Is steampunk really dystopian?

I hear it a lot on forums: steampunk settings are dystopias. But are they?

If it is "the darker side of steampunk" it might be, but does that make the whole genre dystopian? And if it were a Dystopia, why on earth are there so many steampunks that embrace the setting, like their personal Utopia?

I think steampunk (and cyberpunk) are very hopeful genres. Men and machine work together for a better world, and neither men nor machine is enslaved. Problems can be solved with techniques, not power, money, or anything like that. It is a world beyond supersticion, beyond the power of religion or magic. It's like a social paradise: everyone has the same chances in society.

Of course, many steampunk settings have problems like pollution, but these are minor problems. It's not like the beautiful gardens have been destroyed by the industrial pollution, or that the crops are bad.

To "move" stories along, a conflict is necessary. A conflict is usually an unpleasant event. But look at series like Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders: in the most splendid surroundings murders happen, some quite nasty. Does that make the whole of the setting to a dystopia? I don't think so.

Even if cities got nasty places, ghettos, dangerous backyards and alleys, it doesn't spoil the whole of the city. And these places do have a function, as every RPG player must know: you can get about anything (illegal) here, weapons, information, fighters, anonymity... whatever you need.

What do you think?


  • Well as far as I'm concerned Steampunk views technology in a very Gene Roddenberry way. By this I mean technology is viewed as wonderful and will help to solve humanities problems. In this way I don't believe that Steampunk, as a whole is dystopian.

    However, I think Cyberpunk is often dystopian. At least in my experience, it often features a group of individuals rebelling against a highly technological world.
  • I must agree with Queenaquabubbles. Steampunk, for the most part, is not dystopian. Certainly there are "evil" forces at work in most stories, but the viewpoint taken is not generally that all of society is ruined. It is much more hopeful about the future than other -punk genres and tends to view tech as a solution, not a problem. Steampunk is much more lighthearted than diesel or cyberpunk overall.
  • I couldnt agree more. One of the defining things about steampunk is its optimistic embrace of technology, portraying it as a good thing that will help people, etc. I disagree with you on the cyberpunk thing though--I think QueenAquaBubbles is quite right when claiming cyberpunk often is dystopian. In most cyberpunk tales, men are enslaved, to a certain level, by the machine.

    Dieselpunk, as brought up by the Colonel, is probably more dystopian, as it often features war and greater social conflict. Steampunk doesnt tend to provide much social commentary. It can feature lower class people, it can feature poor and hopeless, but perhaps unlike cyberpunk it's doesn't obviously criticize that state of affairs. Steampunk embraces the status-quo; it doesn't often seek to portray the world worse than it is, nor does it vein that it could be much better.
  • I agree on steampunk and dieselpunk- but not on cyberpunk. In cyberpunk the heroes, or hackers use the techniques to better their situation and to attack the large industries. Hackers, heroes of cyberpunk, have great faith in the machines and are by no means enslaved to it. Corporate workers, however, are.
  • edited February 2008
    Yaghish wrote:
    ... Corporate workers, however, are.
    Which is precisely what makes cyberpunk so dystopian. The heroes are few in number compared to the masses, and so even with them fighting against opression/tyranny/enslavement, society on the whole is a dystopia. Natually the protagonist of a story can't be enslaved to the same extent or there would be no plot to begin with!
  • Yaghish wrote:
    ... Corporate workers, however, are.
    Which is precisely what makes cyberpunk so dystopian.
    Again, I do not agree. The corporate worker, or "yuppie" doesn't feel enslaved and is keen to have a job, a lot of power, and a lot of money. Of course, they are not as free as the regular hacker, but this is the life they want (there's lots of people in this world who desire a life like that). It's the clash of cultures with different ideals that makes cyberpunk, but it is not sec a dystopia.
  • I'm not sure I agree entirely. Isn't the whole rebellion-thing essential to cyberpunk? Obviously, not everyone's content with the situation as it is, for the hackers fight, or at least oppose, the status-quo.

    I quite agree though that cyberpunk isn't necessarily dystopian. But it's more leaning toward the dystopia than steampunk I think.

    Well, in the end it still depends on whatever film or book one's talking about. It's all up to the author to determine precisely how dystopian his world is.
  • Yea, it's certainly a case by case basis for all genres really, but cyberpunk always felt very inclined to the oppressed and smitable.
  • Personally, I do not think that a dystopia is defined by whether or not the majority of society is happy with it. A classic dystopia, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, has a perfectly content population apart from one or two characters that the story is centered around. One could propose that our society today is a dystopia, even though very few people are fed up with it to the extent that they would rebel completely.

