Recently, everyone and their grandmother are trying to place steampunk in the grander scope of things. Most of pop culture has poked at it at this point. Many in the SF/F community gives the subculture a passing nod (or are slowly edging away, since, being early adapters by nature, quite a few in sci-fi are tired of it already).
Still, questions about steampunk have set people in pursuit of the deeper meanings behind the aesthetic movement. Two years ago, Intel’s futurist Brian David Johnson wanted to answer the biggest one about steampunk’s rise: “Why now?” He was joined by a cultural historian James Carrott and they filmed a documentary, and also wrote a book by the same name: Vintage Tomorrows (or two books, actually. Steampunking Our Future: An Embedded Historian’s Notebook is the free e-book companion you can get online).
I had the pleasure of meeting them at NYCC a couple of years ago to hear their idea first-hand: steampunk has the potential to be a counterculture. I’m actually on the fence about this (surprised, right?). Because, as much as I love the subculture, radical change isn’t a given to participate. Lo and behold, however, when a copy handed on my desk awhile back, I gave their research a gander.
What Vintage Tomorrows aims to be is an investigative journey into a subculture as a critique of the mainstream it had sprung from. What the book readily accomplishes is a much more intimate story. While the journey Carrott and Johnson record does answer “Why now?” and even “What Next?”, those answers weren’t the reasons why I kept turning the pages. Instead, the authors manage to capture an experience that pulled me in.
The impression I got while reading was this:
You are right there during drunken conversations at late-night bars, right before hitting on inspirational genius (that may or may not last until after the hangover the next day). You squee alongside them over conversations with literary/scientific/geek idols. You encounter people who do incredible, inspirational things, knowing this is the moment that will stay for the rest of your life.
So, the truth dawns: you can’t sit on the sidelines any longer. The impartial witness status goes out the window. You go native.
Vintage Tomorrows is the story about falling in love with a subculture, and that’s the love that permeates every page of this book.
Vintage Tomorrows asks, “What does steampunk say about our relationship with today’s technology and predict how it will become?” The structure of the book is a series of encounters and interviews with a wide variety of people (quite a few who are not connected at all to steampunk). Beatnik icons. Comedians. Writers. Scientists. Makers. Johnson and Carrott are like cooks rather than social scientists: throwing in a bit of this interview and that side-trip and that convention experience, hoping that everything would mix together to form the answer they are looking for.
Carrott’s narration bounces along with puppy-dog adoration. The book succeeds the most in its selection of interviewees. Carrott gets to sit down with people on my “arts and smarts” crush list: China Mieville, William Gibson, David Malki!, and Margaret Atwood to name a few. I also got a bit jealous about the lengths the two go in their investigation, including two trips out to Burning Man, a visit to Australia to meet an unusual tinkerer, and Cory Doctorow’s London pad.
More than a detached academic text, the book comes to life, unashamed of being personal, intimate, chatty. Main points between interviews are repeated, re-examined, and re-iterated in order to cement out disparate minds think alike. Johnson’s contributions weave in and out of the book, providing gravitas when trying to summarize the splurge of information that Carrott unearths.
The main idea that they highlight the most is how human relations are key to understanding and accepting new technologies. They argue that, in terms of technological acceptance by society, we already have the convenience part down, and the affordability—and both aspects will increase with time. But what will make people love technology is more than what it can do: it is how it makes us feel. Steampunk humanizes the machine—endowing it with a sense of humor, fun, and wonder—and those aspects are what people expect more from technology in general today. We’re not looking for servants and tools as we become more technologically integrated; we are looking for machines we can relate to. Technology without humanity is nothing more than a dead object that we’d ultimately reject. Steampunk uploads humanity in spades, with its clanking follies, its nostalgic humor, its sense of possibility and basic manageability.
In a book whose argument is so tied into human relations, then, form becomes function as the authors are treated like characters in a novel, complete with full backstory reveals. At times, I think the book reads heavy-handed: Carrott’s opening chapters delve into various events in his life (like historical re-enactment and meeting 60’s counterculture guru Tim Leary in college) that all contribute to his eventual involvement in steampunk. While he’s building the argument that leads to how steampunk works as a subculture, these chapters read as if he’s a history of his geek destiny. Despite the Fanboy Squee, his plucky optimism never comes across as overly-saccharine or false, and that’s its saving grace. In fact, the conversational tone of Vintage Tomorrows helps swallow all of the intellectualizing.
By the end of the book, I felt very satisfied about the validity of their enthusiasm, though how much it would spread as a countercultural movement I’m not as convinced. I’m happy they love steampunk (so do I), and we certainly share a biases about its political potential. The ideas that steampunks hold dear, however, are the same ideas currently espoused by the Western mainstream and I am too aware of how an aesthetic can be used by any ideology. The concept of DIY shouldn’t be mistaken for a politically progressive one, for example—it’s just a method of consumption that can be adopted by anyone on the political spectrum. Likewise, to be artistically “punk” by modes of personal expression, isn’t necessarily countercultural if individual freedom is already fostered in Western society. Other socially-progressive ideas, like feminist and anti-racist thought, while touched upon in the book, are not ideas that are inherently associated with technological progress (and, historically, said progress had resulted in great harm toward the marginalized). I think that a “steampunk mindset” can help change the world by actively avoiding the mistakes of the past and present made by society, but, like the mainstream, there is a ways to go until the movement gets there. But, it’s getting there, and that does count for something.
The book’s ending gives a slightly glib prediction about the Next Big Tech Question. What does the future hold? In an age post-steampunk (and post-industrial), humankind will be one step closer to complete integration with machines. That’s a suggestion that positions steampunk in today’s culture in a way that any SF/F fan could appreciate: that steampunk is the history of our eventual singularity.
Vintage Tomorrows is published by O’Reilly Media. It is available now.