This past Friday (Sept 8th), I had the extreme good fortune to take part in Empiricist League #20, aptly titled Histories of the Future. Along with my two fellow speakers, I had the chance to do a little time travel. Of course, as a historian and lover of all things steampunk, my talk didn’t look nearly so much at “future histories” (the future of architecture, agriculture, and space travel) as “Past futures.” I began the talk with a signature line from the my recent book CLOCKWORK FUTURES:

Every good history begins with a story. The best of them build bridges through time where one story’s end is lost in the next one’s beginning, like a dragon swallowing its own tail.

We invent out history at the same moment we invent out future; it’s the unusual consequence of a “present” that’s always, always, passing away. But even more fascinating, the genre of steampunk invents it’s pasts, too. Intrepid novelists from William Gibson and K. W. Jeter to S. M. Peters (of Whitechapel Gods) look backward to the Victorian technologies of the past and reconstruct a future world where steam still reigned supreme. Jules Verne looked at what the very near future might hold, but here in that future, we are bold to look back and envision an “other” world, a time of technological carvinal barkers selling their science on the street corners.

And of course, that’s not very far from the true history of science and technology’s rise. We still find ourselves “selling” science, still arguing that this new item ought to be funded, this new technique or toy granted a right to be and to evolve. Through the talk, I had the chance to talk about some of those early devices and developments. I *also* had a chance to look at the consequences. Electricity and industry may have wrought great positive change, but they wreak havoc, too, and even now we can’t really see beyond our present inventions to what part they will play in future destruction. That kind of foresight, so often denied us in fact, nevertheless populates our fictions. So, as I said in the atmospheric underbelly of Union Hall in Brooklyn last Friday, if you are keen to see the future… sometimes it’s best to pick up a novel. You never know what you’ll find firing your imagination, stirring your desire for (and your dread of) the future of history.

Watch an excerpt: File Sep 11, 1 11 58 PM

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