Monday 6 November 2023

The City of Drift

 (Some Discord bros gave me a hand with some of the scent markers. All images by John Atkinson Grimshaw.) 

Once stolen by Ghosts, (allegedly), and still on the run, Drift moves with the mist like a ship drifting at sea, coalescing and emerging, overlapping and interlacing with other places, its streets curving around theirs, its buildings interspacing theirs. So Drift is always changing a little within itself, as it translocates, seamlessly, from place to place. 

It is a town without clear boundaries, signified by mists and gloom, smoke and smog, the ripe interweaving patterning of bells, the clopping of its slow, thin horses, the whispers that skitter through its alleyways and the layers and waves of subtle scent that mark its palaces and shops.


The Coming of Drift 

The town no longer has a place reserved for it in clear reality,  instead being confined to the ocean and the mists, to the gloaming of dawn or the embers of the day, to overcast nights or fog-shrouded days. 

Drift comes upon normal places silently, infiltrating its alleyways between buildings in the fog or smoke, at night or in the afternoon, in silent or ill-travelled streets. The exact moment of its arrival cannot be perceived, (in fact that exact moment does not even exist, lost in the records of time the same way the location of Drift is lost on the maps). 

The first signs of Drift are the pungent scents of its shops, narrow alleyways between buildings that previously had no gap, the off-kilter clopping of its pale horses, the smell and distant sound of the sea, no matter how far from the sea you may be, the melodious overlapping of bells telling one time or another, or signalling one direction or another, and the low distant vibration, a sound unlike a horn, deep as a beast, but more regular, coming from the statue of Mutability which stands on an island in the cities harbour. 

All the alleys into Drift lead downhill, no matter where they emerge or what the rest of the geography is doing. The alleys are narrow and shrouded in mist, perhaps with the gas lamps hanging from the rear of one of its thin carriages retreating. 

Once an entry is there, it has always been there, with every sign and evidence of its permanent existence in place; with the same dirt and texture of its current location, the same or similar materials, the same road surface and a sign, if that is usual, in the style of whatever place it is, pointing inwards, spelling ‘Drift’. The sign and walls and floor will be dirty or worn or clean and sharp, just like the place of its arrival. Graffiti will lead in seamlessly from walls which were always there, turning on to walls which have only ‘always been there’ since a moment ago. Vague half-memories of Drift emerge in the minds of anyone approaching an entry; it doesn’t much of a stir. When its there, people soft of remember that it has always been there. When it is gone it is nearly forgotten. 

Magicians, adventurers, occultists, mediums, fortune-tellers,sea-captains, rope merchants, perfumiers, opera singers and hooded figures sometimes suspect when drift will arrive and where and quietly pack the local pubs and cafes, sitting creepily and ruining the ambience for the locals, waiting for a moment that cannot be sensed, after which, the vague memory of the existence of Drift will be revealed especially to Publicans, the Homeless and Cab Drivers past middle age. 

Asking them before this moment will only get you a funny look, but waiting for that senseless un-time and asking then; “Do you know the turn into Drift? Its somewhere around here I think?” And the answer will be a clear “Course I do mate, down the road on tha left innit. Dunno why you’d want to go there.” 


The History of Drift 

Founded By Ghosts 

Ghosts walk the streets of Drift City - antechamber to the shadow world, (allegedly). The founders of Drift City were all dead by the time they arrived, (they came on a Ghost Ship), that is why it took them so long but also why they could find it. 

In other stories the Ghosts stole Drift, either to keep it or to keep it safe. Maybe it was a High Fantasy thing? Saving it from the Dark Lord? Or a Steampunk thing? Some experiment which killed the experimenters but left them as ghosts in an empty city? 

Whatever. At some point early in the history of Drift, it was an empty city, but for Ghosts. At that same point it was also a placeless city, drifting, as it still does. 

