Friday, June 28, 2019

Fantasy or Sci-Fi? What is Steampunk REALLY?

Hey'a, everyone! So, first of all: in case you haven't seen already, signups are open for both the Golden Braids blog tour and ARC copies of the Golden Braids books, including Mechanical Heart. If you want to help promote any of these books, please do sign up! We've got plenty of spots still open!

One unexpected question I've had to deal with in the process of publishing Mechanical Heart is what exactly steampunk is. I don't just mean in the sense of "what are the characteristics of the genre?" (though I have gotten that question a few more times than I expected). The question I'm referring to is whether steampunk is considered fantasy or science fiction. Opinions vary depending on who you ask, so I thought I'd weigh in with my view on the subject. Essentially, I'm going to evaluate five common elements or tropes of the genre, decide if they fall more in line with sci-fi or fantasy, and decide based on that. So, let's go!

 Fantasy or Sci-Fi? What is Steampunk REALLY?

  1. Element: A Victorian or Victorian-esque Setting. The core of steampunk is that it's a sort of alternate version of the Victorian Era (that is, the years from 1837 to 1901). This alternate may be set on Earth and simply have different technology and different history, like we find in The Invisible Library. It might also be set in a different world that simply shares much of the culture, social issues, social classes, and general aesthetics of the Victorian Era, as is the case in The Aeronaut's Windlass. This alternate usually reflects either England or America during those years, though it doesn't have to — you could very well have steampunk in China, India, or anywhere else.
    Verdict: Inconclusive. If you stay on Earth, both sci-fi and fantasy have alternate history subgenres (of which steampunk could be a further subgenre). If you go to another world, that would seem to indicate fantasy . . . but you could make the argument that these other worlds are simply other planets or dimensions, which would be characteristic of sci-fi. 
  2. Element: Focus on Improbable Science, Technology, and Gadgets. Steampunk may resemble the Victorian Era in many ways, but its technology is usually advanced in ways that the real Victorians only dreamed about. The degree depends on the story, but you shouldn't be surprised to find anything from a horseless carriage to airships to whole floating cities in a steampunk novel. And, of course, a lot of steampunk involves gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. Sometimes the science behind this tech is a major focus of the story; sometimes it's not — but the tech itself is almost always significant.
    Verdict: Sci-fi. The focus on technology is one of the main elements that I would say separates steampunk from gaslamp fantasy — a similar genre that's solidly in the fantasy side of the family due to its focus on magic over technology. (H.L. Burke's Spellsmith & Carver is a good example of this genre; though steampunk-esque tech is present and even plays a fairly significant role in the second book, the story is really interested in the magic of the world.) And I'd almost say that steampunk's love of tech is enough to put it solidly in sci-fi, except for one caveat . . .
  3. Element: Alternative Power Sources. And I don't mean solar powered! Traditionally, the technology of steampunk is powered by steam, as the name suggests, along with a fair bit of clockwork. But, here's the thing: many steampunk authors are not particularly mechanically minded, and they like their technology in their stories to run a little smaller than steam power requires. So, they invent other types of power. Often, this alternate source is aether or another fictional element or compound. But sometimes, it's just straight-up magic used in a very scientific way.
    Verdict: Mostly sci-fi. Look, the steam power falls under the purview of sci-fi. Even aether and such can qualify as sci-fi; even if it's improbable that we wouldn't have discovered such an element or compound by now if it existed. But one cannot ignore the number of times that magic pops up in sci-fi books — and the fact that it's treated scientifically doesn't change the fact that fantasy is a solidly fantasy element.
  4. Element: Scientists and Statesmen (Character Types). Just like any other genre, steampunk has its common character types. Obviously, you'll find a fair number of scientists and inventors — someone has to make all those gadgets we were just talking about. You have politicians, nobles, and other high-society folk, along with the requisite spies and assassins they employ against one another. And you've got street scoundrels, thieves, and occasional airship pirates to round things out and keep everything interesting (as if the assassins don't do that well enough on their own). Obviously, not every character in a steampunk novel will fit one of these types — but most do.
    Verdict: Inconclusive overall, though with slight sci-fi leanings. Many of these character types are common in both fantasy and sci-fi: you're as likely to find a spy, assassin, or thief in fantasy as you are in sci-fi these days, and nobles and high-society folk are more common in fantasy than they are in most science fiction (though there are some differences between fantasy nobles and steampunk nobles). Scientists and inventors, of course, are more sci-fi — in fantasy, the learned people tend to be more focused on history and literature. And airship pirates have cousins in both fantasy and sci-fi, but the sci-fi side of the family is definitely bigger.
  5. Element: Localized Plots. As a general, steampunk plots aren't interested in world-domination plots or attempts to destroy the universe. There are exceptions, of course — The Invisible Library, for instance — but in general, steampunk stories focus on one person, one family, one city, or one country at most.
    Verdict: Inconclusive. Granted, fantasy is best known for epic, world-spanning quests — but there's a whole subgenre, low fantasy, that has localized plots as a major characteristic. And, really, many of the most famous sci-fi stories deal with plots as large and epic as you'd find in any fantasy novel. So, once again, steampunk resembles both of its possible parent genres.
So, where does steampunk fit? In some ways, it's best to take it on a case-by-case basis. Check what powers the world's technology, see what character types the story focuses on, and go from there. But if I had to characterize the genre as a whole, I'd put it under the crossover genre of science fantasy: a little too tech-focused to be straight-up fantasy; a little too fantastical to be hard-core sci-fi. And, y'know, that's not a bad thing. In many ways, science fantasy is the best of both worlds, a place where heroes carry both swords and cell phones and where magic and science exist side-by-side and even in cooperation with each other. It's a place where realism and wonder come together and make something beautiful.

That's my view, anyway. What about you? What do you think steampunk is? Please tell me in the comments! And don't forget to sign up for the blog tour!
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)

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