Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted is a standalone near-future novella.
Esther knows she’s doomed. She’s been unable to resist her illicit sapphic urges; she’s engaged in a covert love affair with another woman. Everything she has been taught tells her that she will be outed and punished by fate itself. Nevertheless, she persists.
Esther’s best friend/lover Beatriz is executed for possession of seditious propaganda. Beatriz’s brutish fiancé needs a new woman and Esther’s father, the sheriff of Valor, Arizona, is happy to oblige. With Esther.
Perhaps doom can be put off, even if it cannot be avoided. Esther stows away in a Librarian’s cart. If she can become a Librarian, she won’t be forced to marry. She can look forward to a life of chaste service to the State.
Esther doesn’t know some things she should know about the Librarians.
In the State of this novella, men are in charge (the right men) and women are pinned firmly in their place. There is endless war with enemies external and internal. Anyone who steps out of line is brutally punished. Fuel is rationed; existence is stark.
The Librarians help maintain the State. Being women, they don’t rate precious fuel, but they are issued horse-drawn carts with which to deliver books and other materials to every community. All materials have been vetted for moral and political acceptability. Cultural uniformity and political docility are assured.
As Esther soon discovers, the Librarian community is rife with rampant lesbianism, gender non-conformity, and other shenanigans that would most definitely earn them all a spot at the end of a rope should the men who run things ever notice them. It is necessary to appear to be proper Librarians. To take in an ignorant1 lesbian stowaway fleeing her well-connected dad might blow their cover.
Esther convinces her hosts to give her a chance. She does her best to be useful. Not too long after she joins a troupe of Librarians making its way through the wilderness, the travellers are attacked by what at first seem to be bandits. Once the Librarians get a better look at the resulting corpses, the Librarians realize that their attackers were a sheriff’s posse.
Why would the State’s agents want to attack a party of Librarians? Well, probably because they had sheltered the runaway daughter and rightful property of the Sheriff of Valor.
This is a novella that focuses on characters, not world building. You may have questions about the background, but they will not be answered in the story.
What is clear is that there is an oppressive State, and most of the men we meet are either active or prospective State agents. One would expect some dissidents; those men must have fled or keep a low profile. We learn that there are small communities of non-conformists hiding in the outlands; there must be some men in those communities. However, none of those men appear on stage. Ah, well. There are heroic men in other anti-fascist novels.
In this book, the men are bad (in ways that are entirely plausible) and the women are lesbian rebels. The story focuses on Esther and her efforts to overcome her childhood conditioning before it gets her killed or abandoned out in the desert. It’s a bildungsroman.
I have issues with some elements of the book (Esther manages to get over grief for her dead lover and move on to the next crush implausibly quickly) but given that it is set in a misogynistic dystopia where lethal violence is easier to come by than potable water, the book is oddly … (reassuring isn’t quite the right word) … uplifting. Sure, the world is horrible and unfair, but one person at least manages to escape her fate and that’s not nothing.
Gailey’s first couple of books didn’t click for me for reasons I can’t articulate, but either I’m changing or their writing is. I liked both Magic for Liars and Upright Women Wanted, even though they weren’t at all alike. Recommended for fans of works like Mad Max: Fury Road.
1: It’s a complete coincidence that I read this back to back with The Arm of Starfish, which also features a naïve protagonist.