposed to animal cruelty, I found it quite horrifying that Sal goes to all these lengths to rescue animals, but also works to maintain the status quo in the surrogacy industry.  But that’s not the only thing I found horrifying about the attitude of the so-called heroes.

(Except Albee, Sal’s token trans friend.  You deserve better friends, Albee. You deserve a better book.)

Steph:

Which brings us, I suspect, to Marlene.

Liz:

Oh, Marlene.  You just deserved better writing.

Marlene is introduced as “a haughty cis hetero”, although she spends part of the book in a relationship with a woman, and every time we see her, Sal points out her grotesque femininity, or someone makes a joke about her disgusting sexuality.  Sal often seems to have issues with women, particularly feminine women, but everyone hates Marlene.  Even her surname is mocked, because the heroes are apparently twelve years old.

Now, Marlene is obviously a privileged person in a marginalised space, so I expected people to be wary of her, but she’s singled out for gendered abuse in a way that the cis men of the story are not.  She is literally baby crazy, and is actually attempting to kill people because they’re friends with the person who stands between her and popping out a sprog.

(She believes her male accomplice also wants a baby, which everyone mocks — and, sure enough, he’s like, LOL, WHY WOULD I WANT KIDS?  IT’S POWER AND MONEY THAT I WANT, FOR I AM A CIS MAN.  When Steph called this book “terfible”, I’m only about 90% sure it was a typo.  The treatment of Marlene is super gender essentialist.)

Also pretty TERFy: when the heroes, discovering that Marlene is one of the villains, threaten to start injecting her with testosterone.  Nothing says good times like a forced transition, eh?

I hope I don't look happy with this
I hope I don’t look happy with this

Steph:

Our heroes also threaten to lock her in a room and remove all her makeup and meds, and without them she’ll become wrinkly and ugly and “Oestrogen-deprived, your cunt will dry and your womb will shrink – such effort for nothing, so much money wasted. You’ll be a washed-up vamp with all the sex appeal of roadkill.” Which is delightfully misogynistic. But it’s okay because she’s a ciswoman who wants a baby and buys into the discourse of women should be beautiful and wear makeup?

Liz:

Yeah, Marlene is super into performing femininity.  Sal talks a lot about her enormous breasts and magnificent cleavage, only with less positive adjectives because Sal has serious issues with women.

(Sal’s internalised misogyny makes sense, given that zie grew up with zir’s parents “colonising me with femininity”, except it’s completely unexamined.  Most of the women Sal encounters are appraised and sexually objectified — the madam/dominatrix Savannah to a considerable degree — “stretching her many-braceleted arm towards me is a sultry, aristocratic Egyptian”, she has a “seductively clad back” — and it’s quite uncomfortable.  If I were Inez, I’d be getting the heck away from Sal.)

Before Marlene’s perfidies are revealed, Sal has an encounter with another cis woman, Lydia, who is also unstable and unreliable (and potentially violent!) because of a hormonal imbalance she induced because … she wanted a baby.  I thought that was pretty sketchy, but okay, whatever.  Then Marlene came along, and I realised it was Westwood’s idea of good characterisation.

Steph:

Their heterosexuality is kind of portrayed as gross, which is an interesting choice given the illegalisation of queer relationships and the implication that it’s terrible that queer relationships have been legislated against. Shouldn’t it therefore follow that judging het relationships and sexuality is…also terrible?

Liz:

I can’t believe that you of all people are making a What About The Straight People? argument.

I mean, I agree, and I think a lot of the sexual and gender politics in this book is straight out of the Die Cis Scum tag on Tumblr, but I’m just amused.

However, I’m also going to add to that a dash of Not All Men: the thing where only women want BABIES and men want MONEY AND POWER is toxic patriarchy in action, and just generally bad writing.

Speaking of Not All [Privileged Groups], is this time to talk about religion?

Steph:

It’s always time to talk about religion here at No Award.

Liz:

Are you free to talk about the Gospel of Problematic Faves?

BUT SERIOUSLY, I wish you’d read this before the religion panel at Continuum, because it’s like a What Not To Do When Portraying Religion.  (Not that I was at that panel, but I heard about it later.)

Steph:

On the Talking About Religion panel, where we talked about religion, we spent a lot of time discussing the importance of writing what you know – and if you don’t know it, then to learn to know it, and know it with respect. Work with people whose religion it is. And understand that no matter how much you think you know, you’re probably wrong. Handily, here at No Award we have someone who was raised within evangelical Australia.

