Geek Things of 2010

This was possibly one of the best years that I’ve had in a long time. There were geek things abound, in all facets of life: in literature, film, current events, science, music and people. 2010 was a fantastic year for me. In roughly chronological order, here are the notable geek moments of the year:

This year seems to have been the year for newly-published authors. Nora Jemisin exploded out of the gate with her book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first of a trilogy in an excellently conceived of world, one where gods and humans interact and where there are consequences for those who were chained, and those who held the chains. I was particularly blown away by this book, and look forward to diving into book two: The Broken Kingdoms sometime in 2011.

Canadian Science Fiction author Peter Watts became a bit of a martyr in the eyes of many in the science fictional world when he was thrown into jail for resisting arrest at a border crossing earlier this spring. News of his imprisonment and the details of his predicament spread like wildfire, spurring outrage. Watts has since been convicted and released, and won’t be able to travel into the U.S..

I trooped in February with the 501st in New York City to support a product launch. What a surreal day: who would have thought of the combination of Star Wars, Snoop Dogg and Adidas?

The long-running UK show Dr. Who saw its latest rejuvenation in the form of Matthew Smith this year, along with show runner Steven Moffat, who’s penned some of the best Dr. Who episodes that I’ve seen in the latest run. I only was able to catch a couple of the new episodes, but what I saw, I really liked.

One of the films that was a sure train wreck from the trailers was Clash of the Titans. It’s decent, mindless monster porn with action and special effects, but for a regular movie? It was pretty bad, and the slapped together 3D helped show audiences that it’s a stunt on the part of movie studios to rake in more money per ticket. Where 2009 saw Avatar as the big bright moment for 3D, 2010 saw that it was only good when natively filmed with the extra dimension, rather than slapped on with additional CGI.

Another new author broke into the ranks of the published, author Blake Charlton, with his first novel, Spellwright. While the novel wasn’t perfect, it was enjoyable, and I’ve had the good fortune to talk extensively with him over the course of the year (while he splits writing time with his medical education). This book in particular draws upon Charlton’s own experiences with Dyslexia, which allows the book a unique feel when it comes to the mechanics of world building and magic. Bring on book two, Spellbound, due out this year. !

One of my favorite authors from high school / camp, Karin Lowachee, returned from several years of absence for a new book titled The Gaslight Dogs, one of the better Steampunk books that I’ve read thus far. Set in an unconventional world to the North, Lowachee weaves together some interesting characters and settings in an entertaining novel. I eagerly await the sequels for this planned trilogy.

Earlier this year marked a major uproar when amazon.com attempted to flex its muscles against Macmillan publishers, who had been pushing for higher prices for its new hardcover books. Amazon pulled the books from the publisher, which outraged a lot of people – authors who found that their books weren’t being sold for a couple of days before they were all put back into place.

April 20th saw a massive explosion on the Deep Water Horizon oil rig when a plume of natural gas came up the well that they were drilling. The resulting oil spill lasted for three months and involved a major engineering and environmental effort to cap and contain the oil spill. Undoubtedly, the effects will be seen for years to come in the environmental and economic health of the region. The containment of the well itself is an achievement in and of itself, with an apt description of the process as similar to the Apollo 13 rescue.

Vermont singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell gained quite a lot of attention with her concept album Hadestown, a post-apocalyptic folk opera retelling of the legend of Orpheus. It’s a mouthful, but an extensive cast of notable singers (such as Bon Iver and Ani DeFranco) join her in an impeccable work of music, story and art. This album was absolute perfection.

In July, at the urging of a former college professor, I drove down to ReaderCon, a regional science fiction convention that boasted an impressive list of authors and fans. Unlike most of the conventions that I’ve been to, this was devoted extensively to literature, and while there, I was able to meet a number of authors that I’ve long admired (and learned of there) such as Charles Stross, Allen M. Steele, Elizabeth Hand, Blake Charlton, Paolo Bacigalupi, David Forbes, N.K. Jemisin, and quite a few others. I had an absolute blast this year, and I’m eagerly awaiting the trip next year. Hopefully, I’ll be able to visit some other similar cons this year.

