I like steampunk. Let’s just get that out of the way, since steampunk is one of those things that makes some people roll their eyes. Whatever, man. I like airships and clockwork and industrial tools that are covered with brass filigree. I don’t entirely approve of the preoccupation with brown clothing, nor do I approve of the gratuitous application of goggles to everything, but beyond that, steampunk and I get along very well. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker was the first steampunk novel I read — provided one doesn’t include Verne and Wells and the Victorian science fiction writers in the genre. Within the genre, or subgenre or whatever steampunk is (I’m pretty sure it occupies the same territory as cyberpunk once did, only with fewer mirrorshades and more goggles), it’s a bit of an anomaly in that it’s not set during and fetishizing the British Victorian era. Instead, author Cherie Priest decides to stick to a similar time period but a different and more familiar setting: the United States, albeit a United States in which the Civil War has dragged on long past its actual conclusion and steam-powered walkers, airships, and other such contraptions are commonplace.
As the war drags on, rumors of Klondike gold draw settlers and prospectors West in search of fortune and/or relief from the endless conflict plaguing much of the country. Seattle inventor Leviticus Blue is commissioned to create a new drilling machine to speed up the process of digging for gold. The result of his tinkering — nicknamed The Boneshaker — seems promising, at least until its initial test-run destroys several blocks of Seattle and penetrates into a deep down reservoir of toxic gas that turns people who breathe it into shambling, hungry “rotters.” Seattle is subsequently abandoned, a giant wall erected around it to contain both the rotters and the “blight gas” that created them, and Leviticus Blue’s name becomes a curse — which causes endless problems for his ancestors, who had nothing to do with his reckless scheme but never the less bear the burden of his folly. Blue himself vanishes, presumed killed in the mayhem perpetrated by his out-of-control invention.
Sixteen years later, Levi’s presumed widow, Briar, has to endure the daily stink eye from the refugee community surrounding the Seattle wall but has eked out a meager existence for her and her son, Zeke. This existence is turned upside down, however, when Zeke is compelled to sneak into the dangerous ruins of Seattle in search of evidence to exonerate his father from claims that the man intentionally destroyed Seattle as part of some nefarious plot. Briar is forced to chase after him, hitching a ride over the wall with an airship captain named Cly. On the other side of the wall, she discovers not just constant danger from both rotters and the still-present blight gas; she also discovers that the city is hardly deserted, that enterprising hold-outs have created an entirely new type of town within the confines of the wall, one linked together via underground tunnels and rooftop pathways. The whole thing is lorded over by a reclusive inventor named Minnericht, who may or may not be insane and evil…and who may or may not be Leviticus Blue.
The simple act of setting Boneshaker in Civil War era America rather than in an American fantasy of the British Victorian Age is enough to set the novel apart from its contemporaries in the steampunk genre, but just setting yourself apart doesn’t guarantee you’re a good book. Luckily, Boneshaker is a very enjoyable read that has more going for it than just its not-quite Gilded Age setting, though the world the book creates is interesting and engrossing. Cherie Priest does two things very well (among others, I’m sure). The first is world-building. The Pacific Northwest of Boneshaker, even with its steampunk trappings and zombies, is a believable place thanks undoubtedly to Priest writing about a location with which she is familiar. The Seattle in which the author lived for some time may not be a walled No Man’s Land filled with deadly gas and zombies, at least not since grunge died out (sorry, but writers are required by law to make at least one grunge joke when mentioning Seattle), but having lived there means Priest can create her alternate world version of the city with much more detail and authenticity than might otherwise be achievable. Although I enjoy plenty of books by American steampunk authors set in Victorian England, many of them lack a certain level of detail that makes it more obvious that they are working in a setting about which they don’t know a whole lot. Nothing wrong with that — William Gibson practically invented cyberpunk without ever having used a computer — but when an author gets to dig in to a place about which they have firsthand knowledge, it adds a layer of believability that makes it easier to lose yourself in the story’s world.
The second thing she does really well is characters. Boneshaker frees us from plucky young men and women and gives us a heroine who is older, uncertain, and in over her head but must never the less soldier on. The book spends a portion of its time with Zeke and his odyssey through, over, and under the streets of Seattle, but those are asides really. This is Briar’s adventure, and she’s a well-rounded and enjoyable character with whom to spend time. The cast of characters around her is also well-written, buoyed by awkward good guy Jeremiah Swakhammer and complex “villain” Minnericht. Although Priest puts considerable effort into creating a believable sort-of post-apocalyptic society, she doesn’t forget to populate that world with characters worth reading about and sympathizing with. I will admit freely that parental characters usually cause me to shy away. I’m not that interested in children, and as such, stories built around parenting instincts, precocious children, and saving your child don’t always click with me. Not so here. Briar is a mom and motivated by a mother’s love for her son, but it’s not smothering, and it’s not done in a way that makes it intolerable for those of us who don’t share an affection for children. There is plenty else here to keep you occupied, and Briar as a mother isn’t the sole defining aspect of her character. Also, the kid is all right, and not around that much.
