Cherie Priest’s excellent steampunk book BONESHAKER is based on the premise that an epic digging machine dug under the city of Seattle and unleashed a mysterious gas. This gas killed people, but then reanimated their bodies. The victims are called ‘rotters’ as the gas causes the skin to appear to rot and fall off. Disgusting.
Most people abandon Seattle pretty rapidly, and they build a huge wall around the city to trap the gas inside. The city is then left to fester. Fifteen years later, unknown to most people, a small underground society continued to thrive inside the walls. This small group of people consists mostly of a criminal gang selling the gas to make an addicting drug, some people who refused to leave when Seattle was initially abandoned, and a large contingent of Chinese immigrants. The residents survive in hermetically sealed areas underground, and use pumps and enormously tall pipes to pump fresh clean air down from above the poisonous gas.
Relations are strained underground, with tensions between the drug gang and the individual residents uncomfortable. The Chinese immigrants generally keep to themselves, but are also the people responsible for keeping the air pumps running. Everybody has a vested interest in keeping the rotters out of their tunnels.
I found reading this book both vastly entertaining, with some incredible female characters, but also really interesting. The society that Priest creates under Seattle shows how people take ownership of what is nominally public space, taking responsibility for their own safety and working together when required. Obviously this goodwill breaks down at times during the plot, and there are instances of deliberate sabotage of these ‘public’ spaces. Interestingly, retaliation in kind is not usually seen as an appropriate response for the under-Seattle residents. Damaging the shared safe space under the gas would be cutting off their nose to spite their faces.
I suspect that this shared responsibility and ownership of public spaces is something that is quite common in small groups of people carving out lives for themselves all over the world. In fact, much of my research has revolved around the way that the creation and maintenance of public spaces actually builds communities. You could argue that the society created by Priest in under-Seattle was held together by their shared responsibility in the physical space.
As groups get bigger though, people seem to naturally start creating explicit rules about public spaces, and people’s feelings of individual responsibility decline. In under-Seattle, this could manifest in the understanding that it is no longer is it everyone’s problem if one of the air pipes is damaged, or the seal around a door fails. Instead, there would be a designated person who was responsible for checking and repairing public facilities, who would then be blamed in cases of neglect or negligence. I haven’t read the end of Priest’s series so I don’t know if this is what happens, but an steady influx of people into this semi-closed group who all previously took responsibility for their shared safety could dramatically change the both the community and the nature of the physical space.
I think something is lost when people no longer take responsibility for the spaces and facilities around them. In our modern city lives, how many people walk past litter, broken benches, overflowing garbage cans, shattered windows, ripped fences, downed trees, or any other problem on our streets and sidewalks.
Do you even call the ‘appropriate authorities’?
Most people don’t.
Most people assume someone else has dealt with the problem, and move on, expecting someone else to clean up the mess. Means most of the time, nobody does anything.
What does it take for you to actually do something about a problem in a public place? Does it have to be dangerous? Do you personally have to be hurt or inconvenienced? What if everybody lowered their level of tolerance for damage a couple of steps and fixed things they saw?
If everybody pitched in like the people living under Seattle in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, what would our lives be like??