The Trouble With Genre Definition
I was chatting to a librarian friend the other day who was puzzling over where to place a book. Frowning, and waving the book at me in accusatory fashion, she said, “Austin, you write this stuff. Is steampunk science fiction or fantasy?”
I must confess at the outset, the nature of this subject means it’s inevitably going to be quite a geeky post. Science fiction and fantasy are, after all, pretty much a niche thing these days. And when we talk about steampunk we have to recognize we’re talking about a sub-genre of a sub-genre of a sub-genre. It really doesn’t get more geeky than that. Steampunk, in its original literary form, subsists several layers down in the deep undergrowth of the speculative fiction ecology. The taxonomy of the beast looks something like this:
Both science fiction and fantasy exist under the umbrella term “speculative fiction.” Speculative fiction covers just about everything that isn’t strict realism, ranging from the space opera of George Lucas’s Star Wars to the magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, or retold fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. It includes all manner of works, some clearly within other genre boundaries, and others which are literary-prize-winning classics.
For our current purposes the taxonomy above ignores all the literary branches of speculative fiction. This isn’t because they don’t matter, or because of some sort of inverted snobbery, but just because they aren’t pertinent to the matter in hand.
So we’ll settle for accepting that everything else under the umbrella term speculative fiction can be categorized either as science fiction or fantasy. In a subsequent post I’ll discuss just what the differences are between genre fiction and literary fiction, and why I think the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, to the point at which the term “literary” simply denotes one among many other genres.
But back to the business of steampunk.
The Origin of Steampunk
The word “steampunk” itself dates back not to the 1880s but to the 1980s. The writer K.W. Jeter coined the term in his correspondence with Locus Magazine. His aim was to invent a term to represent an emerging but still ill-defined sub-genre typified by his own book, Morlock Night, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, and James Blaylock’s Homunculus. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling picked up the word in the 1990s to describe their seminal work The Difference Engine. The rest, as you might say, is alternative history.
You can see from my taxonomy I’m of the opinion that steampunk belongs firmly in the fantasy camp. However, if you read around you’ll find soon enough that opinion is very much divided. So let me make my case.
What’s the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?
In the first instance we need to define the differences between the two main genres of science fiction and fantasy. After all they are both about making things up, things that either haven’t happened yet or could perhaps never happen. Steampunk is arguably the only sub-genre which struggles to define itself cleanly and easily within one or the other of these categories.
Arguably, Isaac Asimov has already answered the question of the difference between science fiction and fantasy in a very satisfactory manner. When asked to define the difference between science fiction and fantasy he said simply,
” science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.”
By this definition everything that occurs in a science fictionalized universe, or universes, must conform to the known laws of nature as expressed in the most up-to-date science and technology – even though the possibilities of that science and technology may be extrapolated and expanded to create things as yet unknown in the real world. The key is that these imaginative extrapolations are firmly founded on real science and however improbable remain technically possible. Modern physics with its quantum mechanics, time loops, and multiverses, clearly leaves the door of imagination hanging wide open to science fictive experimentation.
On the other hand, fantasy worlds rely inherently and absolutely on the presence and operation of things which have never, and could never, exist in any form of reality congruent with the scientific worldview.
That is to say, they fully embrace magical, supernatural, or simply illogical and irrational elements; and further, these elements are the very meat and bone of fantasy stories in the same way that science, however speculative, is the meat and bone of science fiction.
To help clarify this definition, think of it this way:
In a science fiction universe it would be entirely acceptable for a bunch of scientists to recreate dinosaurs from preserved prehistoric DNA and the DNA of modern reptiles. While it is highly improbable that such a task will ever be successfully achieved, extrapolating logically from the current state of genetic science, it is perfectly possible in theory. However, they could never create a dragon, still less one properly conforming to the common fantasy trope with its anatomically and aerodynamically impossible powers of flight. A dragon that could actually fly would end up being a bird or a bat!
Which begs the question that we started with, is steampunk science fiction or fantasy?
Is Steampunk Science Fiction or Fantasy?
I thought about this long and hard and finally came to the conclusion that steampunk is fantasy. I think confusion arises because its aesthetic is so heavily influenced by fictionalized technologies; steampunk worlds often involve interplanetary travel, time travel, robots, genetically modified animals, and many other tropes also common to science fiction.
But once you familiarize yourself with the genre you quickly realize these factors are only superficially similar to those found in science fiction.
In science fiction people travel to distant planets by means of computer technology and rocket fuel. It may not have happened yet, but it is possible. Just look at the current proposals to colonize Mars. In steampunk stories people travel to distant planets in Zeppelins, or air balloons, or pirate ships which have had antigravity paint applied to their outer surfaces! Such things are the products of unbridled fantasy.
In science fiction, the robots one encounters are entirely credible based on where we may be heading with current robotics technology and artificial intelligence computer research. The robots and automata of the steampunk worlds are revived corpses with clockwork hearts, or steam driven mechanicals with Babbage engines for brains. The former may well be predictive of future reality, the latter exists only in a world of make-believe.
Another possible source of confusion may stem from the literary origins of the steampunk sub-genre. Literary steampunk ( I make the distinction because the literature has spawned many thriving craft industries, cosplay, roleplay, music, and even political movements – a complete and growing subculture) often claims that its heritage can be traced back to the works of 19th century authors such as HG Wells and Jules Verne.
But this is an error. Steampunk may reimagine a 19th-century that never existed, but it must recognize that it’s a 19th-century that could never have existed. Wells and Verne were not writing steampunk. They were writing contemporary science fiction, known at the time as scientific romance.
While most of their speculations have proved to be false (apart from submarines which are now common place, and lunar travel, although achieved by other means) they were based on the real science of the day. Phlogiston was a serious proposition back then. Anyone who wrote about it in the 19th century, while it was as yet unproven but possible, was writing science fiction. But a 21st-century writer who creates a world in which phlogiston is a real substance, rather than oxygen, is writing fantasy because we now know darn well that phlogiston does not exist.
Some steampunk also includes supernatural and paranormal elements. There is a whole subgenre of the subgenre, known as Gaslight fantasy, which is a sort of paranormal steampunk.
However, it remains true that if you were to strip steampunk of its technologies, of its pseudoscientific trappings, it would no longer be steampunk. So if steampunk writers themselves are not happy to accept their genre is a category of fantasy rather than science fiction, perhaps there is an argument to create a new category which we might call “science fantasy.” But that is altogether another debate!
And until that debate is settled, if you ask me whether steampunk is science fiction or fantasy, I’ll say it’s definitely fantasy.
But what do you think? Is steampunk science fiction or fantasy? I’d be very interested to read your perspective in the comments.
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