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By Cherie Priest
So it looks like the backlash against steampunk has finally begun in the last year or two; and to all the haters, all I can say is, "Screw you!" A science-fiction subgenre 150 years in the making, turns out that the punk-influenced genre writers of the 1980s and early '90s found a lot to admire in the old gear-and-steam days of the Victorian Age, especially when a recent reinvestigation into history in those years revealed that humanity came very close to actually inventing computers in the mid-1800s, only that society lacked transistors so couldn't get the machine pieces small enough to do anything practical. And so did these writers combine the finery found in actual 19th-century stories by Jules Verne and HG Wells with a modern sensibility and a "what if" sense of whimsy, producing stories in which giant brass-covered mechanical armed spiders save the day in the Crimean War; and so has this concept grown so explosively fast in popularity in the last twenty years, there are those out there who are actually kind of sick of it by now, and wish that the goggled girls in corsets and top hats would just stay home from this year's local sci-fi convention.
But shame on you if you feel this way, I say; because just as others are suckers for moody serial-killer stories, so am I a slavish fan of fanciful Victoriana, and can eat such stuff up with a spoon every day of the week and still want more come Sunday dinner. And man, it doesn't get much better these days than with the work of Cherie Priest, the Seattle-based genre veteran who finally hit major paydirt last year with the nearly perfect Boneshaker (one of my favorite books of the year in 2009, and also one of this year's Hugo nominees for Best Novel), an endlessly inventive book that combines the usual steampunk tropes with a zombie story, a post-apocalyptic one, a first-person-shooter videogame and a John Carpenter movie. Merely part one of an entire coming alt-history series called the "Clockwork Century," through luck and work Priest has gone out and attracted a passionate group of fans, through things like a lively blog and her fangirl love of dressing up for LARP photoshoots; and so has a salivating group of readers been impatiently waiting for volume two of the series, this fall's Dreadnought, making it in good "convention guest of honor" style almost critic-proof, in that it'll be selling well no matter what people like me have to say about it.
And indeed, the news is mixed today when it comes to the new book; because as I'm sure even Priest herself knows, when you start a series like this with a title that is so endlessly clever, it's hard to sustain that cleverness through the entire series, with this second story by its very nature being a bit of a letdown just from the aspect of pure premise. See, the first book is about a mad scientist in Seattle who invents a machine for the Russians that can burrow through ice and mine gold up in Alaska, but that causes an earthquake and rupture in Seattle's underbelly when he tries testing it; and this just happens to release a toxic underground gas that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, which the resource-poor territorial government of the Pacific Northwest doesn't know how to deal with, other than to build a giant 200-foot-high wall around the city limits. So now there's an entire basement population of normal humans who live in sealed-off tunnels there -- sometimes to turn this poisonous gas into a slightly less lethal powder that's become the new opium among drug-addicted Civil War soldiers, and sometimes simply because these people are radical libertarians and want to live someplace where the government literally can't tell them what to do; and so do these people fight with each other, fight against the still-alive mad scientist down in the catacombs with them, and are always on the defensive against the zombie hoard above, all within an entire alt-history USA where the Civil War has dragged into a decades-long Vietnam-like stalemate, and where Texas is still its own independent nation as a result.
Dreadnought, then, from the aspect of a committed fan like me is a real treat, a story that takes place on the opposite side of the country, using what are only vague rumors in the first volume and making them the main milieu of the second, telling the tale of a Florence-Nightingale-type Confederate nurse right down in the front battle line itself, giving us a firsthand view of all the mechanical monstrosities both sides have invented in this steampunky alt-past; the story itself, then, has our hero "Mercy" learning of a sick father (one of the main characters from the first book) who was long thought dead but instead turned out to be one of these subterranean smugglers in Seattle, which leads Mercy on a series of train and zeppelin rides from the hospital in Tennessee where she works all the way across the unsettled US wastelands, while a whole bunch of stuff happens to her on the way, and where what we know as detailed facts in the first volume turn up as unsettling rumors here (namely, that there's a mysterious substance that may or may not be turning people into flesh-eating zombies, and that there may or may not be a group of several hundred such undead roaming the dunes of the desert Southwest).
To a dyed-in-the-wool fan like myself, such a thing is a real delight, two volumes that play an endless game of call-and-response with each other, and that rewards me for being a close reader of both; but to those who aren't natural steampunk fans, this is not one of the exceptions to the genre like the first book but one of the ones that'll make you groan, "What, another of these things?," an unending mishmash of greasy locomotives and and shiny doodads, of people talking funny and concealing futuristic weapons in their frilly petticoats. And that makes Dreadnought in general both what was expected and a slight disappointment; or in other words, mostly just another genre novel, instead of the game-changer that spanks all the other genre novels for being boring little children, exactly like Boneshaker did. And that's why it gets only a limited recommendation today, although I wanted to do a full write-up of it as well, to bring it to the attention of Baker Street Irregulars like me who are sure to love it, a title that like hundreds of other SF titles each year certainly isn't bad at all, but that most likely will not be winning any awards of its own, or get breathlessly commended by Amazon or Cory Doctorow like the first book in the series did. It should all be kept in mind before picking up a copy yourself.
Out of 10: 8.4