Aside from the usual question of “What is Steampunk”, deftly answered by G.D Falksen, among others, some of the many follow-up questions and discussions include the idea that while we might happily celebrate our own representation of Victorian times, peoples, and adventures, there are still elements of that time which aren’t so pretty, appealing, nor commendable.
That list would include many ‘–isms’ such as racism, classism and imperialism. There would be hypocritical behaviors like using social manners as a form of control and enforcement of conformity, praising women as the prized fairer sex but not treating them as equals, and ‘respectability’ used to ignore and cover up the social ills of the time.
The past cannot be changed but as we endeavor to create our own steampunk community and world, it would be remiss to not address those issues with our twenty-first century beliefs and include those as active solutions and standards. Some of those Victorian issues remain today, in one form or another, and those too, can be addressed in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
Women need not be the docile, submissive homemaker of the 1800s but can be the explorer, scientist or spy. Foreigners of all kinds are not always the enemy, slave, or simpleton, but are allies, friends and intellectuals. Workers and laborers should not be interchangeable and disposable, a blight to ‘proper’ society, or illiterate luddites, but are specially trained Guild members, equal contributors with equal opportunities, people who are valued because of what they do.
Steampunk communities and worlds can actively create and be the moralism that the Victorians sought to project – the world as it should be not what it is. In upcoming literature and movies, then, people interact based on who they are and how they act, not where they came from or what they look like. We can celebrate in our daily lives, meet-ups and conventions the diversity around us, learn all manners of new things, and sincerely express positive, polite, and actively helpful behaviors.
We can celebrate the best of the Victorian era, and in turn, address the worst of those times head on by not only denying the variety of oppressions endemic to the age but actively including the opposite; we can acknowledge the sins of the past and clearly say “That has no place in my life or my world.”
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!