Not that this is a wholly character-driven study. We’re in a steampunk version of a ruined Seattle filled with murderous zombies, Chinese gangs, sinister conspiracies, and rowdy underground pub owners. I can’t think of a more delightful introduction to steampunk than Boneshaker. And I’m not alone. The book was successful enough that it spawned a sequel…and another…and others still, allowing Priest to further explore the world of what is now known as The Clockwork Century series. Priest fills the book with action and writes it well: allowing the adventure to be thrilling, scary, and fun while never letting the action overwhelm her characters, even when the action is overwhelming the characters (there are, after all, an awful lot of zombies in Seattle). It’s a pretty perfect balance between development, derring-do, and desperation. It makes for a book that is never dull, occasionally surprising, and always entertaining. if there is any complaint to be lodged against the story, it is that the main characters end up as little more than spectators swept up in the events around them. It’s likely that what ultimately happens in Boneshaker might have happened even if Zeke and Briar had never set foot in Seattle. Eh, I can see where that might bug people, but it didn’t bug me. I don’t think the characters are snowed over by events, and I don’t mind that we get a more realistic “group effort” sort of ensemble cast rather than discovering that Zeke is some sort of Chosen One or something.
I also appreciate that the accoutrements of steampunk — goggles, airships, that sort of thing — actually have a point int he story instead of simply being lumped into the narrative to meet the requirements of some steampunk triptych. Minus the historical faux pas of referring to zeppelins in a time period where, even if such ships existed, they would not have been named after Zeppelin, Priest manages to create a world that justifies the use of such technologies and employs them in a way that is demanded by the logic of the story. Aside from an over-dependence on the color brown (seriously, steampunks — the Victorians had all sorts of colors!), nothing needlessly irks me quite as much as gratuitous goggles. At least in Boneshaker, people have an actual reason to wear them. No one wears goggles to a formal event.
As my first real foray into reading steampunk, and since I invoked the name of the other literary “punk” a couple of times, Boneshaker was a chance for me to think about what steampunk is and what it’s trying to do. If steampunk’s point — beyond window dressing — is confused and confusing, it might be because the landscape has changed so drastically from the days when cyberpunk ruled the roost. Steampunk is very fan-driven, and that fanbase — while not exclusively young — tends to skew young. Which means it tends to skew inexperienced. It does not have the grizzled grown-ups of cyberpunk, the writers who lived through Vietnam, the social upheaval of the 60s, and the birth of the computer age in the 70s and 80s. The social upheaval that could lend steampunk meaning is only just beginning to shape its generation of writers, and it will be interesting to see, if steampunk sticks around, whether surveillance states, the war on terror, and the modern socio-political landscape (which I think is just as radical and tumultuous, if not more so, than it was in the late 1960s) lends the subgenre a depth that many claim it currently lacks.
This is assuming, mind you, that you feel like it needs depth, or that it needs some additional meaning beyond aesthetic and entertainment. Personally, I don’t think it does, and if it lacks those things, I don’t think that makes it necessarily shallow or uninteresting. In fact, steampunk has already contributed greatly to the advancement of science fiction as a whole by creating a subgenre in which women are frequently the heroes — and frequently the writers. If steampunk seems devoid of a meaning, maybe that’s because people are looking for the wrong sorts of things. what does steampunk say about technology? What does it say about our place in a technological world? I’m not sure. Maybe nothing. But what does it say about gender equality? What does it say about taking a genre that has traditionally had a surprisingly large but almost entirely ignored female fanbase and finally giving them female heroes and female authors? Beneath all the bustles, goggles, and greatcoats, that might be the thing for which steampunk will be best known. Odd that a subset of literature set in times and places not known for their racial or gender equality would be such a powerful shot for said equality, but things are funny sometimes. Like I said, the guy who wrote Neuromancer had never touched a computer in his life.
Anyway, we’ve wandered far afield from reviewing Boneshaker, but I guess tat proves (at least to me) that a story can be straight-forward adventure entertainment — which is what I think Boneshaker is — but still manage to raise important questions even if those questions are not explicit to the plot of the story. Boneshaker is fun, and part of the fun comes from the fact that it and books like it attract and inspire fans and potential authors who might have otherwise felt shut out of and ignored by the science fiction universe. That’s quite an accomplishment. That it is delivered via a classic bang-up pulp story that would have been right at home in the pages of Astounding Stories makes it even better.