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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

In her Author’s Note at the end of Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century Volume 1), Cherie Priest confirms the label prominently adorning the jacket, namely that this is intended as a work of steampunk. What’s in a name? Well, labels are useful guides to expectation. If a publisher proudly proclaims, “Western”, you can expect to read about cowboys and the occasional Native American. So what are we supposed to expect when the legend above the door says, “steampunk”?


I suppose the easiest way to understand this conceit is to think of Victorian technology as bent out of shape by a modern version of Jules Verne. We start with steam as the primary source of power although this strays into early uses of electricity as the situation requires. Thus, the Nautilus is powered by sodium/mercury batteries, has a desalination plant and so on. All this technology was an extrapolation of what contemporary scientists thought possible. With the benefit of 140 or so years of scientific development since the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, we can be more ingenious. The result is a scientific fantasy in which the invention of machines before their time changes the development of the society and produces an alternate history.


I suppose classical or Golden Age SF asked “what if” and then came up with rockets, ray guns and superscience. These postmodernist times encourage the creation of steampunk, asking what would have happened if scientific breakthroughs had come earlier. It parallels the genre of alternate history in which we explore what would have happened if the Spanish invasion had beaten the English under Elizabeth, the South had won the Civil War, and so on. It also tips its hat at metafictional works like Manly Wade and Wade Wellman’s Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds in which well-known characters are transplanted into different fictional contexts. Steampunk can and does involve the use of real people, real events, and more or less real geography.

Cherie Priest — head if not shoulders above the rest


Cherie Priest is pursuing a metafictional approach by blurring the genres. Instead of this being SF, i.e. exploring what society would have become had the Boneshaker fulfilled its mission to extract gold from the frozen north, it immediately veers into fantasy/horror with the escaping gas creating a flock of the living dead. In an earlier review, I commented on the British movement to explore how the world would cope with natural disasters like unceasing gale-force wind, rising sea levels, and so on. This was very much a Cold War phenomenon with writers preoccupied by the idea of nuclear Armageddon. Since the majority of people are now bored by stories of the world being wrecked by disasters or aliens — looking at the very poor numbers of people going to see epics like Skyline, grandiose notions of invasions, Space Opera, and other excessive activities are now more often replaced by less extravagant explorations of the past.


So the Boneshaker itself is a digging machine — a scaled-down version of the magnificent equipment currently used to create road and rail tunnels. Even with the benefit of our modern technology, we could not reproduce this machine. It’s very much the type of approach associated with James Blaylock in The Digging Leviathan and a true anachronism. This matches the robotic arm which has been attached by use of wooden pegs to the bone above the site of amputation. Given the degree of fine-motor control and its robustness in battle, the arm is pure science fiction. The airships or dirigibles are almost real. Henri Giffard pioneered steam-powered airships in the 1850s, except these are more manoeuvrable and unlikely to survive military use (what with hydrogen being so inflammable). The only other devices seem to owe more to W. Heath Robinson, e.g. using a steam engine to power bellows to draw in fresh air to the underground areas. How fortunate to discover such a rich seam of coal to mine in this apparently volcanic area. How ingenious they have been to keep themselves supplied with food — I assume springs have somehow escaped pollution and there are lights for hydroponic vegetable gardens underground. The airships will also bring in supplies.


As to the core plot device, we are rerunning John Carpenter’s Escape From New York with the undead. It’s a fascinating idea that the Civil War society could have built so high a wall so fast. With the gas being heavier than air, it’s an obvious way to trap the gas inside. However, if exposure almost immediately creates undead which then hunger for a little long pork, the workers would have been seriously at risk from the predators and the gas during construction. You would think the army would have made troops and gatling guns available to eliminate the worst of the physical danger. That so many undead have survived so long without falling to bits demonstrates remarkable compassion by the government for the relatives who would, no doubt, have been much saddened to see their undead loved-ones mown down in hails of bullets.


As to the characters, I quite like our determined mother and the son is the usual inexperienced youngster who, like all the best stalking-horses, brings all the villains, alive and undead, out of the woodwork. During some of the passages where the boy is our point of view, it tends to the young adult end of the writing scale. Overall, we just about maintain interest although there’s little chance to appreciate any individuals before they are plunged into action. It’s always a balance between different forces. Too much detail slows us down without adding to our enjoyment. If the author is going to kill some characters off, there’s no need to create the basis of empathy. Yet if we never care about anyone except our two main characters, the narrative becomes two-dimensional. It’s all just running around to avoid being eaten by the undead while trying to escape.


Overall, Boneshaker is quite good and, if you enjoy work that aims to be steampunk blended with a little horror, then this is for you.


For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Jacket art by Jon Foster who has some interesting artwork in his portfolio.


For the record, Boneshaker was shortlisted for the 2009 Nebula Award and the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It won the 2010 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.


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