[Yesterday I started this mammoth post on Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Today I continue from where I left off, with rather more concentration on Boneshaker.]
Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, the most overtly steampunk of the three novels under consideration here, presses nearly all the right buttons. In fact, the book so neatly conforms to the steampunk template that it feels rather mechanistic: dirigibles, check; stylish leather coats, check; fantastical machine, check.
Ah, yes, this fantastical machine, a superpowered digging machine that, interestingly, we never actually see working in the novel. When Isambard Kingdom Brunel – who should be the patron saint of steampunks everywhere, but probably isn’t – was digging a tunnel he invented a means by which his men could work at the tunnel face at several different heights at once. It was faster and more efficient than previous means of tunneling, but it still relied on muscle power and was still very slow. Far too slow for the steampunks, of course; and they aren’t really concerned with actual Victorian technology. No, the origin for this particular device lies, I suspect, in the burrowing machines that used to appear with stunning regularity at the behest of the villains in the super hero comics I remember reading in the 60s, and that cropped up more recently in The Incredibles (2004). This particular device, driven by its archetypal mad scientist inventor, leaves the cellar of his home on the outskirts of Seattle, takes a remarkably precise route through the centre of the city that manages to burrow through the underground vaults of all the banks, then returns to the inventor’s home. You do wonder if he was using some primitive form of GPS, because that is a remarkable route to take underground with nothing to guide you; ah but we are not meant to ask awkward questions about steampunk technology, this is all just magic and handwaving.
That we should, indeed, treat the novel as fantasy rather than science fiction is demonstrated by the consequence of the mad underground ride. The point is not that the bank vaults have been emptied, that proves to be an irrelevance, but that the machine pierced a pocket of poison gas. Not your ordinary, everyday poison gas, of course, this gas doesn’t just kill its victims, it turns them into ravening flesh-eating zombies. Not just fashionable steampunk; but fashionable steampunk with even more fashionable flesh-eating zombies: how could Boneshaker fail!?!
Now, if your city was suddenly beset by a poisonous gas that turned people into zombies, what would you do? Yes, indeed, most people do run (though this being the American West in the latter half of the 19th century, the lawman who lets the prisoners out of the local gaol so they can get away is branded a villain). But they also build a wall around the infected part of the city and rebuild Seattle around it, and, naturally, a lot of people choose to stay within the walled city. What’s more, since the gas is heavier than air, they choose to live mostly underground. Of course, if people didn’t behave this way there would be no story, but sometimes you do wonder …
The story concerns Briar Wilkes (I don’t know if the reference to the presumably contemporary John Wilkes Booth is intentional), who happens to be the daughter of the vilified lawman and the widow of the mad scientist, which means she has a personal connection with the disaster. She now lives a quiet, hand to mouth existence in new Seattle, but her teenage son is determined to prove his father and grandfather were innocent, so he sneaks into the old, walled city to find the evidence. Naturally, Briar has to follow him. What ensues is pretty much what you might expect: there are buccaneering airship captains who help Briar over the wall, and then reappear later for a vaguely gratuitous air battle; there are weaselly individuals out for what they can get and heroic individuals who always manage to arrive at just the right time; and of course there are lots of zombies who always arrive en masse and never really seem to do that much damage. (Typing this, I suddenly thought how close this conforms to an old-fashioned cowboy film, just read the zombies as injuns.) Inevitably the story reaches its climax in the lair of the arch villain who, like any melodramatic bad guy, would be twirling his mustaches if he wasn’t hideously disfigured, and who does the melodramatic bad guy thing of bragging about himself so long that the good guys have time to creep up behind him. This is penny dreadful storytelling in modern fashionable guise (though the book is very nicely presented, with sepia type, and on a sentence by sentence level Priest writes well).
As if the fate of Seattle wasn’t enough to tell us that this isn’t exactly our history, we learn more or less in passing that, back East, the Civil War is still raging. After twenty years of conflict, the two sides must have thrashed themselves to an exhausted standstill; but it’s not from a military perspective that this interests me, but rather the symbolic weight. The Civil War was a significant turning point in the shaping of modern America. It provided the moral high place that America has occupied ever since; it stimulated industry across the North and the victory of the North put the country in a position to become the industrial and economic superpower of the twentieth century; and it also saw the start of the tide of European immigration into northern cities, primarily New York, that would continue for another half-century or more and make such a contribution to the country. If the war continues, then none of these issues can have been resolved, and in fact after so long a conflict cannot be resolved. In other words, this is a country of moral, economic and social exhaustion. The continuing Civil War, therefore, is our indication that this is an America in decline, a land of the lost. The America of optimism and manifest destiny never got going.