The opening paragraphs are little more than a rather tetchy rant at the current popularity of steampunk - "the category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon" - but it's the argument that follows which is interesting.
"We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next)."Stross goes on to argue that steampunk's failure to acknowledge the darkness and horror of the historical era that it is 'riffing off' is a major failing of the subgenre, and questions how different steampunk would be if it more accurately reflected the actual time period:
"Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home."This gives rise to a number of interesting questions. Does steampunk fail to effectively deal with the horrific detail of the historical period it is so influenced by? Is the subgenre effectively a romanticism of what was actually a brutal time in history? If so, how much does this truly matter? Is Stross's argument even valid - after all, we're talking about speculative fiction here, not historical fiction (in which an attention to historical detail is vital). To what extent does a genre book based loosely on a real-life historical period need to reflect the zeitgeist of that era? More importantly, perhaps, do readers even care?
Questions, questions. Too many for a Friday, but food for thought. I've not been nearly well enough exposed to this subgenre to be able to comment, but if any of you have any points you'd like to make, then please go right ahead.