There is a blog carnival on steampunk rpg's this month, courtesy of Mad Brew Labs. I thought I'd get involved. http://www.madbrewlabs.com/index.php/2009/06/01/steampunk-klokwerks/
There is some idea that steampunk isn't punky enough, unlike cyberpunk. I think they just aren't thinking things through.
According to wikipedia, steampunk often lacks dystopian elements. Again according to Wikipedia, these elements include... poverty, war, violence, disease, pollution, and oppression. Because the Victorian era was so nice that this nonsense could be ignored... eh, no.
There was a lot of poverty in Victorian London. Work houses, debtor's prison, etc. Violence, Jack the Ripper. The Crimean and Boer Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. Cholera, tuberculosis, etc.
I think the problem is the name itself. Victorian gives rise to images of Victoria, who is usually pictured in a sombre all-black outfit (the clothing she wore after Albert's death). This gives rise to thoughts of upper class or middle class houses where the men ruled. Dinner jackets, cigarettes and tea in the lounge, and strict rules of etiquette were the order of the day.
The Victorian era showed a vast increase in population. This seems to be a combination of larger families, of more children surviving infancy, of better understanding of disease and better medical care, and immigrants fleeing the Irish potato famine. By the end of the century, the population had tripled.
Because of the large number of people looking for work (skilled and unskilled) wages were low. People worked long hours, and so wanted to live near their work. Because of this there was a housing shortage. This led to extremely overcrowded situations, and unsanitary living conditions. There were no state benefits.
In 1848 Cecil Frances Alexander published a hymn:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And order’d their estate.
(All things Bright and Beautiful). This hymn sums up Victorian attitudes to the poor. God made them poor, so they'll stay poor, the next life is more important than this one, anyway.
Children had to also support the family. There were very few schools, and most kids worked; climbing boys employed by chimney sweeps, or to crawl under machines, or in coal mines, or as errand boys... Crime was rife in the city, with pickpocket gangs mostly made of children. In 1848, Lord Ashley made reference to these "naked, filthy, roaming, lawless and deserted children" claiming that there were more than 30,000 "in and around the metropolis." (Victorian Town Child, Pamela Horn).
In a time when a hard working man might earn £3'6 a week, and a prostitute could earn as much as £1000 a week, it is no wonder London was heaving with prostitutes.
This is often seen as something new, but pollution was widespread in Victorian London, a city famous for its unnatural fog. This was the heart of the Industrial Revolution, a city where the queen ordered sewers to be built because the stink became so overpowering that something had to be done, a city so polluted that when Cholera came from Germany it spread like wildfire.
The rich took the attitude "out of sight, out of mind," which is why there were so many prisons (Australia being the biggest ;) ). If a starving man stole a loaf of bread to feed his family, he was locked up...
In our child-centred society today, it is hard to comprehend a time when there were dead babies by the thousands, droves of missing Madeleines, scores of Myra Hindleys, and hardly anyone batted an eyelid. The "Angel Maker" was the worst of these, and there's a chilling article here... http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-484575/The-baby-butcher-One-Victorian-Britains-evil-murderers-exposed.html
So murder, pollution, poverty, and crime were rife in the Victorian era, and this is where we'll find the punk. It was very much a time of "behind closed doors" with the Victorians fascinated by sex and death. This even extended to the royals, (look at Edward, who had numerous affairs. Infact, husbands encouraged their wives to sleep with the king because it would further the husbands position in society). Edward was involved in divorce proceedings and was in court twice, and was also embroiled in a cheating lawsuit about a game of cards at a gentleman's club.
You'll find it all in the Victorian/Edwardian era, from obsessive lesbian love affairs, to murder, from gangs of feral, lawless children, to high society, from the slums and rookeries to the mansions and palaces, from baby farming to drug taking, there is more than enough room and inspiration for punk. Be inspired.