Maybe whatever created the ghosts made the city Drift, maybe not, but the Ghosts were the first residents, the Founders, and they are still here and are still the Founders. The Municipal Government of Drift has never changed, though it has faded in and out of intelligibility over time. Bylaws and judgements are communicated (though not decided) by Mediums. The ghosts are conservative but reliable, difficult to influence via bribery or pork. Because Drift was founded by ghosts its government buildings are cemeteries and visa versa. 

Of course there are new ghosts, now and then. If they have a knack for it they stay in place and work their way up the ranks. Change is slow. But Drift is a relatively safe place for ghosts. 


Populated by Exiles and Slaves 

Shipwreck victims, outlaws, explorers, outsiders. Exiles. Escaped slaves, forgotten Kings. Like many harbour towns, Drift is a mosaic of eternal expatriates. Unlike most there is no ‘back country’, and no main ethnicity, apart from the Ghosts. 

It is rare for anyone to settle in Drift City who is not an eccentric, outcast, or hunted, or anyone who is not comfortable with ghosts, gloom and strange sounds. 

Since all the major governmental roles are occupied by the dead the living elite of Drift are made up of traders, skilled craftsmen, artists, mediums, magicians, Sea Captains, ship owners and the lords of insurance. The lack of (tangible) nobility makes it a relatively flattish, but quite high-toned upper crust. Birth gives a little rank but reputation more. 


Turning Into Drift 

A Maritime Town 

Drift is usually a shore city and usually has a harbour of sorts. Sometimes it even has a harbour when it appears far inland. Almost all of its economic activity comes via ship and the sailors of Drift City can always find their way home; they will get there through the mist. 

Usually, one turns into Drift through the alleyways at its periphery and heads downhill towards the moaning of Mutability. On the rare events one can see a view through fog, smoke or gloom, (that is not a careful Trompe l’oeil), one sees the tangled towers and alleyways and mixed-up ziplines of Drift cascading down in a bricolage of driftwood architecture, down to the harbour, the Opera House and the statue of Mutability, the goddess bearing an intermittent torch of fire as pale and translucent as the mist itself, most visible to those near death, with the city spread out around it like a shattered crater of houses with about two fifths cut out of it to let in the black sea. 


A City Of Alleyways 

The alleyways are crooked, long and thin. There are not really any streets in drift, or anything you could easily call the Main Way, just alleys leading off alleys. The widest roads are about the width of those in a Medieval European town; ghostwives can chatter between windows in the overhanging eaves, people can easily leap across, bridges, improvised or carefully designed, are thrown between buildings over streets. 

It’s hard to tell the difference between a gap leading to an alley or just a deep porch. Turns are hidden in nooks. Alleys are gated off but the gates are left unlocked. The boundary between public and private is nebulous. Its common to feel that you are trespassing. 

When its busy on a lane, people just turn off, loop around. There is always a possible detour in Drift, people percolate through the city like chemicals in blood. 


Buildings Long, Tall And Deep 

Long thin buildings lead off long thin alleyways.. Buildings tall and slender, tenements housing the descendants of pirates, shipwrecks, those lost at sea, traitors, slaves. Drift has famous glassworks,  many buildings are tall, slender and glass fronted with iron frames. The curtains are always closed of course, but you can see lights moving behind them at night. 

Others have narrow frontage but go deep to the rear, ending in gardens. Others are long laterally,  old manufactories, or built like them, asme buildings occupy different positions on the same street, or on another street, either crossing the road on a bridge before dropping down, forming part of the same building but on the opposite side of the road, or even overleaping or burrowing under a whole row of building by bridge or tunnel before occupying an entirely different street. Sometimes the doors and exits are quite different to the buildings position; enter through a narrow door, turn a corner, climb steps to an attic space, cross over the entire block of buildings through a shared attic, take steps down and find the bulk of the building facing a different road.

This aids intrigues in Drift - many secret or forgotten doors, dumb waiters, shared rooms, attics or cellars, and many houses or offices directly adjacent to others across a thin wall while the actual entrances and addresses are in quite different parts of town 


Trompe l’oeil 

Trompe-d'oil is prized in Drift, though many of the paintings are decayed. Most high-status buildings or frontages will be painted trompe l’oeil, so that the a description of that painting forms the part of a buildings (or a doorways at least) address. ‘The House of Many Leopards’, the ‘fourth door in the Garden of Setebos’, ‘down there on Flamingo Row’. 

