So, writer Juanita McConnachie (alias Writer’s Block NZ) sent me an interesting question last week:
I was wondering if I could pick your brains on steampunk… Do you know if a ‘steampunk’ society would have any particular values?
Frankly, I was intrigued by the question. I’m not really sure I’ve seen something like this addressed anywhere before. On the contrary, I’ve seen some work out there that has refuted the idea that steampunk can inherrently be tied to any specific values or themes at all. But, I thought a full and fair answer to that question requires a little bit of thinking about the history and development of the steampunk genre, and an identification of what it is.
First of all, Steampunk has been described by people smarter than I in the subject not as a genre but as an “aesthetic” (see: “Steampunk Scholar“). I’ve even seen the steampunk aesthetic described as “goth discovers brown“. The idea behind defining it thus is that you can skin the steampunk look on something from virtually any other genre – fantasy or sci fi and beyond – and describe the result as “steampunk”. This is a half-truth, though, because you can skin the components of advanced technology and space exploration over anything and call it sci-fi or of magic and pointy-eared humans over anything and call it fantasy. But the thrust of this argument is that a proper “genre” of fiction touches on certain consistent and discernable thematic elements.
Regardless, what we characterize as steampunk tends to adhere to Victorian-era aesthetic sensibilities, and describes the “future” as it then may have appeared. (Steampunk has also had the alternate label of “neo-victorianism“, a label which adheres more strictly to the “aesthetic” argument, since neo-victorianism is purely a commentary on the victorian aesthetic and not on plot or theme or story elements at all.) So in seeking to understand the culture and mores of a steampunk society, one good place to start would be in understanding the culture and mores of Victorian England. So, we might describe such a society as comparatively conservative (compared to our time) but newly liberal for its own time. It was largely publicly optimistic, but one in which a lot of the dark undercurrents were swept under the rug and kept from polite society. So it’s one of political and social upheaval – which means a society in which morals and values are in flux. This naturally suggests conflicts between the more conservative and the more liberal parts of this society. The dark undercurrents I mentioned are likely related to the rapid urbanization of society (and the attendant poverty) made possible by the new technologies. So, if you’re writing a story that occurs during a steampunk era, one question you’ll have to consider for your steampunk-inspired society is the degree to which technology is changing, because that will be directly reflected in the degree to which societal mores, norms, and values are changing.
Another approach to the question of steampunk values is to consider the source of steampunk as a genre-evolution. The name was obviously borrowed from the “cyberpunk” genre, which itself was amalgamated from “cyber” referring to the encroachment of technology into the personal space (wearable technology, technological amplification of or replacement of humanity, VR, the web, etc.) married with the ideals of the “punk” movement of the 1970s and 80s. The “punk” moral system was largely about fighting against large, powerful and entrenched interests and defending the interests of the poor, the dispossessed, and the cast-offs of society. Punk is often characterized by anger, by a sense of despair, and a yearning or wanting for something better, for justice or equality, from a place where true justice and equality seems impossible. Punk values and sensibilities may run a large gamut, but they are largely the ideals of the disenfranchised, which naturally implies a society that differentiates the enfranchised and the disenfranchised – the haves and the have-nots.
So, while cyberpunk tells stories from the point-of-view of the have-nots (or the soon-to-be have-nots) of society and various social outcasts and misfits in a world where technology and corporate interests have run rampant, and humanity is expendable and replaceable by corporate-owned technology, the steampunk genre is largely a reflection of this genre from the context or point-of-view of the developments of the Victorian era: rapid industrialization of the Industrial Revolution, Steam technology, mass exploitation of the impoverished, and so on. It should come as little surprise, then, that one of the most famous and celebrated real-world author of the real-world steampunk era was Charles Dickens. And those “punk” ideals mentioned earlier are very much at the heart-and-soul of Dickens’s work. (Two other great authors, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, are more frequently cited as inspriations for the Steampunk genre, but the latter actually wrote in a slightly later era – namely the Edwardian era, which is sometimes also linked to Steampunk, and the World Wars period, which author Scott Westerfeld successfully links to the steampunk genre in his recent novel Leviathan. Nevertheless, the work of these two writers were definitely a major source of retroactive inspiration for the modern steampunk genre.)
So… my analysis of the question of values in a steampunk-based society boils down to this: a steampunk society is one of social stratification in which powerful and conservative, moneyed-interests (the Ebenezer Scrooges of society) exploit the advances in technology and urbanization to enhance their own wealth, at the expense of the less-wealthy parts of society. This is a society in tension: one in which various influences are working to enhance the status of the poor, to liberalize the society’s values, and to spread the welfare of technological advances to all, but in which these forces come into direct conflict with those who are best able to take advantage of those advances. Answering this question comes down to deciding which of these two primary interest groups holds the most sway over society – and analyzing what ideas and ideals would benefit the interests of each of these groups.
Ultimately, I believe, what characterizes Steampunk as a genre and differentiates it from the Cyberpunk source material, more than the level of technology apparent in the former versus the latter, is that Steampunk is more optimistic than Cyberpunk. Both deal with the same themes of social disorder and technological change, but whereas Cyberpunk is ultimately dystopian and pessimistic about the future, Steampunk posits the belief that mankind can overcome these problems and achieve higher ideals. Steampunk relishes in the idea that technology can make things better.
And, ultimately, Steampunk does this with style. It looks good while overthrowing the old social order!