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10 October 2011 @ 03:07 am
TOTW: A Past That Never Was  
Have you ever felt as though you were born in the wrong century? Or yearned for the elegance and manners of time gone by? I'm willing to bet that, on reflection, your reverie ended with the realization that there are some conveniences of modern life you'd miss if you could really go back in time.

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!
Gaslamp Fantasy:
  • 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!

Dee WhiteDee White on October 10th, 2011 11:00 am (UTC)
Wow Lia,

Thanks for such a clear explanation of these two genre. I think I'm more of a Gaslamp Fantasy reader and writer.
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 11:11 am (UTC)
I suspect I probably am as well, but I just love the name Steampunk! It sounds so very cool!

Edited at 2011-10-10 11:12 am (UTC)
natalieag on October 10th, 2011 11:19 am (UTC)
I never heard of the term Gaslamp before. Thanks for sharing about it. I definitely am more into it than Steampunk.
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC)
Glad you're intrigued, Natalie! Doesn't Gaslamp sound lovely? A half-lit world of flickering light and deep shadows has so much more potential for storytellers than our efficient electric light, which flattens everything out and strips the mystery from life!

Edited at 2011-10-10 06:06 pm (UTC)
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on October 10th, 2011 11:39 am (UTC)
Perfect Title
A Past That Never Was is such a perfect title.

I had never heard of Gaslight Fantasy either but it does have the right feeling.

Now, I get it!
(Anonymous) on October 10th, 2011 11:48 am (UTC)
Re: Perfect Title
Wow! I have a friend who corresponds with Cassandra Clare!

Also, thank you for clarifying. Cassandra Clare, thanks to you, is now sitting on my reading pile. And, I just love Libba Bray's books.

I wish I had the willpower to attempt to write Steampunk, but am having difficulty just trying for realism and comedy.

You are just so bright, Lia!
Re: Perfect Title - lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Perfect Title - lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on October 10th, 2011 11:47 am (UTC)
I love the term gaslamp fantasy - it's so evocative and interesting while, to be honest, I never had a clear idea of what exactly "steampunk" is supposed to mean. Thank you for this post, which made me look at the genre in a whole new light.
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC)
Steampunk is one of those genres that nobody likes to try to define—it's such a genre mash-up to start with! If we only produced novels like the founding works the genre would quickly suffocate by repetition, but it does help to set some parameters for those who are new to the genre.
angie_frazierangie_frazier on October 10th, 2011 12:24 pm (UTC)
Wow, awesome post Lia! This really clears it up for me. My current WIP is a gaslight fantasy (a term I didn't know existed until this post!). Thanks for explaining all of this in such clear detail, and for the reading list :-))
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 06:03 pm (UTC)
Angie, thank you! I hope the one thing you take away from this post is the wisdom to write the book you want to write without worrying about genre labels. That's a marketing concern. So write with freedom and joy. Don't limit yourself by considering it this or that genre until it's done and dusted and you need to explain it to someone else to sell it. :)
(Deleted comment)
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 05:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Now I know what to get a friend for her birthday!
Ah, that's sure to make lots of authors happy! Bless you, Heather.
fivecatsfivecats on October 10th, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC)
If you're discussing Steampunk and mention Milford's THE BONESHAKER you should also mention Cherie Priest's BONESHAKER, an American Steampunk book!

-- Tom
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 05:55 pm (UTC)
Tom, I love Cherie Priest's novels but I couldn't include them here as they're not classified as MG or YA. Thank you for letting everyone know how great they are, though! You can say things in comments that I can't in posts. :)
Anna Serra I VidalAnna Serra I Vidal on October 10th, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
Hadn't heard of gaslamp fantasy tag either, but I kind of fancy the definition. Also, I love His Dark Materials and Gemma Doyle's world.
Love to read your clarifications, Lia. I always learn a new thing :)
lia_keyes on October 11th, 2011 01:49 am (UTC)
Yes, Ana, it's definitely the past as you wish it could be! How fascinating Lyra's Oxford is, for all its darkness.
Kate Milfordkatemilford on October 10th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes!! All of Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century novels (BONESHAKER, CLEMENTINE, DREADNOUGHT, GANYMEDE--and TANGLEFOOT, which I think you can read free online at http://theclockworkcentury.com) are really fantastic.

