‘The Beauty’ is a deceptively simple novella about the last men eking out a survivalist existence following the death from plague of their – and by implication all – women. The book’s sparse, elegant prose details the frictions and relationships of this truncated, hopeless little patriarchy as they stave off hopelessness with routine and the skills of their storyteller, Nate. Conveniently, Nate is also the narrator of the tale we are reading and how reliable he is must be open to question given the honesty with which he describes his craft and its necessary manipulations.
However, given what The Beauty turns out to be and the way in which this extraordinary development evolves, little other than descriptions of what occurs is actually necessary. The tensions in what was always something of an odd community are slowly brought out with devastating consequences.
The author is very good on the way men are together, especially without women for long periods of time. The usual masculine stubbornness clashes inevitably with acceptance of alternative roles but this being speculative fiction there is a solution, albeit a very unusual one, like James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’ theory dramatized through the twin prisms of modern gender politics and LSD.
There is an almost hopeless sensuality to the piece that makes it feel wholly modern, even though it has the feel of a classic SF tale. Starting as it does with tragedy and then proceeding in a completely unexpected direction, each of the novella’s four parts ends with a genuinely disorienting twist that makes the book utterly compelling.
The British Science Fiction Association’s ‘Focus’ magazine listed ‘The Beauty’ as one of the top ten genre novellas and rightly so.