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AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S

NOTEBOOK

Free Companion

to Vintage Tomorrows

JAMES H. CARROTT WITH BRIAN DAVID JOHNSON

STEAMPUNKING

OUR FUTURE


Steampunking Our

Future: An Embedded

Historian’s Notebook

James H. Carrott with Brian David Johnson


STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

by James H. Carrott with Brian David Johnson

Copyright © 2013 James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson. All rights reserved.

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February 2013: First Edition

Revision History for the First Edition:

ISBN: 978-1-449-36429-8

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Contents

1 | Futurehunting and Historyhacking 1

2 | Why Settle for the Lesser Death Ray? 9

Index 39

iii


Futurehunting and

Historyhacking

| 1

1


FUTUREHUNTING AND HISTORYHACKING | 3

Carry a Notebook; Time Is a Tricky

Business

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson (Seattle, WA and Portland, OR)

You might be surprised to learn that a historian and a futurist are a lot alike.

We’ve discovered some downright eerie similarities in the way we work, investigate

ideas, and talk about our findings (heck, even in the jokes we make along the

way). You might say that we both deal in what’s “not now.” But that’s not really

what makes our work similar. It has to do with pattern recognition and the study

of change, but at the gut level—where it means the most—it’s probably the fact that

we both have to live every day with the ginormous paradox inherent in our work: in

truth, it’s always now. When the future and the past are your bread and butter, you

need a healthy sense of humor. You know, the kind that comes equipped with a

well-developed appreciation for irony—which, theology and physics aside, all too

often seems to be the prime moving force behind the whole darn thing. Time is a

tricky business.

For Brian—our futurist—the future is always in motion. The future is made

every day by the actions of people. Anyone who tries to “predict” the future isn’t

respecting its complexity. (They are also probably trying to sell you something –

Beware!) As a part of his research Brian jets out around the globe futurehunting;

looking for early examples of the future happening today. The future might always

be in motion but you can find it and watch it play out, exploring how it will

affect people, culture and technology.

Partway through our research, James turned to Brian and said something

like: “You’re always talking about the future being in motion—that all we really

need to have is a vision for the kind of future we want to live in. You realize that

the past is the same way, right? The past is always in motion.” At which point there

was probably some head nodding, likely accompanied by the more patient variant

of Brian’s “James, I’m humoring you—get to the point” look.

James then got to the point: “History lives in our heads; it’s always changing.

If we have to ask ourselves what kind of future we want to create, we also have to

ask ourselves what kind of past we want to be from.”

Brian probably yelled, “That’s brilliant!” and then we moved on—but the point,

having been “gotten to,” had been well and clearly established. History is always in

motion. It’s something we experience and share with living minds and bodies.


4 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

A notebook and a driving Victorian house. What more could a historian possibly need? (photo

courtesy of Andy Pischalnikoff)


Names and dates aren’t a tenth of it. Much more of it’s about the experience of

imagining being a human in another (often place and) time.

So James doesn’t only do a heap-ton of research exploring the past—he’s also

an embedded historian, exploring the past and participating in culture to get a

deeper understanding of what it all means. He’s interested in the feelings much or

more as “the facts”—trying to understand change from the inside out.

Researching steampunk, then, meant being steampunk and doing steampunk

(a little like Brian’s globe-trotting future-quest, but with weirder clothes and

a couple fewer airplanes). It wasn’t a big stretch. We learned in our research that

steampunk can be an early-onset phenomenon (see Vintage Tomorrows, Chapter 7).

It’s highly probably that like so many others, James has always been a steampunk.

He just didn’t know it yet.

The other thing that James and Brian share in common is that they take a lot

of notes. The past and the future are elusive, tricky, and relentless. Both of us write

constantly, pulling images, taking pictures, gathering whatever data we can to try

and capture the essence of what’s happening. That’s where this book, Steampunking

Our Future: An Embedded Historian’s Notebook, came from. Also, James really

wanted to prove that he can, at least from time to time, actually read what he scrawls

into the little moleskine he carries around wherever he goes.

Starting in on Steampunk

FUTUREHUNTING AND HISTORYHACKING | 5

One of the first things we learned is that steampunk is both a noun and a verb. You

can be a steampunk (noun). You can also steampunk something (verb). It became

very obvious on our journey through steampunk and into the future of technology

that people were punking culture all over the world. Our future was being

steampunked! We had to learn more!

We found that steampunk is an indicator of broader change in our culture.

Human beings have always built the future out of the stuff of our imaginations—

but we are newly aware of that now, consciously creating the worlds we want to

inhabit. We found that people want a future that incorporates the past, and that a

growing group of modders, makers, hackers, and imaginauts are out there building

it. We also discovered that people want technology to help us be more, not less,

human—with all the quirks and hairy bits that implies. Finally, and perhaps most

importantly, we discovered that humor—from the cleverest wit to the goofiest

slapstick to the most irreverent tweak of the nose and everything between—is

essential to all of these things.


6 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

This project led us all over the world and introduced us to some of the most

fascinating people you could ever meet. Our journey has been documented in our

book Vintage Tomorrows and in the documentary film by Byrd McDonald. It’s been

the source of multiple articles, essays and interviews. This book captures more of

that journey, and it can do that because it’s a notebook—a different sort of beast

with its own outlook on life. We’re confident that you’ll get the gist of it pretty quick.

We’ll begin over beer and enchiladas with Weta Workshop’s ray gun magnate

Greg Broadmore, and prowl the Australian outback with tinker evangelist

Mark Thomson in search of beautiful machines… and an electric chook plucker.

(“Chook” is Aussie for chicken.)

We’ll talk punk, writing, and design over a pot of tea with literary luminaries

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, dive head-first into the steampunk convention circuit,

bodge about with popular culture for a bit, and play dress-up with some of steampunk’s

finest couturiers.

We’ll roll up our sleeves for field repairs in the desert with the crew of the

Neverwas Haul, and take a tour through David “Dave Apocalypse” Gruen’s sideshow

collection—wondrously bizarre marvels of past and possibility. Finally, we’ll

spend some time with SteamPunk Magazine’s founding editor Margaret Killjoy,

talking about how steampunk just might save the world.

Betwixt these notes and noodlings, James shares some more detail on his

research and methods. He’ll also provide some tools to help you get the most out

of your own steampunk journey. Finally, having formally established this book as

a “notebook” he feels at complete liberty to jot a few things in the metaphorical

margins.

WELCOME ABOARD!

If you’ve already joined us on part of this journey through the Vintage Tomorrows

book or documentary film, you already know a little of what’s in store. What

you might not expect, however, is just how much more remains to be explored.

If you’re starting here, welcome to the Vintage Tomorrows project! You’re a

part of this voyage now. Take your seat on the giant airship. Pull your top hat and


goggles on tight, cause we’re fixin to party like it’s 1899. It’s time to reimagine our

past so we can build a better future.

Historian’s Note to the Early Reader

Good on you. You’ve jumped in at the start of what I’ve come to think of as

a species of “living book.” We’re entering a new media age—one which,

among other things, is enabling an increasingly wide variety of dynamic

literary beasties. This particular critter will be serialized. This means that

the book you have in front of you will grow and change for a bit as we add

content and let it settle into its final form.