Liz:

There are several things to discuss with regard to religion in The Courier’s New Bicycle. The first is that the theocratic Evangelical regime is incredibly American.  Like, we have a few aggressively evangelical churches in Australia, but they’re not remotely mainstream.

And they just don’t make sense.  Like, the Something Or Other First church is clearly part of the Protestant Evangelical tradition, with public prayer and adult baptisms at the local council swimming pools, but they also have a garbled version of the Catholic antipathy towards IVF.  (More on that shortly.)  There’s a street renamed after Pope Benedict, which is especially weird, because the hardcore Evangelical churches are the ones who still sincerely believe the Pope is the Antichrist!

And no mainstream Christian denomination bans artificial hormone treatment.  Catholicism is anti-IVF and anti-surrogacy, but hormones?  GO FOR IT.  (And, between you and me, it’s only the really hardcore Catholics like my parents who are still anti-IVF.  Even Tony Abbott is in favour of it, provided it’s for a woman with a husband!)

So the religious setting is kind of monocultural and unconvincing, and really, really lazy. There are also questions to be asked like, how does this theocratic party maintain power when this is still a capitalist society and they’ve gone and shut down the incredibly lucrative fertility industry?  And just how did Australia become so religious in a single generation?

And where did all the other denominations go?  Where are the Catholics and the Anglicans?  Where is the Uniting Church?  Sal’s parents were Presbyterian before they converted, apparently without a theological qualm.

The only non-Whatever First church we hear of — and the only one who treats queer people with compassion — is … the Salvation Army?

Obviously the Salvos aren’t a monolith, and there are absolutely forces for change and good in the organisation, just as there are in any church.  But … the only group that isn’t actively persecuting queer people?  Really?  THE SALVATION ARMY?

And where are the Muslims?  The Buddhists?  The Jews?  Has a wholesale cultural genocide effectively taken place?

(Practitioners of the mainstream faith wear “hessian prayer shawls” over their heads, so there’s a nice echo of both Judaism and Islam there.  In the creepy, threatening, oppressive church.  Um.)

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Steph:

And we have Anwar (who I assume is Muslim but is definitely the child of asylum seekers), and Braheem, about whom Sal speculates if his working hours are religious in nature (it’s not, he’s worried about being beaten up in the dark), and that’s kind of it in terms of not having a religious monoculture.

Liz:

But don’t worry, Chinatown is still there.

Steph:

And Sal, the best bicycle courier in all of Melbourne, manages to get lost in Melbourne’s Chinatown alleyways. Because zie’s so enamoured of Inez’s skin (and her ‘almond eyes’).

Liz:

DON’T FORGET HER CINNAMON-DUSTED SKIN.

And what the hell kind of Melburnian — let alone a courier — manages to get lost on Little Bourke Street?

Steph, did you feel like Melbourne (the city) had a strong presence in the book? Because I felt like it could have been set almost anywhere.

Steph:

I do feel that way, and I wonder if I would have felt differently if the streets and landmarks hadn’t been renamed. When I’m reading books set in Australia, I always try to picture them if I can, and I really struggled with this one. I kept questioning things – if that’s where I think it is, is that timeframe for distance right? Where exactly are these warehouses that are in Docklands at which drag-racing is occurring? Would hormone factories really be situated in Docklands?

Liz:

Most of that stuff took place a bit further south, around the (present-day) industrial parks of Fisherman’s Bend.  But honestly, I feel like the hormone factories should have been on Coode Island, or Port Melbourne proper.  Maybe even the currently-empty factories and warehouses around West Footscray.

Drag racing?  Fisherman’s Bend is not that big an area.

And what kind of subversive queer Fitzrovian secretly dreams of owning a property in Toorak?!

Steph:

Speaking as a subversive queer Fitzrovian, I will categorically state that I have no desire to own a property in Toorak.

Liz:

Well, who would?

Steph:

Speaking of, the will through which Sal inherits Gail’s property. Liz will be speaking to this at length and in an outraged tone of voice.

Liz:

Look, this is just pure nitpicking, but I can only assume the author has never seen a Will drawn up by an actual lawyer.  Sal receives a “certified copy” of Gail’s Will, in which zie name is filled in the blank section to indicate zie’s inherited the Toorak mansion.

