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In-depth study of the emerging steampunk sub-culture.

Book Review: Vintage Tomorrows by James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson

It is a little early to call Vintage Tomorrows my favorite book of 2013, but I doubt if there will be a better title this year. Much like The Future Remembered (2012) by Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein, the vision just speaks to me. The two books are unrelated, although both are basically “set” in my hometown of Seattle. The Future Remembered documents the 1963 Seattle World’s Fair, called the “Century 21 Exposition.” Vintage Tomorrows is historian James H. Carrott and futurist Brian David Johnson‘s look at the emergent subculture termed “steampunk.”

When I say that Vintage Tomorrows is set in Seattle, it is because many of the events chronicled in the book happen here. For a local like me, when they talk about drinking Pike Street Ale in a Pike Place Market bar, I know exactly where they are talking about. But steampunk is a global “movement,” and we are taken all over the world to meet people.

Actually, if there is a spiritual home for steampunk, the authors would probably place it at the Burning Man Festival. It would certainly be between Burning Man or the Internet at least. The rise of the ‘net is what they credit the most for the popularity of steampunk.

But what is “steampunk” anyway? This is the subject of Vintage Tomorrows, for there seem to be many definitions. You may have seen the trappings of steampunk popping up in various media over the past couple of years. The people always seem to be dressed as Victorians, and (especially) wearing weird, and very old looking goggles or glasses. Because Carrott and Johnson like and respect the people and the movement, they shy away from declaring steampunk a fashion show. I have no such qualms. There is a lot more to it, as I found out in reading the book, but the look seems to be the main thing.

The basic idea is to adapt 21st century technology to the trappings of the pre-World War I industrial age. This works for objects and people, and accounts for most of what I can gather to be “steampunk.” There is plenty of rhetoric about how “paradigm altering” this stuff is, but you hear that with every sub-culture. Didn’t the New Romantics say that about Duran Duran back in 1982?

Where it gets interesting for me is when someone takes something like an i-Pod and adapts it to look like a 19th century notebook. I must say, these things look very cool. As mentioned, there is quite a bit of philosophical subtext (or justification) for doing these things. But I think it is just fine to begin and end the conversation of why someone would do this for the simple fact that it looks cool. Then again, we would not have a 397-page book if that were all there was to it.

This is where the round-table discussion events come in to play. Carrott and Johnson talk to steampunks to get their takes on what the whole thing is about. The steampunks argue that they are “taking back” technology with their actions. This is hard to argue with. The thousand-yard stare I see in people interacting with their phones is creepy to me. Whatever it takes to become an individual, and to “own” your technology has to be good. Keep in mind though, I’m a Luddite who got rid of his cell-phone years ago, so of course I would agree with anything that defaces the sacred beast.

One thing that intrigued me was the authors’ comparison of steampunk to the Beats and hippies. This is wishful thinking I believe, and the proof is all around you. Ask the next three people you see if they have ever heard of steampunk, and you will see that it has barely penetrated the culture. Will it become a significant social movement in the future though? That question was the main reason I picked up this book in the first place. My gut feeling is that it won’t, but you never know. Who imagined that the Goths would ever get out of their batcaves?

Besides brilliant titles, The Future Remembered and Vintage Tomorrows speak to something I find fascinating. Our vision of the future may say even more about our present than the daily news. Look at that wonderful New Frontier, Space Age iconography of the early ‘60s, and of the optimism that went along with it. 50 years later, steampunks look at that world of the future as having arrived, but at what cost? So the steampunks look backward, with the underlying notion that this is a way for them to individualize or “own” their present.

It seems to me that in the end, despite the intellectual talk, they are just modifying appearances. How could that really be a culture? Maybe it is all that is left. The Beats, and the hippies actually had a lot to rebel against.

Whether they come right out and admit it or not, steampunks do hope to be our era’s voice of rebellion, non-conformity, or whatever. I have to say though that the reason nobody really cares is because they are not remotely dangerous. They may look funny, but they are not challenging anyone. One of the things that scared the government about the hippies was their anti-war stance. Yes, I realize that is only the tip of the iceberg, but it is enough.

Does anyone think that modifying your computer to look like an old typewriter is going to capture the attention of our era’s J. Edgar Hoover? Come on. This is what made me a little sad when I finished Vintage Tomorrows. There is a lot of talk about rebellion and things of that nature, and for someone who is looking to investigate this curious sub-culture, the book does the job very well.

I just wish that the steampunks had more to offer than a fashion show.

About Greg Barbrick

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