Don’t panic! It’s terribly easy. You don’t even need a towel (though you

might want one just in case—darned useful things, towels). When we up-

date the book with new content you’ll get an email letting you know that

the book has been updated. Just follow the link to download it. We ex-

pect to release a total of three updates at approximately two week inter-

vals. When we’re done updating, we’ll also remove this note, so as not to

create confusion once we’re done.

FUTUREHUNTING AND HISTORYHACKING | 7


8 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

Party like it’s 1899 (image courtesy of David Maliki !)


| 2

Why Settle for the Lesser

Death Ray?

Our historian heads to New Zealand to talk with one of the best known

steampunk artists in the world. “Artist, writer, and friend to robots”

Greg Broadmore works for Weta Workshop, the folks behind the costumes

and makeup for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. We

knew him best as “the guy who makes those awesome ray guns.” Greg

was an unwitting part of the Vintage Tomorrows project from the start.

His 2008 graphic novel/catalog Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic

Dingus Directory was one of the four publications James sent Brian

during the first weeks of our research, and his creations kept coming

up in conversations. We talked about Greg’s ray guns with Cory Doctorow,

William Gibson, pretty much the entire crew of the Neverwas

Haul... the list goes on and on. His limited edition ray guns have made

him a legend—some have sold for as much as eight thousand dollars a

piece.

But even with all that under his belt, Greg Broadmore is a lot more

than “the awesome ray gun guy.” To name just a few of his film credits,

Greg’s work has appeared in: Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong

remake, Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the

Wardrobe (2005), District 9 (2009), Avatar (2009), and Steven Spielberg’s

The Adventures of Tintin (2011).

James turns the whole Vintage Tomorrows crew green with envy

as he and Greg gets into it about steampunk, artistry, history, inspiration,

play, imperialism, and, well, blowing shit up.

9


Greg Broadmore (photo courtesy of Steve Unwin, Weta Workshop 2011)


A Historian in the South Pacific

James H. Carrott (Wellington, New Zealand)

Meeting Greg Broadmore was one of the easiest things on earth. I dropped him

a line, explaining the Vintage Tomorrows project, and asking him if he might be

game to chat ray guys and retro-future over a beer. He kindly agreed and suggested

we meet at the Roxy Theater in Miramar.

“It’s got a lovely restaurant and has a little Grordbort’s in the mix,” he said.

The Roxy isn’t your average theater—Tania Rodger (co-founder of Weta

Workshop) and Jamie Selkirk built it with Peter Jackson so they could premiere

films at home in style. I arrived early. The place was decked out in Academy Awards

finery but eerily quiet. A gala for the awards had just completed and everyone had

already left. True to form, I needed to look around. (It’s not every day you get to

hang out in Peter Jackson’s cinematic home). As I climbed the stairs to the upper

lobby I saw what Greg meant by the place having “a little Grordbort in the mix.”

Greg, it became clear, was a master of understatement as well as its

blunderbuss-toting inverse. “A little Grordbort in the mix” turned out to be a breathtaking

mural—giant robots and rocketeers that covered the entirety of the huge,

vaulted ceiling—and a near-full exhibition of character portraits from the Grordbort’s

universe displayed on easels in elaborate gilt frames. All that and a full bar.

Ah, the benefits of showing up early…

Once Greg arrived, we headed a couple storefonts up the street to a Mexican

place he likes—the Roxy was shutting down for the night, and we were just getting

started.

What’s in a Name?

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 11

We sat at the end of the bar and ordered a round of Tuatara, a good local beer. So

there we were—two big-bearded geeks waiting for enchiladas. Greg’s beard wins,

by the way.

“I’ve been thinking,” I said, taking a pull from my pint, “about how things get

labeled. You know, how the beats became ‘beatniks’ or how Ken Kesey and Tim

Leary became ‘hippies.’ How did your ray guns become ‘steampunk’ and what does

that mean to you?”

“I kind of fear labels more than anything,” Greg earnestly replied. “When

somebody gets labeled—and especially if you’re put in that label too—it becomes

something to set another thing against. If you’re a hippie you’re set in opposition

to conservatism or whatever, right? As an artist, I always feel like I want as much


12 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

Understatement of the month: Greg’s ceiling mural at the Roxy, Miramar, New Zealand

freedom as possible. You don’t want to back yourself into one sort of stereotype

because then you will take all the baggage that goes along with that.”

Greg took a sip of his own beer and continued. “I actually went through a period

as a teenager when I didn’t feel like that. For instance, punk rock—that became a

thing I totally identified with. It was because it was already set against other things


More unsubtlety in action

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 13

that I didn’t like that I loved it, and I wanted to be identified with it. But these days

with something like steampunk, it’s different. I don’t really mind because ultimately

it’s up to other people to define what you do. You just make it and then see

what people call it, but at the same I feel that instant reaction like: ‘Errh, I’m not

sure… Is that what it is?’ or, ‘That’s not what I thought it was.’ So it becomes this

kind of uneasy truce between letting people interpret things how they will and not

wanting to label yourself.”

China Miéville said much the same thing of his work (Vintage Tomorrows,

Chapter 9). That’s how movements get assembled and cultural moments get defined—through

a process of pattern recognition and amalgamation that ends up

with shows, anthologies, bibliographies, conventions, and, now, Wikipedia entries.

What Greg and China both call out is an element of being a self-conscious

creator-—an understanding that their audience is going to make up their own

minds about what they see. It’s a recognition that the other side of the cultural coin

is outside the creator’s control: you put something out into the world and it finds

its place.


14 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

“So,” I responded. The beer was surprisingly good, one of those that goes down

fast in the right way. “To you, it’s fine however people label your work, but you don’t

see it as limiting you?”

“Yeah, exactly,” he nodded. “Also I often find myself pushing in other directions.

I haven’t deliberately done anything to be anti-steampunk, but the Grordbort

stuff includes a lot of pulp elements and a sort of 1940s and 1950s type of

science fiction. That was always an inspiration right from the start. As an artist,

especially as a visual artist—for me anyway—you always want to do something

different; to surprise yourself, to learn more. I don’t necessarily try to go forward

in time because Grordbort is seated around the 1930s and the sort of futurism from

around that early part of the century.”

“But with a sense of Victorian imperialism at the same time, right?” I interrupted.

A bad habit, I know, but we were chatting and drinking and well, there was

a lot of the 19th century in Grordbort as well. “You’re pulling from a bunch of

places.”

“Totally,” he replied. “It’s got so many elements and that’s why I haven’t revolved

Grordbort’s around times and dates so much—I haven’t brought in too many

other historical events. It’s almost like it’s an alternate vessel all together.”

This harkened back to my conversation with Mark Thompson about Henry

Hoke (see Vintage Tomorrows, Chapter 10). There’s an interesting kind of temporal

thing going on here. Not so much messing about with a particular past—which

is part of the innovation steampunk brought to science fiction in the second half

of the 20th century—but assembling history like fusion cuisine. This approach

produces flavors that feel familiar but are intentionally hard to pin down.

“It’s freedom,” Greg said.

“You know,” I said, gently pushing my cleared plate aside, “part of what I enjoy

most about steampunk is exactly that freedom. I think of punk as a verb in this

context—it’s taking something and messing with it. Punk is a thing you do to

something else.”

“It’s good that you say that because I always wondered what the punk part of

steampunk or cyberpunk was,” he admitted.

