Charles Stross has this great takedown of steampunk, noting that it glorifies a time when:
Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat.
I struggled with the same thing. But I have to note that I have the same fundamental objection to Fantasy, particularly big fat fantasy.
If the industrial revolution was harsh, remember that the peasants fleeing the country-side for the Dickensian, coal-stained air of London were leaving the countryside for a better life, the same pastoral life that people like Tolkien and his later imitators and admirers hold up as a world like ours, but purer and with horses.
However, the period that steampunk holds up so dear is the same period that perfected genocide, racism, wholesale destruction of Africa, manifest destiny, and so on and so forth.
To be true, I hold that steampunk is a just a modern iteration of the previous generation’s pastoralism. Tolkien was looking back a couple hundred years to a time just outside his horizon and thinking of it as ‘a better age,’ which is not uncommon with human beings (it’s been going on since… forever).
Now in the 21st century, our previous age was industrialization, that’s the age we look back to that’s *just* outside of our horizon where we can strip out all the negative stuff of the Industrial Age and think of it as a simpler age, and acquire the window dressing of it to use in our various Fantastic Tales.
Machinery is easier to understand. The simpler science of the time was easier to understand. The aesthetic of handmade detailing as applied to machinery, customization and individualization, in an age of disposable and manufactured goods, is understandable.
In that manner steampunk is more of an aesthetic rejection of modern aesthetics, it’s primarily a manufacturing/cultural manifestation, as evidenced, I think, by the fact that the bulk of steampunk’s appeal is in the objects (the movies, bulk produced mass consumer objects, have failed to do as well) and the style, which have penetrated further out than the literature objects.
But ultimately, I share Stross’s discomfort, which is why my steampunk plays have often been about adopting the style and nodding to the history. Crystal Rain, what I called a Caribbean steampunk novel, is about Caribbean peoples and the reconstituted Mexica (Azteca in the book) of old with a Victorian level of technology, using the clothing/symbols of steampunk, but making their artificiers black.
Sadly, Crystal Rain, written in 2006, seems to have come out just before all the hotness, as it rarely gets mentioned as a steampunk novel whenever these celebrations happen.
Goggles via Smugmug
Update: Dave Bower correctly points out that Nisi Shawl just wrote a very excellent musing of some of the literature that has used steampunk while exploring that reactionary/pastoralist nature.