Monday, 5 August 2013

Cherie Priest: Dreadnought

In a slightly more orderly world, I'd probably have waited until I'd read a couple more of Priest's Clockwork Century books and then done a roundup of the whole thing; that, or blogged Boneshaker back when I read it some time last year. Instead, driven by my self-imposed deadlines, I'm half-assing it so as to make quota for the month, ruminating out loud about a book which is neither marvellous enough for superlatives nor terrible enough to be entertainingly destroyed for its crimes. Dreadnought is a workmanlike piece of sort-of science fiction which doesn't amount to much on its own. I suspect that the whole Clockwork Century thing is going to prove to be one of those things which hangs together better when it eventually gets re-issued in omnibus editions so that all the overlaps feel more like a continuing narrative.

What it's all got going for it is that Priest isn't a bad writer, that she's cooked up an interesting parallel universe, and that she's quite grounded about her viewpoint characters. They aren't superheroes and they don't know everything that's going on. In Boneshaker, Briar Wilkes is out of her depth the whole time despite being a tough minded survivor. In Dreadnought, Mercy Lynch is a farmer's daughter turned nurse; she gets a certain amount of respect from some people for her skills, but she's always on the edge of the action, just as a woman would be in the world Priest is mapping out. She doesn't quite know what's going on, and has to piece things together from conversations and exposition, and it's to Priest's credit that the exposition - always a problem in SF - usually feels organic to the conversations and scene setting.

Still, it's not a strong book. Boneshaker kind of kicked ass, which is why I bought up the other Clockwork Century books I could find - and also why I didn't blog it, I suppose, since I'm trying to amuse myself with this blog, and I've found that it's much harder to write amusingly about books than about movies. Reading a book takes more effort than watching a movie, and I don't make that effort for empty gaudy crap any more. Meanwhile, movies are going from bad to worse, and the blame for the disasters is spread over so many people that I don't feel like I'm picking on anyone in particular when I go after some piece of dreck I just wasted a tenner and a couple of hours of my life on. 

I like the idea of the Clockwork Century in general; Priest is keeping things simple. On the one hand, the American Civil War has ground on through two generations - apparently because of English interference. On the other hand, hamfisted drilling in Seattle has unleashed a toxic gas which turns people into zombies and can be refined into a drug. The dragging on of the war causes all kind of interesting counterfactuals; there's no left-over energy for winning the west, technology has moved faster and social mores are changing, not necessarily for the best. The lawless west looks like being a bubbling cauldron of plot ideas for Priest for as long as she wants to play around with the milieu. And she's sure having her some fun with her armoured airships and mechanical monsters, no matter how little mechanical sense they make. That's kind of the point of steampunk, I suppose.

Still, the zombification potion is one of those things where I scratch my head a little. It's at the heart of Boneshaker, and in local terms (it's a very local book, with everything happening in Seattle), it hangs together once you suspend a lot of disbelief. It gets a bit harder to buy into when the zombification potion makes its way east to the battlefront, as a marketable drug. Drugs in SF are always that little bit off; they're always super-addictive and ludicrously destructive. Yes, drug addicts are stupid, but they're not THAT stupid. Successful - profitable - drugs are like successful diseases; they have to kill their victims slowly and unspectacularly. Ebola is absolutely terrifying, but it's never gone endemic because it's so rapid and spectacular in its effects that it kills everyone in range before it can spread to another village. Just so with "sap" in the Clockwork Century; it's hard to see how you could make money with it. The side effects are epic and obvious, and it's scarce and dangerous to transport. It's not going to appeal to rich people, and you can't safely make enough of it to make up in volume for the tiny amounts which poor people can afford to pay for short-lived oblivion.

Yes, this is my "How did the super villain get planning permission?" muscle being applied to the economics of addictive made-up drugs. Ignore me. I mention it only because Dreadnought gave me the time to ponder that question, and the other interesting question of how Dreadnought could actually work. It's a vast battle-wagon steam engine, and a big chunk of the plot is Mercy Lynch playing The Lady Vanishes or Murder on the Orient Express on it, as it makes its way from St Louis to Tacoma through lawless banditry and zombie horde attacks (both of which, I agree, would have livened either work up considerably). And I will stipulate that vast armoured battle-wagon trains are both cool and plausible, since they're half the point of even thinking about wargaming in Mittel-Europa in the 1920s and after. However, Dreadnought is described as an engine studded with guns, and Priest dwells at some length on the complicated ammunition feeds and what all. And I immediately started to wonder about how many crew you'd need to aim and fire all that artillery. I still don't know the answer, because we never meet them. There's a platoon of soldiers on the train, who spend all their time firing muskets out of loopholes, and there are porters and conductors to make the train itself work. But as for the hordes of artillery men you'd need to keep all those guns running on time; never a sign of them. I was left thinking that all Dreadnought could actually do in practice would be fire all its guns directly ahead of itself, which is a pretty good plan when you're in a fighter plane, but works rather less efficiently if you're running on rails….

Still, these are practical quibbles about a book which is mostly about people. And Priest does her people well. Boneshaker had rather a lot of grotesques in it, but Dreadnought just keeps chucking efficiently sketched characters onto the page, all feeling like ordinary people trying to get by, appearing for a scene or two and then being left behind as the narrative motors on to the next station. At times, I felt as though Priest had been trying on different characters to see if any of them would make an adequate companion to Mercy on her odyssey, before deciding that they didn't have what it took, and shifting on to find another possibility; it was only as the book drifted to a close and Mercy was introduced to the surviving cast of Boneshaker that I realised that the whole thing had been about getting another piece across the board for the larger narrative I'm now going to have to go off and finish.

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