I didn’t catch this until later in the year, but Predators was a film that was released that had been one that I’d wanted to see in theaters. Where the first film was an 80s action film with too much brawn and no brains, this film was a smart, dynamic science fiction thriller, one that vastly improved the franchise. As io9 said, it’s the perfect B movie. I’m inclined to agree.

While it was a sparse year for good genre films, one stood easily out amongst the others: Inception. It was a fantastic balance between action and story, with a thought-provoking storyline that dips its feet into the science fiction pool just as much as needed to push the story forward, exploring the mind and the possibilities of imagination. It’s on my slowly growing list of top science fiction films ever.

1B1T proved that Twitter could be more than mindless, as Wired Magazine ran a poll to see if they could get all of twitter reading the same book. The result? Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, broken down into an easy reading schedule – it made for a great excuse to re-read the book and talk to a number of people on a global scale.

Another new author, Charles Yu impressed me with his short story collection, Third Class Superhero this past spring and doubly so over the summer with his book, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, a brilliant time travel story that stands out from most books that I read this year. Yu’s book becomes part of the story itself, and can easily be compared to the works of Douglas Adams with its dry humor.

Last year, Paolo Bacigalupi blew me away with his novel The Windup Girl, and this year, his follow-up YA novel Ship Breaker could easily fit into the same post-oil world. Global warming is rampant, people are exploited, and with that in the background, there’s a very basic and interesting story that pulls the reader through. Bacigalupi’s a guy to watch, and this book demonstrated that he’s no one hit wonder.

Apple launched their new device and product category this year, the iPad, and when a really good deal came through earlier this year, I bought one, something that I wasn’t expecting to do. So far, it’s easily the best thing that I’ve bought all year long. It’s an amazingly good computer, and it works very well with what I’ve long used a computer for, while being more convenient than a laptop. It’s a multi-purpose device that I’ve been able to use extensively over the course of the year, for writing, reading, web work, music and games. For my first Apple early adoption, it’s come off far better than my first iPod.

This year’s Hugo Awards presented a rare event: a tie for Best Novel: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and China Mieville’s The City and The City (more on that in a moment) both received the award in addition to every other award that they scooped up along the way. (Quite a few!). Moon also picked up the movie award.

The animated Star Wars Clone Wars TV show has been popular, but for me, up and down in quality. The opening episode was impressive, but from everything that I’ve seen beyond that, it’s become an exceedingly boring show. When the ads point to the passage of an arms bill in the Republic senate as the exciting bits, you should probably reevaluate. Hopefully, it’ll get a bit better soon.

When it came to television shows that disappoint, LOST came to an end is year with a finale that ended the show, but one that didn’t wow me like it should have. There was too much lost when it came to possibilities, and it felt more like an ending and an epilogue that wasn’t needed.

Masked is a superhero anthology, featuring a number of authors taking on the super powered and the caped. I’ve yet to finish it, and while I’ve been enjoying most of it, there are only so many stories of a Batman clone before I have to question the need for the story to be included.

One of the better anthologies that I read all year, Stories: All New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio is an impressive book that looks to the idea that stories should be things that demand that you turn the page to find out what happens next. This collection of stories, which boasts an impressive list of contributors, is one that I really enjoyed reading through – there’s a bit of every genre here, from science fiction to fantasy to horror to crime fiction. Worth picking through and reading for all of the excellent stories.

Military science fiction stories are fascinating reads – I’ve read a number of them this year, and by far, the most thought-provoking was Adam Robert’s New Model Army. The premise is one that’s very modern: what happens when the wiki-culture moves into warfare? While I think that a lot of what would have happened in the book would never come to pass, it does have some interesting ideas behind it, and by far, was one of the better books that I read all year.

Iron Man 2 would have done well to capitalize on the military science fiction stories that the first was known for: a tight, interesting and well conducted special effects spectacular. The trailers looked awesome, but the film just fell flat: it was overblown, nonsensical at times, and not nearly as good as the first one. It did have its good parts, such as Sam Rockwell’s zany character, and some fun action scenes.