    If you define a dystopian society as such, the majority of cyberpunk falls into that classification. However, I do agree that one cannot assume that means all works of cyberpunk fiction are dystopian. Taken on a case by case basis, I'm sure there are plenty of counterexamples.
  • If I may interject, When one hears the term utopian one should most probably reach for one’s Vickers Armstrong pulse rifle but there’s no doubt steampunk is a reaction to current day fears and concerns regarding the future, as some gent said, ‘the future aint what it used to be.’
  • Well, some call happy cyberpunk cyberprep.

    Anyways, brave new world is a great example on that kind of dystopia, Adrianna. They are given the illusion of choice, when truly their lives have been preselected (through the conditioning at birth).

    Even in the dystopian-est of all, 1984, most love big brother. It's all they know.
  • edited February 2008
    I love big brother.

  • If I may interject, When one hears the term utopian one should most probably reach for one’s Vickers Armstrong pulse rifle but there’s no doubt steampunk is a reaction to current day fears and concerns regarding the future, as some gent said, ‘the future aint what it used to be.’
    I quite agree that steampunk as a whole, as a genre, and as a subculture, is a reaction to fears about the future, or at least doubts of it. Steampunk is a means to escape from evermore "modern" times, while we long for what's past--or at least parts of that past.
  • To me, Steampunk is all the hope and wonder of the Victorian Era, without so much of the ickyness of the Victorian Era. It seems a perfect fit for a dreamer such as myself.
  • Quite so QueenAquaBubbl, Mr Ottens ......a fair point..... steampunk is an escape, also a piquant nostalgia for the genius and romance of an age when men and women were….. well… splendid! Moustaches, hats, Steam and great plumbing, they knew a thing or two about plumbing …..We also know how grim the Victorian landscape was, through reading social realist literature like Dickens ‘Hard times’ and others, where technology was mostly in the hands of capitalists. With the use of hindsight we can set our punk sensitivities and speculative passions in opposition to those past inequities and so Steampunks, with Gothic and Romantic sensibilities set their work in relation to dystopia. As with Gibson and Stirling’s, ‘The Difference Engine’ all those fog bound and gas lit Victorians with computers … crikey…. what would have happened …………..? Brilliant!

    .....Talk like a pompous arse in this smoking room.......never! as you may have spotted I'm new to this ... so excuse me while I light up my trusty mersham pipe and sup a pint of my favorite ale, Bombadier.
  • Steampunk often seems quite utopian to me, the dreams of Victorian progressives come to life. Though i suppose the grubby urchins on the streets wouldnt agree. But then again what happens when you give urchins rights, benefits and houses... Chavs!

    Cyberpunk on the other hand, often seems to be crammed full of paranoia about "teh corporations!!11" taking over (sucess in business makes you evil!) and the unification of people and technology being used to spy on people, which i suppose isn't good
  • You suppose? :P

    You're quite right I think. Steampunk is generally utopian--though I prefer "optimistic", because the genre doesn't blissfully ignore the downsides of society. It portrays the working class and the poor too, as well as the dirtier side of technology, but its overall mood is optimistic, with a great belief in progress and the future.

    Cyberpunk is positively dystopian overall. I'd like to imagine dieselpunk an intermediary between the two genres--more dystopian than steampunk, but still with a confidence in technology, still with some optimism about the abilities of both man and machine, and with less distrust of business and capitalism which seem typically characteristic of cyberpunk fiction.
  • I've thought that steampunk would be dystopian in the sense that it does (when it does) mimic and stretch the Victorian era in setting. At that time the only ones who really got to the profits of industrial revolution were the upper classes, and somehow I imagine that the gap between classes could as well be even larger within a steampunk society. The only utopia or positive thinking is in the minds of the mad scientists and the ones who have enough money to remove themselves permanently from the proximity of the Under Class.

    The bourgeoisie hate the aristocracy for being rich without doing any hard work and the aristocrats despise all the lower classes because they are either upstarts or unintelligent, the lot of them.

    If it's dystopian for the major part of the society then is it dystopian enough?
  • True, but I think the catch is that Steampunk fiction doesn't tend to emphasize on these great social differences. Instead, it often focuses on those who do profit from progress. That is not to say Steampunk ignores those who don't--the trend just seems to be for Steampunk to feature aristocrats, mad scientists and the like as protagonists rather than working class characters.
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