Oct 4 2011 11:00am

Steampunk Appreciations: This is American Steampunk (And How!): Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century Series

Cherie Priest. Photo Credit: Ben Z Mund

When Cherie Priest entered the steampunk scene years ago, she stumbled upon some comments on a message board declaring that American steampunk wasn’t really steampunk, since it had to be based in Victorian England. Priest, who had one more book under contract with Tor Books at the time, saw this as a challenge. Thus, Boneshaker, the first in her Clockwork Century series, was born.

Who knew that an attempt to squish some internet forum posturing would end up as a three book (and one novella) ongoing series, with nods for both the Hugo and the Nebula and wins from the PNBA and Locus Magazine for Best Science Fiction Novel? Not to mention that many consider Boneshaker to be the watershed novel marking the popular rise of the steampunk subgenre in SFF.

What is it about Priest’s Clockwork Century series that makes it stand out? Well, you can start by reading the reviews on Tor.com: Boneshaker, Dreadnought, Ganymede, and Clementine (the novella). After the jump, I’ll get more in-depth about various aspects that keep me reading. And to note: as with all versions (or re-imaginings) of history, it’s not perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I highly enjoy the Clockwork Century books and I’ll continue to follow them. But this is an appreciation, and one can’t truly appreciate anything without acknowledging both its strengths and its weaknesses.


Dreadnought by Cherie PriestLost & Found: Recognizing Histories

Boneshaker opens up with the arrival of historian Hale Quarter to the outskirts of walled-up Seattle. He’s there looking to record the truth about the frontier town. Though he doesn’t play a large role in the first book and doesn’t show up in later volumes, Quarter’s appearance establishes a theme that continues through the series — finding people and recognizing their place in history. And not just the crazy, messed up alt hist of Priest’s world, but placing actual people in our real history books — the figures that had been obscured, lost, or forgotten over time.

Lost places and contraptions are obvious examples of what makes her steampunk books so much fun. The underground tunnels of Seattle (based on the actual underground city), for example, is Priest’s biggest accomplishment. Railroad technology and dirigibles are obvious examples of other tech that is appreciated in these books, and the Civil-War era submarines that inspired Ganymede is another.

Not only are obscure places recognized, but so are the people that have been lost in mainstream historical tales. Marginalized groups in particular are fully integrated as part of the American landscape of the Clockwork Century. The presence of people of color is more than tokenism, but actually meaningful and relevant to her storylines. Princess Angeline, for instance, the daughter of the deceased Native chief Seattle, takes revenge against the villain of Boneshaker as the man who had wronged her daughter. Black entrepreneurs like Mrs. Hyde in Dreadnought become wealthy restaurant owners (albeit, serving meals in segregated dining rooms), and international politics are worked into that same novel with the arrival of Mexican inspectors Galaeno and Portilla. Queer folk also get a nod (though I’d like to see more in the future); Ruthie, Josephine Early’s right-hand gal in Ganymede is transgender. Refreshingly enough, there is no angst or blackmailing subplot involved with her identity whatsoever. Ruthie is just Ruthie.

In addition, the question of what to do with Asian immigrants becomes relevant in Dreadnought with the Union’s attempt to recruit Chinese settlers out west. On the other hand, in Ganymede, Yaozu wants to keep the zombie-infested city of Seattle alive because it’s one of the few places where he thinks the Chinese community can prosper free from discrimination (but having that prosperity fueled by running yellow sap is another story…)

For all of her inclusiveness, however, I’d like Priest to go further with her characters of color other than having others say how awesome they are. Huey, despite his pluck, is a bit of a one-note, cast as the boy genius without having the opportunity to fully show off that genius or anything else. Princess Angeline pretty much is a wandering Native after slitting Minnericht’s throat and I want her to be more than that. This is why I appreciate Josephine Early and her ladies so much, since they feel the most fully formed and significant PoCs yet in her series (I haven’t read Clementine in full yet, so I’m not dismissing Hainey’s characterization, by the way).


Clementine by Cherie Priest

The Civil War as the War that Never Ended

Along with putting the forgotten back into history, Priest explores the consequences of an extended American Civil War. This is tricky territory.

