Thursday, May 18, 2017

Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy

Posted by: Shawna Reppert

So, one of my Twitter followers recently asked me if there is a difference between steampunk and gaslamp fantasy. I felt the question was an important one, and one I could not answer in 140 characters or less. Also, (full disclosure) I needed a topic for the blog.

 Like many questions, how you define the terms pretty much gives you your answer. ‘Steampunk’ is an older and more widely recognized term. When I have to define it to the uninitiated, I describe it as ‘the Victorian era if steam technology was way cooler than it actually was.’ There are purists out there who want to define it narrowly by years (generally the dates of Queen Victoria’s reign) and by what a book must include to be considered steampunk (usually clockwork and/or steam technology, and may or may not broaden the definition to include early chemistry or alchemy). There are some who argue that to be steampunk, the technology must form a central part of the story (often, in my opinion, to the detriment of plot and character development). These are probably the same people who are responsible for getting steampunk labeled as a subgenre of science fiction, a categorization which has never made much sense to me and which has caused me no end of marketing headaches. Some self-styled steampunk purists would go as far as to exclude works that have fantastical elements such as glamours, alchemy and, yes, werewolves.


 Personally, I think there’s a lot more room than that under the steampunk tent. In fact, I often use ‘steampunk-y’ as an adjective to describe some very not-Victorian things that have steampunk elements. . . since I am a confirmed Whovian, the first examples that spring to mind are the Doctor Who episodes The Girl in the Fireplace and Deep Breath, as well as the overall look of the twelfth Doctor’s TARDIS. By my definition, if it doesn’t have gears and levers, steam, a Victorian setting and/or alchemy, it probably isn’t steampunk, though I’m open to being convinced. I will confess that my own steampunk novels are more heavily influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle and by first-source research of the Victorian era than by any modern steampunk author. Whether that’s a strength or a weakness depends entirely on your tastes.


 ‘Gaslamp fantasy’ is a term I first heard used by fellow author Barb Taub in a very intelligent and insightful review she wrote of my best-selling steampunk novel A Hunt byMoonlight, although I don’t think she coined the term. By my definition of steampunk, gaslamp fantasy is a subgenre of steampunk, one that includes more fantastical elements such as alchemy, glamours and, yes, werewolves. It’s actually a term I’m personally quite fond of, as I think it’s a better descriptor of what I do. I started out my literary life as a fantasy author, writing both high fantasy and urban/contemporary fantasy, and I’ve always considered steampunk to be just another ‘flavor’ of fantasy.


Unfortunately, when one is trying to find readers, or, more precisely, to be findable by readers, one must use the most commonly recognizable marketing terms. So, while I will continue to campaign to bring ‘gaslamp fantasy’ into common usage, I generally describe A Hunt by Moonlight as a ‘steampunk Victorian detective novel with werewolves.’ 


Hope that’s helpful.


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