Recently, there have been some articles and blog posts floating around lambasting Steampunk for any number of failings -- real or imagined -- that the genre seems to express. Now, there are some that I agree with, and if you've followed my Twitter back-and-forths with Paul Jessup or read his fantastic article on "The Future of Steampunk" (posted at Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders and Mad Hatter's Bookshelf and Book Review), then you already know that I'd love to see more non-European Steampunk kicking about.
However, one of the primary complaints that I seem to be seeing in regards to Steampunk is that it's not historically accurate. That people couldn't have possibly developed the level of technology some of the fiction evidences -- like airships, for example. Despite the fact that Henri Giffard first flew a dirigible in the 1850s, certain commenters on other blogs (not here) have insisted that airships were an invention of the 20th century and not the 19th, therefore you can't possibly have someone flying an airship on the level of the Graf Zeppelin if your timeframe is earlier than 1900.
All right I can see that argument -- Zeppelin developed his airship in 1898 to 1899, but he didn't fly it until 1900, so the point is valid. However, and here's the really, really big point that I want to make for people who dislike Steampunk on basis of it not being historically accurate enough:
Steampunk is Alternate history.
Alternate history, by its very definition, isn't 100 percent historically accurate because you're changing the historical record with your fiction. If I wanted to read a Steampunk novel that was accurate historically to the minutest of details, then I wouldn't be reading a Steampunk novel -- I'd be reading historical fiction.
So someone who complains about the lack of historical accuracy in Steampunk is missing the entire point of the stories. It's supposed to be an alternate history set in the Victorian period of world history. There is no reason for Cherie Priest, Gail Carriger, George Mann, or S.M. Peters to get their history 100% accurate because they're not writing historical novels. They're writing alternate histories with a Steampunk aesthetic that happen to be set in the 19th century.
This complaint about historical accuracy leads me of course to wonder if the people who use this tired old excuse hate the entire genre of alternate history. Do they despise the Harry Turtledove novels where aliens land in the middle of the Cold War? Or his stories where the South wins the American Civil War? Or the alternate history novels where the American Revolution never happened?
Steampunk, as I've said before, is more concerned with what could possibly happen in a real-world society with advanced steam power and mechanics introduced into the proverbial mix. If you can convince the reader that your world could possibly exist, then you've done your job as a writer. There's no reason for you to be overly concerned with complete historic accuracy -- if you're writing a story set in Victorian England, then focus on the aspects you need in order to create the flavor of the time. You're changing things anyway by including the advanced steam power and mechanics that you're already throwing into the society.
Main point? Steampunk doesn't have to be 100 percent historically accurate. Be accurate as it relates to your story. That's all you really need to be concerned about.