Greg was far from alone here. If I had a nickel for every time I heard this, I’d

have a lot of nickels. Steampunk is a catchy term. What’s more, like many such

terms, it has a familiar flavor; it feels just right enough that most folks don’t stop

to question it. If/when they do, the “-punk” part tends to raise eyebrows a little:

“Wait, these really polite weirdos in spats and goggles don’t really look like rabid

Sid Vicious fans…”


“Leila Phantom” (photo courtesy of Stardog and Greg Broadmore)

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 15

“Well, I’m not sure it started out that way,” I said. “The use of the word has

changed.” (We dig into this, with some help from Oscar Wilde and Ann Vandermeer

in Vintage Tomorrows, Chapter 6.)

“Yeah that sounds about right, though, because that’s what I view punk as

being.” Greg’s been around this block before. “I was really into punk rock itself and

the whole punk culture and all the ideologies around anarchism and stuff like, I

was totally fascinated by all that stuff, very much into it. When you distill it down,

punk was just fucking with anything that was established.”

“Absolutely—turn it on its head, turn it inside out, spin it from a different

direction and make people think about it. I don’t know,” I mused. “I think there’s

something about our ability to do that now, that’s different from where we were

before the World Wars. I think something happened in the middle of the last

century that just kicked this stuff into overdrive.”

“It seems to me,” Greg responded quickly—he obviously thinks a lot about this

stuff—“that a barometer for it would be that life around us in Western culture now


16 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

is self-evidently accelerated. I just look at five years ago, ten years ago, before there

was an Internet in the way that it is now. You forget so quickly that there wasn’t a

Facebook not that long ago, or that e-mail wasn’t such a substantial part of your life

that long ago, where right now you carry that shit with you everywhere in your

pocket with you at all times and check it all the time. You can speculate very easily

based on technologies that are around or emerging now, that this shit is only to

get more so. It will probably be within our lifetimes easily and maybe even within

the next few years that you will have e-mail and communication access to the

internet at all times, right onto your eyes or whatever. Maybe within our lifetime

directly into our occipital and auditory nerves or whatever, who the hell knows? It

just doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary.

“It’s funny,” I said, thinking back to the beginning of my own journey into

counterculture and cultural change. “That’s the sort of thing Tim Leary was talking

about when I met him back in college—direct communication to the brain

through light waves.” Connecting steampunk with 1960s counterculture might

seem a stretch at first blush, but the historical patterns are connected. (My 1993

interview with Dr. Timothy Leary is in Vintage Tomorrows, Chapter 2. We also

explore the counterculture connection further in Chapter 12 at Burning Man and

Maker Faire.)

Greg didn’t blink an eye as I continued: “At that time, it sounded like the most

fucked-up crazy impossible thing, but also brilliant and insightful and kinda prophetic.”

“Yeah, totally,” he nodded, “and if everything around us has changed, it seems

like massive change and you’re trying to deal with it. I know that I’ve been struggling

these past couple years, trying to rationalize to myself—in my own personal

life—how do I deal with e-mail? E-mail had suddenly come to dominate my life in

just the space of like five years. And through a lot of that too, like I love Gmail, I

love that application, I love the way it works and yet I started to think: ‘fuck, how

much of my life is just spent here just trying to answer emails and deal with them

all?’

I often look at different people for examples and different models. I look at

people who are great communicators—I have some friends who are brilliant communicators,

who seem to answer every e-mail. And I have other friends who sort

of modulate their lives by just being brick walls. They only answer in the most pithy,

direct, ‘here’s the info you need’ way or by not responding at all. If it’s anything

that is not critical, then they just don’t say anything back. And I’m like: ‘fuck, which

one of those am I? Am I like this dude who is massively one way or massively the


other?' They are both equally successful. I just don’t even know. I vacillate between

them, going from: ‘fuck it I just won’t respond’ to ‘okay, I respond to everything.’”

“Well, I’m glad you responded to my mail,” I said, raising my glass a touch in

appreciation. “What cracked me up about this topic of conversation is I was literally

trying to figure out, ‘okay, how do I get to Greg Broadmore? I’m going to

Australia, I know he’s in New Zealand. How do I get in touch with this guy?’ So,

I’m trying to figure out people that I know who might know you and I couldn’t find

a connection. It was the first time the ‘degrees of separation failed me’ in all my

research. Then I just e-mailed you directly through your website and you said ‘sure,

let’s have a beer.’”

We both had a laugh.

“So you assumed that I wouldn’t respond directly?”

“Well a lot of people don’t,” I explained, not trying to be critical—hell, my own

email etiquette leaves a lot wanting.

“That is my sin,” he chuckled, “I do. That’s how I’ve gotten myself into the

communications trouble I’m in. Most of the time it’s actually really satisfying,

though, because the vast majority of it is youngsters wanting to know what you do

and how to get into the same situation. It’s really gratifying.”

Historian’s Note

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

You may find yourself in another part of the world

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful

wife

You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 17

— TALKING HEADS

“Once in a Lifetime” (1980)

I take full responsibility for pulling us a wee bit off topic, but I sometimes

(all the more often since embarking on this project) have these moments

of “wow, how did I ever end up here?” When I do, I have to interrogate them

a bit in an effort to find out what makes them tick. Some people take apart

machines to see how they work. As a historian, I essentially do the same


18 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

thing with moments. As a bit of a heretic, I apply these methods pretty

liberally—considering my own experience as fair game as any one else’s.

“Well, how did I get here?”

This question is actually relevant to our inquiry in a broader sense, as

it’s tied up in the broader realm of “what’s possible?” Had you asked me a

year before where I expected to be in February 2012, I would not have

answered: “hanging out with Greg Broadmore in a Mexican restaurant in

New Zealand.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these adventures, it’s

that imagination can change the world.

Keep an open mind, follow your passion, and you never know where

you’ll end up. Probably in the right place at the right time if you…

Just Do What You Do

[Bilbo] used to often say there was only one Road; that it was like a

great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was

its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,”

he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your

feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— FRODO BAGGINS

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

“So do you get a lot of people who are just saying: ‘Wow, how the hell do you do

this amazing stuff?’” I asked. Greg was, it seemed to me, a natural magnet for

aspiring artists.

“I’ve never had a good answer for that because I feel like I just got here randomly,”

he said, sipping at his beer a little pensively. “Not randomly, really, but

there’s never been a plan, do you know what I mean? There’s no plan to get any

particular point. So anyone who is trying to get the same point, whatever that point

may be, is pretty much asking the wrong the question. But at the same time I want

to encourage them, because I know that what I ended up doing is such a satisfying

thing to do that if I can help people trying to get to some way towards that or

doing something like it, then that is what I would like to do. But there is no answer,

because ultimately it’s: ‘Well, what is it you are doing?’ You just trust your

decisions, take the opportunities that you like and build the opportunities that

haven’t popped up.”


WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 19

“That’s the best answer I’ve heard from the few people that I’ve asked the

‘how do you do it’ question: ‘well, you just sort of do it.” It is, as The Hobbit’s

(now an Oscar-nominated feature film, shot right here in New Zealand—design

work by none other than Weta Workshop) Bilbo Baggins reminds us, all the same

road, and it can take you anywhere—you just have to take that step out your door.

“That’s what I’ve been doing.” This approach has clearly worked for Greg.

