Paul Jessup addresses this danger in his article ‘The Future of Steampunk‘ which can be found on his excellent blog, Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Review:
Novels not only give us a bit of escapism, but are also inspirations and blueprints to our thought process and our moral centers. [...] Steampunk as escapism that tells us Empire is grand! [...] We need to see more books with an anti-Empire bent, about anarchists trying to overthrow the evils of Colonialism and the wrongs of a Monarchy. Or even more books taking place in worlds that don’t have Empires.Steampunk has been criticised for ignoring the bad elements of the Victorian society, such as child labour, slavery, extreme poverty, imperialism, racism… etc, simply because of the want to romanticise the era.
C Scott Morris adds to the discussion:
I don’t think Steampunks romanticize imperialism. One of the key features to the genre/subculture is ‘punk’. Rebellion.
Steampunk does not ignore the negative side of the period, nor does it embrace it. With Steampunk, and it’s sister Cyberpunk, there is a feeling of dystopia, of tyranny and repression, and Steampunk rebels against it. Steampunk is away of saying that all those negative things from the past are still going on now, and we don’t like it.So where is this impression coming from? Could it be that by revelling in the aesthetic elements of Victorian times, people are essentially romanticising the era? Can such a leap be made, from the appreciation of artistry to the acceptance of out-dated values? Perhaps Jessup has a point: despite the innocence of escapism, are steampunks inadvertently attaching themselves to these values?
But wait. As Morris says, we mustn’t forget the ‘punk’ in all of this. There is a difference between Victoriana and steampunk.
Steampunk is not there to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the prettiness of the 19th century. The whole point of setting the genre in the past is to highlight the same terrible issues that are still relevant today. Just as dystopian fiction is usually set in a parallel future society to hold a mirror up to our own, steampunk is set in a parallel historical society to say ‘learn from the mistakes of the past – look what could have happened. Look what is happening now.’ If the steampunk book you’re reading doesn’t have this element to it, perhaps it isn’t steampunk.
(image from ectoplasmosis)