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Northwest Passages: Cherie Priest

Pete Springer/OPB

Novelist Cherie Priest loves and lives genres, from goth to steampunk. Her new book Boneshaker is set in her “alternate history” world of, loosely, Civil War-era Seattle.

Boneshaker is also the name of a machine designed to mine gold from the frozen north. But on its test run it digs tunnels under Seattle, releasing a poisonous blight gas. Sixteen years later, a curious society still survives in the now walled-off city. Everyone keeps busy trying to avoid the flesh-eating zombies. Boneshaker follows the son of the machine’s inventor as he enters the Seattle underworld to find answers about his family’spast. And it follows his mother, who goes in to save him.

Most of Priest’s earlier work fell in the “southern gothic mystery” genre. Boneshaker is a “steampunk” novel, which Priest explains as 

a style, of books, of clothes, of video games and movies, that draws its inspiration from old science fiction stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley, set in a place and time where steam is the dominant form of high technology. It’s a retro futurisma reaction to the school of design that says all tech must look flat and shiny and inscrutable; it’s a rebuttal of disposable culture and wasteful consumption.

She claims Seattle as the epicenter of West Coast steampunk, with a different flavor than East Coast or British steampunk. She a bit tired of explaining the basics. Beyond aviator goggles and flying machines, Priest told me steampunk offers an alternative social structure:

If you want to talk 19th century, you have to talk class status and structures. I think when you’re talking about revival or alternative history, you get to re-write the rules that marginalized your ancestors.

I asked if that means trying to say how thing should have been.

Saying what it could have been. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. There’s a true story about a former slave woman who ran mail out West. She led an epic, wild, crazy life. She’s buried somewhere. She’s not in the history books. So what else is left out? When you take this fantastic element and apply it to history, you have a little sense that you’re reclaiming past stories. Maybe this didn’t happen, but things like it did. Or could have.

Just to be clear, Priest is not saying zombies could have roamed the streets of Seattle. (And for the record, she’s sick of emails setting her straight on historical details she deliberately messed up!) If you’re a steampunk fan, why? If you’ve read Boneshaker or any of Priest’s other work, what do you think? What would you like to ask her?

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