I hope you've enjoyed my pic-heavy posts the last couple of weeks. Since steampunk is incredibly visual, I had to SHOW you all the cool steampunkish stuff.
But today, I want to discuss the theme of utopia in steampunk. There's an ongoing debate about whether steampunk is uptopian, dystopian, or something in between. I would say that although steampunk does take the Victorian (or Edwardian) view of a uptopian society, the fact that the word "punk" makes up half of steampunk means that it takes this view, and turns it on its head.
Once again, steampunk is speculative fiction where time/technology is completely out of order. In its most basic premise, steampunk is what might have been. What if electricity had never been invented (or at least in the way we know), and steam continued to be the main powersource for everything. But if you dig deeper, modern steampunk dares to make a strong statement about this idea of Victorian romance that early steampunk works seemed to project.
Also, is there really such a thing as pure utopian stories anymore? Much of speculative fiction that does depict a utopian society shows how such a notion is impossible to sustain. Societal perfection usually comes at a huge price - and its most often at the expense of personal freedom and liberty. Hell, I learned this from watching Logan's Run when I was a kid.
Victorian society might have seemed perfect on the surface, but it was far from a utopia. It was full of class warfare, racism, and mysogany. When we think of Victorian morality, we think of prim and proper. Strict moral code, height of industrialism and self improvement, and enlightenment. But class warfare and elitism remained. Women were not seen as equals, and people of color were seen as less-than-human.
I conclude that steampunk is really an oxymoron: it borrows the proper attitudes, the love of visual aesthetics, and the power of the great industrial revolution. Then it throws along with it into the proverbial blender, the fight for individuality, challenging the status quo, and the dangers of sacrificing personal freedom. It's about the rise of the underdog (the poor, or women, or people of color), and breaking through that rigid social strata.
Modern steampunk has taken a darker edge, and it's also taken on a more supernatural twist (another Victorian/Edwardian phenomenon). Sure, we can all gawk about steampunk's awesome aesthetics. But in the end, steampunk is about revolution, massive worldwide change, and the transformation that an industrial/technological explosion can bring to society.