Kirby Krackle completely rocked my world this year. Their sound is pretty basic when it comes to the actual music, but they rocked it pretty well. In a world where there a few songs that are so passionate about Green Lantern or zombies, their album E for Everyone really stood out for me, and it’s an awesome bit of music to bounce around to. These guys are the new voice of fandom.

The first big cancellation from SyFy earlier this year was Caprica, which launched with a great cast of characters and a whole lot of potential, this precursor to Battlestar Galactica was a show that really needed to be trimmed down and to find its focus a bit. Numerous storylines, characters and themes all running together worked well, but the writing was on the wall early on: the show could have been just as good or better than BSG, (and was, at points), but its ratings couldn’t sustain it. It’s a real shame: the show could have been better than BSG.

In it’s second season, Stargate Universe continued to impress me, and it’s recent cancellation has me far more upset than the axing of any other television show that I’ve watched (even Firefly, although I saw that post-cancellation). A step up for the franchise as a whole, this season of Universe was brilliant, well acted and had a lot going for it, and I hope that the next ten episodes will see some good closure and storytelling. Still, maybe it’ll be one of those shows that was awesome and never had a chance to get bad, much like Firefly.

One of the absolute best books that I read this year was China Miéville’s The City and The City, which was up for a number of awards this year, including the Hugo. I picked this up after the hype started to go, and it lived up to, and exceeded my expectations by a long margin. Wonderfully plotted in a well thought-out world, Miéville crafts a murder mystery with a fantastic background, and puts to paper one of the best books of the year.

The mathematician who was responsible for some major advances in mathematics and theory died earlier this year, Benoit Mandelbrot. Also the subject of a Jonathan Coulton song: Mandelbrot Set.

Stephen Moffat ruled the Dr. Who universe for a while now, but I liked his take on Sherlock Holmes far more. Set in the modern day, Sherlock is a retelling of the story, with Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. A far better take on the character than Robert Downey Jr.’s in the film adaptation (which was also quite fun), Sherlock was fantastic from start to cliff-hanger. I already can’t wait for Series 2.

In the wake of Sherlock, Martin Freeman was selected to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which is finally moving forward, along with what looks like a great cast. It’s still a shame that Guillermo del Toro isn’t directing though.

Zombies have been all the rage for a while now, and (no pun intended) have been done to death. The Walking Dead falls into a couple of categories with me. The pilot episode was fantastic – one of the better takes on a man waking up to find civilization gone, but it’s a story that really doesn’t add much to the canon, and while it had its interesting points, it’s something that I’m more or less indifferent to. We’ll see how Season 2 goes.

While Zombies have been very popular, 2010 saw a bit of a decline in the hysteria over Vampires, while Steampunk came in as a solid genre. The Steampunk craze has gotten some major attention: Sherlock Holmes took on a couple of Steampunkish elements, while Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) in the show Castle became a convert as publishers such as Pyr and Tor have published a number of books in the genre. It’s something that’s here to stay, that’s for sure.

When it comes to Pyr books, one of their offerings for the year that I read earlier this was Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, which took place in a futuristic India. The Dervish House is his latest book, taking place in a futuristic Turkey. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m loving its rich attention to culture and interconnected storyline.

Going back to geek music, a friend of mine, John Anealio, turned me towards Marian Call earlier this year at ReaderCon, and when she came through Vermont on her 49 state tour this year (an impressive feat in and of itself), I was able to catch her at Montpelier’s Langdon Street Cafe for a geeky set of music and a couple of quick words with Marian. She’s a lovely singer, one who’s popular for all of the right reasons. Geek music was something that I focused on quite a bit this year, putting together a playlist that’s almost 700 songs long, and while doing so, came across a strange trend with some of the more higher-profile stuff that trends more towards Geek Pop music. Songs like G33ks and G4m3r Girls by Team Unicorn were almost unlistenable earworms, laundry-lists of popular geek things without the real soul of “geek” stuff to begin with. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s more of it as geek stuff gets more and more popular.

