I have been hearing so much in the last couple of years about how this country has lost its edge: We don’t make anything anymore. We’ve lost the spirit of competition and innovation. We don’t know anything and can’t teach our children anything. We no longer have dreams or ambition. We, collectively, lack the energy to do anything except get up off the couch for another beer. To quote the replicant Pris from Blade Runner: “Then we’re stupid and we’ll die.”
Yeah, we just wallow in it. … And then you go to an event like Santa Rosa’s The Great West End & Railroad Square Handcar Regatta & Exposition of Mechanical & Artistic Wonders, which is also colloquially known as the “Steam Punk Festival.”1
This was no manufactured, slick ’n’ span commercial carnival or theme park put on for the benefit of gawking rubes.2 The handcars of the festival’s name were creations of individual imagination and energy: magenta turtles and white swans, H. G. Wells’s time machine, a yellow submarine, a Flintstones car on stone rollers, a rowboat on penny-farthing bicycle wheels &hellip: every outlandish thing that might ride on rails propelled by human power.
But it wasn’t just the handcar builders and racing teams who were there to show off. The crowd was thickly sprinkled with people in Victorian costume with sci-fi flourishes: bowler hats and vests, bustier tops and fishnet stockings, goggles and gadgets, ray guns and rocket packs, pinstripes and parasols. The vendors were the sort of booths you see at street fairs every weekend in the Bay Area—individuals selling handmade clothing, craft items, artworks, local and period foods—with a decided tilt toward 19th century costumes, jewelry, and memorabilia. If you didn’t get into the spirit of the thing, you just didn’t get it.
So, what was this? The last decadent gasp of a dying culture, spiritually retreating into a past that never was, in place of a future that never will be? Well … not to look around at the faces. This was fun. This was whimsy. This was people coming from all over the region to play in a consensual fantasy.
It reminded me of what I’ve seen for years at science fiction conventions: people in costume from their favorite books, movies, and television shows. The inspiration might be commercial, but the energy and effort that go into design, tailoring, and accessorizing beat anything a bride might invest in her wedding ensemble. No one shows up in a store-bought costume thinking he’s going to be anything but ridiculous. The whole point is to exercise your own imagination against a common theme.
Science fiction is not alone in this kind of creativity. All over the country millions of people attend annual and monthly events, conventions, conferences, and festivals celebrating murder mysteries, romance novels, comic books (ahem, “graphic novels”), super heroes, gothic horror, vampires and werewolves, historical miniatures and board games, military reenactments, jazz and ragtime music,3 classical and chamber music … anything that can be pictured, played, compared, confabulated about, and loved. If there’s a passion for it, there’s a meeting place for it.
I suppose the roots of these conventions and festivals go back to medieval Europe and the festivals held on a saint’s day, and then to festivals, holidays, and religious observances held in every culture. But the secular twist and the connection with some aspect of popular culture is particularly American. So is the urge to dress up in costume as if it was Halloween—another European festival that Americans have made their own.
Much as you might think our popular culture today is run by Hollywood and Madison Avenue—that we consumers just put our heads back like credulous turkeys, open our mouths, and let the evil masters pour in their homogenized goo and sludge—there’s actually a complex feedback loop going on. I won’t deny that a profit motive may drive the story lines and bend the images appearing in novels and brought to the big and small screens. But these conferences and conventions are also attended by writers, artists, producers, and designers. You can’t package and sell leading-edge imagery and imagination, whether in future fantasy or society murder, unless you have your finger on the pulse of the aficionados.
So is this the last gasp of couch potatoes who are too lazy and stupid to manufacture real goods and provide real value? Instead, we make costumes and dress up to play at fantasy? Hardly. American invention and ingenuity are doing just fine, thank you. We make more goods than the Chinese—it just doesn’t look that way because most of what you see imported from China are relatively inexpensive personal electronics and consumer goods. And even there, much of the value comes from American invention and design. What makes an Apple iPhone or iPad the coolest thing ever and worth a couple of hundred dollars apiece are the creativity and vision of people working in Cupertino, not the ten dollars worth of assembly work done in Shenzhen. The great story of American productivity is masked by the automation in our factories: Our low-skilled manufacturing jobs didn’t go to China; they went to a machine in Schenectady controlled by a computer programmed in San Jose.4 The economic genius of America now resides in designing the machines that people in other countries will build for pennies on the dollar.
And with all this, Americans of average education and means are still not a poor people. We’re not a third-world tragedy waiting to happen. Just the opposite. We have solved the ancient problem of human want. Here in the third year of a great financial collapse, we are still 91% employed. Our grocery stores still bulge with foodstuffs and consumables. The vast majority of our countrymen still have jobs, homes, cars, lives—much more stable and secure lives than during the Great Depression. Yes, there are also hunger, homelessness, and growing uncertainty. But amid the so-called collapse, we still have time to celebrate frivolity.
Look around you at the people going about their pleasures. This is something new in human history. This is the utopia of ease and comfort, of spirit and imagination, about which the writers and philosophers of a hundred years ago could only dream.
1. For those who are not aficionados of science fiction, steam punk is an extension of cyber punk that imagines the electron had never been tamed but the digital age happened anyway—and during the Victorian era. Charles Babbage’s difference engine meets the Jacquard punch card, and everything is driven by billowing clouds of steam. Jules Verne and Nemo’s Nautilus—especially in the Harper Goff design: all spiny and spiky with huge iron rivets and fierce, glowing eyes—are the epitome of steam punk.
2. Well, I came as a gawking rube, but that’s my role in all this.
3. Where the costuming runs to tuxedos, flapper dresses, straw hats, and garters.
4. See Automation, Work, and Personal Meaning from February 27, 2011.