I realized today during my work out why I dislike steampunk. Novels are escapism, by and large, and steampunk is escapism to a world choked with smog, where women are objects, blacks are invisible, and the oppressively stiff rules of genteel Victorian England are held up as somehow respectable.
C’mon, people, have you read literature from Victorian England? I suggest taking a look at the work of the female poets of that era extending into the suffrage movement in the 1900’s. They do not have nice things to say about their society. In fact, it sounds like a stuffed up, suffocating, racist prison.
Steampunk takes this frankly dystopic society and throws on modern technology in the guise of steam and coal powered whatever. I can’t say that I have an intrinsic problem with Rube Goldberg-esque super-dirigibles and plasma guns powered by steam, but I don’t find it very exciting either. Widgets are widgets. The wizard staff, the plasma cannon, and the steam-powered railgun all serve the same narrative purpose. We’ve had plenty of stories based around Swords of Vaguely Mystical Properties, and most of those aren’t very good either.
So when I read a steampunk novel, the best I can hope for is that the characters get to be exceptions. The former gentleman who gets tarnished and must rebuild his honor, learning about the world in the process. The spunky rich man’s daughter who valiantly fights against the mores of society and wins some tiny reprieve from the suffocation of homebound motherhood.
Except, wait, their society is still a shit hole. If you aren’t the spoiled rich man’s daughter, you’re still shackled by horrendous gender rules. Most the people around you work twelve hour days in loud factories with no weekends. The only escapism there is the illusion that we, as extensions of the characters, are exceptions.
You can walk into a college classroom and discuss plans for zombie apocalypse with young men. They’ll all go on about guns and helicopters and the best bunker to hole up in. None of them consider the fact that, by virtue of a 99% death rate, most of them would just die. We naturally assume that we’re the protagonist.
We are not exceptions.
Steampunk is a crapsack world that THIS world has already left behind. Why do we want to go back just so we can pretend that steam-powered tools can be the functional equivalent of modern technology? So we can have the same technology with extra lung cancer?
(By the way, this is the same reason why I don’t like “gritty” fantasy. If I want to feel like I’m getting pissed on by an uncaring world, I’ll read Actual Fucking History.)