  • We don’t certify copies of Wills.  We just photocopy them.  I don’t specialise in Wills and Powers, but that was like the second thing I learned as a legal secretary.
  • When a solicitor (or, more precisely, her clerk) draws up a Will, there’s no fill-in-the-blanks.  It’s more of a “search and replace and hope like hell you’ve remembered to fix all the names and addresses” system.  At least at my firm, which I’m told is a bit … eccentric in its practices.

Like I said, this is simply pedantry, but it was at the point where I wasn’t prepared to be forgiving of little mistakes.

Not when there are big mistakes, like how Sal seems more attached to zir bike than to Albee, zir alleged BFF, who appears once before he’s seduced and almost murdered by Marlene.  He spends a good chunk of the following chapters in a coma, which is a shame, because he was one of the most likeable characters in the book.

Steph:

Also a big mistake: given our two party preferred system and first past the post etc, how does a far right extremist minority party gain and retain government?

Liz:

The same way Abbott did, apparently — passed themselves off as normal until they won the election.

Oh, and this whole thing apparently takes place in a future where the Senate no longer exists.

(You know where this story would have made more sense?  QUEENSLAND.  #canepunk)

Steph:

No, but that’s not how our political system works! Not in that timeline – comparably, it’s like the Greens going from “fringe environmental party” in the early 90s to actual control of the Lower House by now.

(Trufax about Queensland, though.)

Liz:

Yeah, the timeline is too short.  Really, the only way the Liberals became a viable alternative to the ALP was because Menzies was a popular former-Prime Minister when he created the Liberal Party, and the UAP had reached the end of its natural life, so there was a right-of-centre-anti-Labor-shaped void to be filled.

If Tony Abbott gets turfed out of the Libs tomorrow and goes off in a huff with Cory Bernadi to create the Totally Reasonable Catholic Bigots Party, they’re not going to be in power in a generation.

Other Stuff:

  • The plot is incredibly coincidence driven, with everything revolving around Sal.
  • Sal notes that Marlene can run in heels, and zie wasn’t sure it was possible.
  • The plot is basically Queer Melbourne Hipsters Drink Coffee and Cocktails and Save the World, and we are INTO IT. But that kind of almost worked against it, because Queer Melbourne Hipsters Drink Coffee and Save The World is just what we call Sunday — we’re in a good position to nitpick the details.  Maybe we were just too close to be impartial.
  • Hahahah one of the villains is named “Smeg”.
  • There’s a point at which Sal learns the real names of Meg’s guards, and starts calling them that in zir head even before being given permission, and Steph is definitely having some feelings about that.
  • Liz also had some feelings about Sal’s clear discomfort with and dislike of Meg’s incredibly butch lady-guards.
  • This seems like a good time for a Tiny Mood Stephanie.

Tiny Stephanie (saddened)

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6 thoughts on “No Award Reads: The Courier’s New Bicycle

  1. This was awesome to read, and I say that knowing that I was one of the people who loved the book. It’s been a good 3 – 4 years since I’ve read it and I hope I’ve come some way since then to notice and appreciate the issues you highlight, because wow, I’d really hate to think I’d miss all of them if I read it now…

    I will say that I was still living in Perth when I read it and the Melbourne really did read as very Melbourne to me from the outside and *wanting* to be in Melbourne – but I appreciate that may not be the same if you’ve been immersed in Melbourneness.

    I also especially take your point on the timeframe – I actually didn’t realise it was so short a timeframe for change – I read it as a much much longer timeframe.

    In conclusion all I can say is, I’m sorry I missed so much stuff and I appreciate the write up.

    1. I don’t think there’s any need to apologise or feel bad for not seeing something as problematic. A lot of people whose opinions I really respect enjoyed this book, and got a lot of meaning out of it.

      Heaps of media I’ve passionately loved in the past have proven to be problematic on a rewatch/read, but that doesn’t take away the meaning they had/have for me — it just changes it.

    2. I had the same outsider reading it as ‘very Melbourne’ feel. Other things – the growth of evangelical churches, the reactions to IVF/hormones, the drag racing – also felt real to me, because they’re here in my life (there’s 5-6 large evangelical churches within a 5 minute drive from my house and the drag enthusiasts around here can get pleasure out of very short streets . . . ) – I didn’t realise they weren’t the same elsewhere.

      1. The drag racing thing was especially weird, because Melbourne has a public motor racing facility for that exact purpose. And if it got shut down, either by environmentalists or wowsers, the main hot spots for illegal racing are in the outer suburbs, with lots of long, clear streets.

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