While the rich can have their buildings painted and regularly upkept, the middling classes must subsist on pasted Trompe. Many of the famous painters have tall, thin buildings with tall, thin doors. When their huge paintings are complete they are rolled out through the multistorey doors and shifted into place to block street entrances,  to occupy blank walls at the end of long avenues, or have holes cut in them for windows and doors before being pasted up as the front of residences. 

Over time all the paintings blotch and stain, and those posted up can peel away, or part away, leaving ghost signs or layered palimpsests of variegated images from different eras. Though of course at one point this very decayed palimpsest style, painted as such, was itself a deliberate artifice and quite in vogue for a time. 



In Drift, everything is textured and patinaed. Nothing shines like new and nothing is entirely clean. It would be nearly pointless anyway, what with the fog, smoke, rain, gloom, the salt from the sea and the lichen and hot breath of its closely packed, though quite quiet, population. The ghosts wouldn’t like it either. 

Ald and worn things are treasured, new made things are not. Wood smoothed by many hands, or by the sea, cups with long-use stains at the bottom, even the slight abrasive chipping of glass or crystal. Smoke stains, soot stains, sun paling, grooves and bends to things. This is the texture of Drift. It is a somewhat comfortable City, the chairs tend to be well-used and easy to sit in. It’s a place where one can slouch easily against a wall. 


Smells and Bells 

Because Drift is so gloomy, foggy, smoky, private, narrow and labyrinthine, the city has developed a parallel sensory language to communicate place and location. 

Businesses communicate themselves via scent. Places of business that don't have their own smell will license one from the council. any place that cooks is allowed to fan its scent about and all do,

though there are bylaws and arguments between places about the use of too much smell or spice. Other shops are allowed to communicate their presence through a registered system of scent markers. 

Coffee beans are popular in Drift, though not for drinking. Instead people carry small bags of them in deep narrow pockets. (Drift pockets can be so narrow and so deep that a special form of tongs for reaching into them is in common use). If they need their scent palate cleaning, they pull out the bag of beans and take a deep sniff. In the lee of this strong scent, which fades quickly, their sinuses regain some sensitivity and discretion which may have been lost throughout the day. 


Occupations by Scent 

Chandlers smell of beeswax. Blacksmiths of coal smoke and hot metal. Armourers of lapping powder. Jewellers of Ambergris and Furriers of Myrrh. Gambling houses smell of vinegar, Undertakers of Freesia. Tanners of urine, Fullers of urine and lanoline, Brewers of Hops but Pubs of Beer. Cobblers smell of leather and beeswax, Butchers of blood. Bookshops smell of their paper and each shop only sells books printed on paper from the same forest so each shop has a smell quite distinctive to keen readers but a seemingly random selection of books. Clerks smell like wig dust and aniseed, Lawyers of wormwood and brothels of Mint, the slighter and sweeter the mint smell the more expensive the brothel. Heralds have purple coats , and they are associated with the slight fish sauce smell from the marine snails used for that dye while Whisperers smell of Roses. Mediums smell of incense (the only profession allowed to burn it) and Fortune Tellers of fruitful hemp. Knackers smell of death. 


Locations by Bell 

Drift has a latticework of bells. Every quarter has a large Belltower which peals in an agreed sequence with each other quarter, with a slightly different tone and a different pattern to each. So Bells in Drift tell not so much time, (though an experienced habitant can tell time from the bells, due to micro differences in rhythm and pattern), but place. 

The large low-frequency bells are raised up about each quarter and below them in each Rue and Tangle, major notable buildings like Taverns, Temples or Cemeteries, have their own bells, set to higher pitches which get lost and trapped in the weave of alleyways and so don’t disrupt other quarters much, and rung in their own evolved patterns of rhythm. 

