Saturday, April 13, 2013

Steampunk Review - Vintage Tomorrows

Steampunk has not only been a hot literary genre for quite some time now,  but also a burgeoning cultural movement. It is not surprising that someone has assembled a thoughtful assessment of this culture.

What would today’s technology look like with Victorian-era design and materials? That’s the world steampunk envisions: a mad-inventor collection of 21st century-inspired contraptions powered by steam and driven by gears. In this book, futurist Brian David Johnson and cultural historian James Carrott explore steampunk, a cultural movement that’s captivated thousands of artists, designers, makers, hackers, and writers throughout the world.

Just like today, the late 19th century was an age of rapid technological change, and writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells commented on their time with fantastic stories that jumpstarted science fiction. Through interviews with experts such as William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, James Gleick, and Margaret Atwood, this book looks into steampunk’s vision of old-world craftsmen making beautiful hand-tooled gadgets, and what it says about our age of disposable technology.

Steampunk is everywhere—as gadget prototypes at Maker Faire, novels and comic books, paintings and photography, sculptures, fashion design, and music. Discover how this elaborate view of a history that never existed can help us reimagine our future.
Vintage Tomorrow's by James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson is an insightful and thought-provoking examination of Steampunk Culture. In the terrifically written Foreword, Henry Jenkins offers up a brief essay on the roots and context of Steampunk and provides varying definitions of its meaning. He also clearly states what it isn't and that is the oft-quoted "Victorian Science Fiction", a sentiment I whole-hardheartedly endorse.

Others have compared Steampunk culture as merely a form of retromania but Jenkins suggests that
"while retro-consumption is typically nostalgic and restorative, steampunk culture is generative and reflexive; it wants to create a culture which never existed before, but might have." 
And most telling he says,
"Steampunk is no more about the goggles than Cyberpunk was about the mirrorshades: they both simply constitute powerful metaphors for thinking about alternative ways of seeing the world."
Steampunk at Burning Man
Vintage Tomorrow's is divided up into 19 thematic chapters, contains a full index and is chock full of interesting photographs, although on the latter note I could have wished for better quality reproduction. Each chapter ably represents the historian and futurists observations strengthened by effective historical and contemporary quotes and excerpts from myriad of sources.

My favourite chapters included "Technology That Ships Broken" where Brian interviews Cory Doctorow, a popular science fiction writer and futurist in his own right. In their conversation Cory expresses his feelings about technology and the culture this way -
"Steampunk keeps alive the idea that tinkerability should be inherent in technology."
Cherie Priest, who many readers here will be familiar with from her Hugo-nominated Steampunk novel Boneshaker (2010) gets a chapter entitled, "A World-Destroying Death Ray Should Look Like a World-Destroying Death Ray". A fascinating and wide-ranging conversation on the sub-culture in which she has been a longstanding adherent.

There are many other conversations, debates and discussions with a host of mindful participants, but there is also an examination of cultural events, conventions, media venues and many others areas influenced by Steampunk. Reading this book greatly changed my view and perception of the steampunk movement and its contributions to cultural change and technology. There were many moments of "I didn't know that" and "wow, I can see the connection there."

I highly recommend Vintage Tomorrow's to anyone with a passing interest in Steampunk and essential reading for those that consider themselves fans of the culture or genre. The narrative is easy to read, told in an approachable and non-academic style. If a non-fiction book can be considered a page-turner, this is one. Steampunk you will find is much more than the pretty visuals and gadgets.

The book is available now. Details below. Purchasers also receive a free download of a companion booklet called Steampunking Our Future: An Embedded Historian's Notebook.

Publisher: O'Reilly Media / Make
Formats: Print, Ebook, Safari Books Online
Print: February 2013 Ebook: February 2013
Pages: 412
Print ISBN:978-1-4493-3799-5 | ISBN 10:1-4493-3799-6
Ebook ISBN:978-1-4493-3794-0 | ISBN 10:1-4493-3794-5


James H. Carrott
James H. Carrott may have been born a historian, but definitive proof awaits further mapping of the human genome. A self-described tech nerd, anachronist, game geek, fanboy, and contrarian, James has followed an eclectic career path that has taken him from the deepest recesses of America's colonial past to the future of gaming and entertainment and everywhen between. Among many other things, he's been a miniature strategy game national champion, co-founder of a community radio station, union steward and treasurer, host and producer of innumerable radio programs, and once had the San Francisco Mime Troupe over for supper. Prior to embarking on his Vintage Tomorrows adventure, he served as global product manager for Xbox 360 hardware. James (aka CultHistorian) is currently a freelance historian, writer and design consultant, researching cultural change to explore the future through the creative application of the past. He resides in Seattle, Washington with his two daughters in a little flat packed with books, comics, games, and toys. View James H. Carrott's full profile page.

Brian David Johnson
The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called "future casting"—using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.
View Brian David Johnson's full profile page.

A documentary film has also been made and you can view this video interview Vintage Tomorrows: Inside the Steampunk Documentary at


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