Speaking of John Anealio, he’s someone to keep an eye on, and someone that I befriended earlier this year at ReaderCon. John’s an excellent geek musician, with some fantastic songs released earlier this year, such as ‘Stormtrooper for Halloween’ and ‘I Should Be Writing’. Kirby Krackle might speak for fandom, but Anealio speaks for the fans themselves. I can’t wait to see what he comes up next.

Another outfit to keep an eye out for is Symphony of Science, which continued to release a number of tracks of auto tuned scientists (namely Carl Sagan) with a wonderful collection of music that speaks to science and the wonders of the universe.

One of the films that I’m practically drooling over in anticipation for is Battle: Los Angeles, which can best be described as Independence Day meets Black Hawk Down. The early buzz from San Diego Comic Con was good, and the trailer showed that there was going to be some excellent looking action. The film is due out in March of 2011, and I really hope that it’ll live up to my expectations.

While I panned iFringe when it first came out, but I’ve grown to love it and really rued my words: with Stargate Universe off the air, it’s easily the best science fiction show on TV right now, and while its ratings have dropped and it’s been moved to Friday nights, I’m hoping that the show will continue onwards. This season has seen less of the blood and gore, but has an excellent alternate universe storyline that’s heating up. I can’t wait for new episodes starting up later this week!

One of the coolest things to happen in the realm of space exploration happened was the Deep Impact Probe, launched on 2005 to take a look at the 9P/Tempel comet. The probe released an impactor earlier this year and took a number of high resolution pictures as it passed by and analyzed the impact to see what it was made of.

The other top book of the year was easily Joe Hill’s second novel, Horns, mixing popular culture, horror iconology and religious allegory together in a story that absolutely gripped me and blew me away while I was reading it.

It was a sad day in December when Leslie Nielsen passed away. Airplane is one of my favorite comedies, while Forbidden Planet is easily one of my favorite science fiction films. He will certainly be missed. Right on the heels of Nielsen was Irvin Kershner, who directed the greatest of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a shame that his work was never quite matched with the franchise. Ironically, his film was one of 25 preserved by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

On December 9th, the private space firm SpaceX made history when it launched it’s Falcon 9 rocket into orbit carrying a dragon capsule. It became the first private firm to orbit the earth and safely return, joining a small number of countries who have accomplished the same thing.

When it comes to dragons, a film released this year that I only just caught was How To Train Your Dragon, a great kids film with a fun story and some good graphics. At the same time, I can also recommend Toy Story 3 for many of the same reasons – excellent storytelling and a positive end for that franchise.

Wikileaks occupied most of the news coverage for the last part of the year as they released thousands of diplomatic cables in addition to their leak of classified military dispatches written over the course of the Iraq / Afghanistan war. The leaks demonstrated the power of the internet: and the necessity to keep secrets a bit more secure. Given the lack of ability of the British government to keep track of their own files, I’m surprised that they haven’t been the target of more leaks.

I first saw the original Tron earlier this year in anticipation for Tron: Legacy, and I came out of the theaters with a film that met my expectations. It was a blockbuster that was fun, but it could have been so much more than it was. With Disney working on sequels and a television series, I’m not sure that the franchise is going anywhere, but box office results have been somewhat lax, given all the advanced hype and marketing for the film.

That ends out the year. It’s been an impressive one, and one that marked a couple of milestones for me: I’ve written, talked to, read and watched so much in the speculative fiction genre, and I’m loving the immersion. There’s a long list of people to thank for it: Annalee Newitz, Charlie Jane Anders, John DeNardo, John Anelio, Patrick Hester, Aiden Moher, Blake Charlton, Charles Yu, Paolo Bacigalupi, David Forbes, Jim Ehrman, N.K. Jemisin, John Scalzi, David J. Williams, Christie Yant, John Joseph Adams, Karin Lowachee, Megan Messinger, Bridget McGovern, Brit Mandelo, Scott Eldeman, Blastr, everybody at io9, SF Signal and Tor.com, people who commented and e-mailed me because of what I wrote and everyone who encouraged my writing and reasoning over the year. Most of all, Megan, for everything. It’s been the best year for me to date, and I’m looking forward to an even better 2011.

