Friday, April 30, 2010

2010 Hugo (and Nebula) nominee, novel: BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest

There’s a one word description for this novel that I think is very appropriate, and I hope people don’t think it too cruel: cute. Boneshaker is cute.

Boneshaker takes place in an alternate 1880, in an apocalyptic Seattle. Fifteen years earlier, a mad scientist named Leviticus Blue created a massive mining machine called the Boneshaker (in our reality, the name of a bicycle from about the same time). A test of the machine went horribly wrong and caused earthquakes that devastated the city and unleashed a horrible gas that citizens call “blight.” When the blight gas gets into people’s bloodstreams, through inhalation or other means, they turn into rampaging zombies. As a result, a massive wall was built around the city of Seattle to contain the zombie menace.

The novel focuses on Leviticus Blue’s surviving wife, Briar, and their son Zeke. The rebellious teenage Zeke decides to sneak into the city to learn about the fate of his father, and Briar goes to look for him on an airship run by pirates/drug-traffickers.

As a historian who works in this period, I do have a love/hate relationship with steampunk. I love that the novels tend to capture the sprawling and busy multiculturism of the nineteenth century in ways that most historical fiction ignores (after the first 50 pages, I was afraid Priest was using a lily-white cast, which would be pretty ridiculous in 1880 Seattle, but she soon introduced the diversity I expected). I also love the industrial aesthetic. On the other hand, steampunk really is more of an aesthetic than a subgenre; I often feel that everything is in service to the visuals. For instance, Priest takes time to explain that people need to wear goggles with polarized lenses to see the blight gas. Does this lead to a dramatic scene where a character loses their goggles, and finds them only to learn that they’re surrounded by blight? No. Is there some alternate history to explain why polarized lenses were invented 60 years early in this world? No. In fact, it never really comes up again, but it does mean that all of the characters are always wearing cool goggles. I’m probably nitpicking here, but it does bother me that steampunk scenarios so often miss the obvious opportunities to explore the real history in their settings while getting distracted by the scenery.

The novel also feels a bit too trendy. Steampunk is hot now with it airships and mad scientists. Zombies are also hot now, with hit films and their invasion of the western canon (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). This steampunk versus zombies scenario is capturing something in the zeitgeist…but I’m not sure it will be as well-regarded when popular geek-taste moves along.

It is a well-told tale though. Briar and Zeke are likable, compelling characters, and the world was fun. There’s plenty of violence and darkness, but it’s really all in service of the steampunk/zombie aesthetic and the loving mother-son relationship at the center. It’s cute. And, a cute book certainly can win the Hugo award; it happened last year with Gaiman’s Graveyard Book. Do I think a cute novel should win the Hugo Award? I guess it depends on the competition.

Grade: B


  1. Sounds like a good book to snack on in my monthly sc-fi/fantasy book club. 'Hard' sc-fi always seems a bit much group, so thanks for the (half) recommendation.

  2. Yes, I could see it being a crowd-pleaser. Are you in an sf book club? That sounds fun.

    Btw, thanks for following! Both of your blogs look really great.

  3. Blogs can be pretty fun, I enjoy what you have going on here.

    Yeah its a SF/Fantasy book club. I personally cannot stand most fantasy, luckily this club leads more towards lasers than spells.

    Nothing like that going on in the Twin Cities?

  4. They're probably is, I just haven't found it. I'm actually in a non-SF/fantasy bookclub here in MN, which adds to my already heavy reading load (we have read a Hugo winner and a WFA winner in the past year).

    Thanks for the compliments, enjoy the blog!

  5. I'm in large agreement with your review here. While the book was certainly fun, it seemed a bit on the light side. There were some historical question marks for me but more and more I wondered at how the economy could have really worked within the walls. Where did all of the food come from? The logistics of shipping enough food for hundreds (or more?) people would have to be somewhat substantial. Clean water and fuel for the furnaces would be problematic, too.
    Also, why wouldn't some kind of effort be made to actually eliminate the rotters? If fire and dismemberment will kill them, well, it's not too hard to figure out a method to do so. Even if the people on the inside aren't interested in doing it, wouldn't the Outskirts firebomb them?
    Like I said, a fun read but I'll be a bit disappointed if this is the Hugo winner.

  6. Yes, the book really doesn't want you to think about it too hard; it's just plain fun. And that's great most of the time....I just think, personally, that Hugo winners *should* want you to think about them really hard.

    Btw, thanks for posting, -Peder. I'm not sure if I ever got back to your first post, but I'm happy to have a fellow Twin Citier following along.

  7. Just read this and I agree. It is entertaining but in that light not too filling way. I am glad this one didn't win, because I don't think it is a good representation of what good scifi writing can be.

  8. Read this with my SF book club last June and everyone hated it. Seems weird to me that it got so much praise. I found the characters flat and unlikeable (the protagonists anyway) and the plot was a total mess (the villain's identity was a question mark throughout only because the lead character neglected to think about a major event from the past?).

  9. Looks like we have a pretty solid consensus on this one. It also seems to be one of the things that set Charles Stross off against steampunk. It'll be interesting to see if the sequel, Dreadnaught, gets any award attention this year.