Friday, February 18, 2011

A Steampunk Double Feature Review: Dreadnought and The Buntline Special

Recently, two steampunk novels have crossed my path, that are definitely worth a mention. The first is Cherie Priest's Dreadnought (Tor Books, 2010), the latest entry in her Clockwork Century series. The second is The Buntline Special (Pyr, 2010), by Mike Resnick, which promises to be the first in an upcoming serial, The Weird West.

I came across Dreadnought's precursor, Boneshaker (Tor Books, 2009), quite by accident a little over a year ago, and I'll admit that I was a little iffy over it. For one thing, it bore the SciFi Essential Book seal of approval, and the SciFi Channel (now SyFy) has produced some questionable content on its own. For another, steampunk, in my personal experience, tends to be a very hit-or-miss subgenre when it comes to literature -- the good stuff is really, really good, and the bad stuff is hurtfully disappointing. It's a very visual subgenre: brassy bits and leather and boiler-powered everything, all of which is easier to depict through a more visual medium, such as painting or illustration. (Not that those are "easy"!)

Luckily, my fears were unfounded, and Boneshaker, the story of a worried mother out to find her lost son in a world of airships and zombies, turned out to be a real treat. So I eagerly looked forward to Dreadnought, the latest book set in Priest's Clockwork Century.

(Dreadnought isn't strictly a sequel, though it is somewhat of a spiritual successor, to Boneshaker. So you don't really have to read Boneshaker to understand Dreadnought, though it might help. According to the official website for the Clockwork Century, Priest has written another novel, Clementine (Subterranean Press, 2010), and a novelette, Tanglefoot (Subterranean Press, 2009). Clementine is sort of ludicrously expensive according to, but Tanglefoot is available for to read free from Subterranean Press's website.)

Dreadnought introduces us to Mercy Lynch, put-upon Confederate war nurse and widow. Having but recently lost her husband, Mercy is rather coincidentally called upon to travel across the length of a war-torn America to visit her estranged father, the last family she has left. To get there, she'll have to survive the Civil War at top speed and deal with some truly ornery train passengers.

Dreadnought isn't better or worse than Boneshaker, but it's a worthy heir. Priest flexes muscles that she only tantalized at having in her previous entry, by taking the world that she built and exploring it more fully. It's one hell of a world, where the Civil War has raged for almost twenty years while Texas remains an independent nation with its own interests. To escape the realities of war, soldiers take drugs that turn them from men into monsters -- literally. Mechanical walkers lifted straight out of classic science fiction roam the front lines. And a steam engine, the titular Dreadnought (who knew that steam engines had names?) transports a mysterious cargo and a mad scientist who guards it zealously.

Is it a perfect book? No, but it's pretty good. The beginning of the book is slightly problematic. In the space of too short a time, Mercy Lynch receives word that her husband has died on the front line and that her estranged father is dying. So, isn't it rather convenient that her single tie to anywhere has evaporated, just as she's asked to make a dangerous cross-country journey? While it's not unknown for tragedies of this nature to happen back-to-back in real life, here, it feels a little contrived. I'm willing to forgive the taste that particular plot development left in my mouth, however, as it's all over with rather quickly and gives Lynch the freedom and impetus to make the trip and get on with the story.

Mercy Lynch reminds me an awful lot of Briar Wilkes, the heroine of Boneshaker. They're not identical, but there's enough overlap to raise an eyebrow. And a second point of view, as in Boneshaker, might have been appreciated. Still, Briar was busy in Seattle and couldn't make the trip cross-country. This Briar-Mercy character is a good and interesting one, and Priest seems to have a firm grasp on her, so I won't think too hard about this.

