But what if you could reinvent the past and go back to a time that never was, to a 19th century with advanced technology, and empowered women? And what if that anachronistic technology wasn't made of plastic, but hand-wrought in brass, leather, inlaid woods, and mother-of-pearl?
I thought so.
Historical fantasy has engendered some fascinating subgenres like Gaslamp Fantasy (also known as Gaslight Fantasy or Gaslight Romance) and its even more genre-mashing cousin, Steampunk. All of which prompts the question, "What's the difference between them?"
While both may employ alternative history, Gaslamp Fantasy also includes supernatural elements, themes, or subjects. Many of its tropes, themes and stock characters have evolved from Gothic literature – a blend of the Romantic and horrific. There is often an element of the weird, or uncanny—supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves are integrated into polite society, albeit uneasily, and magic is common.
As the tech geek cousin of Gaslamp Fantasy, Steampunk is more focused on "science as magic", to the point where one could define it as Scientific Romance, and involves a setting where steam power is still widely used.
Steampunk stories either optimistically explore the Victorians' romance with technology (the belief that all ills can be cured and the world made infinitely better with the right gadget) or explore the darker side of technology—man's pessimistic horror of being replaced or attacked by the machine he has himself created.
Think of novels like Jules Verne's visions of the future from the perspective of the 19th century, or HG Wells Time Machine. Founding novels of the genre are The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Homunculus by James Blaylock, and both Morlock Night and Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter (who first coined the term 'steampunk').
So, where Gaslamp Fantasy allows a good deal more creative license, Steampunk is really more a subgenre of science fiction than fantasy, with great potential to explore man's love/hate relationship with technology through anachronism and alternative history.
At least, that's what it used to mean. With more and more writers exploring these sub-genres for the first time, often without having read the founding works that spawned them, the lines are getting rather blurred and it is often difficult to decide how to classify many of the more recent novels published.
The Inkpot's own Kate Milford (The Boneshaker) gets "twitchy" when the subject of genre classification comes up:
"I think when writers worry about making a manuscript fit that kind of label, they really limit themselves. I like when writers don't worry about genre and just tell their stories. When I first wrote my synopsis, I called it mechanical folklore, because that's what made sense to me. I am glad to have it called Steampunk, but when people tell me they don't think it is, I'm okay with that, too."
Lev AC Rosen, author of All Men of Genius, agrees with her, adding:
"Gaslamp fantasy, to me, is when magic is called magic, whereas steampunk is magic as science. But it should be noted that genres are more marketing tools than anything else and aren't a helpful way for writers to think about writing. Your story is your story – people are going to try to categorize it by their own standards. You can't control that, so don't try to, and don't try to conform to how others think. Just write what feels right."
I asked Cassandra Clare whether she sees her Infernal Devices series (Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince) as gaslamp fantasy or Steampunk:
"More gaslamp, being not alternate history and using a lot of the tropes of the Gothic – but Steampunk is definitely a term people know more. I think Steampunk is almost de facto alternate history, because it posits this whole publicly-used alternate technology. With gaslamp romance you can get away with secret tech and magic."
Kady Cross, author of The Girl in the Steel Corset:
"In my mind, gaslight doesn't have the tech that Steampunk does. I think The Girl in The Steel Corset is Steampunk. Favorite tech from TGitSC would have to be the velocycles—not the most original tech, but they go fast!"
So let's attempt a reading list!
- The Horatio Lyle series by Catherine Webb
- The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray
- The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel
- The Name of the Star (Shades of London) by Maureen Johnson
- The Strangely Beautiful series by Leanna Renee Hieber
- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
- The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
- The Hungry City Chronicles by Philip Reeve
- The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade
- Leviathan/ by Scott Westerfeld
- The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross
- The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
- Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel
- All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen
There are many more, but these will get you started within the Middle Grade and Young Adult categories.
While it could be said that Gaslamp Fantasy (with its more magical, intuitive approach) has more obvious appeal to female readers than Steampunk (which focuses more on gadgetry and machinery) there's tremendous potential for technology to emancipate the neo-Victorian heroine and give her strength beyond the limits of her physiognomy.
So, what do you think? Does one genre have more appeal for you than the other? Do you even care about the finer definitions between the genres? And do you have additional suggestions for our reading list?
Have your say!