Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker begins with a disaster. Sometime in the early 1860s, inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle creates a steam-powered gold-mining machine, the titular Boneshaker, which promptly runs horribly out of control, destroying several city blocks and releasing a noxious gas called the Blight which turns people into zombies. The survivors build a wall around the city to contain the gas and the zombies, and many of them go on to scratch out a living in its shadow.
That’s exactly what we find Leviticus’ widow Briar doing sixteen years later, working in a water treatment plant to counteract the effects of the Blight. When her son Zeke ventures into the walled city, now a no-go zone, she follows, determined to keep him safe and bring him home.
It’s hard not to read Boneshaker as a critique of capitalist greed, at least in part. Leviticus is selfish and money-hungry; his lack of care and consideration for the community he lives in leaves hundreds of people dead, hundreds more reduced to poverty and an entire city and its water supply polluted and barely livable. It also unleashes an environmental menace in the form of the zombie hordes who occupy the walled city. (Zombies, of course, are infamously common metaphors for capitalist consumers!) The poisonous, gas-filled streets Zeke and Briar move through call to mind horrific industrial disasters like the Bhopal tragedy [content warning: link contains descriptions of the effects of toxic gas on human bodies] – which was caused by corporate negligence and an utter disregard for human life and health. Later on in the novel, it even turns out that someone in the city is using the disaster for his own ends: the mysterious machine-builder Doctor Minnericht.
But the novel’s potential as capitalism critique is undermined by one of steampunk’s key flaws: its emphasis on individualism. Steampunk as an aesthetic is all about being unique, standing out; it tends towards exclusivity and classism. Priest avoids this to an extent by focusing on characters who are functionally working-class (although Briar and Zeke were both upper-class before the Blight – in fact, the prospect of hidden gold in their old house is a moderately significant plot point, and the end of the novel seems to hint at a return to prosperity). But both of her villains are individuals, crazed inventors who’ve been able to change the course of history by personal achievement alone. And she doesn’t seem massively interested in digging into the forces that allowed these men to occupy positions of such power in the first place – Leviticus’ pre-existing wealth, for instance. Without an awareness of such systems, Boneshaker is less corporate critique than it is a work that just draws on those images for emotional affect. Which makes it feel a bit hollow, honestly.
I mean, I guess my criticism of Boneshaker is more a criticism of steampunk: the only steampunk works that are actively advocating social change are things like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair that are highly aware of their genre and deliberately working against it, or things like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that are only taking parts of steampunk to put in new contexts. Steampunk in itself – especially in its fashion guise! – is not really capable of cultural subversion; that’s just not how it functions as a phenomenon.
To return to Boneshaker: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I read it while ill in bed, and it was not the book I would have chosen to be stuck with in that situation. It’s not as problematic as much steampunk is: it does focus on social outcasts, and it does feature people of colour, albeit as very minor characters. But, meh. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing that much work as a novel.