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Is Steampunk Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Posted in fantasy, genre fiction, science fiction, and Steampunk

Is steampunk science fiction or fantasy?

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:

Taxonomy of Steampunk

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.

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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.

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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.

Diving

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?

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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.

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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.

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Literary Steampunk

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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18 Comments

  1. Your divide between Verne and modern steampunk is interesting, but open to challenge.

    Imagine I give you two books in plain covers which are both the no-vampires end of steampunk and ask you to label them either scientific romance or fantasy, how would you make the divide? The only justification for the brutal hammer of “what genre is this?” is to overcome a lack of knowledge of an author, so a test based on what the author thought was scientifically possible cannot produce a functional result.

    And what of people who hold to a niche scientific theory (as almost all generally accepted theories once were); are the steampunk books they write science-fiction if they believe (for example) that Orgone induction of a metallic laminate would create anti-gravity?

    Or is it your (unstated) contention that Verne wrote books that were science-fiction but are now fantasy?

    May 28, 2016
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    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Dave,

      And thank you for a very insightful and thought-provoking comment.

      You are perfectly correct in pointing out that this way of defining the genre falls apart when judged solely on the text with no contextual knowledge.

      However, in a similar hypothetical scenario, the same argument might be applied to many widely accepted genre definitions. For example, if I offer you two books in plain covers wherein heroes embark on long voyages in search of sacred objects and encounter monsters, witches and dragons on the way – how would you know which was a fantasy novel by Tolkien and which an ancient mythological text by Apollonius of Rhodes?

      I suspect if we demand an idealized, abstract method of defining genre divorced from any context, we shall be quite at sea with the whole thing in any case. Genre is a relative concept which demands context in order to exist at all. In the hypothetical scenario of complete contextual ignorance, the guess-the-genre game would have few winners. Agreed.

      But that is a very unlikely scenario. Genre definition is an attempt to arrive at a practical tool to aid readers, authors, librarians and booksellers. It has fuzzy edges. It’s a little bit fluid. It’s something pragmatic I’m aiming for, rather than something abstract.

      As with biological taxonomy, genre definition is not an exact science. Taxonomists boil their brains continually over the ever-changing boundaries of species definition. Likewise, academics may struggle infinitely with the minutiae of genre definition.

      Yes, I would contend that Verne was writing scientific romance/science fiction at the time. And yes, perhaps his works would now be better placed on the fantasy shelves.

      With regard to pseudoscience used as the basis of fiction, well that would make it fantasy from my perspective. The old orgone anti-gravity chestnut lands heavily *thunk* in that category! You can have that working in steampunk (which is fantasy) but not in science fiction. You might wish to argue otherwise.

      I’ll continue to mull over your points, however – and again I thank you for them. This is my initial response. Who knows, I may change my mind!

      May 28, 2016
      |Reply
  2. My own steampunk novels are – hopefully – very firmly anchored in the area of the scientifically possible, and thus by your definition quite definitely science fiction. Moreover, many science fiction novels contain elements of ‘advanced’ science which, to use Arthur C. Clarke’s phrase, “are indistinguishable from magic”. Would any kind of “spooky action at a distance” disqualify a work from the science fiction label? if so, the science fiction genre would also have to be divorced from science itself.

    June 8, 2016
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    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Billy,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment – I really appreciate that. Your book looks very interesting.

      Good points. I think this is one of the issues with steampunk literature, that it’s a “broad church” and the writers who self-define their works as steampunk are wildly imaginative and not so tightly constrained by the more established identifying genre boundaries of traditional science fiction and fantasy.

      I don’t expect we’ll ever reach a universal agreement on the issue of how to classify steampunk. Perhaps there really is an argument for a new genre label, such as “science fantasy,” or perhaps “steampunk” simply needs its own definition quite aside from any discussion of science fiction and fantasy.

      How would you define steampunk in itself?

      June 8, 2016
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      • If we are looking for a key difference to hang the new genre around, the flavour of technology seems a reasonable starting point.

        Real-world progress tends toward the electronic and the digital, so perhaps steampunk is stories about a world where progress is fluid-dynamic and analogue.

        Using that, we could have books divided into the same sub-genres within a parallel framework, e.g. vampires/&c. being steampunk fantasy, solid science being hard steampunk.

        After all, magical realism and fantasy are treated as separate despite both being tales of the mostly impossible.

        June 8, 2016
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        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          Hi Dave,

          Thanks again for another thoughtful and enlightening contribution.

