Hey, Portlandians! Brian David Johnson and James H Carrott are doing a talk and signing for their new book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology, a fascinating look at the historical significance of steampunk, and an exploration of what the popularity of steampunk today's means about tomorrow's technology, at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell's on March 25 at 7PM.
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Steampunk, a mashup in its own right, has gone mainstream, with music videos from the likes of Nicki Minaj; America’s Next Top Model photo shoots; and Prada’s Fall/Winter menswear collection featuring haute couture, steampunk style. Some steampunk fans revile this celebrity. But James H. Carrott, co-author of Vintage Tomorrows, says that’s just how cultural change happens. “Things get appropriated; they affect the culture in some way or another, and the people who are at the heart of trying to make that change move onto the next key idea.”
So what is steampunk, exactly, and why should we care? Carrott, a cultural historian, says “steampunk is playing with the past.” The world that steampunk envisions is a mad-inventor’s collection of 21st century-inspired contraptions, powered by steam and driven by gears. It’s a whole new past; one that has a lot to say about the futures we want to see.
In Vintage Tomorrows, Intel’s resident futurist Brian David Johnson (@IntelFuturist) joins Carrott (@CultHistorian) in a globe-spanning journey to dig beyond definitions and into the heart of this growing subculture. Through interviews with experts such as Margaret Atwood, China Miéville, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, and James Gleick, this book looks into steampunk’s vision of old-world craftsmen making beautiful hand-tooled gadgets, and what it means for our age of disposable technology.
Nick Harkaway's essay "The Steampunk Movement is Good and Important" does a good job of answering charges that steampunk is cover for racism or colonialism, and does an even better job of explaining the attraction of steampunk technological visions to a modern artist:
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Just as it would be tragic to ignore the advantages and consolations of the cognitive - and those who denigrate it in favour of a romanticised understanding of the instinctual or the mystical slander themselves - so equally it is idle and spurious to contend that we are cognitive entities riding around in bony control centres in our skulls, peeping out through windows in the face. We are not just brains with mobile life support. The emerging understanding of embodied cognition is the last nail in the coffin of that idea. We are bodies which think, and we’re at home with Steampunk because it is an ethos of design and creativity which acknowledges the humanly physical, that which we can understand with our fingers. It values our bounded selves, whose world is the middle earth between the flea and the horizon line in which objects obey Newton and relativity is barely more than an academic interest. It is a cognitively limited and incomplete sort of place. In terms of our senses, though, it’s all there is, and Steampunk is about being able to have the wonders of technology while still valuing, acknowledging and respecting that restricted view.
From that one central aspect of its identity, Steampunk mounts a challenge to grey-black plastic industrial design, to the faux-sanitised world of consumer technology and to techno-/neo-colonialism.
I've previously reviewed Phil and Kaja Foglios' Agatha H books, these being prose adaptations of their spectacular, award-winning Girl Genius comics. Now, the UK's Titan Books has brought out the first two novels in handsome paperback editions, reasonably priced for all to enjoy.
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The transition from comic to print works surprisingly well. While the action sequences sometimes feel a little like a script for a comic, they're always funny and delightful. The effect is a little like the high-speed feeling of reading a fast-paced comic, but with the depth of character that you get from a prose-novel's capacity for introspection and internal monologue.
In the Girl Genius world, the Industrial Revolution has all but destroyed the world, thanks to the Sparks, industrial wizards who are born with the mad scientist's ability to make uncanny machines and lifeforms that upend order and send villagers fleeing to the hills. Finally, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach brings some order to the chaos by conquering Europe and grinding it under his (surprisingly benign) iron heel. Agatha Crumb is a lab assistant at Transylvania Polygnostic University, ward of two "constructs" (reanimated corpses) that dote on her and care for her in her parents' absence. When her benefactor is killed by the Baron's men (and monsters), she is forced to flee, but before long, she is the Baron's prisoner aboard his flying airship castle, "the only capital city that was able to patrol its own empire."
Filled with folgian touches -- Borscht-belt comedy accents, things that go sproing, adorkable sentient machines, and laugh-a-minute slapstick -- Agatha H is a tremendously fun addition to the Girl Genius canon.
Yesterday, I blogged about Bob Basset, the Ukrainian steampunk leatherworker, discovering one of his designs in the Design Toscano catalog without credit or royalty. The publicity that the Internet gave to Basset's cause caused Toscano to contact Basset and offer him a royalty, and they blame an unscrupulous supplier who claimed the design as its own:
To clear up the issue on the Steampunk piece that has some of our customers questioning our motives we would like to explain.
The statue was produced and offered to Design Toscano as one of a portfolio of new sculptures to review. There was some confusion between Mr. Bob Basset and the factory that produced this piece for Design Toscano. Mr. Mike Stopka, president of Design Toscano, spoke directly with Mr. Basset and explained that Design Toscano had been mislead in the creation of this piece. Mr. Basset and Mr. Stopka have worked out a generous plan that the artist will get compensation for his work and Mr. Basset has graciously allowed Design Toscano to continue to sell his fantastic work of art. Design Toscano is appreciative to its customers who informed us of this oversight and as always we celebrate artists and their creative work