Steampunk’s “era that never was” is often placed during an enlightened mechanical age of the past, when technological innovations mix with historical mores. In a romantic sense, technology is humankind’s hope for a better world; nostalgic steampunk celebrates the sense of wonder and accomplishment people feel in the presence of functionality. But steampunk, though commonly placed in optimistic contexts, can take a darker turn. The genre, after all, is cousin to cyberpunk, that over-engineered world where technology has escaped the understanding of the common man. The darker consequences of steampunk technology is rooted in the imperfections of steam: environmental pollution from burning fossil fuels, the intense human labor (and lost lives) involved in dangerous factory work, global arms races as nations compete to develop their tech. Post-apocalyptic steam combines the hope and the tragedy of progress: society struggling to build itself again in a ruinous world, often after some technological disaster. The City of Ember books, the Unhallowed Metropolis RPG, and the videogame Bioshock are all examples that fall under post-apocalyptic steam.
Post-apocalyptic steampunk exposes the raw conflicts inherent in creating technology. Once everything we knew has been lost, can we ever regain that same world again? We need technology to survive, but how can we not commit the same mistakes that caused our downfall?
Musician and composer Peter Foley asks these questions in his chamber musical The Hidden Sky.