Our last episode of Steampunk Month (a spontaneously generated phenomenon now coming soon to headspace near you) is dedicated to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series of novels. Like all steampunk novels, Priest’s story is set in a world with rather Victorian sensibilities and retro-futuristic technology. Like Whitechapel Gods, last week’s steampunk offering, the Clockwork Century takes place in a world that is pretty much like our own.
Unlike, Whitechapel Gods, the Clockwork Century focuses on events in North America. In the 1890s of this strange, parallel world the American Civil War (or War Between the States, or What Have You) continues to rage off and on through a series of armistices, truces and perpetual ill-will. Like all good sci-fi/fantasy authors, Priest doesn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to explain where the South is getting manpower from, or how a mostly agrarian economy managed to match an industrial powerhouse longer than a handful of years. I mean look, the British allied with the South, supplies, mercenaries, time to develop new technologies, Progress! Huzzah!
Not that the dynamics of a rapidly industrializing society at war are really what Clockwork Century is about. No, most of the action in the fist five novels or so (give or take the road trip aspects of Clementine and Dreadnaught and the jaunt to New Orleans in Ganymede) is centered on the west coast. Sure, the stories range far and wide, but everything actually hinges on the abandoned city of Seattle, in the territory of Washington (which, with the war still on back in the states, hasn’t had much luck in getting admitted to the Union.) There, way on the northern end of the West Coast, the aftereffects of Dr. Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine are shaping up to redefine life as we know it. In a strange, subtle, very weird kind of way. You see, while I love a good steampunk story the Clockwork Century has one thing I really hate.
Or, if you’re a resident of Seattle or the surrounding area, rotters. Rotters is the name for people exposed to a strange gas that started leaking out of the ground after Dr. Blue’s test drive of the Boneshaker, who died and who haven’t quite stopped walking around yet. For reasons unknown, they bite people. Okay, honestly they bite people because that’s what zombies do, but if you think about it that only makes sense when we’re dealing with corpses animated by a malevolent force bent on killing, maiming and terrifying people. Rotters are not those kinds of zombies (that we know of.)
So normally I wouldn’t recommend a zombie story to you, just like I wouldn’t normally recommend Lovecraftian fiction to you. The Clockwork Century stands apart, however, because it gives its zombie narratives context and handles its characters with style.
The blight gas that creates rotters is the focus of much scrutiny to the scientists of the Clockwork Century. Deranged people with little sense and less restraint, known as chemists to most of the world, have discovered a way to distill blight gas into an addictive drug and are selling it for pleasure or as an alternative painkiller. It also turns you into a zombie if you take enough of it but, like all addictive drugs, that goes without saying. There is the interesting little problem of these particular zombies being able to reproduce by biting people.
And the fact that that makes no sense does not bug me. At all. >_<
BUT. By constraining the rotters to Seattle and a few other places where blight gas (or it’s distilled form) has been around more than is healthy Priest manages to avoid many of the annoying cliches of the zombie genre. There are still people in this world. Civilization carries on. In fact the old city of Seattle has sealed tunnels full of people (and empty of blight gas and rotters) working quietly to figure out what they’re going to do about their private little end of the world.
And the people in the North, the South, and the independent Republic of Texas (which apparently scrounged up enough good sense not to get involved in the war in this time line)? Well, they carry on, too. They just have to dodge the occasional zombie outbreak while they’re doing it. While an argument could be made that the Clockwork Century does not have the transportation infrastructure or population density to make a zombie apocalypse the danger it is to a modern world, I would tell people arguing such a thing to read at least up to Dreadnaught before making that judgement.
And now I’m going to stop talking about the zombie part of this series, because, while zombies are just a horrible train wreck of crap that has been foisted onto fiction to the detriment of us all, and while Priest does a halfway decent job managing not to make her zombies much more than set pieces and keeping the action focused elsewhere, the real charm of this series is not in the zombies or even the steampunkness, it’s in the way Priest handles the world as a whole.
When I talked about keeping the story in mind I mentioned Priest as a great example of juggling characters. Truly, the way she does it is a wonder. I can’t say too much about it, as the nature of some characters are spoilers, but suffice it to say that just because a character walks off the screen in one book and isn’t seen again in that title doesn’t mean they’re gone. In fact, minor characters frequently go on to sprout entire books of their own. Case in point: Book 5, The Inexplicables. Or, to give an even better example, the many trials and tribulations of Jeremiah Swakhammer. (Yes, he’s as awesome as the name implies.)
The sense you get is that the world itself is alive and growing, with a lot of small, mundane things happening off the screen that stack up and surprise us when the narrative takes us back to people we haven’t seen in a while. Sure, some of the things that are alive and growing their ranks are actually, technically undead but hey, that’s just the price you pay.
All in all, the Clockwork Century series is well titled. It doesn’t rest on the back of a character, it doesn’t focus on a particular conflict. It’s much more an adventure through a wild, unpredictable frontier. An Old West you’ve never seen before. A war that’s not in any history book. And yes, possibly the end of the world in slow, shambling motion. If you love world building or character driven fiction, it’s probably worth your time to check out.
A short story entitled Tanglefoot, set after Boneshaker, the first novel in the series, but containing no spoilers for that book or any other stories in the Clockwork Century, is available for free by following this link.