From Paul Di Filippo's "SPECULTATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Has steampunk jumped Captain Nemo's clockwork shark yet?
The genre -- succinctly described as a mix of archaic tech (either real or fanciful), the supernatural, and postmodern metafictional tricksterism, set in the consensus historical past or alternate timelines -- was first christened in 1987, a lifetime ago as cultural and literary fads are measured, in a letter to Locus magazine from the writer K. W. Jeter. Of course, the actual roots of the form extend back even further, perhaps as early as 1965, when a certain television show named The Wild, Wild West debuted.
Some literary styles and tropes wane with their cultural moment, but others have proved exceedingly long-lived, with writers continually discovering unexplored narrative possibilities within elastic bounds. Perhaps the best example is the Gothic, still with us today, and flourishing, despite being a couple of centuries old.
But steampunk has exfoliated beyond the merely literary, into the daily lives of its fans. Like Civil War re-enactors or medievalist members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, "steampunks" now include those for whom the novels and stories have been superseded by cosplay, crafting, music, partying, artwork, manga, anime, feature films, and the creation of props or working hardware. For every reader and writer of steampunk fiction, there are probably hundreds or thousands of other activists who gleefully embrace some non-written manifestation of the steampunk ethos.
Generally speaking, by the time a subculture such as steampunk secures the attention of major media, resulting in extensive coverage of the craze, said phenomenon is already on the way out. But despite numerous and growing features about steampunk in the national press, such does not seem to be the case, at least in terms of fiction. The juggernaut that is steampunk, like Dr. Loveless's giant mechanical spider in the 1999 film version of The Wild, Wild West, seems capable of crushing all naysayers.
Yet what of the literature itself -- now transformed into something of an appendage -- that spawned the movement? Has it exhausted all the radium bullets in its Gatling gun, or is fresh work still capable of surprising the reader?
Well, the latter half of 2009 proved to be a fine period for steampunk, and 2010 seems to be starting out likewise, with a new novel that manages to do some uncanny things with the genre. (As well, readers should be alerted to Steampunk Reloaded, a forthcoming anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.)
Thick-lensed goggles of funky brass and leather are a trademark signifier of steampunk. But frequently, beyond a certain fashionableness their utility is negligible. So when Cherie Priest goes to the trouble in her novel Boneshaker to provide a clever rationale for the existence and prevalence of such eye-gear, you know you're in for a meticulously conceived and executed ride.
Seattle, 1863: the giant tunneling machine of mad inventor Levi Blue manages to destroy a sizable portion of the city and unleash a subterranean gas -- the Blight -- which zombifies all who inhale it. (The gas is made visible through, naturally, those goggles.) The citizens respond by walling off the infected district and leaving those trapped inside to die -- or worse. Sixteen years later, Blue's ostracised widow, Briar, lives in the ghetto just outside the wall with her teenaged son Zeke. Intent on clearing his father's name, Zeke takes off one day across the wall, and Briar has no recourse but to follow.
Priest's steampunk wasteland is playfully and productively anomalous. Generally, the genre likes to focus on intact and functioning societies, whether dystopian or mundanely civil. Her depiction of the interzone as an outlaw realm of freedom, however dangerous, evokes the punk dream of life outside establishment strictures -- a dream too often actually neglected in the genre that borrows half its name from that music. The horror tropes are another entertaining divergence from standard steampunk templates.
Likewise, the parallel domestic quests of mother and son (Priest divides the action in half between Zeke and Briar) is a freshening of both motivation and character from the rote adventurers the reader often encounters in this type of tale.
Priest's small, carefully constrained sphere of action (some widening dialogue pertains to the Civil War still raging back East, long after our version had ended) does, however, feel claustrophobic and slightly unambitious at times. But within that limited domain, she manages to impart a vivid sense of strangeness and adventure.
