a review by Nalini Haynes
In Melbourne in the near future the right wing has taken power, followed by state-sanctioned religion promoting discrimination and even attacks on non-conformists. During a lethal influenza epidemic, inoculations were diluted with a drug later found to cause sterility. The Courier’s New Bicycle is set about 8 or 10 years later when the ramifications have begun to be felt, rippling into the political sphere, but before infertility escalates to Children of Men proportions. This situation would not be as severe as in Children of Men as some women are still fertile, but pregnant women aren’t sacred in this society and babies aren’t being bought from overseas at astronomical costs – yet.
Salisbury Forth – called Sal by her friends – is androgynous and same-sex attracted although probably bi-sexual. Born female, Sal’s experience growing up is one of ambivalence to gender stereotypes, not fitting with traditional roles. Sal works as a courier for a stuffed toy company whose special clients have extra-special stuffing in their toys: instead of drugs to get you high, they have drugs to increase the likelihood of fertility. Someone starts trading tainted hormones under Sal’s boss’s label, so Sal is roped in to investigate.
The Courier’s New Bicycle is part Friends and part accidental detective story, but what sets it above most other novels is the nature of the world-building and unusual characters. Westwood has taken the politics of right-wing ‘First’ parties and mixed in the religious politics of the US and the Mad Monk. Not satisfied with that potent blend, Westwood adds the politics of non-traditional sexuality; In this brave new world, the pendulum has swung back to traditional 50s-style stereotypes and gender ideals; curvaceous women and muscular, lantern-jawed men. To be different is to be ostracised at best, or targeted for physical violence and worse. As Sal and her non-traditional friends need to fly under the radar to survive, the drugs and Sal’s investigation puts them at greater risk.
Westwood takes current attitudes and extrapolates from currently informally segregated waterholes into prohibition-style speakeasy joints for the differently-oriented. In one scene Sal and her girlfriend go out on a date, ‘passing’ as normal, just as half-castes or disabled persons talk about ‘passing’. Incredibly powerful, this plot thread takes this novel into a class of its own while raising the stakes to add to the suspense.
The Courier’s New Bicycle is a masterpiece; I haven’t felt this way about a work since Wings of Desire. Highly recommended; this is brilliant speculative fiction not to be missed.
There are a few explicit sex scenes in the novel however they are fairly brief.