So, here is the thing about steampunk - for such a teeny little genre, it is over-defined to the point of suffocation. People who say they like it seem to know EXACTLY what it is, and what it is has more to do with its material culture - its brass, leather and rubber artifacts - than the usual elements that define a genre. Steampunk can be written in any style or mood: but it seems there really must be goggles.
I think it started like this: Bruce Sterling read an encyclopedia entry on Charles Babbage and fell in love with a simpler, older vision of the future, one in which even the most complicated informational and material transactions were accomplished by machines whose workings one could puzzle out and discern just by looking at them.
And which you had to crank to get started.
At one time, we thought that everything in the future would be BIG. Big computers in big rooms, in big buildings with wide roads leading to them, big public transit vehicles whisking us to work servicing those big computers. And big you can get your head around - one could argue that the most profound blows to the human race's collective self-esteem were the inventions of the transistor and the internal combustion engine. Maybe the TV.
I mean, who likes the plastic-encased machines we're using right now? They have no smell, no texture to speak of, they feel flimsy, they ARE flimsy. Open them up and they're full of equally flimsy crap, packed in with little regard for readability - most people have no idea how they work, so there's no reason to even try to make them look like they make sense. The sounds they make, when they make sounds, are stuttery and feeble. No wonder we crave meshed gears and clicking springs.
So Sterling, along with William Gibson, wrote The Difference Engine, an alternate history novel set in Victorian England. In it, Babbage's mechanical computers have brought about information-age advances and assisted in the creation of sophisticated steam-powered engines of war and transportation. The Difference Engine was written in 1990, and since then steampunk devotion has spread, book by book, Etsy seller by Etsy seller, helped along by BoingBoing and the Fratellis and Hellboy.
But I think, with all the emphasis on the admittedly crushworthy accoutrements and aesthetic of steampunk, people forget the technological accessibility part. When I was in college, my friends all had Volkswagen Beetles. I know nothing about cars, but when you open the back of an air-cooled manual-transmission Beetle, after a minute, you can figure out what does what. There are tubes and moving parts and you can follow the brake line and figure out why the brakes feel mushy. It's satisfying.
That's why the best steampunk is about information - knowledge, technology, the acquisition and guarding thereof. Writers get so fetishy about their dreadnoughts and bowler hats, lavishing paragraphs and pages on descriptions of brass's "mellow gleam" under its "film of oil," and of course certain stories do work and are completely refreshed by a mere change of costume and vehicle (Stagecoach was just as good when the stagecoach was replaced by a Firefly-class spaceship), but if you want to truly capture the burnished glow of steampunk, your story will have some goddamn engineering in it.
Oh I am so glad you've hung with me this far. It's a long review, huh? Sorry. I've been thinking about steampunk for twenty years now. I think I'm not the only reader who has a relationship with both science and with style, and not the only reader for whom books usually deliver either science or style but not both.
Boneshaker does both. Boneshaker gives us a gritty nineteenth-century city - Seattle, 1863 - that has been literally cratered by a catastrophic manmade event. Our main character, Briar, is the widow of Leviticus Blue, the inventor who singlehandedly destroyed half the city - one day he started up a truck-sized drill in his basement and ran it downtown and back, creating sinkholes and collapsing buildings. The damage was so profound that walls had to be erected around central Seattle.
Why Blue did this - and what became of him and the Boneshaker drill afterwards - is one of the book's mysteries. Briar's son, the fifteen-year-old Zeke, sets out on a dangerous mission to learn the truth about his father's motives, and when he doesn't come back, Briar goes to find him.
Now, if I reference a couple of movies here, please don't think it's because Boneshaker reads like Cherie Priest did one of those "What if Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie found herself on a boat with Kevin Costner in Waterworld?" thought experiments and then wrote that book. No. I'm just kind of short-cutting a little. Although I would read that book maybe. Dustin Hoffman would smack the crap out of Costner, wouldn't he?
Briar, who fled the comfortable home she shared with the Blue when the city center was trashed, works in a water processing plant in the part of Seattle that is still inhabitable. Ostracized by her co-workers, unable to connect with her son, who never knew his father, she's a grim survivor. Think Ripley in the second Alien movie. It's an unusual choice, for a supposed teen novel, to have a mom as a main character - but I think we can trust our teens to get along with her. Teens watch Weeds, right? And Briar's good with a gun, that's going to help.
The other main character in Boneshaker isn't Zeke, although he's a fine young man and carries plenty of the action on his narrow shoulders. The other character is the city, or rather, the portion of the city that has had to be walled in as a result of the gas that began to seep from the earth when Briar's husband carved up Seattle's substrate. That gas makes people zombies.
Despite the dangers within the walled city - the zombies, the gas - there are people living in there. Enjoying the relative freedom, engaged in illegal commerce, jiggering and re-jiggering their defenses and safe passages. It's an environment that encourages resourcefulness, caution, and innovation in the strongest possible terms - like the New York of Escape from New York.
Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin and Harry Dean Stanton as Brain in Escape from New York. Note map.
Briar and Zeke make their separate ways through the city, looking for each other and the way out. They encounter and are guided by inhabitants large and small, good and bad, each more interesting and colorful than the last. There are parts in this book for Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, and even Adrienne Barbeau. And what was I talking about earlier? The technology? Inside the walled city, technology is power. The man who controls the bulk of it is unquestionably the Duke of New York, er Seattle, and the questions surrounding his knowledge and abilities are a tricky, suspenseful mystery.
The locally post-apocalyptic world of this book is thoroughly built without being overbuilt. The machines are described but not fetishized. The characters absorb most of Ms. Priest's attention, and the plot gets most of the rest. Boneshaker is a steampunk novel that is not overwhelmed by its steampunkiness. And yet it is packed with atmosphere. One of the best teen novels of the year - one that I'll recommend to plenty of adults too.