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Vintage Vantage Points: Steampunk and Such

I’m not much of a collector. I move too much to lug around vast amounts of anything except books, but in the last few years I’ve amassed an archive of Omni Magazines. For the uninitiated, Omni was the weird precursor publication to magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired. It also serves as a bridge between the old order of science fiction (i.e., space ships, interstellar exploration, cold-war oppression, etc.) and the brink of cyberpunk (i.e., networked computers, chip implants, nanotech, etc.), the latter of which emerged during the periodical’s print run (from October, 1978 to Winter, 1995). I hoard and read Omni for the same reason I read old computer books, hacker histories, and science fiction at all, for that matter, and I’m not alone.

Omni Magazines

Besides the sheer historical function of my stacks of Omnis, which provide an archive of thoughts hardly thinkable now, one of the reasons I enjoy digging through them is the alternative futures featured in their pages. Omni often asked Big Thinkers of the time for predictions. Most of the target years for these prophecies have come and gone, so looking back to look forward is fun, funny, and informative. For instance, in the January, 1987 issue, David Byrne is among 14 thinkers asked about technology 25 years ahead, in 2007. Some of the others include Bill Gates, Timothy Leary, and George Will. In the retro-future sprit, Matt Novak’s Paleofuture, another great source of alternative futures, posted Byrne’s pessimistic predictions in 2011.

Vintage TomorrowsLooking back to look forward, speculating about what might’ve happened had history taken a different turn is largely the premise of steampunk. Sometimes called allohistory, sort of a retro version of design fiction, it’s all about exploring an alternative take on how things have happened. In Vintage Tomorrows (Maker Media/O’Reilly, 2013), James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson, a historian and a futurist respectively, take their opposing backgrounds on a journey through steampunk culture. Though usual suspects China Miéville, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow all show up in its pages, Vintage Tomorrows is less about the literature and more a global, ethnographic exploration of the whole culture. The gadgets, the costumes, and the reasons are all here in a highly readable, adventure-style form. Oh, steampunk is serious business, but fun is a big part of the focus. “Steampunk strikes me as the least angry quasi-bohemian manifestation I’ve ever seen,” says Gibson, “For god’s sake, it’s about sexy girls in top hats riding penny-farthing bicycles. And they’re all sweet as pie. There’s no scary steampunk.”

With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from my dissertation advisor Barry Brummett’s talk, “Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You Small,” delivered on October 3, 2012 at our own The University of Texas at Austin [runtime: 4:34]:


You might think collecting outmoded, outdated magazines is silly, that looking back to look forward seems completely wrongheaded, but, as Henry Jenkins points out in the foreword to Vintage Tomorrows, Christopher Columbus sailed west to get east. Looking back to find paths not taken can yield interesting results. New lands await.