The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Publisher: Unsung Stories
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange...
Shakespeare, The Tempest
Closely related to the man vs. woman Sci-Fi genre I discussed in my review of Space Games is the other-side-of-the-species bows out sub-genre. I've read several novels of this type and they have, at least to me, a peculiar power to stick in the mind. Over time, the collective consciousness of the writing community has dispensed gender extinction fairly evenly. The girls go down in Frank Herbert's The White Plague. A bereaved scientist develops a virus to wipe out the world's women in retaliation for an IRA terrorist attack that kills his wife and daughters. During the 60's, I read a British novel, whose name for the life of me I cannot remember, in which an evil corporation eliminates the guys via distribution of a drug with a very unexpected side effect. In the New Outer Limits episode "Lithia," the guys take the long count because of war and our inability to get along with women. (It's too bad the author of this episode didn't have the chance to watch some episodes of one of those "Real Housewives" shows. It might have changed his/her perception on the issue of female cooperative instincts.)
Now, the girls are up again for the big sleep in The Beauty
The novel (really a novella) is set in a near-time dystopian future in which all the Earth's women have died, victims of a slow-acting fungal infection that eventually overwhelms them. We are never told the origin of the plague nor the precise timeline in which it appears. The Beauty is not a techno-thriller but rather a parable about the relationship between the sexes and our inability to remain whole in the absence of our natural partners.
As they succumb one by one, the wives, sisters, and mothers of mankind are buried in communal graveyards in which eukaryotic strands and garlands wrap themselves around the corpses in their unquiet resting places. Soon, soon, something will be coming back. Something always does.
The novel's narrative is told in the first person by Nathan, a young survivor of this XX holocaust. Nathan lives with other male survivors in a place called simply the Valley, the location of a commune that sought to move its members away from the ills of modern life but didn't move far enough. Nathan's job in the story is to act as a sighted Tiresias and as a speaker for the dead. In the evenings, the men of the Valley gather around a fire and listen to Nathan tell stories of their lost companions, recreating them in memory and feeling as best he can. His tales are meant to bring comfort to the group, but the reality is that all its members are insane or slowly losing their grip on reality. One example is Nathan's Uncle Ted, who confesses to killing three lost women in cold blood because he could not stand to watch them die.
Author Whiteley is a prose stylist. Her sentences often have a smoky, psychotropic quality and they can wrap themselves around the base of your brain:
It is sunset. The sieved light has taken on a dusky, pinkish cast and I can picture the others waiting at the fireside, ear attuned to the pops and crackles of flames, hoping for a story that will not come. Or is someone else to tell them tales of the dead? I try to picture Thomas conjuring the peachy skin and red lips of women for their listening enjoyment, and it makes me smile. He would do a grander job of describing an onion and goat's cheese tart.
You can imagine Toulouse-Lautrec's mistress writing something like this after a night of absinthe and laudanum.
Part of the normal arc of for this type of tale is discovering how life will reassert itself and some sort of balance restored to our species. The Beauty does not fail in this regard, but its restoration path is both unexpected and grim. But I suspect any woman who has given birth will find it peculiarly just. You men will shudder a bit.
I was musing for a while after I'd finished reading The Beauty and my thoughts turned to a little girl I'd seen with her Mom the other day while visiting my local YMCA for a workout.The child, about six, was Asian, probably Chinese, the woman, white. I see this combination quite frequently in Connecticut. Over time, I've come to think of the state as the Land of Little Asian Girls. They're everywhere, chattering with their parents, playing with their siblings, who are sometimes Asian and sometimes of the same biological stock as their parents, getting off the school buses with their backpacks, etc. At the Conservative temple I attend during the High Holy Days, I'm assigned the same seat every year in the building's balcony section. Across the open space, for close to a decade, have sat opposite me a couple with two little girls. They're twins, Chinese, their parents Jews, probably of Ashkenazi origin. The little girls are always wearing skullcaps when I see them and I've heard they're due to be bat mitzvahed soon (the ceremony is the female version of the bar mitzvah). Perhaps one day they'll be married in the temple; their parents are observant and it wouldn't be surprising.
A few months ago, I read an article in, I think, The New York Times about Chinese mothers who are going to public places handing out flyers on behalf of their sons. The flyers proclaim their desirability as husbands. The mothers do this because there are no local wives for the sons to marry. China, like India, is one of those countries that has slaughtered and abandoned their daughters in mass numbers, the killings and adoptions driven by social mores and political policies, not a plague or techno-conspiracy. I wondered when I read the piece if any of the mothers carrying the flyers ever aborted a girl or gave up their daughter to a couple from the US.
The beauties of China are all around me in Connecticut and I suspect the mothers of China would like them back. But they won't be returning.
The Beauty is eerie, elegiac and haunting. You will never forget it.
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