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"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Searching for Steampunk in Boneshaker

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read Boneshaker there are spoilers in this essay.

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The most interesting things for me in Boneshaker by Cherie Priest were the steampunk elements. Once we ventured into Dr. Minnericht's underground, I was fascinated. So, I thought it would be fun to examine what makes Boneshaker steampunk. I utilized the article "Steampunk: A List of Themes" as a starting point. It's a long list, and Boneshaker includes many of the ideas listed.

First and foremost, Boneshaker takes place in an alternate universe, as it's an alternate history. The American Civil War, or the War Between the States, is raging and Washington still hasn't become a state. The thing is, the war has been going on for 15 years. In our timeline, the war only lasted for about 4 years. At one point in the book it mentions a certain Confederate General not dying during a battle he dies in in our timeline, and that the English came to help the south, which is what likely stretched the war out longer.

Zeppelins and sky pirates are also often found in steampunk, and Boneshaker doesn't disappoint in this area. Briar needs to ask the help of sky pirates to get into the walled up city to rescue her son, Zeke. We even have a rollicking scene between two balloons fighting it out because one was stolen (again, as the captain it was stolen from originally stole it from the Confederate army). "'Some miserable goddamned son of a bitch thief flew off with the Free Crow!...The only warship ever successfully stolen from either side, and someone had the temerity to steal it from me!" (Priest 392-393).

The world in Boneshaker is also a dystopia. Aside from the war continuing on, Seattle has been walled up, due to a Blight being released from underground--a gas that causes death or zombification, what the people in the story call Rotters. These Rotters are monsters, yet another element sometimes found in steampunk.

But we can't forget what released the Blight gas in the first place, and one of the bigger things people think of when steampunk is mentioned--the Boneshaker, a huge machine was created by Leviticus Blue, Briar's husband. It burrowed deep under Seattle 15 years ago, releasing the Blight on the city. "Its grinding drills--each one the size of a pony--had twirled and twisted around everything near them; Briar remembered thinking of giant forks twirling at a bowl of spaghetti. And although rust had taken the biting edges off the grooved, bladed drills, they still looked nastier than a devil's dream" (Priest 403). Briar even comes across some of Levi's other old machines near the end of the novel.

Big machines, though, aren't the only gadgets prominent in steampunk. Smaller things, like Lucy's mechanical arm also permeate this sub-genre. "She flexed her fingers, and the knuckles popped with a tiny clack. 'The whole thing's mechanical. It gives me a little leak every so often'" (Priest 189). There is also Jeremiah's Daisy, which uses static electricity to charge up and releases a loud noise to down the Rotters for a few minutes. Near the end we're also introduced to the destructiveness of the Sonic Gusting Gun.

Of course we have to have a mad scientist to create these things, and Dr. Minnericht fits that role perfectly. He has a bit of an obsession with lights, which is only one example of how crazy he is. "Lamps of all shapes and sizes blazed around the room on pillars and poles. They were strapped to the walls and to each other, and bundled into groups. Some functioned with an obvious power source, and their lemony flames cast a traditional glow; but others broadcast beams made of stranger stuff. Here and there a lamp burned blue and white, or created a greenish halo" (Priest 304). He attempts to convince the inhabitants of Seattle that he's Leviticus Blue, another mad scientist from Briar's account, but Briar knows otherwise.

Even some small things are examples found in steampunk. Briar's goggles, the lenses acting like a magnifying glass to see the Blight, her corset-like top, as well as the detail of the oriental rugs and the velvet couch when Briar finally enters her old home after 15 years have passed. Even Dr. Minnericht's watch exemplifies the small intricacies and details that show up in this sub-genre. The Blight itself is used to make a type of drug, bringing in the chemistry side of things.

These are some of the main elements found in Boneshaker that can be considered steampunk. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and if you look closely, you can see other themes and tidbits that tend to show up often in steampunk. It's an interesting genre, and I hope I find the time to explore it more thoroughly one day.


EvilEgg. "Steampunk: A List of Themes." Writing.com. 2007. Web.

Priest, Cherie. Boneshaker. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2009.

NEXT UP: A closer look at steampunk!

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