Also, if you have a deep and abiding love for Fantasy With Weird Mechanical Stuff that Doesn't Fit Neatly Into Either Category, as I do, Catherynne M. Valente's THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND is just phenomenally, delightfully wonderful. It's like Alice in Wonderland with bizarre stuff like feral velocipedes and a magical wrench. And soap golems. I liked the soap golem a lot.
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 05:56 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes! I've been meaning to read THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND but haven't got to it yet. Thank you for confirming that I should!
(no subject) - rockinlibrarian on October 10th, 2011 11:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lia_keyes on October 11th, 2011 01:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on October 10th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
I certainly learned a lot from this post! I find it especially interesting that Cassandra Clare thinks of her books as Gaslamp. I wasn't sure what she'd say because she does use technology (albeit in smaller portions) as well. Either way - I love it!
lia_keyes on October 10th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Fantastic!
Lisa, I'm always struck by how articulate, intelligently reasoned, and well-read Cassandra Clare's off-the-cuff views are. She knows what she's doing.

Edited at 2011-10-10 08:40 pm (UTC)
Carolyn DekatCarolyn Dekat on October 10th, 2011 08:56 pm (UTC)
Great information
Interesting post. I learned a lot!
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on October 11th, 2011 01:02 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post. Lia! Reading your breakdown, it becomes clearer that my wip (Through the Spyglass) is more Gaslight Fantasy than Steampunk. My story has enchanted gadgetry (but, alas, no enchanted inkpot ;)) and nothing steam-powered, no sci-fi driven mechanisms. My historical tastes in reading tend toward Regency era and Victorian (and Westerns!), so it seems natural to want to write fantasy set in those time frames.

Like Kate, I think it's important to focus on telling the story as it comes to me (I really don't feel I have much choice in the matter anyway, as the stories just come as they see fit!) And I agree that where classifications come in handy is when you're trying to pitch a manuscript & later with marketing/shelving.

I was already eagerly awaiting Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare! (It's coming soon! Squee!!) And because of your list, I've added a couple more titles to my to-be-read list. Thanks!

BTW I adore the cover art for Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star (it's very evocative, yes?) and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland has piqued my interest.

Also, Angie, I'm excited to hear you're working on a gaslight fantasy! I've enjoyed your Everlasting series very much. Just finished Eternal Sea, in fact, and NEED the next book, please. Soon. I'm just sayin. :)

Thanks again for the interesting topic, Lia!
lia_keyes on October 12th, 2011 12:27 am (UTC)
Yes, the cover for Name of the Star is sooo gorgeous! Makes you want to step into it.

I'm dying to find out more about Will's backstory in Clockwork Prince.

As for your current WIP, it sounds wonderful! Keep going! Nobody really cares about genre at the end of the day. They care about reading a damn good story. A story that stirs their emotions.
Bredabredalot on October 11th, 2011 02:28 pm (UTC)
Great list! I don't think I'd include STARDUST, as so little of that actually takes place in our world - my impression of gaslight fantasy is that it's intentionally set in our own history. I usually call it straight-up fantasy or a fairy tale. But it's a wonderful book, so I don't mind too much. :D

I'd also like to add Patricia C. Wrede's books MAIRELON THE MAGICIAN and THE MAGICIAN'S WARD, which were two of the first gaslight fantasy books I read and which gave me a love for it. They're great books, with one of the more accurate treatments of what it would be like to be an outsider in Regency society that I've read. (That's a pet peeve of mine, when authors say that the character's an outsider but don't actually consider the historical ramifications of that.) Plus, immensely lovable characters! She's also co-written a fantastic series with Caroline Stevermer, but I'd mostly recommend sticking with the first one in that series: SORCERY & CECILIA; OR, THE ENCHANTED CHOCOLATE POT. God, so lovable, this book! All three of these deserve a wider readership than they have, but they predate the recent mania by some years, so instead I just run around yelling about them and hoping someone will listen. :D

Thanks for making the list! I'll have to check some more of these out.
lia_keyes on October 12th, 2011 12:21 am (UTC)
Thank you for the additions! Always happy to add more to my reading list. :)
Majida Kathleen NelsonMajida Kathleen Nelson on October 11th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
Victorian Era
Thanks Lia....so clear! There's just something about the Victorian era that's fascinating and I think you've pointed it out-the interest in the future (machines and scientific exploration) that is positive. Anything seems possible.
lia_keyes on October 12th, 2011 12:20 am (UTC)
Re: Victorian Era
Yes, Majida, I think that has a lot to do with it. When was the last time we felt optimistic about the future, and masters of it, too?
Veronica RossiVeronica Rossi on October 11th, 2011 09:55 pm (UTC)
Great piece!
I wasn't aware of Gaslamp Fantasy. Very informative, and gives me much to seek out to read now! Great work, Lia.