Vintage Tomorrows — How History Might Help Cure Our Souls

vintage tomorrowsWell, 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!

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