The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood was a very interesting read. It is set in Melbourne, Australia in a near future where the Australian population has become almost entirely sterile as an unintended consequence of a hastily rolled out mass vaccination program for a new strain of avian flu. A new ultra nationalist/ultra conservative/ultra religious party called Nation First has used the crisis to get into power, and immediately denounced scientific infertility solutions as being the work of <insert bad supernatural entity of choice here>, with clean living and godliness being the only way to fertility.
The heightened awareness of fertility has led to an even stronger set of prejudices around gender identity. The protagonist, Salisbury Forth (Sal), identifies as androgynous – not the easiest path in this milieu. Sal works as a bicycle courier for an illegal fertility treatment distributor and is an animal rights activist. When someone starts distributing inferior knockoffs of the treatments under Sal’s employers brand, mystery ensues.
I recently read and enjoyed Ms Westwood’s contribution to the Anywhere But Earth anthology, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this book.
The heightened gender politics in the novel were very confronting. While obviously exaggerated in this darker world, you can see the origins of the attitudes represented in today’s society. I’ve always struggled to understand why people care so much how someone choses to live their lives when it is not harming anyone else, but if you have a relatively liberal circle of friends it is easy to forget how much prejudice still exists in broader society. I think Australians in particular will resonate with the future painted, because you can certainly identify those aspects of contemporary Australian political life that are being built upon to create the world of The Courier’s New Bicycle.
Counterbalancing this dark setting is a beautifully rendered series of relationships that show the importance of the family you choose to form around you in life as opposed to the one you are born into. The examination of self in this context was very powerful, and one of the stronger elements of the book.
That’s all a bit metaphysical though, so lets focus on the story for a moment. Sal-as-reluctant-detective investigates an acceptably interesting mystery and there is a good balance of action with mystery solving. Care is taken to ensure that all red herrings are explained. Sometimes the explanations felt a little forced, but you certainly weren’t left wondering about any loose ends. All of the sometimes disparate elements of the story come together at the end.
The sense of place was also very strong in this book. My wife is from Melbourne originally, and as a result I’ve spent more time there in the last 10 years. I loved the description of the dystopian city and the images created of settings I know (especially some of the fancier parts of the southern parts of Melbourne that have fallen on hard times!). For those not familiar with Melbourne it will obviously have less impact, but for those that are it is a fantastic contributor to the reading experience.
The character of Sal was very sympathetic, and the story was certainly arranged such that future novels could be set in the same world. If any ever are, I’ll be lining up to get my copy.
I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.