Some residences, usually at least one on each street, hang wind chimes outside their door; silver for the wealthy, wooden for the poor. 

So the city is covered and woven with a pattern of smells and bells such that those who know the place can easily find their way about, finding general locations by the Great Bells, smaller areas by lesser bells, and single businesses and houses by bell and by scent. 

This rolling wave of soft continual sound, underlaid by the sound of the sea and the moaning of the lamp of Mutability, can be somewhat hypnotic and disturbing for new visitors, but after a time one becomes accustomed to it, and ultimately, becomes an initiate, with the sensory net of the city making its structure and places as clear as day, regardless of the closeness and gloom. 



Public conversation in Drift is muffled or whispered. Crowds are never loud, (except possibly if there is a riot at the opera), but this seems to suit the mood and conventions of the city. 

Whispers do infiltrate through the alleyways like invisible snakes though, wyrms of muttered sound that fleet past, or curl and spiral, hunting questing, before disappearing into a turnaway or over a roof. 

These are not just whispers but Whispers; the substance of much communication in Drift and the main power of its Law. 

Professional Whisperers ply their trade in Drift City, seek the smell of Roses, then give them a lock of hair, or enough personal details, (always in riddle form and without mentioning names), and they can set a whisper to chase after someone, susurussing past others like a snake and resounding only in the ears of that one particular person. 

In most cases this is used only for urgent messages for those difficult to find, like a kind of aggressive Telegram service. Harassing or irrelevant Whispers are punished, (though small numbers of Criminal Whisperers exist). 

Whispers are also the primary method of policing in Drift and all the strongest ‘Blue’ Whisperers are licensed and well-paid members of the Constabulary who whisper under licence. 

If a whisper warrant is given for a suspect, name known or not, only enough details, or some fragments of hair or blood are needed, the Blue Whisperers send packs and flocks of dense whispers after that person, finding them wherever they are, slowly driving them mad with the continual imprecations of guilt and crime until they give themselves up or deafen themselves. 

Sadly the deaf are mistrusted in Drift for exactly this reason and often drawn into the world of Crime. 


Thin Aesthetic 

Long thin things are favoured in Drift. Shoes are usually pointed or square-toed, hats tall and, as we said, pockets very thin and very deep. One carries pocket tongs to reach things in there and these have their own inner pockets. Pocket tongs are not carried openly as this is a sign of criminality and there are polite genuflections to make if one must employ them in the street. Round people wear tall thin things and are called fools for doing so; ‘roundlings’ and ‘spheres’. 

Thin foods are preferred; slices are slender, baguettes long. Round foods are disapproved of; the soup bowls are square and sharp-cornered, or shaped like boats as are the spoons, which are like concave oars. Thin tall glasses and mugs are used. High-status banquets are cascades of spikes and verticality as the cities cooks, both living and dead, compete to out-do one another in how spired and slender a meal can be made. 

The poor subsist on noodles, long fries, eels in batter and long onions, all of which are actually pretty good. 

Cabs and carriages can by hired but they are all very slender, the axles about three feet across, so a carriage sits one, or two facing each other, or a sumptuous carriage can have two half-decks with two more seated above and behind those on the lower deck. These are quite unstable and special gyroscopes are made to keep them somewhat steady. 

The thin carriages are pulled by horses specially bred to be similarly thin; the "Driftwood Stretch" breed, a grey to white, somewhat inbred, slow but steady, good at finding their way and so thin they are uncomfortable for most to sit on. Yellow eyed, they are used almost entirely by the coachmen of Drift. They can walk as easily backwards as forwards, as easily uphill backwards as forwards, and can strafe or sidestep slowly. 


Strange Transports 

The city has numerous curious boutique travel forms designed to deal with its slopes and its dense and winding layout. Single-person micro cable-cars exist to take commuters upslope at high speed. Zipwires can get you downhill fast. Tower-contained hot-air balloon baskets can save you steps if you need to gain height. Micro-zeppelins are employed by Youths and the Police who pursue them. Registered roof-walks are marked by yellow rope but being seen on the roofs beyond the rope or after dark is an offence punishable by Whispering. 