          Someone else suggested to me today that he defines two species of steampunk which he termed “hard” and “soft.” As I understand it, they pretty much reflect your idea as expressed here. In my quest for a pragmatic definition, that seems a very reasonable step in the right direction. So we might end up saying, some steampunk is fantasy and some is science fiction!

          Which begs the question, what is steampunk at all? Can it be defined? Is there something essential which, once removed, makes a story no longer a steampunk story? If so, what would that be? Steam? Punk?

          It may take more than a Babbage Engine to work that out, but I’d value your viewpoint very much.

          June 8, 2016
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      • The punk part of cyberpunk seems to be an outpouring of change rather than progress controlled by large social/economic/legal bodies, so maybe part of steampunk is the same sense of radical change.

        Not necessarily limited to change from the perspective of the in-world society (although many steampunk novels do include an innovation), but also including radical shifts from the real-world analogue due to “steam” or similar.

        For example, the almost-magical airships (spiritual heirs of Cavorite) change Victorian society to a space-faring one. That ease of travel, whether new or embedded, reshapes the Victorian Europe we know socially as well as technologically.

        This would split books into those that were “steampunk” and those that merely had gears glued onto a narrative.

        My thoughts on what is “steam” and what is not are harder to define. Perhaps it is like obscenity: one might not be able to explain it, but one knows it when one sees it.

        June 8, 2016
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        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          Thanks for that insightful comment, Dave.

          I certainly agree with you that an element of social change, commentary, or critique is an important aspect of much of the literature. It’s certainly an aspect which draws me to the genre. My instinct would favor that as one of the defining features. As you say, that change might be implicit in the consequences of the fantasy technology and its impacts on social development, rather than an explicit political agenda.

          Equally, I would be hesitant to exclude a book which perhaps didn’t express this aspect of radical change – perhaps didn’t have such serious intellectual intent – but still served to meet other important criteria of the genre with an aim purely to entertain.

          But that does still beg the question of what those other criteria are. Perhaps as you suggest, it is something more ephemeral; a subtle quality or combination of elements, which are hard to define, but instantly recognizable once they are known. But I do think, as you suggest, it would have to be something more than merely sticking cogs on the cover!

          Rod Duncan, the author of the Gas-lit Empire series, suggested to me today that genres and sub-genres may perhaps best be thought of as “centers of gravity” rather than clearly defined boundaries. It’s an interesting notion and I rather like it, as it suggests a fluid, somewhat kaleidoscopic quality which may be more akin to a model of what we have than a rigid compartmentalization.

          June 8, 2016
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      • There are very few labels that define an exact set: for example, most people have an image for what sort of food an Italian restaurant serves without each dish having to include all the items from a set list. Genre would seem to be the same: a statement that a significant subset of common elements will be present.

        The boundaries of genre can also change depending on the framework within which the question is asked. If treated as exclusive, genre needs to define what it is and isn’t to a greater extent than than if something can be more than one genre.

        June 9, 2016
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        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          I think you are right, Dave. But still, the statement “a significant subset of common elements will be present” still begs the question of what we consider to be the set of elements from which that subset is drawn. There is no definitive list. Or could there be?

          Or, as I suggested before, could it be that whatever else it might include, there is something essential which ultimately defines it and without which, whatever else it may be, it isn’t that?

          Over on my Youtube channel, Rod Duncan (author of The Custodian of Marvels and the Gas-lit Empire series) made the following astute observations, which he has kindly given me permission to quote here.

          Firstly, that “the definition of steampunk – a notoriously fraught question – is not attempted. It is a fair observation that most books described as steampunk have fantastical elements. But not all. The question ‘Is steampunk science fiction or fantasy?’ implies a Venn diagram universe in which each of these genres has clearly drawn boundary conditions. I prefer to think of genres as centres of gravity. There is no distance from them at which they have no influence.”

          And also, “I think we have more success attempting to describe [steampunk] than define it. And even that is difficult. It has certainly spread beyond K. W. Jeta’s original usage, because it has become more than a literary genre. We could perhaps list some of the attributes that are usually associated with it. Such a list would surely include a stylistic aesthetic and technology from the age of steam, anachronous elements and counter-cultural or anti-establisnment punky characters. To that we could add a range of common steampunk motifs. For example, clockwork, cephalopods, airships, burlesque, stage magic etc.”

          Again, perhaps the difficulty we face is that we are trying to define something which defies definition. As I think I said before, perhaps steampunk is more akin to a lens through which to view something else and so will make visible different things depending on what it is applied to. What I mean is, as steampunk isn’t perhaps a genre in its own right at all, we should be talking about “steampunk adventure,” “steampunk science fiction,” “steampunk fantasy,” “steampunk mystery,” “steampunk romance,” and so on. Perhaps all the confusion arises from trying to make it a genre when it is, in fact, a qualifier applicable to many different genres. Are we asking the wrong question? Such as, is Regency romance or historical?