Dreadnought, Cherie Priest

It’s hard to mention the term Steampunk without also mentioning Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, an alternate history of the United States, featuring all of the bells and whistles that comes with the territory. The first novel, Boneshaker, was well received, as was the short novella, Clementine, set shortly after the events of the first book, while the latest entry in the series (there are two more planned), Dreadnought, picks up the story across the country and helps to flesh out Priest’s strange alternate world. An interesting follow-up to Boneshaker, Dreadnought never quite reaches the same heights that its predecessor reached, nor does it quite feel as unique. As such, Priest brings out new elements to the Civil War only hinted at in the previous books, and tells a fun story, one that is sure to be popular with the steampunk crowd.

Following Mercy Lynch, a nurse stationed in a confederate war hospital in Virginia, Dreadnought is set in the heart of the lengthened American Civil War. Lynch is summoned away by her father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, (careful readers will remember the name from Boneshaker). What happens next is a journey for Lynch that she could never have expected. An alternate title for this book could easily have been Airships, Barges and Locomotives, for her journey across the country covers not only ground, but the staples of the steampunk movement. Along the way, a number of storylines begin to form and collide as the war effort goes forward. A Texas Ranger is on the hunt for a missing Mexican army, while a Union scientist harbors a hidden and deadly cargo onboard the Dreadnought, a Union train bound for the west on a mysterious mission. As Lynch finds herself at the center of the conflict, we’re treated to a spectacle of action and movement as she makes her way across the continent to her dying father.

At points, Dreadnought is very good, particularly once things get moving west, when the titular Dreadnought becomes the main setting and as story elements begin to collide. Each storyline has their own main elements running forward and Priest has constructed a fascinating tale of the war without being set in the war, further telling the story of two sides that fail to quit fighting.

At the same time, however, Dreadnought proved to be a frustrating read as exposition took over in the beginning and end, and as the story seemed to merely drift along the rail road tracks to each major scene, with a host of forgettable characters to fill in the blanks. Where Boneshaker left me unable to put the book down, Dreadnought seems to be the sophomore slump (being the second full novel in the series, not the author’s second novel or story within The Clockwork Century) in the series.

Part of this might stem from the very nature of the book, spread out over a vast continent, with almost too much to look at: there’s a short, tantalizing section on the actions of the Civil War, then onto the fragmented nature of the country, then the native Americans, mad scientists, Texas Rangers and zombies. As a result, the main action takes its time to gather momentum. But, when it does, the book (forgive me) picks up steam and becomes an engrossing read that lives up to the best elements of its predecessors before ending quietly with a quick link to Boneshaker that serves well as an epilogue.

Steampunk has hit some major counter arguments lately from a couple of authors, making some pointed arguments that The Clockwork Century, nor Dreadnought are able to adequately answer. The main point that kept running through my mind during all of the stories was how the Civil War would be approached, and after reading through Dreadnought, it seems that there’s a certain level of the Southern inevitable cause that seems to have survived since the 1870s when it first originated: the South was destined to lose, but it fought the better fight. Thrust into the heat of the Civil War, the book goes in this direction, and as a historian, it’s a little frustrating to see such a revisionist vision come out. (This isn’t to say that Mrs. Priest is a diehard revisionist: just that her book seems to go in that direction)

Whatever the historical feelings are when it comes to this story, Charles Stross brings up a very good point with his own rant about Steampunk: namely that the genre seems far too rosy and nostalgic for the staples of Steampunk: the corsets, the goggles, brass and strange trappings that characterize the movement. Here, the south seems to have largely given up an element of bloody racism, lone women are free to run around the country largely without incident, and there’s really no feeling of the absolute brutality and dark nature that characterized this era of history. While Stross’s arguments miss elements of how history played out in the United States, there are still some relevant points. I would rather have this rather fantastic, romanticized past rather than the actual one, but when compared to our true past, this version feels somewhat hollow.

