Steampunk dips into the past. That is undeniable. But for all that, is it nostalgic? If we stick to the dictionary definition, nostalgia is "a sadness due to the estrangement from one's native land and a regret for the past." Since Steampunk knows no borders, let's discard the concept of "native land." What remains is the regret for the past. Relying only on this superficial aspect, someone who does not know Steampunk well will tell you at once that the movement is nostalgic. But Steampunk fans have a little more substance than that, don't they?
Steampunk is a uchronia, of course, but not only.
To begin with, Steampunk is similar to a uchronia but not only. The uchronia will look for a future in the past by reconstructing the history, starting from the postulate that specific historical facts occurred.
Steampunk adds a slightly crazy dimension by integrating authors into its frameworks. The French author Etienne Barillier considers these stories "retro-futuristic deviant uchronia." A uchronia is not purely historical but includes elements of fiction. Thus one can cross in the same story Captain Nemo AND Jules Verne.
A regretted elegance
At first sight, we find in the Steampunk aesthetic the elegance of ancient times situated on the time scale before the First World War. During the Industrial Revolution, steam engines took on disproportionate proportions that Steampunk still exaggerates. But the fundamental difference is that the machine, no matter how gigantic, is still on a human scale.
Contrary to cyberpunk, where humans and electronics merge, steampunk machines are handcrafted. We see their mechanisms made of bolts, varnished wood, and gears. They are man-made, so as long as they can be tinkered with and repaired, that means they are still under our control.
This is when Steampunk definitely stops being nostalgic. It has no regrets about the mistakes of the past that led to the extravagances of the industrial revolution. Steampunk refuses alienation by machines.
When steam took over, a man with his primary rationalism imagined a radiant future, with machines guaranteeing a new Eden. He is not aware of the drifts of this new technology. He doesn't imagine the assembly line work and the factories which nibble the meadows and smoke the landscape.
Jules Verne and others thought that science could be used to build utopias, but they would never have imagined Modern Times, where Chaplin finds himself caught up in one of the most beautiful systems of gears ever filmed in 1936. Some sequences in the factory are Steampunk before its time: the disproportionate machines piloted by the workshop manager, the mechanic who comes to oil the gears, and this little man of Chaplin who comes to disrupt everything...
Today Steampunk fans have no nostalgia, but count on the candid vision of the future that the authors had. Their goal is to recapture this naive utopia. Steampunk reinjects the human into the machine by replaying this historical failure and imposes romanticism on a century of reason.
So no, definitely no, Steampunk is not nostalgic!
What are your thoughts on this movement? Tell us in comments!