damn zombies

steampunk If you googlesteampunk”  you will get a raft of hits covering this science fiction genre.  Trending upward in popularity since the 1980s, it’s now possible to find all sorts of steampunked things.   There are a ton of steampunk movies, TV shows, video games, and tabletop RPGs.   Even Miyazaki did a steampunk movie (more than one actually).  There is way too much genre fanfic and a penchant for rewriting movie or TV classics as steampunk.   Thus, there is steampunk Star Wars and steampunk Star Trek.   There are also steampunk mashups, the most notable being an upcoming steampunked version of Anna Karenina.  You can buy or build a steampunk laptop or steampunk keyboard.  You can definitely cosplay steampunk (but, please, don’t.)

The other big trend these days, in case you have been in a coma for the last few years (heh), is zombies.  Lots and lots of zombies.  Zombie books.  Zombie survival guides.  Zombie movies.  Zombie mashups.  Zombie video games.  Zombies, zombies, zombies.  (Honestly, can you ever have enough zombies?  I think not!)

Clearly what the world is missing is a steampunk zombie novel.

Luckily for everyone involved, Cherie Priest’s 2009 novel Boneshaker fills that niche.  This book was nominated for a slew of important SF awards and has been getting generally positive reviews by fans of both genres.  I’ve always had a little soft spot for steampunk so I grabbed a copy before my recent trip out west and read it on the plane there and back.  I’m happy to say that it’s not a bad read by any means.


A common convention in steampunk is the alternate reality, one in which recognizable historical events and people are comingled with more fantastical interpretations of modern technology, all of course, powered by steam.   In Boneshaker the alternate reality is Seattle in the 1870s.  In this world Stonewall Jackson did not die at the battle of Chancellorsville and the War Between the States has raged on for 13 years, keeping Washington out of the Union since the US government has more pressing issues on its hands.  Seattle itself is a nearly unrecognizable hellhole due to all the damn zombies.  Wait…what?

Fifteen years before the start of the novel Briar Wilkes met and married one Leviticus (Levi) Blue, an inventor.  She was also the daughter of a local lawman, Maynard, who was well known for his fairness and belief in the law.  With tensions between North and South getting worse, the U.S. and the Russians were vying to find a way to exploit the Klondike gold fields and the Russians sponsored a contest, offering wads of cash to whoever could invent a machine that could reliably drill through the permafrost.  Levi invented such a machine, the Boneshaker, and for reasons that remain a mystery at the start of the novel he started it up one day and drove it underground to the banking district in downtown Seattle.  Aside from the horrible devastation the machine wrought on the city, it did something far worse.  It  caused the release of a vile putrefying gas called the Blight that killed most people outright and then reanimated some of them.  Of course the reanimated corpses craved living human flesh, and voila, ZOMBIES! (or rotters, as they are called in the book)

When the story opens, Briar is living in the Outskirts, a small village hugging the vast wall built around Seattle to contain both the Blight and the rotters.  She has a hideous job purifying Blight-infected water, everyone hates her because of her husband (and to a lesser extent her father), and she has an increasingly strained relationship with her 15 year old son Ezekial (Zeke).  Zeke is convinced in that way that young adolescents are that he knows the truth about his father and he sets out to prove that Levi was not a crazy dangerous thief who destroyed most of downtown Seattle and cavalierly released a gruesome plague.   So off he goes, inside the walls into the heart of rotter infested, Blight stricken Seattle.  When she realizes what he’s done Briar dons her goggles, gas mask, and trusty rifle and heads into the city to rescue him.   The story revolves around both her search and Zeke’s, the people they meet in the city and how they manage to survive, and the identity and motives of a man called Dr. Minnericht who may or may not be who he claims to be.

The plot is a bit predictable but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.   It is true to the conventions of both the zombie and steampunk genres.  The zombies are driven by one thing, the hunger for flesh, and there are many harrowing sequences involving ravenous hordes of them.  There are fanciful weapons, people with mechanical appendages, steam driven flying machines, and elaborate air pumping mechanisms.  The Blight lies over everything like a thick stinking yellow fog and the atmosphere in the book is almost palpable.  But, since it doesn’t stray from convention the ending does tend to be a bit unsurprising and there are a few things that don’t ring exactly true.  For instance it is never really very clear why Briar’s father Maynard is so villified by some people given that his actions in the first days of the Blight were both truly heroic and truly tragic.  For the most part, however, the grit and dirt and mud and stench and fear are well done.

So, basically, this is a decent read, especially when flying or laying about on a beach.  If done right, it will make a great movie.  The entire thing just feels like it was written so that it would eventually makes it’s way to the big screen.

Score:  Meh.


~ by gun street girl on June 4, 2010.

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