Keeping in mind that this is an element of historical fiction, aimed towards entertainment, these arguments are somewhat petty in and of themselves: there is no expectation of historical accuracy, especially when there is talk of a zombie army running around Utah, eating the Mormons who have settled there, but it feels like there is an incredible opportunity missed by not setting a story that looks to something besides a romantic version of the past. The reasons for not doing so are pretty clear: when marketing a product that you want to sell, you don’t really want to highlight all of the nasty or dirty elements, much as Apple doesn’t want to highlight the group of Foxxconn workers who committed suicide while building the ever popular iProducts that have become so common play. However, by ignoring these elements, Priest’s vision of steampunk is far more polished and perfect, which calls attention to itself.  But, that’s okay.

Steampunk is a genre that I’ve sought to avoid as much as possible, but Priest’s alternative vision in Dreadnought, no matter how polished, is a fun and exciting story that stands up well within her series, and it gives me no small amount of hope that even with a flood of material, there are still some authors who strive to tell a good story, rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck off of an audience who’s looking the right way at the right time. Dreadnought is a good book – not a great one – that holds no pretense as to what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t overstep its bounds. For that reason alone, it’s worth picking up and reading. Steampunk itself might be a flawed creation, but so long as Priest stands at the front, I have an amount of faith that there will still be some good stories to be told within it.

The Walking Dead

The striking thing that I noticed about The Walking Deads first episode, ‘Days Gone By’ is the stark, minimal feel to a post-Zombie world. There’s no music, just the footsteps, birdcalls and buzzing of flies that hang in the air as the action moves forward. The TV show, which has thus far broken all viewer records for the host channel AMC, seemed like an almost guaranteed hit for the channel. The reasons for the success extend beyond the inclusion of zombies, but because the show is something that resonates with a modern audience.

Zombies have been on the rise in recent years: major film productions have been popular, such as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, (And of course, the George Romero films that have come out) in addition to books such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, World War Z (And The Zombie Survival Guide, both by Max Brooks) John Joseph Adam‘s Zombie anthologies, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austin), with The Walking Dead remaining popular in print form, and now jumping mediums to the small screen, where it seems like it’s well suited for television.

As an adaptation goes, The Walking Dead is off to a decent start. Rather than giving into the impulse to make a show that was high on action and rapid pacing, the show’s creators have gone in the opposite direction: Days Gone By, much like the comic, is paced slowly, and the end result is a fairly slow episode: in any other context, I would have found the show fairly boring – there’s plenty of suspense, but one major element (the whereabouts and wellbeing of Grime’s family) is revealed fairly early on. The first major encounter with a mass of the undead doesn’t happen until the end of the episode, in a particularly frightening scene as Grimes and his horse are surrounded.

As it stands, The Walking Dead is possibly one of the better takes on the zombie genre thus far: the message and point of the show isn’t about the undead themselves, but the world around the survivors. Zombies stories have been rife with allegory, and both print and motion picture versions do exactly that.

A standout moment in Sunday’s episode saw some discussion as to how people hadn’t prepared for the events that transpired. Given the political climate present in the country at the moment, it’s not a hard leap to imagine. Zombie fiction tends to lend itself well to a libertarian dream of a more down to earth rule of law, without the worries of infrastructure and government, living on one’s own wits and instructs. Then there’s the guns.

The decline of the U.S. economy is something that has been at the forefront of political and economic news for almost two years, and I can’t help but wonder if shows such as Jericho (cancelled after a season and revived, only to be cancelled again) would have better succeeded if it had aired just a couple of years later. Other shows that have reflected the political feelings of the day have done well critically, such as SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica, HBO’s True Blood or Fox’s 24. While this isn’t a singular contributing factor, relevancy is something that a public audience will relate and respond to.

Here, amongst the shambling zombies, there’s a good set of themes that the series seems to have picked up on and incorporated into its storylines. In addition to the rise in popularity of the zombies themselves, The Walking Dead has an exceptionally bright future. Indeed, it’s already been renewed for a second season to follow up the first six episodes that compose the first season.

