Gary K. Wolfe Reviews These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein – Locus Online


These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart, Izzy Wasserstein (Tachyon 978-1-61696-412-2, $15.95, 174pp, tp; -413-9, $11.95, ebook) March 2024.

The term “dystopia” has been so widely and slop­pily overused of late that, in the eyes of some, I suppose, it might just as well refer to anyplace without a Starbucks. Without parsing defini­tions, I’ve always thought of it as a bad society resulting from actual policies and decisions, not just any old postapocalyptic world involving zombies or mutants. Izzy Wasserstein’s These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart, set in agrim future Kansas City in which government has all but collapsed and corporations and the flight of the wealthy have turned inner cities into violent wastelands, briefly alludes to the most famous of all dystopias: confronting one of the authoritarian leaders, the narrator de­scribes his vision of a “better, happier society” as “The end of resistance. Of difference. A fist crushing a human throat, forever.” Not quite Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, but close enough to claim kinship. But what leads the narrator to that confrontation is a very different sort of novel than Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s essentially a hardboiled murder mystery com­plicated by the narrator’s issues with trust and responsibility, her struggles to find acceptance as a trans woman – especially from her alienated father – and some ingenious plot twists involv­ing illegal clones.

Some years earlier, that narrator, Dora, an­grily walked away from her commune and her lover in a bitter dispute. When she learns that her ex-girlfriend has been killed, Dora returns to the commune and peremptorily announces “I’m solving this,” even though no one has asked her to, she’s far from welcome after the earlier dispute, and she insists on treating all the commune members as suspects. To add to the mystery, whole groups of people are for some reason being moved out of the dirt-poor section of Kansas City in which most of the action takes place. In good hardboiled style, Dora soon finds herself attacked by thugs working for some un­known but obviously shady organization, and manages to dispatch them with Sam Spade-like efficiency. But something is particularly unusual about these thugs: they appear to be clones of Dora herself. This not only further complicates the murder mystery, but gives Wasserstein the opportunity to explore some issues of trans identity: what is it like to face a clone of your pretransition self, and vice versa? In an after­word, Wasserstein makes a persuasive argument against the use of clones as convenient meta­phors or simple doppelgängers and raises the question – as does the novella itself – as to what this might mean in particular to the sense of identity of the marginalized, who already must “fight to exist, be heard, and be understood.”

At one level, These Fragile Graces, This Fu­gitive Heart works just fine as an efficient and fast-moving thriller in a gritty urban setting, but just as efficient is the manner in which Wasser­stein layers in issues of trans acceptance – Dora’s intolerant father is a piece of work to begin with, and only gets worse – as well as corporate mal­feasance, fascist militias, economic disparity, and environmental degradation. Dora herself is a wonderful character; despite her fighting skills and amateur-detective insights, she can be impulsive, intemperate, and annoying, but like her hardboiled predecessors, she values loyalty and honor in ways that sometimes put her at risk – or at even greater risk than she already faces trying to survive as a trans woman in the mean streets of a too-credible dystopia.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, and a similar set for the 1960s. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the February 2024 issue of Locus.

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