Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 11, 2011

Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 6:20 pm

This is the first serious novel-length piece of self-identified steampunk I’ve read, and I’m more impressed with it than I’d expected. It seems rather churlish to praise a novel by the flaws it lacks, but I fear this oft-maligned genre requires a little of that before I pass to its undoubted virtues. Most of the fluff I’d read previously was not much more than a caricature of Victorian England, and often seemed rather confused about which literary era it was from. Infested with aristocrats and implausible brasstech, it seemed rather to be a celebration of a hypocritical, decadent Empire than a problematisation.

Boneshaker, on the other hand, is utterly American in its mythology; set in an alternate 1863, where the Klondike gold rush (and thus Seattle) boomed much earlier, it constructs itself without any reference to class divisions or to the English beyond a mention of their forces in the South. It’s also a post-apocalyptic dystopia, with the survivors living beyond the two-hundred-foot wall around a town centre infested with – well, it’s an early 21st century post-apocalyptic dystopia, what do you think is infesting it?

Considered as steampunk—which is to say as a literary universe featuring anarchists, revolutionaries, strange and ambitious technology, realistic solutions to implausible problems, no shortcuts for hard work, and the dead hand of economic & political hegemony[1]—it’s really good. Our protagonist is a middle-aged widow, aptly named Briar, and she takes us on a tour of Seattle’s abandoned inner city during her efforts to rescue her son. The family itself is a microcosm of the city, torn apart and left damaged by capitalism and the American Dream—Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue, destroyed them both in his efforts to rob a bank using his immense tunnelling machine, the titular Boneshaker.

The survivors of the disaster, predictably, have organised themselves into a series of competing gangs, armed with experimental weapons and kept from the more-than-deadly gas by improvised air-conditioning technology, made from “treated cloth, paper, pitch, anything else that might seal out the awful gas outside”.

I’ve never been a zombie fan, but they work perfectly with steampunk, even steampunk without British aristocracy[2]. The pervasive influence of Something (a poisonous gas, here) turns otherwise perfectly ordinary people into ravenous monsters, intent on eating you and/or turning you into one of them—it’s no coincidence that the three “infectious” monster types (zombie, vampire, and werewolf) have become Big Business in the last few decades.

For a zombie novel, Boneshaker is curiously anaemic. The horror of zombies depends on the idea that these are real people, turned into mindless ravening monsters – people like you, people you knew, perhaps even you yourself – and there’s very little of that here. We get quite a few lovingly detailed descriptions of walking corpses, perhaps sorted by type or previous occupation, but the closest we come to seeing a person we already knew “turned” is having to watch a precautionary mercy killing, and a moment of tension as everyone waits to hear whether Briar’s arm is going to have to be amputated.

That’s not a serious fault, though, because the “rotters” are more of an atmospheric sideshow or an environmental hazard, and the plot resolution doesn’t really involve them at all.

This is a well-constructed novel, very gripping & readable, with a great deal of deep structure and a very solid literary root system ranging from Arthur Miller to Mark Helprin, and it features several tough, competent older women. Definitely recommended, and I’m going to have to look for more of Priest’s work in future.

[1] I don’t define by material-culture tropes, so the “goths discover brown” and “random brass shite” stereotypes are out, and I have to try and make a stab at themes. This is not intended to be exhaustive, complete, or even particularly accurate. Other suggestions very welcome!
[2] They’re rather stupid, but unstoppable. They often walk with a strange lurching gait, they have an odd slurred accent and very small vocabularies if they can communicate at all, and they thrive on the bodies & brains of other people. All these things also characterize zombies.

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