Unsung, 112 pages
Review by Marija Smits
The Beauty, like other books from Unsung Stories, is somewhat unclassifiable. It doesn’t appear to sit neatly in any sci-fi genre, and although probably best described as speculative fiction it also has a fairy tale aspect to it. In places it also happens to be downright disturbing, as befits good horror. Dystopian or utopian? That’s for the reader to decide. But first and foremost: it is a rattling good read.
The novella begins with Nate, a storyteller, at a time in the near future when all the women have died of a mysterious disease:
“Miriam died early, one of the first, with the yellow fungus thick on her nose and tongue. It crawled out from her womb and down her legs.”
What continues is a tense study on inter-community relationships in an isolated rural area. With echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we follow Nate and the group of men he lives with as they struggle to come to terms with their new reality. Loneliness, it appears, is the real killer. Some of the young men find solace in each other’s arms; they all find solace in Nate’s stories of the past. Yet when Nate discovers new life in the woods, sprouting from where the women are buried, his stories shift. He no longer speaks of the past, but of the present and the future.
This new life – part woman, part fungus (all uncanny) – he names the Beauty, and the mushroom-like beings join with the men in a peaceful though disquieting coupling. The men are simultaneously comforted and reviled.
The Beauty are somewhat like the eponymous plants in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, but Whiteley’s specificity in allowing only the men to survive the never fully explained apocalypse brings to the fore society’s current occupation with gender fluidity, clashing as it does with the scientific reality of sexual dimorphism (themes covered in another groundbreaking book – The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin). The Beauty force the men to question their own sexual identity and, most significantly, make them consider just what they are willing to undergo to ensure the survival of the human race (in one form or another). Many of the men react in the way we would expect them to – with violence.
Though dark, and unquestionably chilling, Whiteley’s prose is lyrical and near-poetic in places; a rare feat considering just how gripping the novella is. I can see the reasons for publishing this as a novella – it makes for a quick and thrilling read, though with a more critical editorial eye perhaps, the novella could have become a novel. There is more than enough plot, ideas and tension here for a full-length book. If both editors and writer had held their nerve and gone down the route of drawing it out into a novel the reader would have been even more richly rewarded. This would have allowed Whiteley to explore the dynamics between the men in the group in greater depth (why are some men more revolted by the Beauty than others?), and given the reader the chance to discover more about the Beauty – where they came from and what, precisely, they are (the kind of information many SFF readers appreciate).
That said though, this is a book that I devoured and loved, and since reading it I have recommended it to many people. Aliya Whiteley, like her character Nate, is an accomplished storyteller; she is an author to watch.