I tried this book out on the basis of it’s nominations for major science fiction awards and that of the Best Read of the Year at http://www.scifisite.com. It’s not normally what I would pick up being steampunk mixed with zombies. However, my expectations were surpassed and Boneshakers turned out to be a solid novel, though it’s lasting legacy might be spurring me to watch the Walking Dead TV show.
The book follows exclusively one family, a mother and son, who are cursed with some awful family lineage. The grandfather of the son is a folk hero for some and a criminal to others and the son’s father is perhaps the most reviled man in all of 1800s Seattle. Not content with the official historical record, the son, Zeke, travels into the part of Seattle wrecked by his father, Leviticus Blue, and now crawling with zombies created by the Blight unleashed during Blue’s rampage. The mother goes in after him and that is the setup for the rest of the book.
Something of a paradox mars an otherwise decent story. The zombies of the setting are really ancillary despite being a prominent part of the setting. They are in only a couple scenes and very rarely seem dangerous, in fact one character seems to have a weapon that could wipe them out if they just thought to use it. However, their presence explicit or implicit keeps the characters moving at a rapid pace such that they have no time to ruminate or develop. The beginning opens up with a young Zeke dissatisfied with life and his family’s legacy. His mother feels like a bad parent and you feel like she is going after him partly out of guilt, partly out of love. But once we get inside the city these motivations get shoved backwards and no new ones are offered up. Zeke is often called resourceful, but never seems to display it, instead just buffeted along on the whims of whoever he runs into. Same with the mother. The primary villain is built up, but the confrontation and reveal of his identity leave much to be desired. You are told more than shown the cruel power he wields over the denizens of this part of Seattle.
Nevertheless, the book has some gripping chases and some of the people within the city are more interesting than the main characters. The book’s opening is fantastic (and the ending is better than most), which makes it all the more sad that such an exciting setting, a walled of area in a city teeming with zombies and unbreathable air where people actually eek out an existence, languishes while we get a standard plot of mother rescuing son.
I first encountered Cory Doctrow with his geeky little book called Little Brother. It had the energy of Snow Crash with all the nerdy technology and anti-establishment tone you could conceivably want. Makers tries the same thing except the technology isn’t as cool and sticking it to the Man gets tiresome.
The book opens from the perspective of a journalist covering two crazy inventor partners who are the poster boys of a new economic system where large corporations fund small groups of R&D. Yeah it doesn’t sound as unique as the book makes it out to be. We have this system already with start-ups and venture capital, but nevermind. Furthermore, the stuff spewing out of their lab is of dubious quality. Admittedly it would be hard for the author to come up with legitimately profitable ideas, but this stuff felt subpar. Their big dream is 3d printers that print 3d printers, as if self replication hasn’t been discussed to death.
This part of the book mostly thrives on some good character development and the general feeling that these people want and are able to change the world for the less fortunate. However, the second part jumps forward a few years and the whole New Work movement pioneered by the aforementioned inventors has died with no word from the author as to why. This is particularly puzzling given that 20% of the workforce was engaged in such activities and according to the book were quite successful in churning out new things. So what is the economic order now and what about the aftermath of displacing so many people from their New Work? We will never know.
Our protagonists now operate a ride memorializing these golden days. It’s actually a very cool ride that is constantly changing based on user feedback. I am not sure a ride is the best use for this particular invention, but that does not diminish the idea. The idea spreads like wildfire and starts to span the globe and develops a cult following. Where it really goes off the rails is when Disney Parks steps in with a big fat lawsuit against the ride and its ilk. At this point Perry, one of the inventors, starts acting like a big baby hurting his friends and decrying that he doesn’t want to play by society’s rules. In fact everyone acts kind of stupid here as the author establishes his anti-patent credentials and mixes in some unnecessary romantic drama. The book has too many characters at this point, many of which have interesting story arcs that go nowhere. One particular character that works for Disney starts by sabotaging the ride and roughing up one of his employees, but in the end we are supposed to believe he isn’t that bad and just wants to bring joy to the world.
To end the book is an overlong epilogue where the author casually dismisses some more of the relationships from earlier in the book and we find out that Lester, the other inventor of the duo, has been working for the Man at Disney. He is also dying from some gene therapy that increased metabolism and muscle mass. Apparently it’s not obvious that eating 10,000 calories a day is not good for your body or that maybe they could have tuned that number much lower while still keeping people thin. Anyway the characters end up back where they started working on some mechanical computer idea that shows up throughout the novel and is not in the least bit interesting.
This is really the worst of science fiction having the awful characters endemic of the genre while simultaneously failing to create a viable world or interesting technological ideas or consequences.