Until recently I’ve been largely unfamiliar with the steampunk genre. A few brushes with its anime cousins like Steamboy, or the odd comic heroes who wears petticoats and cravats, about sum up my experience. In fact, there’s a whole subculture (like Goths) that live as if technology peeked with steam engines and clockwork, and dress like train conductors and goggle-wearing propeller pilots. More often than not they come off looking like factory workers from the industrial age who wandered into Hot Topic.
Boneshaker, a novel by Cherie Priest, embodies the spirit of steampunk without ramming it down your throat. From the first few chapters you get a sense of the technology level and its limitations, and the oppressive grit and smog that followed the industrial revolution. Her book is set during the Klondike gold rush, but history is largely rewritten and science it twisted to fit her purpose. Zeppelins roam the sky as commonly as sailboats in great lakes, and copper pipes are threaded through every moving mechanism and marvel. The author also takes the time to note which cities she changed for the purpose of her story. Seattle, for example, is more densely populated in her alternate history, with larger buildings and a generous economy for the time.
The story kicks off with a brief but effective setup. A super-powered digging machine is invented by mad scientist Leviticus Blue for the wealthy Russians. But before it can be utilized by the communists, the machine goes amuck. It begins tearing up the streets of Seattle, crashing through banks and plazas, killing bystanders, breaking up the ground, before it simply disappears under the rocks.
In the boneshaker’s wake, from the cracked earth, a strange yellow gas spreads through downtown Seattle, burning lungs and melting skin. The victims of the gas blight eventually turn into Rotters (Zombies), who gather in mad mindless crowds to devour anyone they can catch. In their desperation the citizens construct a wall around several square miles of city, bottling up the heavy yellow gas, the zombies, the evil geniuses, and anyone unlucky enough to be stuck inside. Over the next fifteen years the wall is fortified and built up to ludicrous heights, and the out-of-sight problems are all but forgotten.
When Briar Wilkes, wife of the late scientist Leviticus Blue, learns that her son Zeke has found a way under the wall and into the blighted city, it’s time for her to don her gasmask and raise the olde tyme lantern, for a hunt through the zombie-infested city. Along the way she meets up with Zeppelin captains, inventors, civil war deserters, holdouts living in vacuum-sealed tunnels within the city, and the industrious Chinese who pump air into the barricaded buildings.
The character of Briar herself is an interesting blend of emotions and traits. At 35, a bold age for the protagonist considering the youth of target readers, Briar teeters between the urge to smothering her teenage son and letting him run wild through town. She has the sort of passive parenting method that lands kids in juvenile hall. She frequently laments how she hasn’t been a good mother to Zeke, which makes his disappearance all the more motivating for her. Her outbursts and screaming rages are quickly tempered, and we find Briar to be the hard-hitting, gun-totting woman required to brave the dangers of the blight.
Escape from New York: Steampunk
Unintentional or not, I can’t look back on this book without comparing it to the John Carpenter movies. A portion of a city is walled-up and left for gangs of prisoners, ruffians, and undesirables. Although if Escape from NY/LA had this kind of writing, they would have been much better flicks.
By the end of Boneshaker I felt satisfied. Most of the mysteries introduced throughout the book are wrapped up with flare and style, with no small amount of gears and cogs, and in a way that keeps the characters believable. There are a few loose ends but those could easily be used to weave a sequel. In short, Boneshaker is what a fantasy-adventure-SciFi should be, from introduction to execution.