Welcome to our All About Sub-Genre Series in which we discuss the ins and outs of various corners of the broader fantasy market.
Our guest today is author H. L. Burke, with a breakdown of Steampunk and its magical little sister Gaslamp!
Let's start off with the “TL:DR” version: Steampunk is essentially science fiction set in a period reminiscent of the Victorian age—Gaslamp is Fantasy set in the same era.
So how does this differ from historical fiction/historical fantasy? What's with the goggles? And how do I know if I'm reading Steampunk?
The basic indicators of Steampunk are in setting, technology, tone, and (perhaps what people are most familiar with) aesthetics.
The simplest answer, that this is Victorian Scifi, means that a lot of steampunk is set in an alternate history versions of London or New York sometime in the period of 1830 to 1900. This is not always the case, however. Sometimes the location is clearly another world with made up place names, or that resembles our world but is slightly off. Other series, like Romulus Buckle, are set in post-apocalyptic futures where technical knowledge has devolved, making older seeming steam engines or lighter-than-air-ships replace nuclear subs and jet planes. However, there will always be a societal and tech level which throws back to this time frame, whatever the conceit used to explain it.
Many would consider this the most important aspect of Steampunk. While not all tech must be steam-powered, the preference is for most of it to be. Clockwork and early electric are also common. Steampunk outright encourages anachronistic technology. Many consider Jules Verne to be the father of Steampunk, and he posited many technical advances that would not come about for decades (Moon shots, for instance).
The tech can also be theoretical (time machines) or “fringe” science (reanimating the dead). For a lot of Steampunk readers, scientific plausibility doesn't matter so much as internal consistency. My Nyssa Glass series involves a mad professor creating cyborgs and making “memory wheels” that record human thoughts. It's complete fantasy, but if you buy into the world, you buy into the tech.
Steampunk tends to involve a sense of Victorian social etiquette, scientific optimism (progress being a major buzzword), and themes of class conflict. Often in this world, heroes are engineers, inventors, and aviators. A lot of times there is an attempt to better the world through industry. City settings are more common than country.
Of course, not all Steampunk follows this, and much tries to subvert it, to show the dirty underbelly beneath the prim and proper—but many readers love the “my good sirs” type dialogue and the juxtaposition of ladies in corsets who fly gyrocopters but would be scandalized if late to tea.
The “look” of Steampunk is crucial to the genre. In fact, the easiest way to recognize Steampunk is by the appearance of it: Victorian fashion enhanced with gears and gadgets, top hats and googles, tech that often puts fashion over function.
All right, so that's Steampunk. Examples include The Lady of Devices, Romulus Buckle and the City of Founders, and the titles you find below from the Fellowship of Fantasy.
What about Gaslamp?
Many Steampunk purists do not want any magic and mysticism in their Steampunk, but writers like to push the limits of sub-genre. The give and take goes something like this:
Purists: Steampunk should rely on science and technology. Not magic.
Wrtiers: What about fringe science with no real proof it exists but which claims a scientific/physical origin. Or debunked pseudoscience like alchemy?
Purists: Oh, of course, that's fine.
Writers: What about spiritualism and mysticism? Ghosts? Seances? Ancient artifacts with curses?
Purists: Ugh, sounds fishy—but Victorian society was fascinated with that sort of superstition, so it makes sense to flirt with it. Go ahead, but keep it down, will you? We have a reputation to consider.
Writers: Can I add in a dragon?
Purists: Dragon?!?! Is it at least just an animal rather than a magical being? Can't you use a reanimated dinosaur instead?
Writers: I love dragons, though. Oh! And my main character is a wizard now.
Purists: That's it! Get your own sub-genre!
So Gaslamp is essentially all the rule-breaking fantasy authors who couldn't handle a world without magic but still wanted to enjoy the other aspects of Steampunk. Similar setting, tone, and aesthetics, and it may even mix technology/machinery into it … But it had magicians, dragons, cursed artifacts, and magically enchanced items.
My Spellsmith & Carver series is Gaslamp. Magicians in waistcoats with pocketwatches who ride on steam-powered trains but cast spells and meet Fey. There's even a magically animated clockwork fox familiar.
Other examples include Howl's Moving Castle, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and His Majesty's Dragon.
About H. L. Burke
H. L. Burke is the self-published author of multiple fantasy novels including the Dragon and the Scholar saga and The Nyssa Glass YA Steampunk series and Coiled.
She is an admirer of the whimsical, a follower of the Light, and a believer in happily ever after.
Connect with her on Facebook.
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