The Shadow City : Putting the Punk Back into Steampunk
by The Catastaraphone Orchestra
“New York is two cities sharing the same island. One of Light and the other of Shadow .”
— Boss Tweed
The Catatsraphone Orchestra is a collective of steampunk authors who have written collectively and published stories, non-fiction and novels for the past 6 years. Our style owes as much to Charles Dickens as it does Jules Verne. We are endlessly fascinated with the horrors and heroes of those often left out of steampunk fiction or relegated to color but are seldom the protagonists. We are talking about the everyday people who struggled to make a living in the great 19th century cities. For every ingenious scientist there were thousands of men who kept the boilers fed while their children went to bed hungry. There seem to be endless stories of air-pirates but what about the all women gangs that prowled the East End of London and New York’s Soho? We do not believe that gentlemen’s clubs or opera houses are as interesting settings as Chinatown’s opium dens or the workhouses for the poor. A lady coughing blood into her silk handkerchief is less tragically romantic than a factory girl disfigured by the glowing phossy jaw, a fatal and gruesome disease caused by too much exposure to white phosphorous. The intricate fashions of the chimney sweep are as beautiful to us as the splendor of Beau Brummel’s suit. Many great stories can be found in the blind tiger taverns and teeming tenements if one only has the courage to explore.
Airships, goggles and clever clockworks are not only the property of the fabulously privileged but can also be appropriated by the punks of the 19th century. Street urchins are not just sidekicks of clever detectives but have their own stories, heroes and villains. We all know that Fagin and the Artful Dodger are a hundred times more exciting than Oliver Twist. How about a story with a protagonist that is a shoulder-pusher for Boss Tweed instead of a special agent for Queen Victoria? A picket-line holds as much drama as any author could hope for. What we all love about steampunk – the history, the mechanical speculations, the outrageous fashion, the mad adventure and danger, can be found in breathtaking abundance in the shadow city. The 19th century’s promise of progress was not the reality for the vast majority of Victoria’s subjects and it’s time we told their stories too, without pity or disdain.
Putting the punk back into steampunk is not just a matter of taste or style for us. Steampunk, with its alternative histories, has always kept an eye on the present. Retrofuturism is not just a gimmick to sell books but can be a serious and hopefully engaging attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past to better understand our present and shape our future. Fiction has the power to move us and open up new possibilities. The reality is that most of us will never be geniuses or fabulously wealthy but that doesn’t mean we don’t have stories that are just as important and meaningful. Steampunk can, and probably should be exploring more than corsets and clockworks, but a deeply problematic past that looks very familiar to our present.
–The Catastaraphone Orchestra has just published a collection of stories and writings at Combustion Books. Learn more at www.combustionbooks.org