First Impressions: Boneshaker

These are my first impressions after reading Boneshaker (Cherie Priest; 2009) in January 2010. Slight spoilers.
is a steampunk novel set in an alternate Seattle in the 1880s. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction set in an era where steam power is widely used. Science fiction elements include technological inventions that never actually existed or that were invented early (such as steam-powered computers), as well as alternate-history speculations that would allow such innovations to happen. In Boneshaker, Priest has also thrown zombies into the mix, but with a scientific, rather than a supernatural, cause. To add to the effect, the book is printed in brown ink, giving it an antiquated look that is surprisingly easy on the reader’s eyes.

Before the story begins, an excerpt from a book called Unlikely Episodes in Western History sets the stage. The setting is a slightly altered America, where the Civil War stretched on and on, and the Gold Rush boomed early, turning Seattle into a bustling mining town by 1879. With the Gold Rush moving farther north, the Russians held a competition to develop a machine that could mine gold from underneath ice. Leviticus Blue, a Seattle inventor, came up with a monstrous machine called the Boneshaker, but when he started it up, something went wrong and it tore a destructive tunnel underneath downtown. This released a trapped gas, later christened the Blight, that turned those who breathed it into “rotters” — zombies, effectively. Seattle had to be evacuated and a massive wall erected around downtown, keeping in both the Blight and the rotters.

Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, is eking out a living on Seattle’s Outskirts. She discovers that her teenage son, Zeke, has sneaked inside the Wall to find evidence that might exonerate his father. After an earthquake destroys Zeke’s one way out, Briar sets out to rescue him. And thus begins an adventure that includes a dirigible crash, several zombie chases, and a showdown with a mad genius named Dr. Minnericht, who controls the illegal trade in a drug made from the Blight from within the city Wall.

Priest has vividly and effectively created her steampunk world of walled-off Seattle, where the air is yellow and obscured by the heavy gas, a warren of tunnels and jerry-rigged elevators crisscross the city, and huge dirigibles carrying air pirates float silently overhead. The remaining human inhabitants of the city move through this dreamlike world wearing gas masks, some of them almost post-human in their elaborate breathing apparatuses or sporting mechanized arms. Dr. Minnericht is the most striking and least human of them all, outfitted in a skull-like gas mask of pipes and valves, with glowing blue lenses for eyes, lording it over the city from an opulently furnished buried train station.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite measure up to the intricate world that Priest has imagined. A straightforward adventure story, it doesn’t have much to say beyond that in terms of a larger theme or message. Still, it is a fun story that would probably make a great movie (if the actors didn’t have to cover their faces with gas masks the whole time).

Boneshaker is the first novel set in the fictional world called the Clockwork Century by Priest. Priest has previously published a trilogy of Southern Gothic horror novels.

First Impressions: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood; 2003) in July 2008. I will be discussing Oryx and Crake in future essays. Spoilers.

51VLtCYOxKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In a dystopian exaggeration of current American society, an insane genius crafts a solution to the problem of humanity.

The premise of this novel, and the details of the future world it depicts, are so outlandish that you must either accept them immediately or stop reading. I accepted them. I was instantly subsumed in the fascinating, disturbing world that Atwood has created.

The novel opens in a post-apocalyptic shore-side wilderness where the only survivor (presumably), Snowman, is barely surviving. He sleeps in a tree and spends his days in a hallucinatory stupor. The only breaks in the monotony are visits from children who turn out to be genetically engineered post-humans, with glowing green eyes and the ability to eat leaves.

Gradually, Snowman — whose pre-apocalypse name is Jimmy — reveals the events leading up to the disaster as he remembers them. He grew up in a corporate compound separated by walls and guards from the “pleeblands,” where the poor lived in crowded, polluted slums. His father worked for a powerful company conducting research in genetic engineering to come up with new products designed to relieve food shortages, prolong life, and preserve beauty, resulting in such bizarre creations as the pigoon and the rakunk. As a teenager, Snowman befriends a brilliant but anti-social young man who calls himself Crake, whose genius enables him to attend a prestigious and luxurious university and then get a high-profile job conducting top-secret eugenics research. Crake brings his old friend into the compound where he works, and there Snowman learns that Crake has engineered a new race of people who don’t have many of the “problems” we do.

Also there is Oryx, the beautiful, victimized woman who both men love. Yes, this is a grand story about the downfall of the human race, but it is also the oldest story of all: a love triangle.

This book kept me fascinated and disturbed until the very end. There were so many outlandish details, but at the heart it explores some fundamental issues: the unchecked power of people wielding science, without regard for consequences; the calamitous effects of environmental abuse; the potential within us to destroy ourselves; the follies of playing god. The only criticism I have is that the ending is a bit unsatisfying. It just leaves us hanging. But overall, Atwood is a terrific writer exploring the science fiction themes of apocalypse and dystopia, and Oryx and Crakeis a terrific contribution to this genre.

Frankenstein: The First Science Fiction Novel

Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, which depicts a scientist using technology to play god and reanimate a corpse, is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. I have trouble coming up with an earlier example of science fiction than Frankenstein, published in 1818. So the first science fiction writer, Mary Shelley, is actually a woman, and her creation endures as a true classic of the genre.

Those who take the time to read the book may be surprised to find that Frankenstein’s monster is not a green bolt-head with a limited vocabulary. Although larger and stronger than most men, he is actually intelligent and an eloquent speaker. After trying to interact with people and being rejected because of his hideous appearance, the monster realizes that no human will accept him and he is doomed to isolation. He becomes obsessed with seeking vengeance on his creator by murdering members of his family. Frankenstein vows to destroy the monster, and the two engage in a chase that finishes in the Arctic.

Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18, and it was published anonymously when she was 21. The story of the novel’s composition is almost as legendary as the novel itself. When Percy and Mary Shelley were visiting the poet Lord Byron one rainy summer, they amused themselves by each writing a ghost story. There, Mary Shelley had a dream that gave her the idea for the story:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

(Another guest, Dr. Polidori, wrote a vampire story, so two classic horror figures were born from the same game.)

Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Frankenstein

The classic theme, and warning, explored in Frankenstein is that man should not play god. The dawn of the Industrial Age brought with it fear of what man and machines could accomplish, and the unforeseen consequences they could have. There is also a theme of the monster as isolated, without an identity, adrift in a world where he can make no connections and life has no meaning for him. Again, this poses a warning of the dehumanization that technology can bring. These themes resonate throughout the science fiction genre even today.

Of course Shelley’s creation endures in films, plays, and popular culture. Frankenstein also spawned several science fiction tropes, including the mad scientist and the monstrous reanimated corpse. Frankenstein represents our continuing fears of meddling with technologies we do not understand. Writer Isaac Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex” to describe the fear of robots. Even the term “frankenfood” has been used to refer to genetically manipulated food.

As familiar as Frankenstein is, it is worth it to return to the original novel, which remains an entertaining and relevant work.

For further reading:

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