Friday, May 03, 2013

Book Review: Vintage Tomorrows

You probably know O'Reilly for their programming books. However, they also publish books in a variety on variously geeky themes—a number of which I've rather enjoyed. So I readily accepted their PR agency's offer to review a copy of Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into the Future of Technology. One author, James H. Carrott, is a freelance historian and former Xbox 360 hardware product manager. The other, Brian David Johnson, is a futurist at Intel. 

The steampunk themes explored in the book that resonated the most with me were those of exploration and making. 

The Victorian era—steampunk's nominal origin and venue—was a time of great scientific exploration and wonderment, when things like carbon arc lights were still marvels.

To light the sea underwater, there is a strong light or 'ships lantern'  in an exterior enclosure at the aft end of the top deck.  The enclosure is tall enough for Nemo to rest his elbows on it while he gazes on the surface of the ocean (perhaps 1.2 m or 47 inches) and the sides must be pretty nearly vertical, also.  The windows are Fresnel lenses with annular rings, like windows in lighthouses.  Fresnel lenses can be circular, square, or cylindrical, surrounding a light, so Verne may have had any of these in mind.  This light illuminates the sea all around the Nautilus so it is more a flood light than a search light with a narrow beam. The light source is an electrical carbon arc in a vacuum, with graphite points.   The exterior light or lantern of the  Nautilus  combines the best technology of Verne's day.

VintageTomorrows Cover 200x300

Claire Hummel says in the book that "I really love the Victorian sense of exploration, never giving up on exploring new things and new worlds. We have covered most of the planet but we still discover new deep sea creatures or go into outer space. That's why I like steampunk—at it's core it's about discovery and wonder."

According the authors of Vintage Tomorrows—and their many interviewees—steampunk is also a celebration of making, the antithesis to mass-produced, featureless goods. As Cory Doctorow puts it in an interview: "Technology should be tinkerable." This dovetails into ideas such as individuality, the ability to change, and the control over technology. 

As Carrott notes:

There was a time when you could take apart devices. A pocket watch is just one example. People took apart things like rotary phones, transistor radios and cigarette lighters. An ordinary person could take one of these apart, understand how it worked, and maybe even put it back together! Empowering, right? You were smarter than the device. You understood how it worked.

The book features lots of interesting interviews, rumination, and dinner party conversations around steampunk and vaguely related topics. I'm sure that I (and many of you) would have enjoyed being guests at those dinners and other events. 

That said, the prologue warns that "We couldn't tell this story in a traditional manner. It literally defied our every attempt. So we gave in and let it lead us."

In fact, the book is not really a narrative on the topic as you'd probably expect, but more of a journal or memoir about writing the book and filming the associated documentary. It doesn't really have a narrative flow as such. 

I also confess to finding that the style of Carrot's writing in particular—most of the book explicitly separates the voices of the two authors—often seemed to be about making interviews as much about himself as his subject:

"Well, there's something going on," he [science fiction author William Gibson] agreed. "There's something wider going on culturally that I don't identify with steampunk, but I think steampunk might be another slightly more exotic symptom of it."

I couldn't suppress a grin. Bill-freaking-Gibson (I know that's not his middle name) had just, without prompting or a direct question, affirmed the suspicions I'd voiced from the story of this project. There's something bigger going on. And that's what this chapter is really about—the something bigger.

Far from being unique, the above text typifies much of the book. It's not a case of an author occasionally personalizing some experience. It's about constant interjection.

Furthermore, the book makes frequent references to works such as Gibson's The Difference Engine, a book which the index tells me is mentioned on eight different pages. Yet, although it also profusely quotes Cory Doctorow's introduction to a 2010 edition of The Difference Engine, it nowhere really explains what it is about this work that makes it worthy of so much attention in a book about steampunk and how it relates to the various steampunk themes discussed throughout.

Such is probably the nature of interviews; interviewees don't always provide a lot of context for what is, to them, well-plowed ground. But that's the value of wrapping interviews with additional narrative and background. Of which there's too little here.

Ultimately, this book contains plenty of interesting—even fascinating—primary source material. And that may well be enough for someone with a strong interest in the topic at hand. It was (barely) for me. But I can't help feeling that Vintage Tomorrows succeeds better as source material for a book about a "journey through steampunk into the future of technology" than it is at being that book. 

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