Throughout the books, characters are frustrated about the general horribleness of an ongoing war, and the reason for its continuation stems from a variety of reasons. The Republic of Texas is fueling the South with technology and money for its own self-interest. The British are somehow helping the South, too. Stonewall Jackson didn’t die in the Battle of Chancellorsville, keeping the Confederate leadership strong. And, despite all of these Southern advantages, the North keeps trudging on, under the assumption by many the characters that the Northerners have an endless source of men and resources. (Which, actually, they don’t.)

In light of this ongoing war, Priest makes the choice of abolishing slavery in most of the Southern states for practical reasons (it was more efficient to have their white Southerners fight for the army than spend resources maintaining a slave-based economy). Cue the “fighting for state’s rights” flag. That reason, if it was stated by itself would make me give the whole series the squint-eye. Yet in the books, “state’s rights” doesn’t gloss over the fact that Confederates did start the war over the Peculiar Institution: in fact, from the perspective of her black and mixed-race characters, of course it was all about state’s rights — the right to own other people.

I can’t imagine the newly freed black population choosing to fight for the South even in this alternate history scenario, too, and I’m glad that Priest does not go there. I tend to believe this scenario of perpetual total war justifies that reason to be more legitimate than apologist.

More importantly, she addresses the moral and social complexities many people face in this world. In Dreadnought for example, Mercy Lynch’s husband fought for the Union and died in a POW camp while she ends up serving at a Southern soldier’s hospital. One of the tensions in the novel is about Mercy hiding her past of questionable alliances while riding the Union train. In another instance of conflicting loyalties, New Orleans is occupied by their Texan allies in Ganymede, but it doesn’t mean that the residents of the Big Easy actually want them there. The runaway slave Croggin Hainey faces his worst fears about returning to the Deep South in Clementine. Many of the black characters in Ganymede express a lingering fear of being mistaken for runaways and being taken back to the plantations, making the tensions between free blacks and the Confederate army a believable reality.

The only regional viewpoint that I’m especially intrigued to see is the North’s. Priest, being originally from the South, certainly shows her bias, but with all of the Southerners and frontier folk crying out for the war to end, the lack of a Northern viewpoint is glaring. I’m only hoping that we’d get a perspective from them somehow in the future.


Boneshaer by Cherie Priest

Steampunk Feminism? The Progression of Female Leads in the Clockwork Century

Boneshaker had garnered a lot of praise for its protagonist Briar Wilkes, a middle-aged, working-class single mother. In fact, the female leads in all of the three major novels are older, tougher and grittier than your usual ladies of SFF. Briar, Mercy, and Josephine have much to be admired (note: I’m leaving out Maria Isabella Boyd of Clementine for now since I’m not as familiar with the novella). For the first two ladies at least, I never fully believed them to be as strong as they could’ve been, and mostly it’s because of the relationships they have to the men in the lives.

Briar is the worst example of the three. She is emotionally haunted by the memories of her dead husband and father. Her relationship to her son Zeke is also distant and estranged, and it is mostly guilt about being a bad mother that drives her to find him. Having dysfunctional relationships with men does not make a woman a more feminist character. In fact, the overpowering influence they have in stunting her emotional growth is very disconcerting. In the end, Briar becomes the sheriff of Seattle, but even that honor is made under the shadow of her much-respected father.

Mercy is a tough, practical-minded nurse who dares to travel alone across the country, a big feat for a woman of her time. On the other hand though, the motive behind her travels is to find a father who left her family when she was a child and for whom she felt no emotional attachment to until she discovered that her husband had died. Now that one male figure is gone from her life, it seems, she feels obligated to find another, even if that person is a near-stranger.

Ganymede by Cherie PriestJosephine, luckily, breaks away from this pattern of having men being emotional beacons. Sure, she and Andan had a thing in the past, but that was all past (and, interestingly enough, he lingers over it more than she does). Sure, she has her brother Deaderick, but instead of being hampered by guilt to run after him like Briar does for Zeke, she watches out for him because they have always watched out for each other. Props to mutual love and respect in the family! Additionally, she has a much stronger network of supportive relationships with the women in her life, another refreshing aspect to her character.


