In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
— Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Steampunk’s energy is the Victorian pursuit of Xanadu; that the fantastic might yet be achieved by people of vision, science and passion. The twentieth century shook that confidence as we lived the experience that the fantastic is too often achieved at an unbearable cost. But we haven’t given up on the dream. Steampunk explores the fantastic and critiques it.
Perhaps socialism, for instance, could only have been born out of Victorian confidence, and social engineering is as much a subject for critique in steampunk as mechanical engineering. Re-imagining how people could live together is part of the science fiction tradition.
In Xanadu life is different … but its very differences highlight our hopes and fears, frustrations and joys.
There are many aspects of steampunk, and in highlighting one, I don’t feel you deny others. Steampunk is the creation of everyone who engages with it.
* I know this is a fairly unfocused post. There’ll be probably be more of them. I’m writing a steampunk novel and that means I’m thinking about steampunk–its freedoms and limitations, and its appeal.