Steampunk has its own set of ideology, some of it extending from the Victorian era. For all that was unpleasant in the Victorian era there was also a spirit of optimism, idealism, of the idea that anything could be possible, and the spirit of trying to make the word a better place.
Some of the following ideals really capture the spirit of Steampunk and can add color, conflict and depth to your Steampunk story, though this isn’t an exhaustive list:
Makerism is taking a closer look at something, from a pocketwatch to the government, and to see how it’s made, understand that, and use it in other aspects of life. It’s a spirit of applicability and adaptability, and of taking things into your own hands.
The Maker Culture is alive and well today. You see it in many subcultures, including the Steampunk subculture, where there’s a huge emphasis on DIY/handmade things. All you have to do is search under “steampunk” on etsy.com to see the wide variety of beautiful one-of-a-kind things.
Innovention goes hand-in-hand with Makerism. It’s not just making things yourself but making things better through science and invention. Of trying to figure out how to fill a need in society and take things to the next level. It’s the spirit of scientific advancement and discovery, invention, and dreaming big, of realizing that all things are possible then proving it.
Of course, this Innovention, like all science, can go horribly, terribly awry (or be used for evil/misused), which is a theme to many a story, including steampunk ones.
Idealism and romanticism were very much a part of Victorian culture. It also encompassed a sense of optimism, that we can take control of our world (big or small) and make it a better place. Poet George Elliot expresses it best in her poem O, May I join the Choir Invisible.
We must have the courage to cast off the self-protective irony of modernism, to rebuild trust, to think of the word again as something to be given and kept.
In Steampunk, these ideals continue to be present, even in grittier stories. Your villain (or hero) may be blowing up parliament, but they truly believe that by doing so they are helping to make the world a better place.
For example, The Clockwork Guild in The Hunchback Assignments attacks parliament, but they are doing to make a statement about what they think is wrong with the government.
Idealism can also go awry as well, such as governments imposing ideals to better society or holding people (or oneself) to impossible ideals resulting in mental illness, eating disorders, suicide, or even crime.
There’s been a bit of discussion recently as to whether or not Steampunk stories need to have rebellion themes and still be Steampunk. I think most Steampunk stories do have rebellion themes of some nature because it’s in the very nature of Steampunk itself.
Unlike Cyberpunk and Biopunk, rebellion in Steampunk isn’t as dystopian/anarchist. There can be outright conflict, like the Clankers vs. The Darwinists in Leviathan. But it can also be much more subtle, like in Soulless where Alexia is rebelling against the expectations society presses upon her.
It could also be not quite rebellion, but a sense of challenge. It could be challenge to the social order, to society, to science, or to oneself. Clockwork Heart has many themes of challenging the social order from the organization the Torn Cards to the Clockwork Heart program itself.
This sense of challenging oneself and finding ones place despite what society dictates can makes for a good story, especially in coming of age stories and YA, which is also about pushing the limits and grey area.
What are your favorite rebellion themes or ideologies from Steampunk?