Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty is just the thing for readers who prefer maximum weirdness and body horror in their books. Set in a post-apocalyptic colony where all the women have died of a bizarre fungus and only the men remain, the story transmogrifies, folds, spindles and mutilates gender roles and common expectations.
The narrator is a boy named Nate, who functions as the griot for a colony of bereft and bewildered men. That the women, from the eldest to the newly born, have all died is dreadful and mysterious enough, and then the men start to notice mushrooms growing out of the women’s graves. The mushrooms evolve into yellow, ambulatory beings with heads but no faces. These mushroom-fungus creatures claim a number of the men. They are seemingly irresistible, bringing such pleasure that the men call them the Beauties. The men see in them their lost mothers, wives, lovers, sisters, daughters. But the Beauties’ love, gentleness and subservience are not unconditional, and the changes they wreak in some of the men who love them are freakish. Sometimes, the freakishness is welcome, as a man may be so enraptured by his devoted Beauty that he’ll tolerate anything to be with it. But other men of the colony resist and pay the price.
Also included within The Beauty is a tantalizing novella titled Peace, Pipe, about an astronaut’s relationship with an alien entity that the astronaut calls Pipe. On the other hand, maybe Pipe isn’t an alien at all. Maybe what the astronaut takes as Pipe’s voice is just the sound of water in the plumbing of the space where the astronaut has been quarantined after a disastrous mission.
Despite the Möbius-strip twistiness of her stories, Whiteley imbues them with compassion and—dare I say—humanity. Love and hope punch their way through, despite all obstacles. You’ll be surprised by how moved you are at the end.