The Big Idea: Cherie Priest
I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big ol’ fan of Cherie Priest’s work — I blurbed one of her previous novels, you know — but even factoring in my enjoyment of her work, I have to say that Boneshaker, Priest’s latest, very simply rocks: It’s not only the steampunk adventure you’ve been waiting for, it’s the steampunk adventure you can give to friends of yours who wonder what the hell’s up with all those Victorian overcoats and goggles. This one’s got dirigibles, it’s got alternate history, it’s got zombies, and it’s got a mother bear of a protagonist in Briar Wilkes. I could go on, but it would just be more squee.
And besides, Priest is here to talk about the book herself, and specifically how to make steampunk not only attractive and interesting, but logical for the world and setting in which she places it. How much does it take? Well. I’ll let her explain.
I’m a big nonfiction nerd because, well, let’s face it—nothing I make up could possibly be any weirder than some of the stuff that’s already happened in real life. I think that’s one reason I’ve been drawn to the steampunk vibe for so long: It very often draws from historic characters and events, merrily warping actual people and stuff to better fit somebody’s narrative (or costuming) needs.
But I’m also a context geek and a setting dork, and when I came around to trying my own hand at steampunk, I talked and wrote myself in circles trying to find a good reason for advanced Victorian technology to be rumbling around in my alternate-history universe. Merely waving a magic wand and saying, “Because I said so, ta-da!” didn’t quite cut it; I wanted a better grounding and excuse for the tech I was determined to employ.
If I intended to throw a monkey wrench into history, I wanted it to be a good, worthy, marginally credible monkey wrench.
So I was talking with a friend of mine about the two things that drive technology most efficiently—that would be, (1). pornography, and (2). warfare. Tossing aside option #1 as a bit improbable for a pulp adventure’s genesis (though I’m still considering it, mind you), I turned to option #2 and began brainstorming. To help my brainstorming along, this same friend (Andrea Jones, can I get a what-what?) sent me a wonderful quote from a wonderful tome written in 1862:
In this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars of Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859 served to illustrate how great a power the engines of destruction can exert.*
Perfect. Yes. And I was off.
Though most of the steampunk I’d seen was grounded in a gaslamp London setting, I wanted to do an American piece; and gosh darn it, if only America’d had some big, monstrous, catastrophic war going on in the nineteenth century … OH WAIT A MINUTE. We totally had one of those. It only lasted four years (give or take), but a quick poke through a library’s archives or even a good internet search turns up a whole mess of patents for war devices that were never made. If only the inventors hadn’t run out of war …
So that’s where I started. To create the steampunk universe that scaffolds Boneshaker, I dragged out America’s Civil War another fifteen years.
Not as easy as it sounds, of course. As a mostly-life-long southerner, I’d heard all the hypotheticals that could have let led to a Confederate victory; but I didn’t want a Confederate victory. I wanted a hideous, protracted, drawn-out struggle that would leave the west unincorporated, lawless, and still largely populated by Native Americans. Really, was that asking so much?
I started small. More extensive English involvement. Better transportation infrastructure. Cinched off the immigration (and seemingly unending soldier supply) to New York City.
And then I thought … Texas. Oh, what the heck—let’s keep it a republic. And let’s give it Spindletop (where oil was first discovered in that territory in 1901) a good fifty years earlier. Furthermore, let’s make Texas a technological superpower, since it would have had such wonderful incentive to develop machines to make use of the black gold. While we’re at it, yeah. Let’s give ‘em diesel power. After all, the patent for the first diesel engine went into play several years before Texas had oil. In real life. Which is not what we’re talking about here. Just imagine what a powerful ally Texas would’ve been to the south. Unless, of course, they were having their historic issues firming up the lines between the republic and Mexico. Hmm…
So you can see how I got off the rails there a bit. After all, I was setting out to write a story set in Seattle, Washington, where frankly not a whole lot was going on before the late nineteenth century. BUT I COULD FIX THAT. All I did was jack up the Klondike gold rush by forty years, which would’ve swelled the population tenfold by the 1860s.
And after all that map-drawing, history-tweaking, and time-reworking, that’s what I came back to—Seattle, all but destroyed by a mining accident (of sorts) in 1863, walled up, and filled with zombies stewing in a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, the war back east has prevented any federal help from the United States, and war technology has filtered all the way to the west coast. Combat dirigibles either stolen or bought from the military now move guns, drugs, and less contraband supplies back and forth over the Rockies. Weird weapons are de rigueur, and military deserters sneak into the western population, hoping to disappear.
For the folks who survived the destruction of Seattle, help never comes.
Out of this—this messy, elaborate, amateur restructuring of history—came what is essentially a very small story. Boneshaker takes place over seventy-two hours, and centers on only two people: a mother and her son. Because at the end of the day, the most interesting thing about the Clockwork Century (my catch-all term for the world-setting) is the people who occupy it.
And all this set-up aside, that is the big idea.
* From (and I am not making this up, this is the book’s full title): History of the Great Rebellion. From its commencement to its close, giving an account of its origin, The Secession of the Southern States, and the Formation of the Confederate Government, the concentration of the Military and Financial resources of the federal government, the development of its vast power, the raising, organizing, and equipping of the contending armies and navies; lucid, vivid, and accurate descriptions of battles and bombardments, sieges and surrender of forts, captured batteries, etc., etc.; the immense financial resources and comprehensive measures of the government, the enthusiasm and patriotic contributions of the people, together with sketches of the lives of all the eminent statesmen and military and naval commanders, with a full and complete index. From Official Sources. By Thomas P. Kettell. Naturally, we used this as the introductory quote to Boneshaker. The copy editor nearly had a fit.