“Figure out what it is that you do,” I said, “and do it and keep doing it over and

over and over and over and over again and get better at it. And that will turn into

something. It may not be what you expect it to be, but don’t try to be me, try to be

you.” It’s something I think a lot about both professionally and personally—and a

value I really want to instill in my daughters. This level of thought called for another

round. Fortunately, a pair of bottles hit the table a moment later. Our server

apparently recognized a thirsty conversation when she saw one.

“Exactly,” Greg responded, a veteran of many more such engagements than I.

And even if it doesn’t work, the means is often a bit of an end. If you’re thinking

at it from the point of view of: ‘I want to get to this endpoint,’ like ‘how do I become

a film designer?’ or ‘how do I become an artist?’ or whatever, you’ve got the thinking

about it the wrong around. You should be thinking of the means. What is it that

you want to do? ‘I want to illustrate a picture.’ ‘I want to write a story.’ That’s the

important part and if you enjoy that, then hopefully you’ll make something good

out of it and that gets you to the next point. The end? Maybe that matches up to

somewhere close to where you were hoping you would get to. But it shouldn’t be

the goal. I don’t think anyway. That’s the way I think of it anyway. I don’t think so

much in terms of a definitive goal. Now I’m confusing myself, I’m thinking: ‘do I

do that?’”

We both laughed at that. I love talking to other people who think as they talk.

There’s something more authentic about sitting down with someone who’s clearly

processing what they are saying as they say it. I know it’s more polished and

professional to have a set of things you say—more memorable, perhaps, to have a

single speil. But some of us think through our ideas out loud, and when we get

together, I think we learn a lot more than if either of us was just running through

a script.

But back to the subject at hand—a lesson on life as much or more than steampunk—doing,

making, improving, changing, becoming.

I was thinking about motivation. “There have been some psychological studies

and books recently about what motivates people. The thing I’ve read most recently

is a book called Drive, by Daniel Pink. It’s about what motivates people and


20 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

about the assumption that is still a fundamental part of corporate culture—this idea

that what motivates people is offering them more money. It actually turns out that

financial incentives function on your brain almost like cocaine does. It just eventually

ends up numbing you and doesn’t produce the best work. What really what

motivates people is first, pay them enough to take the question of money off the

table, and second, to present them with challenges and interesting questions that

feed what excites them, what they do best. What truly inspires people is the drive

towards mastery. Pink presents it as a curve that never quite reaches the line. You

know, like when you keep cutting a number in half over and over again you’ll never

actually get to zero. You are always striving to get to the point, but you never make

it—and that’s the fuel that really produces the best work.”

“That’s the frustrating thing,” he said. “I think what it’s like for a lot of young

people is that you feel like you’re going towards mastery, and then the realization

you have as an older person is that there is no such thing.”

“Right.” Well, he was.

Greg nodded at the waitress’s unspoken offer of another round. “Even if you

spend your entire life aiming towards that, you are never going to get there, because

if you do get there you’ve failed. What are you going to do after that? That’s

no satisfying point. You always want to be learning more. If you stop learning,

something has gone drastically wrong with your life.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “the minute I stop learning might as well be the minute

I keel over dead.”

“It’s only if something satisfies you and inspires you,” Greg continued, “then

you want to keep on doing more of it. Then you get to the point where if it doesn’t

satisfy and inspire you and you find something that does and learn that way. You

always want to be learning more and more. I mean that’s what I think of art and

creation: it’s just the process of learning.”

The Roots of Ray Guns

Tired of waking up to miscreant martian meanderings on your es-

tate? Fed up with rival corporate ninjas pilfering trade secrets? Or

merely out for a spot of endangered beasty butchering? The MAN-

MELTER 3600 is the thing for you! Buy a second for that lucky neph-

ew or niece.

— GREG BROADMORE

Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory (2008)


WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 21

“The Righteous Bison” (photo courtesy of Stardog and Greg Broadmore) Yep, it looks cool.

“So,” I said, starting in on what I was pretty sure was my third beer (possibly fourth…

the point I typically start to lose track), “where did Dr. Grordbort and Lord Cockswain

and all those wonderful guns and toys come from? How did that become the

thing that was driving you?”

“The easy answer,” Greg responded, “is that I’ve always had Flash Gordon

specifically as the crystalline imaginary point in my head. I used to go to my Nana’s

place and watch the original black and white series and at the same time I would

watch the old Tarzan and King Kong and all the pulp adventure stories from that

era. When I was about 5 or 6 there was a lot of that on television on a Sunday

afternoon, and those kind of just stuck in my head. It affected me massively, even

though probably a year later I would have been totally obsessed with Star Wars. A

year later Star Wars would have taken over my life. Because Star Wars is the remix

of the same stuff again.”

“My uncle took me to see Star Wars when it came out in ‘77,” I said. “I was 5,

and it absolutely did take over my reality for a very long time.”


22 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

“I was the same age,” he smiled. " I would have seen it a year later because New

Zealand was a year behind in the movies at that point.”

“So I always had that love for that science fiction from that era,” he continued.

And particularly for some reason the ray gun. I love weapons in general and

something about the ray gun is really appealing. I think it’s the overtly designed

nature of them. So I drew a bunch of them, probably back in the 90s. I did them

as little sketches and I even talked about them to a friend of mine who had a clothing

label putting them on a sweatshirt or something like that. Then I just sort of shelved

the thing. I just left it for a bunch of years.”

“So what happened?” I asked.

“I managed to get a job at Weta and that was a massive changing point in my

life,” he replied. “I had been unemployed for all of my adult life and all of a sudden

had an income and this amazing job. And even though I suddenly had the best

job in the world, I just got itchy feet and needed to create my own original stuff.

So he made ray guns. Okay, not real ray guns.

Greg reminisced, “I painted these ray guns for my wall. I did nine of them, in 3

x 3 grids and I popped them up on the wall. Richard Taylor, who owned ideas for

merchandize at Weta, was asking: ‘Has anyone got any original ideas they want to

try out?' So I said, ‘We should make these ray guns. They look cool, they would be

fun.’

It kept building from there.

Greg: “We should do them in tin boxes.”

Richard: “What about in an old jewelry case?”

Greg: “Yeah, yeah. They should be velvet lined and they could have all those

little accouterments. We could have a manual with it.”

It was a pivotal moment of creative synchronicity. Greg pitched his ideas, and

Richard filled in the blanks. “He was immediately, ‘Oh this is one of those things

that makes sense. You make a gun, you put it in a jewelry case.’ He could instantly

see the product.”

“Well, you knocked it out of the park.” I said, thinking of Cory Doctorow’s office

and the proud place one of Greg’s ray guns occupied in it. “They have become

tremendously aspirational items. Having one of those is a mark of a serious invested

geek.”

“Yeah, to buy a crazy expensive gun,” he chuckled. “It’s not like we even make

a lot of money out of the guns. The guns are expensive to produce, even though we

are making them as cheap as possible. What we have done is really art. There is no

way we can make this a commercial product—it has to be a piece of art, because


that was the only way we were going to be able to substantiate the price that it was

evidently going to cost to make them. ”

“Do you physically build any of them yourself?” I asked.

“No,” he said, clearly wishing he did. “I draw a couple of diagrams, maybe a

couple of specific drawings in certain shapes and then the rest of it I hand over to

Dave [David Tremont, Weta Workshop, Senior Model Maker], and I would work

with him every day, come down and see where he was at. I have worked with other

people that just don’t have the same library of shapes in their head, maybe because

they are more focused the shapes of modern technology. But he is like me—

he has a real intrinsic memory of all the older technologies, older ways, and so he

knows how to build these into shapes that other people might not necessarily get.”