Conclusion: How to Build a Better Pulp

Besides all of the factors that make the Clockwork Century series worth reading, there is the overall style of the books. Priest’s writing style is cinematic and her characters’ gestures are stylized to be slightly larger-than-life but still relatable. She takes SFF standards (zombies, post-apoc, alternate history) and combines them into something innovative and new. The success of her books has also contributed to the current trend of incorporating more supernatural elements into steampunk lit.

I’d also actually go as far to say that her books read like traditional pulp fiction that reflects modern values. The books are fun, action-packed, and fast-paced but without the problematic baggage that the historical pulps had. Ultimately, Priest takes the best of the old and presents it for today’s world, and that attitude, more than anything else, is what makes the Clockwork Century so steampunk.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker runs Tor.com Steampunk on Facebook and Twitter and the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana.

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David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
Oh Gods, you had to bring up the feminist debate. Which really has no place here, in my mind. Women can have and be affected by relationships with the men in their lives, just as men can do the same with women, without their value being compromised. Why does a woman have to dismiss men entirely to be considered feminist? Is being strong and self reliant no longer valued?

Take Briar, for instance. Not to spoil anything, but she's got some baggage in her past. She has every right, as a character, to be emotionally damaged, and you're right in that up until the start of the novel she hadn't dealt with it well. What I don't get is the claim that just because her son is what makes her address this issue, it's not okay. Would it have been feminist if she'd had a daughter? The problem itself had nothing to do with her child's gender, and everything to do with her own history and actions. Yes, her husband was involved in those as well, but its shown she most definitely had strong agency in those events once they're revealed.

And that's where my problem with your analysis comes in - after a certain point, these kinds of arguments become "find the penis and make a problem of it". Because for anything else Briar is, she's smart, strong, and driven to finally face her past for the first time. As much as any male character I've read in the hundreds of novels I've devoured. Why poke holes in that?
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
2. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
Why does a woman have to dismiss men entirely to be considered feminist? Is being strong and self reliant no longer valued?

I do point out that all of Priest’s female leads are strong and self-reliant people, which is admirable. I’m not shutting down any of them for having emotional baggage and being flawed, but when their emotional baggage is distinctly takes to men and *only* men, as in Briar's case, it raises some questions in my mind. Like, why are male-female relationships more emotionally important than female-female ones? (Notice that Josephine never had that problem, which makes her a more well-rounded character in general, not only a feminist one).

Furthermore, in the case of Briar, at least, it’s more complicated by the fact that everyone else around her associates her with her husband, father, or son; to many people, she can’t be seen as separate outside of them. I agree with you that she’s strong by inwardly resists these associations (especially with the reveal at the end), but for her character arc, I never fully accept the fact that she finally is free of them enough to be herself because she takes her father’s title as sheriff. (I know that action can also be interpreted that she’s overcome her past by integrating it into her individual self, but I just don’t read it that way).

What I don't get is the claim that just because her son is what makes her address this issue, it's not okay. Would it have been feminist if she'd had a daughter?

It would not be “more feminist” if she had a daughter, but, again, it shows that her character does not have any strong female ties, and that makes me question why. Since it was Priest’s decision to give her a son, and thus, only surrounding her with certain types of relationships, then I think it’s fair game to wonder how that set-up is reflective both of Briar as a character and the general world she is placed in.

And that's where my problem with your analysis comes in - after a certain point, these kinds of arguments become "find the penis and make a problem of it". Because for anything else Briar is, she's smart, strong, and driven to finally face her past for the first time. As much as any male character I've read in the hundreds of novels I've devoured. Why poke holes in that?

Poking holes isn’t the same as being dismissive, by the way. I never said that I hated Briar, after all, but that her character arc didn’t satisfy me as a reader.
James Sodak
3. James Sodak
Oh Gods, you had to bring up the feminist debate.

The feminist debate is a debate in the same way that the evolution debate is a debate.

It isn't one.

Calling it that is a way into fabricate a controversy and imply that there is doubt on both sides of an issue. (Which there isn't.) I don't care if you don't like the proposed solutions that feminism offers but when you seek to diminish the problem itself...well that's when I decide to enter into the most impotent of all forums that seek to change people's minds, the blog post comment thread.
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
I'll agree to disagree, Ay-Leen. While the books are most certainly set in a sexist society, I don't feel that Briar's portrayal was terribly so. If anything, I felt that most of her story was about overcoming those views other people held of her, and while society didn't change, her opinion of herself and how she let it affect her certainly did.

