Steampunk: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I promise to get back to the Utopia posts, but I’m in the middle of Nanowrimo now, so here’s something I was working on before I started: A discussion of the nature of steampunk.

It’s often referred to as a genre, an aesthetic, a subculture, a way of life, even. Sometimes it’s only a minor element in a bigger sense of setting in a work of fiction, sometimes it’s the entire point. Some call it science fiction, some call it fantasy.

The obvious: Steampunk is characterized by Victorian or Edwardian aesthetics, or later periods, if you’re getting into Dieselpunk. And there’s the Steam powered gadgetry (or, again, diesel powered, if you’re going Dieselpunk). And finally, unless you’re going Gaslight romance instead of full-fledged Steampunk, there’s the “punk” part – the social commentary.

So, is it science fiction or fantasy? First, then, what’s the defining difference between science fiction and fantasy? The best definition I’ve found is the one given by Robert J. Sawyer: On the difference between Science fiction and fantasy.

So, Science fiction is a possible present or future, where fantasy is a world that never was and never could be. So where does that put Steampunk? It often has “technology” in it, that from where we stand today, we know is impossible and ridiculous, even. Often to bridge the gap of suspension of belief, the author must resort to stating it runs on some form of magic. But just as often, the Steampunk element will be something that, to the people of Victorian or Edwardian times, might have been possible. Like using a zeppelin to fly to the moon. Or even better, a chair with fireworks strapped onto it. (That last one’s an example from a much earlier period than Victorian times, but I had to include it because it’s awesome.)

So people will argue, well, when H. G. Wells was writing, they believed these things were possible. Time machines, making animals sentient, turning people invisible, traveling to the center of the earth and finding live dinosaurs down there, submarines that could carry people deep under the sea (oh, wait, that one turned out to be possible). So if what H. G. Wells wrote was science fiction, then is Steampunk science fiction?

Lets put it in perspective. Look at all the tons of medieval fantasy there is out there. Look at medieval times – what did they believe was possible back then? Well, they believed in mermaids and unicorns, and dragons, and wizards, and magic.  And when people write medieval fantasy now, no one asks whether it’s fantasy or science fiction. Granted, no one asked whether it was science fiction or fantasy in medieval times either – but that was only because they hadn’t invented genres yet. For that matter, when H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were writing, it was still being called “Scientific Romance.”

So if we look at it being not the subject matter or setting that defines science fiction, but the perspective of the author, then Steampunk, even when it contains nothing that the author calls magic, is fantasy. Since science fiction looks forward, to what the author believed was possible at the time he/she wrote the work, and fantasy looks backward, at bygone eras, and imagines what fun it would be if the dreams of the past were not shattered by the reality of present knowledge.

This is why you find Steampunk on the fantasy bookshelves, not the science fiction ones.  The point of genre, after all, is to categorize books into if-you-liked-that-then-you-might-like-this, in order to make it easier for readers to find things they’re likely to enjoy.

P.S. – Halfway through nano – a little behind, but catching up. Wish me luck.

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One response to “Steampunk: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

  1. Pingback: The Cogsmith’s Daughter – Author Matt Bowes and the Dog's Breakfast

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