Historian’s Note

I can’t help but interrupt here to express my deep and abiding envy of Brian

for getting to hang out in Cory Doctorow’s office (Vintage Tomorrows,

Chapter 3). Cory’s Grordbort sidearm is a GOLIATHON 83 infinity beam

projector (“…Some say its ambient radiations increase the manhood.* /

*tumefacterous growths not covered under warranty”). Point: Brian. Of

course, he didn’t get to have enchiladas with Greg Broadmore in Welly-

wood. Point: James. Add that to the Key West Literary Seminar (Chapter

10)—another point for me, and it’s 2:1 historian!

In the end, however, I did have to concede the “Who Did the Coolest

Stuff” trophy to Brian, who took me up on a flat-out dare and called Jus-

tin Bieber’s people to talk about the young Canadian crooner’s steam-

punk christmas video (Chapter 12), then followed that up with an after-

noon with Bruce Sterling (Chapter 17). Punk. (Directed at Brian, not Bruce.)

Yes, we keep score.

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 23

“Is he actually reaching into old parts?”

“No, that is all almost custom made.”

So, no physical salvage in this imagined past. What’s more, they’re intentionally

props—designed to look and feel cool, not to do anything else.

“I remember in the ‘MANMELTER,’ which was one of the first ones we made,”

Greg continued, “there is only one mechanical part and that’s a light switch.

Externally everything you see is custom made. Inside, underneath the thumb switch


24 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

on the back of the gun is a little pin with a plastic electrical switch, we put it in there,

we felt it, ka-chunk, made that satisfying clunk and I said, “Yep that’s the one.”

And here’s the thing: Greg’s ray guns really are works of art. The MANMEL-

TER’s “ka-chunk” is a clincher on that score. The details matter—a lot. But they’re

also products, fabricated from raw materials in Weta’s workshops. They scavenge

forms, ideas, and shapes from the past, but create them new, from raw materials.

In some ways, this is the antithesis of the maker ethic we’ve been exploring. If Mark

Thompson wanted a ray gun, he’d build one out of bits and bobs he’d scavenged

from his town’s rubbish. On the other hand, the underlying process is the same—

you find something you love and pursue it, build it, and make it real.

Historian’s Note

This is, of course, not so far from what the writers we’ve spoken with do

(see Vintage Tomorrows, Chapters 9 and 10 for conversations with China

Miéville, Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, and more). Of course, writers

don’t have the option of just lifting others’ words. Well, except when they

do, as in the recent wave of mash-up classics like Quirk Press’s Pride and

Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina. Funny, the more I explore,

the more I learn, the more this all seems cut from the same cloth. Even

things that seem at face value to be complete contradictions are all a part

of how we as a culture process what it means to be caught up in this new-

ly digital age.

If there’s a fundamental thread underlying steampunk and all the related cultural

changes we’ve been exploring, it’s this idea of enacting the imagination. The

tech Greg uses is different from Mark’s, but they’re both tapping into the past as

they build their pieces of the 21st century. What’s more, they’re both inspired by

technology itself.

Greg and the folks he works with at Weta are artists. They just happen to be

working in films because that was the avenue that presented itself. This struck me

as an echo of our earlier talk about motivation and inspiration.

“It’s a way to make a living doing what you love.” I said.

“Exactly,” Greg responded with a grin. He’s humble as all heck and well aware

that he’s living the dream. “You’ve just got people with creativity flowing out of

them and this is the way they’ve been able to direct it. So you can turn that turn that


towards collectables, you can turn it towards paintings or sculptures or public art,

whatever, it’s just all this energy and it just needs to go somewhere.”

Stories, Heroes, Villains, and, er… Villains

Bilbo: “I do believe you made that up.”

Gandalf: “Well, all good stories deserve embellishment. You’ll have

a tale or two of your own when you get back”

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 25

— BILBO BAGGINS AND GANDALF

Peter Jackson, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

“So, the Grordbort stuff started with the guns,” I asked, “and then you needed a

story?” Everything needs a story. Even guns.

“Well,” Greg responded, “it was really a case of Richard saying, ‘You should do

a comic based on this, to tell people what the guns are about.’ Luckily I had already

been thinking about it.”

“‘Grordbort is an incredibly stupid thing to have named it, though.” He chuckled

a bit. “I obviously have no marketing sense. I just picked a word that phonetically

sounds a bit like my name, but that was not intentional.”

“I think it’s actually brilliant—quirky and distinctive,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, accepting the compliment politely, but eager to get back to

the good stuff. “So when I started doing the book, I wanted the book to have this

fairly long-winded name and so his name came in there because that in itself was

sort of long-winded and silly. Part of it was to establish a back story behind the guns,

but it also needed to have some sort of reason to be a book—for me it was to mimic

the advertising in the first part of the book, which turned into a catalog. It’s basically

just satire against consumer culture and buying objects that are of absolutely

no use to you.” It does that brilliantly, by the way.

Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory is a satirical catalog full of

outrageous products, many of which you can actually buy at outrageous prices, but

none of which actually do anything. This twist plays out in how Greg tackles the

element of industrialism and empire in his work.

“Okay,” I said, as we started into what I knew would be the final round I could

handle, “so, Tolkien. Very different impulse from Grordbort. The Lord of the Rings

movies you guys did at Weta were immensely successful—the amount of effort you

guys put into that paid off in spades. I’m really looking forward to The Hobbit. It’s

been my favorite book as far back as I can remember.”


26 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

“It’s the first book I read,” he replied. Wow. Me too. Did Greg and I grow up

along strangely parallel paths on opposite sides of the world? It sure seems so—we

share a huge library of cultural references, and experienced them similarly—we’ve

stumbled across more than a couple parallel emotional chords during this evening’s

cultural ramblings.

“Tolkien’s vision is very pastoral, right?” I went on, ‘cause I had a point to make

beyond ‘The Hobbit is cool.’ “Saruman is industrialization and machinery, machinery

is bad, industry is bad. And what kind of ended up winning out in the end was

the destruction of industry.”

“Right, the destruction of technology,” he replied. I think Greg and I might

have slightly different twists on the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that

nuance isn’t really relevant to the issue at hand.

“But at the same time that The Lord of the Rings is hugely popular,” I went on,

“you yourself make all this stuff that’s something very different; stuff that embraces

technology in certain ways. And the fandom overlaps. I love The Lord of the Rings,

I love Grordbort, but they are diametrically opposed in some way, right?”

“I think they probably are. It’s really past versus future, which whether it’s

future or past—and I think in Tolkien it’s very much the past. Basically we have

the Hobbits and their society—the quainter way survives and the mechanized reality

fails.”

“Star Wars and even Avatar are actually kind of similar, right?” Greg continued.

“Ultimately it’s industrialism versus the little guys, who are much more primitive

and using older stuff.”

I nodded in exaggerated agreement. “It’s the little guy on the jungle planning

on going up against the Death Star.”

“Yeah, this giant planet made of technology,” he said. “But it’s much more

simple than that in a way because it’s not technology that’s inherently evil. It’s

actually the individuals. Sauron is just evil. Darth Vader is just evil.”

