Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Cherie Priest - Boneshaker
In 2010, Boneshaker was nominated for a Hugo. From the outside, this seems to make a great deal of sense. Boneshaker is packed to the gills and beyond with promise. Our story focuses on a meticulously created alternate history Seattle, a world of an extended Civil War and steam technology, of gas-created zombies and the hellishly created and walled in ground zero where they roam. This is a story of mad science and horror, airships and ingenuity, with its characters on a quest to – to quote the back – rewrite history. Unfortunately, not only does every single one of those elements fail to live up to its full potential, but the book is a meandering mess that manages to be significantly less than its parts. Perhaps some of my disappointment comes from the book's prestige, and its failure to live up to it, but I just can't escape the feeling that I read a weak first draft of the brilliant manuscript everyone else got.
The book's opening is a harbinger of what's to come. When discussing how to determine the proper opening of your manuscript, James D. MacDonald says : Another way to say this is: it's the point where the characters can't decide, To heck with this and order out for pizza. The one-way door has blown shut and they can't get back into the theatre. Going by that definition, Boneshaker starts at least a few dozen pages too early. We begin with a history lesson disguised as a prologue disguised as a chapter in a fictional book. There, Priest conveys her fascinating backstory in the most expository way possible. To cut everything short, we learn that resident insane genius Leviticus Blue used his newly-created drill to tunnel under the Seattle streets and rob the city blind. While doing so, he went a bit too low, and a strange gas rose from the ground, killing and then reanimating its victims.
The narrative – though not yet the story by any means – then picks up with a journalist coming to speak with Blue's widow, Briar, and son, Zeke, many years after the disaster. Mind you, however, that you won't know the characters are Blue's family for quite some time. Instead, we discuss the family's other notorious figure, Maynard, who emptied the prison as the gas spread to allow the convicts to escape. Like many of the novel's characters, there's the feeling that Maynard is supposed to be morally ambiguous, but anyone who believes Maynard should have left the convicts to die likely believes that speeding, possession, and insults should all be hanging offenses. Once the reporter leaves, we see Briar and Zeke live their lives, and Briar go to work, all without a hint of their circumstances changing. That being said, on an emotional level, this might be the book's strongest section, in large part because it's one of the very few times that Priest lets her characters breathe, and the relationship between Briar and Zeke is distant and well portrayed.
When the plot does finally get moving, Blue's son, Zeke, makes his way into the walled city to try and clear the names of Blue and Maynard. Not willing to see her son in so much danger, Briar follows him beyond the walls into what's so far been built up as certain death. In actuality, of course, the walled city is not certain death. To be honest, it's not all that threatening at all and is, of course, inhabited by far more than zombies, or, as Priest calls them, rotters. First off there're the criminals there to make lemon sap, a drug created from the blight gas. Then, there are the racially homogenous Chinamen, few of which are named and fewer of which are characterized in any way. Finally, there're the folks who, for reasons all but inexplicable, have chosen to stay.
Once behind the walls, Blue and Zeke begin the process of meandering. In Briar's mind, Zeke is a tough and independent boy. Up until we get in its head, it seems she's right. After all, he did get past the wall, even if doing so is rather easier than one might expect. The moment we see him, however, Zeke bumps into the first of the inner city dwellers, a man named Rudy. Though Rudy is obviously untrustworthy, Zeke decides to follow him to and beyond the point where he knows Rudy is taking him in the wrong direction, to and beyond the point where another character comes right out and shouts Rudy's secret agenda to the world. Put simply, Zeke is a naïve puppy led to the clearly marked slaughterhouse by a single stale treat held by a stranger in blood-drenched clothes.
Like many of Boneshaker's faults – such as the subversion of expectations within the city – Zeke's innocence seems almost intentional. Perhaps Priest was just using Briar as an unreliable narrator, and Zeke's not independent at all outside of his mother's biased eyes. Such an interpretation, however, runs into trouble when the reader reads Briar's chapters behind the wall, for the problem is not just with Zeke. No, Priest's dominant mode of storytelling is simply a character blundering around until they bump into a stronger character (plot device?) that drags them off in a more interesting direction. That formula holds true for just about every on screen plot development in the entire book. This is a book full of motion and devoid of decision, a fast pace with no progress, a marathon runner on a treadmill.
But are the characters at least interesting? Many a novel, after all, has been able to make up for an undirected plot by virtue of those experiencing it, not least of them Steampunk/New Weird juggernaut Perdido Street Station. Alas, the answer is no. Neither Briar nor Zeke grow after the first display of their bond. The two display an almost herculean ability to remain absolutely unchanged by circumstances and revelations alike. The minor characters are on the same level and utterly lacking in depth, each owning no more than one or two attributes. Clearly, Priest was going for the menagerie off the edge school of strange sights and characters, but the problem is that most of her cast isn't fascinating, just shallowly abnormal and, above all, uninteresting.
That's not to say, however, that she can't imbue a character with promise. Swakhammer is introduced as a warrior in a gigantic metal suit, described as a man speaking through a helmet that gave his face the shape of a horse's head crossed with a squid. […] It was as if someone had taken a suit of armor and made it into a jacket. (p. 150) His every aspect, from his strange technology to his italicized dialogue, is clearly designed to set him apart. As soon as he removes his mask, however, he reveals a personality so bland he might as well have been an automaton for all the emotion he evokes. A worse disappointment by far, however, is Minnericht, the mad inventor who's taken over much of the blight. After being touted as a wasteland king by the rest of the cast, and after questions that he might be Blue returned, he instead turns out to be... *drum roll* yet another megalomaniacal villain, a baddie that must be dealt with by bullets after what little mystery he has is wrung out by the most improbable of coincidences and the most deflating of reveals.
Don't go away thinking that that's the only disappointing answer to an intriguing question, however. Almost every one of the novel's grand mysteries is similarly executed by a perfunctory and expository answer, with Priest managing to strike a balance between explaining away every hint of wonder and still somehow having everything make absolutely no sense. Why did the citizens build a wall instead of simply building a cover for where the gas was leaking out? Why is nobody else in the country even remotely interested by the presence of the damned undead? Why did the rotters listen to Minnericht? If there were only two ways into the city, and one was destroyed, why does nobody seem to care? For that matter, why was the only man on the path into the city an aged and unimportant defector? Why haven't the rotters starved in their nearly two decades of quasi-isolation? And on, and on, and on the inconsistencies go.
In her afterword, Priest defends the changes she's made to history and then writes: I realize that the story is a bit of a twisted stretch, but honestly—isn't that what steampunk is for? (p. 416) Well, no, I don't think that's what it's for at all. Speculative Fiction, in my mind, does not exist merely to make changes, but to make a point with those changes, whether that point be a thematic one or just an innovative way to convey a fantastic tale. Boneshaker does none of that, lacking not only a coherent theme but also a coherent plot. This is, as far as I can see, a sightseeing tour missing any particularly original or notably thrilling things to see. No, Boneshaker is not abhorrent, but its every element is either disappointing or uninteresting, and I see no reason why it ever came within spitting distance of the Hugo.