In spite of all that, this really is steampunk at its best. The Clockwork Century is a world that's both familiar and yet terrifyingly different, and Priest has clearly put some thought into it -- not just the fun parts, like zombies and air piracy, but the hauntingly simple parts, like the dearth of educated men in a country fighting a war of attrition where every able-bodied man is sent to the front lines. And all of it is wrapped up in a clear, crisp writing style that drives the story cleanly and compellingly, like a locomotive, towards the story's inevitable and climactic confrontation.

More random was my encounter with The Buntline Special; I just happened to find it at the bookstore and thought it looked good. Plus, it was written by Mike Resnick, a trusted name in science fiction.

Like Dreadnought, The Buntline Special features a United States where westward expansion has slowed to a trickle: in this case, by unbeatable Native American magic rather than by a pesky, distracting Civil War. In the interest of expanding its borders across the North American continent, the United States has sent Thomas Edison to the remote western town of Tombstone to come up with a way to counteract the shamans' magic ... with science! Aiding Edison in the science department is Ned Buntline, here, inventor to the stars, able to invent anything Edison dreams up. And aiding the two of them with guns and muscle are the Earp Brothers -- Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt -- and their friends Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.

Of course, it's 1881, and if it's 1881 in Tombstone, then you know what's about to happen.

Resnick presents an alternative to the events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Geronimo and Hook Nose conspire with the local criminal element to kill Edison before he can find a way to counter their powers; for more firepower, they resurrect Johnny Ringo, gunslinger, egotist, and classicist. Cursed into a monstrosity, Bat Masterson slowly goes mad. Kate Elder employs whores both human and robotic, by-products of the scientific juggernaut of Edison and Buntline. And through it all, Wyatt Earp seeks a glory that will ensure his place in history after success has eluded him, and John Henry Holliday just wants to drink and gamble in peace while he waits to die.

The Buntline Special, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, presents a rather classic case of great idea, lackluster execution. Where Priest presented the tropes of her steampunk seamlessly, Resnick seems to bludgeon us over the head with his horseless carriages (it's only 1881), electric lights (here, common in Tombstone but unknown back East), super-hard brass that defies conventional physics, and robotic whores. The pacing plods in the first half of the book. The characters are all a little flat: Virgil Earp is dour and dutiful, Wyatt is sort of a lovable loser, and Kate Elder is bold as the Arizona desert.

The only exception is that of Holliday, on whom Resnick spends the most attention; here, he is fatalistic and humorous, loyal yet stand-offish, erudite and alcoholic. (Although, did we need reminders of Holliday's consumptive state every other page?) I would've appreciated more of this kind of attention to some of the other characters, which would have rounded out the novel a bit better.

Resnick has clearly done his homework with regards to the real events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- as evidenced, if nothing else, by the bibliography he helpfully includes. The history of the Old West is filled with larger-than-life characters, and even if Resnick doesn't do them justice, it's clear that he knew who and what he was talking about.

I think my biggest problem with all of this is that Mike Resnick is one of science fiction's most celebrated authors. From someone less famous, less decorated, and less experiences, I think I could forgive a lot more. But from Resnick, the faults in this book are thrown into more sharp relief.

So, it's not a great work. But if all you know of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer (or Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid), then you owe it to yourself to learn more about them. And then you might want to come back to this book to check out what might have happened.


  1. Loved your reviews! Haven't read Dreadnought yet, though it's definitely on my to-read list. I enjoyed The Buntline Special quite a bit, largely due to the quotable dialogue coming from Holliday.

  2. Aw thanks!

    Holliday was definitely the best part of Buntline, and honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing something like The Continuing Adventures of Doc Holliday, post 1887, where Doc goes gallivanting across the US with a set of brass lungs. There are some really good ideas set down in the book, and maybe, just maybe, Resnick can improve upon his work with subsequent volumes. I guess we'll have to wait and see!

  3. Brass lungs--I love it! Let's send a joint e-mail to Resnick.

  4. I would absolutely be up for that! Now just to dig up the man's email address ...

  5. Did you guys ever track him down?? I' on the hunt for banksy - he's a slippery one!