“I hesitate to even compare Grordbort to those two, really,” he continued with

a note of humility, “because it feels massively over-arching, but I haven’t singularized

Grordbort. I suppose Dr. Grordbort himself actually epitomizes technology,

but Cockswain is actually the other facet. There is no good guy and no bad guy in

the Grordbort’s universe. There are two bad guys. One guy is just a reflection of

society. Grordbort, he’s just a guy that will make whatever people want. He’s like

Fox News, saying: ‘You want crass sensationalism and fear mongering? You love

it? Here you go, take it in spades.’”


WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 27

“Yeah, here’s news porn.” I’m somewhat less than fond of Fox News and am

not especially good at keeping such opinions to myself.

“Exactly.” Greg continued on Grordbort’s character: “He sees that same cynical

world. He is amoral. If anybody ever argued with him: ‘Why do you make guns?

Why do you make this, that, and the other?’ He would say: ‘Well why do you buy

them? I’m just giving the people what they want.’ He’s ultimately just representation

of pure cynicism. Lord Cockswain, on the other hand, is ultimately a murderer

and a killer of innocents, but he’s actually a baby underneath it all. He’s a child.

He is born into this way of thinking, and doesn’t even think of it as bad. So I don’t

even know if it’s comparable. I just never draw a conclusion on one side or the other

because I don’t think it’s that simple. I totally understand the desire. Avatar is the

same thing again. Avatar is the same message: primitive in touch with the earth

versus expansionist technology. In that case expansionist technology loses and the

symbiotic natives win. I loved that movie, I loved it to bits. It dragged me along and

I was totally in the moment with that story, I loved it.”

“I did too.” Truth be told, I hadn’t expected to like it, but the film was surprisingly

moving.

“But at the end of it,” Greg said, “I felt the same way as when I first read the

first screen play. I don’t like that naïve view of humanity and society. I don’t like

saying that there is a polar opposite between the natural and symbiotic and technology,

I always think of them as one and the same. We’re animals.”

Greg’s hitting a chord here that resounds through our research: our relationship

with technology is both complicated and simple. Human beings are walking

contradictions. We’re crass, hairy, and driven by base urges. But we’re also dreamers

and creators, capable of sublime inspiration and amazing harmony. (We get

deeper into this tangly idea in Vintage Tomorrows, Chapter 17.)

“I think that any animal that got to our position in the food chain would end

up doing the same. We always want more. All animals want more. Evidently, what

life wants is more. And the more successful life form you are the more you get. And

that’s why even though we all like to have good versus evil and good is always the

small guy and bad is always the big guy, I don’t like to distill things down to those

points. Even though I enjoy them, I enjoy them in other people’s stories—I never

want to tell that exact same story. I kind of want to have to remind people that no,

no, it’s never that simple, we’re all the same.”

“I think that’s what makes Lord Cockswain’s character work so well,” I said.

“It may just be as simple as the fact that it allows me to enjoy flaming blasters and

giant explosions, death and destruction, and balls-out adventure and feel good about


28 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

it because I know it’s also a satire of those thing. You’re kind of thumbing your

nose at empire.”

And secretly you wish you could be like Cockswain,” Greg said with a wry

smile.

“In some ways,” I admitted, “yeah.”

“You’d like to not have to analyze everything and think about everything.

Cockswain is like a lion. Is a lion bad? It’s not. It just is what it is.”

“He just kills whatever he is pointed at.” I commented.

“But actually he’s lovable,” Greg responded. “You want to noogie him on the

top of the head.”

All too true. Greg’s search for a story to explain his ray guns ended up creating

an extremely compelling character—an avatar of destruction who’s also your

best chum.

“At the same time this stuff is pretty deeply critical of empire, right?” I asked.

I mean, the way Cockswain talks about ‘putting Johnny Alien in his place’ and all

that. You’re totally poking fun at that and not glorifying it, while at the same time

you’re reveling in it.”

“Reveling in it, yeah.” Greg smiled. He’s done something very clever here, and

while he’s a humble guy, he sort of knows it.

“Exactly, but at the same time kind of glorifying it, too.”

“One of the biggest criticisms of steampunk, actually,” I swigged at my final

beer before returning to this topic, “is that it glorifies empire and ignores all the

stuff going on in the background. But you are not forgetting about what’s going on

in the background.”

“No, I’m pushing it up to the front.” Greg’s got a devilishly mischievous grin

that he pulls out for occasions like this. “Because it’s both good and bad.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Armadillo? Have you seen it?”

I hadn’t.

"Armadillo is a documentary about this group of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan,

and the culminating moment of the film is really up close. There is this

cameraman with them at all times, so he goes through a couple of their big skirmishes

and the final skirmish is point-blank combat with the enemy where you are

actually seeing them shoot the Taliban. Then the camera walks up and sees the

bodies dying on the ground and the guy shooting them in the ditch, dup, dup, dup,

dup. And in that moment you are both disgusted like: this is what people are, this

is savage and horrific and horrible. And at the same time, I defy you not to feel the

thrill, like the lion. The thrill of being the guy that just survived and killing the guy


WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 29

“Lord Cockswain’s Triumph” (photo courtesy of Stardog and Greg Broadmore)

that was trying to kill you. And that’s impossible to avoid on either side. That’s why

people are both. We are both disgusted at ourselves for being murderers and yet

you cannot deny that being there as the all-empowered killer is the most satisfying

thing you are going to want. Especially in this day and age—I don’t know why

they are, but we are equally fascinated with the villain and the hero.”


30 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

“There is an element of that in the way that we approach our technology too,”

I observed. “I know that my iPhone is going to be landfill someday. I absolutely

know that. I know that the amount of power I consume when I gun up my Xbox

and I turn on my HDTV and all that sort of shit, that I am helping in the destruction

of the earth and yet I’m not going to part with my iPhone. I fucking love it, it’s

a great toy.”

“Yeah, and why should you? And why would we deny anyone else the same

thing?”

“There’s an element of paradox in so much of what we do,” I mused.

“Yeah, totally. I like to acknowledge that.” It’s eerie—this guy is like my more

talented (and more bearded) doppelganger or something. We just keep nodding

and saying “yeah, yeah.”

Historian’s Note

I’m working off a transcript here. For good or ill, the expletives that ap-

pear in this book are not gratuitous. I’d rather leave them in than censor

them out of some arbitrary sense of propriety. That goes double here where

we’re talking about human beings and our baser emotions. Plus, some

things are actually better (though perhaps less tastefully) described with

a drink or two under one’s belt and an, er… let’s say “healthily-diverse”

vocabulary.

“In any fiction I tell,” Greg continued, “I am going to acknowledge that humans

are complex. They’re paradoxical. I think ultimately fairytales are the most

popular tales because people want there to be a right side and a wrong side. I don’t

know if you felt the same but I felt taken along for the ride with Avatar but also

kind of violated by it because I knew before hand what that story was going to be.”

“Well there was a naiveté at the ending. It was like okay, yeah, I get it and I

want Gaia to win and I want harmony, but I also know that in practice nothing is

that simple. Granted, I felt very differently when I was, say 23. Then it was black

and white.”

“Yeah, yeah, totally.” Greg nodded in agreement.

We continued drinking and talking, oblivious to the fact that the restaurant was

emptying out around us.


Made-up Worlds We Can Really Live In

Mal: “Are you offering me a trade?”

Jayne: “A trade? Hell, it’s theft. This is the best damn gun made by

man. It has extreme sentimental value. It’s miles more worthy than

what you got.”