While the zombie bandwagon has been an easy thing to jump on – the popularity is only going to peak from this point on – The Walking Dead is a good example of both an adaptation and of the use of zombies. The original comic book seems to have translated very well, with creators understanding the overall picture and changes needed for the small screen. Like any bandwagon, there have been a number of stories, films and comics that have included zombies to some extent, with widely varying levels of quality. The focus, for some of the best stories, it seems, should be not on the zombies themselves, but on the people that they effect. While I’ve tried to avoid fanboying the craze, the show offers a quality story, rather than gimmicks to help it succeed.

Beyond the successes of a zombie show (the first that I’m aware of), the introduction of a well executed and received genre show is a very good thing, especially in the middle of a television season that has been lacking. The Walking Dead is looking to be a compelling and interesting drama. Thus far, it looks like it’s lining up to do just that.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Very rarely do I come across a book that literally keeps me up nights with a flashlight, reading into the late hours, just to finish one more chapter, just one more, before sleep overcomes me and I’m forced to place my bookmark in place to continue reading the next day. There are a lot of books that I’m interested in, fascinated by, but there are very few that capture me with a interesting story and a writing style that makes the pages blur as I read. Cherie Priest’s 2009 novel, Boneshaker did just that over the past couple of days. Boneshaker is one hell of a story, one that left me wanting more whenever I set the book aside. Capturing a trio of geek obsessions, Priest’s novel is a compelling work of alternate history that blends zombies with steampunk, villains and mad scientists, all swept together in a story that was quite a bit of fun to read. Nominated for the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards (It lost out to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for the Nebula), and armed with a good number of critical praise, Priest has quite a bit to be proud of with this book. Set in an alternate past, where the American Civil War has dragged on for nearly fifteen years, the city of Seattle is dying. Sixteen years prior to the beginning of the story, a machine, designed to mine gold in the frozen Klondike, destroys part of the city, unleashing an unimaginable horror upon the city: the Blight, a corrosive gas that kills all who breathe it, and reanimating their bodies and awakening them to a hunger for human flesh. The survivors of the catastrophe walled off the infected area, and began to move on with their lives. Sixteen years later, Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke eke out a meager living, plagued by their associations with the man responsible for the disaster, Levi Blue, Wilke’s former husband, and Zeke’s father. Determined to clear his family name, and to get some answers for himself, Zeke descends into the broken and poisoned city to uncover clues of his family’s heritage, while Briar follows. Both discover that behind the Wall, survivors of the disaster form their own living, escaping the Blight and its victims, and living under their own rules. Briar is the only one who can save her son amongst the pirates, criminals and survivors in the dead city. Boneshaker is a fun story that draws upon a number of strengths to really succeed. While the book is an incredibly easy sell to anyone marginally interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and other speculative fictions, its strengths lie more in Priest’s storytelling and world building than the zombies (or Rotters, in this instance), steampunk brass or the action. Rather, she places all of these elements within a compelling alternative United States, and populates it with characters that are both well conceived and caricatured, forced into action with a story that fits everything together nicely. I really like the alternative America that Priest sets up, especially as a historian with a background in military history. Here, the Civil War has stretched on for over fifteen wars, with the Union slowly winning. Key military leaders remained alive, and because of the continuing war, technology continued to advance. As a result, there’s airships, machines and other pieces of technology that somewhat makes sense with the events of the story. In doing so, an entire world has been created, with quite a lot of background information that Priest can draw upon, not only for Boneshaker, but for other books that are forthcoming in this world, titled the Clockwork Century. Last year, I was certainly aware of Boneshaker, but personally, I’m not a huge fan of zombies or steampunk, and the entire notion really turned me off, simply because most of what I’ve seen of the Steampunk genre really doesn’t make logical sense to me. Simply adding glass and copper attachments to something mundane for the sake of making something historical ‘interesting’ just bothered me, because of the historical precedent behind it. What Priest has done, however, is put the advances in technology into a historical context that makes quite a bit of sense: historically, warfare is a major incubator for new technology, generally beyond the weapons used on the battlefield, and with items that have a number of uses that can be applied to a post-war period. Duct tape, the microwave oven, jet planes and radar, all technologies that are in commonplace usage today, owe their existence to warfare as a catalyst for their development. Priest seems to understand this, and in interviews that I’ve read, it seems that she’s done her homework. The result really shows with a fantastic world that works. With that world in place, Priest sets to work with her story. At the heart of the narrative is a story about a family, one who’s been split apart by the Blight that was unleashed when Blue’s “Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine” ripped through part of the city. Forced out into the Outskirts, away from the Blight, people are left to their own devices. Briar and her son live their lives, but they are haunted by what had transpired before. Zeke, in particular, knows little about what had happened to his father and grandfather, and because of his mother’s unwillingness to really address the problems of the past, he gets no answers from her. To find them, he ventures into the dead city to find the answers. What happens next is a sort of journey of understanding and rite of passage, where both characters must learn to adapt and accept certain things about themselves. Things are complicated when both discover that there’s a lot more to the walled off portions of the city. An entire culture and society of survivors has sprung up in the sealed off buildings, where people are largely ruled by a Dr. Minnericht, who resembles Briar’s former husband. This is another area where the book really shines, and that’s the use of this dead city. I’ve long been fascinated by what happens to buildings and societies when they’re left to die, and books such as World Without Us and various galleries of empty cities are things that I seek out. Her creation of her own sort of underworld, lost and forgotten by the world around it, is really neat, and while there are a couple of flaws here and there, it serves as a fantastic setting for her tale. Boneshaker does have its share of problems, from some of the caricatured characters, namely Dr. Minnericht, who is essentially posing as Briar’s former husband throughout the story. Built up through most of the book, the actual character was a bit of a letdown, and his element of the story seemed rather forced in, as did a subplot about the Wall’s inhabitants rising up against his rule. Zeke’s characterization worked most of the time, but at points, his dialogue just annoyed me, and pulled me out of the story just a bit. In the end, though, these are minor gripes that didn’t impact the overall story too much. Boneshaker proved to be a quick read for me, and it was well worth the impulse buy when I was in the bookstore the other day. With a fast-paced story, with plenty of exciting twists and turns, interesting characters and a fun story, set in a very fun world, I’m eagerly looking forward to the next installments out of the world that Priest has set in motion. This book is pure dynamite, and while I’m still rooting for The Windup Girl for the 2010 Hugo, this book is certainly deserving of the heaps of praise it’s already garnered. This was a fun read, one that held me up at night, distracting my thoughts at work, waiting for my next fix. More books need to be just like Boneshaker: fun, exciting, thoughtful and interesting.

