Vintage Tomorrows — How History Might Help Cure Our Souls
Well, time to come to grips with what has been a wonderful journey, a great read and a thought provoking diversion. Vintage Tomorrows by Brian David Johnson and James Carrott stems, according to the authors, from a passing discussion in a pub between a historian and a futurist. The outcome is an unexpected delight. A critical, deep and probing questioning of what makes steampunk tick. For the unfamiliar, steampunk is a counter-culture bubbling underneath our days-to-day lives and often simply characterised as neo-Victorian science fiction. But, the premise of this book is that that is far too simple a definition and the authors chronicle their attempt to try to expose the deeper motivations behind the surface effect of fancy dress costumes, glistening brass gears and a fascination with clockwork ornamentation. The result is a deliciously readable, superbly crafted and constructed expose that demands that the reader engages and is open to self-reflection, but is rewarded with some far reaching realisations about how we perceive today’s world and humanity’s engagement with our own history. This is a book about how humanity engages with technology and the nature of the relationship is deep, fluid and individual.
Normally I approach most of the books I review with a reviewer’s perspective. That is, I tend to try to determine the author’s objective and rapidly consider the structure and the methodology employed to meet the objective. I may not read the book with the normal attention to each word and phrase, but instead engaged selectively. When I chose to review Vintage Tomorrows I was motivated by a subtle fascination with steampunk. I don’t participate, but I am aware. I sensed that this book might adopt an approach of chronicling the more physical manifestations of the phenomenon and I would be treated to some cool pictures and eye candy. I couldn’t have been wrong — and I realised this quickly. This is a deeper think piece, there’s limited eye-candy and a serious amount of brain food. It causes you to think and to be really drawn into reading the book deeply. I realised that I would not being completing this review quickly…I ended up savouring the prose and the objective and living with this one for a couple weeks. It gave me pause to think and that makes this a seriously exceptional book.
I desperately want to share the Johnson and Carrott’s arguments and illustrations, but restrain myself. Why? This is a book to be savoured and if I were to distill it down to gross simplicity I would be doing a great disservice to the authors and to you a potential reader.
This is not a short read and it does demand engagement from the reader. All I will say it is well worth it. The authors chronicle their own deepening engagement with many of the popular performers in the larger steampunk community — from authors, to organisers of events, to participants in iconic festivals such as Burning Man. They recount some of the absolutely clever ways in which they teased out their own understanding of it — without spoiling anything — is demonstrated by staging of multi-course dinner around primary questions for the invitees to consider — and then to let it take a life of its own is conceptually brilliant and superbly captured and recounted. I must find the short documentary — I have not been able to yet. The authors do an exceptional two hander of going off to different events or meetings on their own, yet finding a single voice.
But, admittedly, the story arch and recounting meetings and events can start to get slightly predictable by the middle and that’s when the author’s (I can only assume quite skilfully and intentionally) pull you right back in by mixing it up. They foreshadowed the whole question of why Victorianism and Empire at numerous junctures during the early part of the book, but only teasingly. Then they ask the question — ‘the elephant’ in the room — Why glorify a time that seems rooted in today what we could only describe as morally questionable if not rooted in evil? This is the hinge point in a well constructed discussion…and now I want to read on.
The authors sum it up with a rather pithy observation about steampunk and what it is engaging. In response to perception that it potentially glorifies something less than savoury, they state simply that ‘Steampunk isn’t just fun, it’s smart, self-critical, inclusive and welcoming. Sounds like a wonderful model for society itself and really captures the essence of the surprisingly diverse examples explored in the wonderful journey that is this book. I recommend and commend with no reservation and can only wish that academic publishing and practitioners could take such a creative means to their studies and such skill in conveying their findings. This is one of the most ‘fun’ books I have read in quiet a while for all the reasons that the steampunk subculture is itself. Read this book!