“Cherie Priest wove a story so convincing, so evocative, so terrifying that I read this book with the doors locked and a gun on my lap. Boneshaker is a steampunk menagerie of thrills and horror.” Mario Acevedo, bestselling author of Jailbait Zombie
“This exquisitely imaginative steampunk adventure is a joy to read! My favourite of Cherie's books.” Cassandra Clare, bestselling author of the Mortal Instruments trilogy
“Everything you'd want in such a volume and much more.... It's full of buckle and has swash to spare, and the characters are likable and the prose is fun. This is a hoot from start to finish, pure mad adventure.” Cory Doctorow, bestselling author of Little Brother
“Boneshaker is without a doubt Cherie Priest's breakthrough work: this hollering, stamping, crackling thing is the best fun you'll have with a book all year.” Warren Ellis, bestselling author of Crooked Little Vein
“A gorgeously grim world of deadly gasses, mysterious machines, zeppelin pirates, and a relentless plague of zombies. With Boneshaker, Priest is geared up to begin her reign as the Queen of Steampunk.” Mark Henry, Author of Road Trip of the Living Dead
“A rip-snorting adventure in the best tradition of a penny dreadful. Priest has crafted a novel of exquisite prose and thrilling twists, populated by folk heroes and dastardly villains, zombies and air pirates, incredible machines and a heroine who'll have you cheering. Boneshaker is the definitive steampunk story, absolutely unique and one hell of a fun read.” Caitlin Kittredge, author of the Nocturne City novels
“A marvelous book, crammed with readerly pleasures--zombies, pirates, cracking adventures, historical conceits and characters that make you wish you could linger inside it long after turning the final page. Cherie Priest is one of my favorite fantasists.” Kelly Link, acclaimed author of Magic for Beginners
“If Jules Verne and George Romero got together to rewrite American history it might go something like this. I loved it. I want more.” Mike Mignola, bestselling author of Hellboy
“If the Wild Wild West had been written by Mark Twain with the assistance of Jules Verne and Bram Stoker, it still couldn't be as fabulous and fantastical as Boneshaker. Cherie Priest has penned a rousing adventure tale that breathes a roaring soul and thundering heart into the glittering skin of Steampunk. Stylish, taut, and wonderful, it's a literary ride you must not miss!” Kat Richardson, bestselling author of Greywalker
“A steampunk-zombie-airship adventure of rollicking pace and sweeping proportions, full of wonderfully gnarly details. This book is made of irresistible…. It totally pushed all my buttons.” Scott Westerfeld, bestselling author of Uglies and Peeps
Maternal love faces formidable challenges in this stellar steampunk tale. In an alternate 1880s America, mad inventor Leviticus Blue is blamed for destroying Civil War–era Seattle. When Zeke Wilkes, Blue’s son, goes into the walled wreck of a city to clear his father’s name, Zeke’s mother, Briar Wilkes, follows him in an airship, determined to rescue her son from the toxic gas that turns people into zombies (called rotters and described in gut-churning detail). When Briar learns that Seattle still has a mad inventor, Dr. Minnericht, who eerily resembles her dead husband, a simple rescue quickly turns into a thrilling race to save Zeke from the man who may be his father. Intelligent, exceptionally well written and showcasing a phenomenal strong female protagonist who embodies the complexities inherent in motherhood, this yarn is a must-read for the discerning steampunk fan. (Oct.)
Priest (Fathom, 2008, etc.) bravely, and successfully, ventures into steampunk and zombie-horror territory. The action takes place in an alternate-history version of 1880s Seattle. In Priest's variant, the Klondike gold rush came decades early. In 1863, Seattle scientist Leviticus Blue invented a massive steam-powered machine (Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine) to drill for gold through thick ice. When tested, it went out of control and wreaked havoc throughout Seattle, destroying several buildings and killing dozens. Soon after, a mysterious gas, the Blight, turned many who breathed it into predatory zombies called "rotters." Sixteen years later, Blue's widow Briar and son Zeke have little beyond a ruined family reputation. When Zeke impulsively decides to revisit walled-off Seattle to find proof that his father wasn't a villain, Briar follows him into the rotter-infested city. Priest, a Seattle resident, delivers a fast-moving story filled with cool steampunk technology and scary zombies. Fans of science fiction will find much to enjoy here. An impressive and auspicious genre-hopping adventure.