Over the weekend, I caught one edge of a discussion bluedevi was having with some other folk about Steampunk, and the way in which it reflects only the upper edge of Victorian Society, ignoring the poverty and the downright abuse of the rest of the population at the time. The fact that we were all lounging around in a castle partially re-built in the Edwardian era to a rather Victorian outline was not lost on me, but still.
I've been thinking about it since, and it ties in with some thinking I've been doing about my own campaign world. sabayone has pointed out on several occasions that there's very little sense of poverty or injustice in the world as depicted in the games I run. This seems to me to a very closely related issue, for two reasons. First and foremost, my thinking for the world is that it's very plain that the position, the wealth, and the situations that the player characters move about in can only exist, given the available technology and magic, in a world that has distinct levels of poverty and exploitation.
As far as I'm concerned, the existence of a sword for a given price requires a smith, miners, tanners, farmers, woodworkers, and their families, all of whom get along on less than the price of that sword. And as you go down the chain from smith to tanner to farmer to cowherd, there's a lot less money at each step. At your 75gp for a longsword, the cowherd might be seeing 2 coppers a month, over his room (stable loft) and board (porridge, bread, greens, some meat on a feast day). There's your poverty, and hey, he has a job and a roof, he's doing better than some.
Likewise, I look at a faux-Victorian steampunk costume, and I can see the lacemaker, the coppersmith, the tanner again, the tailor, the weaver, the basketmaker, and so on, back into the middle distance; they're all implied by the costume. That costume, as it would have been made in the Victorian era, could not exist without those people.
But that's not necessarily evident to the player, who doesn't have my economic-minded approach. To help handle this in the game world, I've been doing some background writing for my campaign world, depicting a day in the life of each of a selection of characters, ranging from a professional enchanter down to a "procurer", so far, and which will include more as I go. This does mean adding reading for the player, because there's no way these people are going to appear as more than a passing glimpse in the actual events of the game, any more than a steampunk costumer might mention the good leather from Staffordshire.
Trouble is, I can't think of a way for this to appear in a steampunk convention. Sure, in the literature or the music, or even the art, you can include some details - but steampunk is about costume. And the costumes of poor people in a faux-Victorian era are even less fun than they were in the real world, because they're an extra step removed from the added cogs and goggles. And while there's absolute validity in saying that the depiction is of the upper crust of an exploitative society, the main point is the fun of the depiction. How can you acknowledge the rest of Victorian society more explictly, without making nonsense of it?