And James - nowhere in my argument did I say feminism is a bad thing. The entirely of my argument is based around the popular idea that any woman with a strong connection to a male is a problem in the feminist sense. Which may not have been Ay-Leen's intent, but her write-up sparked something in my mind and brought out a response based as much on this as on several other articles I've read lately. I find oversensitivity with any problem, be it racism or sexism, almost as offensive as the problem itself. I like feminism - I want strong female characters and progressive change in our society. I just don't think these are the books that are in need of some feminist change.
James Sodak
5. RobinTheBoyKidnapped

You asked "Why poke holes in that?" Because we want it to be better. We should critique the things we like otherwise they can't change in the way we want them to.

Like sometimes I make chocolate cake (because I fucking love chocolate cake) and when I eat it I will often say some variation on "This could be more chocolatey." Not because I dislike the cake I am eating, but because I imagine how much better it could be with more chocolate it in. If it had some chocolate fudge chunks in the frosting, that would be better than without fudge chunks.

Characters who have a realistic amount of male and female relationships is better than those without fudge chunks...I mean, well you know what I mean.

I'm not saying that what you like is wrong and you should feel guilty for liking it. All we're trying to say is that things could be better. If you think things are perfect, then play a fun game and apply the Bechdel Test to some popular stories and see how they fare. If things are still perfect and shouldn't change and everything glows in a beatiful golden radience and there are sparkles and its full of stars oh my god its full of stars...

If that happens, well there's not much to do about aneurysms.
Peter Tijger
6. Peter-Tijger
I bought the first 2 books, Boneshaker and Dreadnought after reading about it on different websites, including this one. I read enought to make the purchase. I don't know when I'll come around to reading them.....I have stacks of books still to read. I knew Ganymede was coming up, but Clementine somehow slipped under my radar.....that's the 3rd installment in the series?
I think I'll start reading Boneshaker after I've finished my current book, Hyddenworld by William Horton......I'm curious to this Clockwork series.
Dave Thompson
7. DKT

It's been a while since I read it, but I think that Boneshaker would pass the Bechdel Test. Scenes between Briar and Lucy O'Gunning come to mind. But I could be misremembering...

I'm reading Clementine now and enjoying it a lot more than I did Boneshaker (which never clicked with me anywhere near as much as I would've liked). And I can't help myself being excited to check out Dreadnought and Gaynemede.

@Bakema NL: Clementine came out between Boneshaker and Dreadnought - it's a novella originally published by Subterranean Press, so had a smaller release initially.
Peter Tijger
8. Peter-Tijger

Thanks for the info, I'll be looking out for the book.
James Sodak
9. AKAulenback
"Yet in the books, “state’s rights” doesn’t gloss over the fact that Confederates did start the war over the Peculiar Institution: in fact, from the perspective of her black and mixed-race characters, of course it was all about state’s rights — the right to own other people."

That said, historically, whilst questions of abolition did get entangled in the war for "state rights" , slavery and abolition were not the cause of the war either according to the South or, more pertinently, the North, until the story was changed much later.

Lincoln's 1861 address was quite clear on his opinion of slavery as a political entity: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I now reiterate these sentiments."

John Charles Fremont, Union commander of the Western department in 1861, embarrassed Lincoln by declaring all slaves in Missouri were now free, a policy immediately countermanded by the President.

In 1863 Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves found in enemy territory free, but carefully did nothing for those owned by Union slaveholders. The hoped for intent - winning British support for the North - seems to have fallen short, considered by the British hypocritical and late.

The Southern states which declared secession did cite abolitionist agitation from the North amongst their complaints, but then claim that unfair political representation has led abolitionist Northerners to rule entire, when each of the states was granted individual and equal freedoms at the end of the Revolution, and that THIS is the reason for their seccession.

Despite the efforts of the Union government, the war began entangled with abolitionist efforts, but even so it was not about abolitionist efforts when it began. It only became so as the narrative was changed by the Union. The myth of the Union going to war over abolitionist ideals is a useful one for us, today, but not an accurate one.

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