A City Of Hucksters And Seers 

Seers, mediums, clairvoyants, hucksters, magicians and the like are legally protected and live TAX FREE in Drift, on a 'one drop' basis of possible accuracy or validity. A seer or prophet is judged so if there is even one drop of possibility that they might be right, or have accurate predictions or communications.  In order to deprive a Huckster of this protected status one must prove not only that they are wrong, but they are reliably and knowingly wrong, a near-impossible feat in court. 

Despite this legal protection and tax-free status, Drift is not completely overflowing with hucksters as there is quite a lot of competition for accurate soothsaying, too many futures for any single one to be worth worrying over. 

Yet the poor, the homeless, the criminal, drunk, deranged or absurd are all, in their own telling, ‘Mediums’, or diviners or soothsayers or something of the like, as groups or ‘organisations’ of such are always valid and cannot be easily harassed, no matter how very obviously drunk, criminal or homeless they are. 


Drift City Opera 

The major social event, and major social location, of the city, the opera itself; a massively vertical slender pie-slice with far too many fragile upper stories and its foundations excavated below floor level so seats beneath the performers can look up at them, with mirrors above the stage so those below can see what is happening at the rear of the stage. Excavations so deep that the floor of the opera house has fallen away and the basement is a pool of black water people sit there in little coracles to watch and hear the performance.


  1. This is good stuff. I feel it could fit neatly into an SF subgenre which I enjoy but don't really know the name for; set somewhere that's ambiguously parallel to Europe between 1750 and 1950 with an emphasis on gloom and decay, and with less focus on action than on a tragedy-of-manners navigation of outlandish social customs. Borrows from steampunk (with less techno-optimism) and gothic fiction (with less pure melodrama). Modern examples might be 'Mordew' and 'Senlin Ascends' (not so much the later books in that series), and I suppose it probably originated as an outcropping of Gormenghast. Peakepunk? The collapsed drawing room novel? Keep it up, anyway.

    1. I've seen people use 'Mannerpunk' for Gormenghast and works downstream of it, but I'm not sure I like it much as a phrase. There are times when the __punk formulation works as a term, and times when it does not.

      To my mind this felt very like bits of The Man who was Thursday, with its (largely) urban setting and occasional Gothic interludes and components.

    2. I think that overuse has now detached the -punk suffix from any meaning other than 'an SF subgenre' (e.g. Solarpunk seems to have sensibilities diametrically opposed to earlier punk), but agree that in its original sense it doesn't fit well here. Wiki suggests 'fantasy of manners' as an alternative and lists Norrell & Strange as a central example, which is interesting as I'd thought of 'Piranesi' as a better instance of what I'm driving at; perhaps the key is the centrality of unspoken rules which should initially be opaque to either reader or protagonist. A little drop of the Kafkaesque, I suppose. Still, possibly I'm straying into subgenres of subgenres now, and becoming an instance of what I'm describing ("sorry, your book can't be part of this invisible club I've just made up, it doesn't meet all the arbitrary but essential criteria").

    3. I do prefer the '__ of manners' formula.
      (If you've seen the film Layer Cake, I think of that sometimes as a 'thriller of manners').
      __punk had been slowly picked over by the terriers of the Blogosphere before. It sort of works as 'exaggeration, specific focus on [steam, solar power and sustainability, manners and customs]' but that's hardly how anyone normally uses the term punk.

    4. I like the idea that all genres should have a potential '_of manners' subvariant. True crime of manners! Cosmic horror of manners! Bodice-ripper of manners! The sky's the limit.

    5. Peakepunk sounds very fine to me.

  2. Two thoughts:
    -This is very China Mieville and I mean that in the best of senses. This is the kind of stuff I come here for.
    -I was in Venice last weekend. Going off the beaten path in that city at night is so uncannily what you described in parts of this text that I'm near convinced you've been there too - especialy the bit about buildings, alleyways and the feeling of trespassing.
    Awesome Patrick! Glad you still have it in you.