          June 9, 2016
          |Reply
      • Is Regency romance or history? If I had to pick, I’d say history, as changing the time period makes it something else more definitively than changing the plot to a different time-suitable dynamic.

        However, most Regency novels are both because genre can be world or character driven. For example, fantasy deviates from what we call the real world in some way, whereas horror is about the experience of characters.

        And I think we can get some way toward a picture of what steampunk might be by asking the same question.

        I would suggest steampunk is a genre of trappings rather than emotional conflict. While a steampunk work can speak to the human condition, it always has a certain type of objects/technologies/&c.

        Which is supported by steampunk being a way of dressing &c. as well. Compare the ease with which I could dress steampunk compared to dressing romance.

        So, perhaps an approximation of the bounds of the genre lies in rewriting various texts to be steampunk (or not): what symbols might an author add to make Romeo and Juliet steampunk? what symbols might an author remove to make Heart of Veridon straight fantasy?

        June 9, 2016
        |Reply
  3. Austin Hackney
    Austin Hackney

    Hi Dave,

    I take all those points on board. But then, if steampunk is, after all, “a genre of trappings” rather than partaking of anything more substantial which defines it, are we not suggesting that in the end you can just “stick some cogs on it and call it steampunk?”

    I would like to argue that, while that might cover the “steam” aspect (Victorianesque tech and science) it’s also the “punk” (social commentary) which should define it as literature.

    The aesthetic alone is not enough. Otherwise, going back to Asimov, a silver jump suit would be sufficient to define science fiction, quite regardless of the credibility of the proposition.

    June 13, 2016
    |Reply
    • My point wasn’t substantial vs. non-substantial, but external vs internal experience. I would term the entirety of science-fiction is a genre of trappings because it requires a type of world rather than a type of plot. The same would apply to historical fiction because it is defined by a time period.

      Whereas, romance is substantially about the emotional change of two or more characters, so does not need any technology, time period, or socio-political structure.

      So my point was that you can’t stick gears on something to make it steampunk; the gears (or what have you) need to be significant. Or, to use your term, need to provide social commentary rather than just being a veneer.

      June 13, 2016
      |Reply
      • Austin Hackney
        Austin Hackney

        Hi Dave,

        Thank you very much for clarifying and elucidating your previous points. Yes, I see where you’re coming from now and I think I largely agree with you. Certainly in so far as any fantastical elements must serve the story and not be merely decorative. At the very least the trappings must function as signposts,pointing the reader to the substance of the story. At most, they can operate as symbols and metaphors embodying the very themes the story addresses.

        June 14, 2016
        |Reply
  4. I’m not familiar with steampunk as a genre, so after reading your post, I learned something about it. For some reason, I thought it may have been a blend between science-fiction and historical fiction because of the machines and the victorian time period.

    From what I understood, I agree with you in that steampunk seems to lean towards fantasy. Science fiction is the author’s vision of the future and has a grounding on reality e.g. robotics and genetics. Fantasy is usually something that is set in an imaginary world involving magical/fantastical elements which can not be proved in real life. So by being set in an alternative 19th century world with contemporary technology enhanced in strange ways, it naturally follows that it’s fantasy.

    However, science fiction is about the future and perhaps steampunk will become the future. Just because we don’t know something, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Many people thought the earth was flat how many centuries ago, and science proved that this was wrong. Magic and alternative steampunk realities may exist in other worlds (like science fiction’s preoccupation with aliens when no one has solid proof of their existence) – haha, I’m getting all metaphysical here.

    It’s probably science fantasy.

    September 24, 2016
    |Reply
    • Oh and I’ll probably check the steampunk genre out thanks to your post, Austin. Sounds interesting. 🙂

      September 24, 2016
      |Reply
      • Austin Hackney
        Austin Hackney

        Ha ha, I’m glad to hear it!

        September 24, 2016
        |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Farrah,

      Thanks for a very thoughtful – and I think sensible – contribution to the discussion. You give a very good summary of the key arguments for how we might define the literature of steampunk in genre terms. Because steampunk also refers to a whole subcultural movement and lifestyle involving role-play, crafts, music, etc. it can sometimes be forgotten that it started out as an experiment in storytelling! Some folks get very hot under the starched, wing-neck collar about these things, but in the end writers, booksellers and librarians do have to come up with some way of classifying the books they write and curate. I think the term “science fantasy” is a good one.

      September 24, 2016
      |Reply

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