Monday, April 2, 2012

A Collection of Works by Catastrophone Orchestra (a book review)

A Collection of Works by Catastrophone Orchestra is a volume of short stories and vignettes, some connected along a central narrative, others simply loosely linked by geography. Each story is set in a slightly sci-fi version of late 19th, early 20th century New York City that will be described as "dystopian" by people who have never read Jacob Riis, and is populated by anarchists, communists, activists, revolutionaries, paupers, magicians, artists, scientists, doctors, and madmen.

The characters, world, and writing are all solid, and make for a very enjoyable read, but for me personally this was also the right book at the right time. I'm not just talking about my burning desire for steampunk works that incorporate and engage with politics, although that's certainly part of it. I think in order for people to really get this review I'm going to have to tell you when I read this book.

I started it very, very late one Sunday night, after spending part of Saturday, and almost all of Sunday, in police custody, following my third Occupy Wall Street arrest. My stay included 9 hours in the Central Booking holding cells known, since the 1830s, as "The Tombs." I got out right before the night court closed down, and made my way home.

I don't know how many of you have ever been in a similar situation, but I was feeling, as I find I usually do in those moments, a boiling sense of political radicalism that I was too tired, hungry, and angry to actually direct anywhere. It's a lot like being seventeen, really; you want to find the physical embodiment of oppression and set it on fire, and there's just not a lot to do with that feeling until you've showered, eaten, slept, and regained your ability to have and express coherent political thoughts.

It was while I was in that state that I got home and started reading this book. I don't think a more perfect collection of words could have come to my hand. It took me into a world that was alien and archaic, yet harshly, viscerally familiar and recognizable. The characters are all vividly drawn, maybe a little overstated in a Dickensian kind of way, and placed in an equally vivid, immersive world of New York City slums. For the most interesting characters, which is the majority of the ones we meet, their convictions are what drives them. We have the central characters, who run on a heady combination of anarchism, madness, and opiates, and who run a free medical clinic in the Lower East Side even as they work on a project that combines music and terrorism; we accompany an unemployed working class communist to a May Day rally that becomes a riot; and we take a journey through the city with an animal rights activist whose only question is where he can most effectively deploy the bomb he's built in order to aid the cause of animal welfare.

In my above-mentioned mental state, this was exactly what I needed; so many of these characters are aflame with some revolutionary ideal, and on their way to doing something about it. I eagerly and fiercely identified with them. One story even featured the Tombs and the Manhattan Central Booking Night Court. I'm not saying you have to have just got out of jail to appreciate this book, of course. Just that if you think you may be going to jail for political reasons, try and have this book waiting when you get out, because that's one of the many occasions on which you will enjoy reading it.

The world in which these stories take place is not terribly different from the one that historically existed; there are some minor technological changes, but other than that the most noticeable anomaly is the existence, in this reality, of steampunks. Steampunks are depicted here as 19th century anarchist punks; young people with dyed hair, piercings and tattoos. I loved this concept, and the glimpses we saw of how the steampunks interact with a May Day rally, as well as the police, are fascinating and feel very true to life. I not only believed in the steampunks as a 19th century subculture, I really wanted to hang out with them, at least for a while, even if I'd probably head back to hear Johann Most speak at the rally eventually.

I know the Catastrophone Orchestra wants to see steampunk become a politically conscious subculture, and I think that works like this are the perfect way to go about it. To be honest, I found the manifesto outlining that idea at the beginning of this volume to be by far the least interesting part. The stories speak effectively for themselves, and simply by existing they argue persuasively for a steampunk that involves historical, present, and fantastical politics.

I hear a lot about steampunk as "escapism," and I find that idea intensely problematic. This book is a journey without being an escape; it transfers the concerns and issues of the real world, both modern and historical, into a universe in which those issues look different, but feel profoundly the same. It doesn't make you forget real problems, it lets you view them through the greasy, steamed lens of a different, fascinating world.

Mostly, this is a work that's made up of details. Since it's a series of short stories and vignettes, rather than a novel, the truly wonderful things about it are mainly small moments that work particularly well; my favorite is the introduction of a formerly politically active steelworker who now wears a mohawk, picks fights with cops, and calls himself Neal Lisst. (Say it out loud). I don't particularly want to give away too much of what made this book good; it's mainly a series of beautiful, clever, or otherwise superb moments that you kind of just have to find yourself; if I'm going to go around describing them, you might as well read the book, which I seriously urge you to do. And I urge the Catastrophone Orchestra to produce more of this kind of work.

A Collection of Works by Catastrophone Orchestra is available from Combustion Books at as well as through Amazon, in electronic edition.

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