I am Not Dead Yet, I can Laugh and I can Sing

SO, there’s Zombies out and about. Everywhere. The nice thing about living in such a rural state that they’re few and far between. And, fortunently, because Vermont has some really lax gun laws and when some poor sucker does get bitten and infected, well, they’re eliminated pretty darn quickly.
So, I stayed at home for most of the morning, catching up on my reading (I tallied up the page counts of all my books, and it’s like 8700 pages or something like that), reading up on the Falklands War and the Grand Canyon, and added the Zombie Survival Handbook to my to get list.
I had a meeting in town, so I added some reinforcements to my windshield and packed a cricket bat, and drove into school, where I got to talk about my paper and Normandy trip for the Norwich Record, the school’s alumni newsletter. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of zombies around the military college. I thought that I saw a couple, but they turned out to be football players hanging around for summer school. I think. Went over to the pizza place to get lunch, and ended up penned up in the bookstore while a couple lumbered around, while I found a heavy book to swat them with, getting my lunch (although I’m not really hungry any more) and beat a quick retreat to the school again to use the computer. I dread to think about how many will be around the mall where Walden Books is. Fortunently, we’ve got several heavy bibles to hit them with, a long metal pole and numerous copies of the Zombie Survival Handbook, as well as two crazy co-workers, so I think that we’ll be the best off of all the stores. Walmart’s been infested for years, so I think they’re a lost cause.