Mal: “What I got? She has a name.”

Jayne: “So does this! I call it Vera."

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 31

— MAL AND JAYNE

Joss Whedon, “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Firefly (2002)

“Speaking of Avatar and all that,” I said in ham-handed segue, “I’m stunned at the

sheer amount of film work going on here.”

“Yeah, it’s crazy.” Greg was kind enough to just run with it. “I don’t think

people quite know just how much gets done here—how much of Avatar was made

here for instance. So many movies get entirely visualized here. It’s just crazy. I don’t

know what the percentage is. It’s probably quite a small percentage but for some

reason it’s stuff that’s noticeable.”

“Well,” I said, having just seen Greg’s name in the credits of The Adventures of

Tin-Tin, my in-flight movie between Melbourne and Wellington, “it’s the better

stuff.” Now, every time I really enjoy a movie’s aesthetic, I scan the credits and more

often than not, Weta Workshop (and generally Greg as well) appears among the

scrolling names.

“I suppose,” he said, “a lot of people come here because they know it is a high

quality, but also from a slightly different perspective. Our design philosophy at Weta

has a very high and unique sort of criteria. Everyone talks about realism in films

and Weta does too. Weta has I think a certain set of traits that help to channel that

level of reality. And it may not be more real than other films at all, but its own blend

that works out to be sort of that it resonates with people in whatever way.”

“I suspect,” I commented, rapidly synthesizing what I knew of their work

(both helped and hampered by my relative intoxication, “that the balance between

the parts of the story that are important to tell visually and the parts that can kind

of be left to the imagination is a big part of that.”

“There is a lot of disdain in our design department for over-designed things.

There are a lot of movies that have a really crappy over-designed ‘science fiction for

science fiction’s sake’ kind of look. No one in our design group likes that. They tend

to be grounded more in science more than fiction. They have a real sort of indus-


32 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

trial design aspect to them and a real pragmatism about how people interface with

the technology.”

“That speaks to what you were talking about earlier about simplicity and about

that need for groundedness.”

“It’s important for people to understand things straight away,” Greg pointed

out. “You want people to look at an object in a movie and just get it even if they

can’t explain why. There might be weeks and weeks of thought involved in some

object, but it should all work in two seconds of seeing it on screen—you immediately

know what it is and what’s it for and why it is there. Because ultimately, design

—illustrative design, sculptural design, and so on—is just storytelling. You are just

telling another part of the visual story. It’s obviously the part that we’re all fascinated

with. I was fascinated with it as a kid. I loved the design of Star Wars for instance

or anything like that.”

“Battlestar Galactica for me too,” I said. “There was always something about

Star Trek and the like that missed something for me, and I think part of it was it

didn’t feel real.”

“It doesn’t feel used.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “I got to talk to one of the guys who made the models for

Star Wars when I was covering the opening of a museum exhibit and he described

the aesthetic as ‘used universe.’”

“Yeah, I keep on saying it,” he said, “even though it’s not popular to use Star

Wars as a reference point anymore probably because it is over used and also because

the recent movies are more for kids now. But it’s still totally true. It did this

kind of epoch setting thing—the Millenium Falcon was a totally futuristic thing but

it felt like a rickety old piece of shit which is awesome, an awesome idea.”

“Because it’s so perfectly counter-intuitive,” I said. “The classic ideal of the

space ship is that it’s got to be badass gorgeous and perfect…”

“Well futuristic things don’t break, right?”

“Totally,” I laughed. “This is something my co-author, who’s a futurist, talks

about. It’s actually a big challenge for him in his work, because people tend to

imagine the future as this perfectly clean, smooth, seamless, clean-shaven thing

and the truth is that human beings just aren’t like that. It’s one of the big questions

behind this book: how do you build a future that is human, that human beings

can actually inhabit? The past has a place in that, you know? I think that people of

our generation, maybe people more broadly now, are strongly drawn to objects that

you can have a relationship with—that feel more like they’ve had human hands on

them. Objects that carry stories, history that you can relate to. The fact that the


WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 33

Millennium Falcon breaks down all the time makes it feel like the car that breaks

down all time.”

Greg hit the nail on the head. “You’ve earned that vehicle. You relate to it. It

will be interesting to see more speculative fiction based on high-end computing

and personal computing and like worn computing and stuff like that that start to

incorporate that, because we don’t really have that yet. Whenever there is science

fiction that speculates on current science, where technology is going at the moment,

so like amazing communications and the ability to overlay with computerized

data and all that kind of stuff. It’s always very clean and makes sense and usable.

But how many times have you sworn at your iPhone or Android or computer that

has done something unpredictable and annoying and you have to fricking fix it.

Those are actually the normal everyday parts of computing that we actually take for

granted. When science fiction deals with those things, it tends to be more of the

sort of idealized version of it, or: ‘what happens when it gets even better?’”

And that doesn’t ring true somehow, right?” I said. “That makes me think of

the conversation we had at the Key West Literary Seminar” (Vintage Tomorrows,

Chapter 9). There was this sense from a lot of people that it was really hard to write

science fiction now. There’s also this kind of sense that we are already living in the

future, so how do you project out from there. It’s going to be either total bullshit or

it’s going to happen tomorrow. Either way it falls flat.”

“That’s the thing with science fiction, right? To me it’s a big part of the appeal

and why I wanted to create Grordbort in the first place. When you look at old

science fiction which was my inspiration, you see all the ways it’s interpreted things

wrong, speculated on things and missed. When you look at science fiction with any

kind of hindsight it always looks funny because it’s never right. If it is right it’s

probably because they were too boring.”

“It’s funny,” I said. “In setting science fiction in an imaginary past rather than

an imaginary future, you are actually freeing yourself from the expectation that what

you are doing is predictive.”

“It actually makes me think,” Greg mused, “that Grordbort and things like it

may actually be just sort of comments on science fiction, as opposed to science fiction

themselves. That’s kind of what I was doing with the first one. It’s kind of having

a joke at science fiction to some degree and playing around with the notions of what

we think the future will be. When you look at Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the future

didn’t turn out like any of that. Nothing even like it really. There might be aspects.

Every now and then there is a kernel of science fiction when you look back at some

writer and say, ‘Oh he got that right.’ But if you look at it as a whole it is so drasti-


34 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

cally wrong as to be quaint again. That’s why I love doing things like Grordbort.

When I started them, it was about pointing out how wrong science fiction can be.

I like that about science fiction. It’s not a criticism, I was just kind of reminding

myself that hey, science fiction isn’t necessarily stuff that’s going to pan out.”

“Well it’s part of the play of it.”

“Yeah, it’s just total exploration of the possibilities, and I like the fact that it

pans out wrong. I think that’s the appealing part of how culture goes, is that you

can’t expect it.”

Very true. There are patterns, but that’s a conversation for another time. As the

point directly at hand, I certainly don’t disagree. Culture changes. If you expect

much more than that, you should get comfortable with disappointment.

Greg went on, illustrating his point, “knowing everything that we knew about

computer technology when we were 8 or 10 years old, would you ever have guessed

what was going to happen with the Internet?”

“No way,” I replied. “I still feel like Dick Tracy every time I talk to my kids

through FaceTime on my iPhone. I never in my life would have imagined that I

would have a video phone in my pocket.”

