I recently finished Cherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker. This article won’t be a review of it, but I did enjoy it a lot and want to give a quick appraisal in case anyone is interested. The book is essentially three main ideas combined into a single narrative: An American alternate history story (1), which grants the setting a Steampunk (2) version of technology, which in turns causes a zombie outbreak (3). If you’re a fan of any of those three genres, you will probably like it. It’s not particularly groundbreaking in its use of any of those three genres, but it does all of them well. I ticked off two of those boxes, so that was more than enough to sway me.
If you aren’t a fan of those three genres, you might still want to consider giving it a chance. It takes a while to get in to, but once it does, the pace starts rolling right along. The characters aren’t as interesting as others that I’ve read (the two leads are fine, which is really the most important part, but the supporting cast isn’t as fleshed out as in other works), but the setting is more than interesting enough to make up for that lack. It also deserves props for centering around a middle-aged woman rather than the more standard younger man protagonist (her son is also a major character, but he’s still on the younger side of things than is usual). And like I said, if the premise is enough to hook you, it’s worth reading.
Now than, on to my main topic: that three prong premise is what I want to focus on. As I mentioned, I am a big fan of two of the three, those two being Steampunk and alternate history. However, I usually absolutely hate zombie-based works. This is something I’ve come to realize slowly over the past few years, as dozens of zombie apocalypse-based works have sprung onto the pop culture scene.*
*Even the common thought experiments of "How would you prepare for a zombie apocalypse?" never held my interest for long, and I have wasted time with some *dumb* thought experiments.
None of them captured my interest or inspired me to give them a try. I feel like when I do like works with zombies in them, I wind up liking them almost in spite of zombie elements. Boneshaker might be my favorite work yet that has heavily relied on zombies yet, so I figured that worth examining as a case study. What does the fact that I don’t mind Boneshaker’s use of zombies tell me about the concept in fiction as a whole? What specific element is it that gives me a hang up?
That's a pretty big question to try and simplify to one or two points, but at the same time, I struggle to think of any subgenres I struggle to find interest in to the same extent, which makes things a little easier. What are themes common in Zombie stories that aren't in most other science fiction/fantasy works?
Let's just start with the most obvious option: it's probably not the zombies themselves. For one, they were in Boneshaker and I didn't seem to mind. But additionally, there isn't much in the idea the bothers me. As a faceless army to overcome, reanimated corpses don't function any differently in my psyche than robots or evil aliens. Actually, they're probably even even less of an issue morally than with those other two examples because I can think of many more works with robots or aliens who are as sentient as humans. And other stories where things come back from the dead don't bother me either. So it must be something indirect that bugs me, something that frequently accompanies Zombie Apocalypse narratives.
The next obvious place to look at the "apocalypse" half of that phrase, and I think that's the more promising aspect. Generally, apocalypse works have a little less intrinsic appeal to me compared to other works, but I don't have any issue with them like I do with zombie works.
So what specifically about Zombie Apocalypses don't I like? The more I think about it, the more I think that it's one of the few genres of SF that's inherently pessimistic. Other subgenres can be pessimistic, but there's usually something optimistic. Anything with futuristic technology? Well, regardless of how the work itself goes, there's some optimism in the projection of society. Same with anything with superpowers. Genres like Steampunk and Cyberpunk function primarily on the appeal of the aesthetic and technology. Alternate history isn't inherently any more optimistic or pessimistic than actual history. Even normal apocalypse stories, there's some germ of hope; most of them, at least some of humanity survives, promising hope and a possible rebuild of society. It's a long-term outlook, but it still optimism of some degree.
This is what separates zombies from other harbingers of the apocalypse: they mandate more pessimism than anything else. Man-made apocalypses, from robots to pollution, usually require some degree of technology, and there's always the assumption that humans can get out of whatever mess they made. Natural disasters are usually faced with humans trying to stop the disaster or begin again afterwards.
Zombies, however, are a naturally bad apocalypse, in that they generally need to stack the deck against humans. Think about it: zombies are generally slow, not capable of handling tools or weapons like humans, fragile, and need to both feed and reproduce by outnumbering their prey. The standard image of zombies would not win any conflict where they were met with an equal number of humans.
And so, we generally start zombie works post-apocalypse, with humans already outnumbered and escaping roving bands of the undead. There's no way to stop and set up society. There's generally not a way to fight back when they're so outnumbered. When you're dealing with a zombie end of days, the odds have to be much worse than any other variation by necessity, or else the situation wouldn't be as dire.
And this, I think, is why Boneshaker succeeds for me where others have failed. While it does belong to the “Zombie Apocalypse” school, Priest wisely limits the scale of the disaster to just 1880s Seattle. All death is limited to the walls built to contain the plague-ridden city, with the promise of more outside of the walls to keep things from feeling too helpless.
I think that gleam of hope makes all the difference in fiction. In most works, you have to have hope that things can get better for the characters that you are investing time and emotion into. Here, it’s obvious: if Briar and Zeke can make it out of the city alive, things will get better for them. Where is that in other zombie stories? If the characters can survive long enough…they’ll be not dead so that they can continue to try and not die? The latter scenario has no victory condition, no real goal for the characters to strive for, no real way to undo or avoid the zombie problem.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on about this long enough. Congrats to Cherie Priest for solving my longstanding issues with zombies, and check out Boneshaker!