On Teaching Boneshaker; or, Steampunk’s Gritty Nostalgia

What makes steampunk tick?  Is it nostalgia or something else?  I understand nostalgia for the ’50s or the ’80s.  A lot of people are still alive who lived through that.  But why set stories a hundred-plus years in the past?

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker gives us some answers, and my students latched onto them quite well.  About half the class had encountered steampunk; the others had no idea what it was.  That was about perfect for my purposes.

They immediately recognized in Zeke Wilkes, one of Priest’s main viewpoint characters, the same appeal of unrestrained, unsupervised boyishness that we found in Tom Sawyer earlier in the semester.  Zeke is out to prove himself, in a world where adult supervision may or may not be a good thing.  The longing for freedom from constraints –it’s potent stuff in nostalgia terms.  Everyone understood that “young protagonist” could be literary shorthand for this idealization of youth as a time of freedom.

But what about the 19th century?  How is the era of the Civil War, slavery, diseases, and hard outdoor labor in any way nostalgic?  Priest portrays all of that fairly accurately (although from a geographical distance that leaves the Civil War off-stage and slavery–the moral issue of the age– unmentioned).

To liven things up, however, Priest adds toxic gasses and zombies into the mix, as if the 19th century weren’t unlivable enough for  21st century readers.

It think that’s part of the appeal.  Somehow, steampunk appeals to the civil war re-enactor in all of us.  People who want to sleep on cold ground in unwashed, sweaty clothes.  People who can take apart every gadget they own and reassemble it with ease.  People who, when faced with constant threat of violence from both nature and unrestrained villains, come through… not shiny… or clean, but…triumphant.

People like Boneshaker‘s Zeke and Briar Wilkes.

For as storytelling mode that often gets recognized for its fashion sense or its ornate, period-appropriate turns of phrase, steampunk’s a tough little genre.  Boneshaker proves that.

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