“Or that you can access a massive database of encyclopedic information anytime,

anywhere. That would have seemed so science fiction to you as a 12 year old,

it would have blown your fricking brain.”

“Oh, absolutely,” I replied. “But it’s different for my kids. They sort of expect

anything. I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on my iPad with my kids. We were

sitting in the bed, sharing these films that I loved when I was a kid and I found

myself just being blown away by the fact that I was holding a TV that I could pause

and carry around and I had this ‘whoa’ moment.”

And they are like: ‘Dad stop moving the TV.’”

“Yeah,” I said, laughing, “they were like: ‘Dad what are you doing? Stop playing

with that. We just want to see the show.’ It was just sort of there for them. Part

of the background.”

“We take those things for granted so quickly. That’s like what we were talking

about earlier—that technology seems to be on this rapidly accelerating curve

and always towards unpredictability as well towards endpoints of it that you don’t

really think are going to pan out. I mean some of them, I don’t know, some of them

might seem to be like obvious endpoints, but it shakes out different in one way or

another.”


“I wonder,” I said, swapping an empty bottle for its full, frosty twin, “if there

is something about pointing out the ridiculousness of it all that helps us be a little

bit more prepared to handle all this change.”

“I don’t know. I mean like the idea of jumping in a rocket ship and taking a

breezy afternoon jaunt to Venus, which would have seemed obvious to some science

fiction writers. That’s what we will be doing in the year 2000. Wernher von

Braun is building the rocket, we’ll be going to Venus on our weekends.”

“Put the bullet in the giant gun and fire it into the face of the moon.”

“That would have seemed completely normal and here we are 70 years later,

having been to the moon and there is nothing of the sort. Other ideas have rapidly

come forward but even those have shaken out differently. Like science fiction

would never really go to the base places that technology gets used for as well. Like

most of the internet is porn, no one was speculating on that. Or very few people are.”

We had another laugh. “The same thing happened with photography,” I said.

I think with any new medium, really. Human beings tend to gravitate towards those

kinds of base urges. Sex and violence and…”

That’s the unchangeable, right? People’s interests won’t change that much,

because seemingly we’re not evolving as fast as the technology. Our base urges,

those things that make us all people or human, they are more or less the same, we

like the same stuff. We like watching sports, we like being tribal, we like watching

violence, we like watching sex and stories we like all that sort of stuff and I don’t

see even a thousand years I can’t see how that would be any different.”

“We will still be apes.” I replied, with an appropriate, if somewhat less-thanwizened

burp.

“Yeah, yeah totally.”

Historian’s Post Script

Greg and I have kept in touch off and on since our interview. He’s a damn

good human being and it’s still a little weird to me just how much we have

in common, even though we grew up on opposite sides of the world. That

might say something about our global culture. On the other hand, it’s quite

possible that we’re just freaks of nature.

WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 35

I confess to being the much worse correspondent (I honestly don’t

know how he does it), but I sent him an email as soon as I got back from

Burning Man (Vintage Tomorrows, Chapter 11) and began my reentry in-

to the digitally-connected world. Two reasons put him at the top of my list.

The first was that I was really excited to share our “Early Release ebook”—


36 | STEAMPUNKING OUR FUTURE: AN EMBEDDED HISTORIAN’S NOTEBOOK

Humans have stuff: our jackets awaiting us on the sill at closing time. Greg: black leather jacket.

Me: sport coat and Grodbort poster. As in the case of the beard, I concede “way cooler” where it’s

due. Greg wins.

the first edition of my first book! The second was that I’d discovered an-

other trans-pacific link. The crew of the Neverwas Haul were as Grordbort-

obsessed as I was, and their send-up of Empire (“Hail Hibernia!”) rhymes

beautifully with Lord Cockswain’s bold and bloody buffoonery.

It’s a mutual admiration society. Greg thinks the Haul is awesome. I

shared a couple of pictures with him, and have to admit to bragging a

little (I’m a reasonably humble human being, but when you drove a three-

story house across the desert and back before tea time, you brag). He got

a good chuckle out of the Haul’s “Monkey Cannon” (more on that bril-

liant implement of projectile comedy later in this notebook), and has add-

ed driving the Haul to his list of “rad things to do.” He’s been aboard

Verne’s “Sultan’s Elephant” on the Isle of Nantes, though, so we’re even in

a way. (Yeah, I am forever keeping score—it’s an old-school gamer habit

that’s damnably hard to break.)

Knowing just how small the world truly is, I am certain that Greg will

have his own turn at the helm of the Neverwas Haul someday. I hope to be


WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER DEATH RAY? | 37

there to see the mischievous gleam in his eye as he calls out “Dead-man

Forward!” and the magical house on wheels lurches into synchronicity with

the mind that birthed Dr. Grordbort. Oh the glorious chaos we’ll create...


Index

A Armadillo (movie), 29

B

Broadmore, Greg, 11–35

attraction to ray guns, 21

fear of labels, 12

Grordbort works, 14, 25

Leila Phantom, 15

on punk culture, 15

on Tolkien, 26

photo of, 10

ray guns as art, 23

Righteous Bison, 21

Triumph, 29

view of technology, 27, 33

C cultural change

steps for, 13

D

Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic

Dingus Directory (Broadmore), 25

E

empire, 28

I

imaginative history, 24

Industrial Revolution, 26

L Leila Phantom (Broadmore), 15

Lord of the Rings (movie), 25

P pattern recognition, 13

Punk subculture, 15

punk, defined, 14

R

ray guns

as art, 23

Broadmore’s attraction to, 21

photos of, 15, 21

Righteous Bison (Broadmore), 21

Roxy Theater (New Zealand), 11

S

science fiction, 33

smartphones

wonderment of, 34

T

Taylor, Richard, 22

technology

beauty of, 34

need to understand, 27

The Hobbit (Tolkien), 25

We’d like to hear your suggestions for improving our indexes. Send email to

index@oreilly.com.

39


40 | INDEX

Tolkien, J.R.R., 25

Tremont, David, 23

Triumph (Broadmore), 29

W

Weta Workshop, 25


About the Authors

James H. Carrott may have been born a historian, but definitive proof awaits further

mapping of the human genome. A self-described tech nerd, anachronist, game

geek, fanboy, and contrarian, James has followed an eclectic career path that has

taken him from the deepest recesses of America’s colonial past to the future of

gaming and entertainment and everywhen between. Among many other things,

he’s been a miniature strategy game national champion, co-founder of a community

radio station, union steward and treasurer, host and producer of innumerable

radio programs, and once had the San Francisco Mime Troupe over for supper.

Prior to embarking on his Vintage Tomorrows adventure, he served as global

product manager for Xbox 360 hardware. James (aka CultHistorian) is currently a

freelance historian, writer, and design consultant, researching cultural change to

explore the future through the creative application of the past. He resides in Seattle,

Washington with his two daughters in a little flat packed with books, comics, games,

and toys.

The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation,

his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work

is called “future casting”—using ethnographic field studies, technology research,

trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of

consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering

development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction

as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in

articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake

Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming

This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and

commissioned painter.

Colophon

The text font is ScalaPro, designed by Martin Majoor. The heading fonts are Benton

Sans and Glypha—the former font was an adaptation by Tobias Frere-Jones from

News Goth, which in turn was designed by Morris Fuller Benton, and the latter

font was designed by Adrian Frutiger.

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