The Crossroads of the Aether
A link on The Traveller’s Steampunk Blog announced the release of “Vintage Tomorrows” by James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson from MAKE and O’Reilly Media and included an email address to request a review copy.
I’m a steampunk, I have made things and I can read so I could totally write a review, the typical price that needs to be paid to obtain a free review copy, so I sent my email and received my book.
I have, of course, read plenty of steampunk stories and novels beginning with “The Difference Engine” in 1991 when the paperback came out and, while I have some steampunk non-fiction on my shelf (I have far too many books in the “still to be read” category), this was surprisingly the first book that I had actually read about steampunk itself.
I think it was a good first choice.
It starts off with an interview with Timothy Leary. No, really. And it makes perfect sense. If you are going to investigate culture, subculture, counterculture and where steampunk fits into that spectrum, why not start with the most dangerous man in America? And, once you do start looking at how culture changed with the beatnicks of the 50s and the the hippies of the 60s, you begin to look at steampunk from a fresh perspective outside the gearbox. You separate yourself from why you got involved and start thinking about why we, as a collective, are involved.
The book actually focuses on two “whys;” Why steampunk and why now? And to do it, there are a lot of interviews. They start with Timothy Leary who has nothing to do with steampunk, he merely sets the stage, but they move on to Cory Doctorow, Cherie Priest (“Boneshaker”), Davin Maliki! (“Wondermark”), Mike Perschon (The Steampunk Scholar), Scott Westerfeld (“Leviathan”), China Miéville (“Perdido Street Station”), Jaymee Goh (Silver Goggles), Dexter Palmer (“The Dream of Perpetual Motion”), Mark Thompson (“Henry Hoke’s Guide to the Misguided”), Jake von Slatt (The Steampunk Workshop), William Gibson and an assotrment of others that I apologize for not mentioning. Additionally, there was a spectacular dinner conversation with Marshall Hunter, Claire Hummel, Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan (“Boilerplate”), Jordan Bodewell (SepiaChord), Thom Becker (Lastwear), Kevin Steil (The Airship Ambassador), Phil and Kaja Foglio (“Girl Genius”), Diana Vick and Martin Armstrong (Steamcon).
I am pleased to say that I know nearly all of those names, am familiar with works by most of them, have met few and have actually had some conversations with a couple.
If I can offer up one criticism about the interview “narrative” and a drawback of having so many people interviewed it is that midway through the book, the thesis was pretty much supported and the why questions had been answered. Towards the end the chapters and the interviews got shorter and tended towards the “Yes, you are absolutely right” answer. I think this weakened the conclusion chapters.
Not too long before reading “Vintage Tomorrows”, I had read “Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature” by Emelyne Godfrey. At $80 list price for only 200 pages, it was clearly an academic book with a pricing range that reminded me of buying college textbooks. It had a similarly weak ending in that I turned the page thinking I was going to get a concluding chapter and found myself in the appendices. This wasn’t quite as bad as that but I think the ending could have been tightened up a bit.
But that is about my only criticism. The interviews and the people interviewed make the rest a joy to read. Most especially the dinner conversation. It really spelled out the whys.
So, what are those whys. Why steampunk and why now? Now is the point where I will spell out the authors’ thesis. Well, in short form. You’will want to read the book for the full details.
Steampunk was born as a science fiction sub-genre in the 1980s but it wasn’t until around 2005 that anyone outside of the SF world paid any attention. Even with “Wild Wild West” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” it didn’t click until mid decade. Why?
OK, not really smartphones, but the advent of that technology seemed to be something of a tipping point when we all finally realized that were were merely consumers of technology and information, got fed up with it, and looked back to a time when we actually understood what was going on inside of our machines.
And, yet. It’s not really that, either. As with any change in culture, or sub-culture, there are millions of things that feed into the change. Steampunk is merely the latest wave in a cycle of society trying to come to terms with the changes it’s undergoing. And this change is driven by technology. We want our devices to be more human so we cover the impersonal plastic with hand carved wood. We want to understand what’s going on inside so we slap some gears on it to at least give the illusion of parts we can understand. We want our devices to have a history and, not liking the Silicon Valley history they actually come with, we make up our own.
I could go on and on but to get it all correct in this review I’d probably have to read the book again. I will probably do just that but I have some people who want to borrow it in the meantime. Open “Vintage Tomorrows” to a random page and you’re likely to read some completely different element of steampunk that you hadn’t thought of before. It’s all steampunk. It’s all culture. And we are in the wonderful, chaotic center of it.
And while I said this was the first book I had read about steampunk and that it was a good first choice, this book is not an introduction. If you are somewhat new to steampunk and have questions about it, you should probably start with something like “The Steampunk Bible” or “The Steampunk Gazette”. “Vintage Tomorrows” is for those who are already engaged and want to look a bit beyond the waistcoats and corsetry and understand what it is that brings us all together. The psychology that drives culture.
That having been said, I realized that I was never actually in the wonderful, chaotic center of it. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was one of the first novels I ever read and, when the science fiction genre known as steampunk came along, I saw it only as a continuation of stuff I had been reading all along. When the smartphones came along, I stuck it out with a simple flip phone because I worked with enough tech during the day that I didn’t get overwhelmed with just a smaller version of what I already had. And, in the meantime, I had always appreciated the older things, the older architecture, the older technology.
As to the costuming and conventions and all the things we think of as the “scene”, I had been going to conventions for decades, had been costuming for nearly as long, when I got involved in a “Deadlands” RPG in 2007, it seemed only natural to costume and go to a con. I was the only steampunk there and I didn’t even realize that outside of the hinterlands that is Pittsburgh there was already a full blown cultural movement underway. I was just doing what I had already been doing, merely with a Victorian theme. I was steampunk before I realized steampunk was a “next big thing.”
“Vintage Tomorrows” has given me an appreciation for this movement that sprung up around me, seemingly out of nowhere. It helped me to understand why it was that so many different kinds of people, all on different vectors, came to this same place.
Where is steampunk going? What is the future of this movement? Well, if history tells us anything, it tells us that we are doomed. Just as the beatnicks and hippies rebelled against the established culture and then ultimately became part of the mainstream for the next cultural movement to rebel against, so too will steampunk become a relic of the previous generation. If we are lucky, steampunk will have become in the meantime an actual counter-culture that transforms the world, changing how humans relate to technology, society and even change itself. If we are very lucky, that change will be for the better.
And then our grandkids will call us sellouts and create something we never saw coming.