Another important issue came up during the Steampunk panel I was part of at the RWA 2010 National Conference in Orlando–the darker side of Steampunk.
It can be very tempting to idealize and sanitize the Victorian era in our Steampunk stories. Depending on your world building, this approach could work. But the Victorian era wasn’t all balls and bustles and where I’m not saying we should scrap any sort of idealism, I’m saying that we shouldn’t always gloss over the grit.
The Victorian era could be a dirty, smelly, place full of illness, poverty and despair. There was colonialism, imperialism, classism, child labor, and the oppression of women, among other things. Depending on the particulars of your story, many of the darker issues during that time can add dimension and grit to your world, plot, and characters, not to mention bring up some of the very real obstacles those who lived during that era faced. That’s not to say that you couldn’t play with these concepts, just like we play with everything else when writing any sort of alternate history, but it’s also important to not forget these themes in addition to the usual ones we’ve embraced so heartily.
These themes can bring up interesting plots and subplots, taking the reader into places they have never been and allow them to explore issues they may not have thought of before. What would it be like to have your village invaded…or to be the invader but not sure of the cause? What was it like to be a doctor at a charity hospital, to work in a factory, or live in a slum?
It cause also allow us to meet new characters from varied backgrounds who also have stories that need to be told. Who knows what the conquered child might become when they grow up and what lengths they may go to for revenge. What could a simple act of kindness–or acts of cruelly or antipathy–ignite under the right conditions? What of the street sparrow, the night flower, or the child who toils in the factory to feed their family? What was it like to be an actress, a seamstress, or a member of the fallen gentry?
Like with anything else, you don’t need to necessary force these concepts into a story for the sake of inclusion, but it’s good to be aware of them. Don’t think you have to shy away from the darker side of Steampunk. Who knows what stories could these characters tell or what they could they teach the other characters…and us?