Gaslamp or Steampunk?

Steam EngineAs I began reading through “steampunkish” books to review on this site, I realized that it was going to become necessary to differentiate between two very similar genres, steampunk and gaslamp.  In everyday discussions of books or movies, it’s quite likely that we’ll use the two terms interchangeably; however, when precision is needed (as in a book review), there’s merit in drawing the two apart with more exactitude.

Both steampunk and gaslamp works share a Victorian(esque) technological level and overall social sensibility, although they may be set in the historical past, on an alternate Earth, or in a fantasy world. To count as steampunk or gaslamp, I’d argue that the works must not have been actually produced in the Victorian period — the genres are retrospective — and they should contain some sort of speculative element to differentiate them from, for example, straightforward romances or mysteries set in the Victorian period.

I argued in my earlier essays (politics and ideology) that when considering steampunk, it’s useful to keep in mind its two parts: “steam,” which refers to its Victorian aesthetic, with an emphasis on Victorian technology and industry, and  “punk,” which refers to its oppositional or critical message, usually with dystopian overtones. These two terms establish the boundaries between steampunk and gaslamp: Speculative works that possess a Victorian aesthetic but do not make technology or industry central to their plot and/or do not offer any sort of social or political critique relevant to the modern world are best referred to as “gaslamp” rather than “steampunk.”

Thus, the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett and others, which are set in an alternate world that combines magic and an extremely Victorian culture and level of technology, are best described as gaslamp fantasies. Although the stories mention Victorian technologies, the technologies are not significant or central elements of the plot — on the contrary, the ways in which magic supplements or replaces technology is more critical to the series. Similarly, although the works include political intrigue and tension — Lord Darcy is the chief investigator for the Duke of Normandy — they offer relatively little cultural or political critique relevant to today’s world.

On the other hand, The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is thoroughly steampunk. Set on an alternate Earth in which Charles Babbage’s difference engines are used to run 19th century England, the novel explores the social and political implications of a much earlier historical shift from an industrial to an information society and presents a dystopian view of the 1990s that resonates with real-world concerns about privacy issues. Technology — and its effects on the social order — are central themes within the novel.

Of course, between these two poles lies a vast sea of quasi-Victorian speculative fiction that ought to provide fans and scholars with plenty of room for debate. How central of a role must technology or industry take to make a work steampunk? How heavy-handed or relevant of a sociopolitical critique must a steampunk novel present? What if a novel’s technology is so advanced that it’s almost magical, such as in Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters? Is there room in steampunk for “magic” at all, or must that word be shunned entirely?

I’m looking forward to hearing the arguments.

(EDIT 2011: The term “steampulp” might be preferable to “steampunk” when describing works that are primarily gaslamp and include nonideologically critical elements associated with the steampunk genre.)

(Photo courtesy of StockXchng)

5 Responses to Gaslamp or Steampunk?

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  4. Lexi Orchestra

    Hi Dru, I think this differentiation between gaslamp and steampunk raises some very interesting questions. First of all, I’d like to thank you for so clearly articulating what I’ve been musing on, that works that lack a social/political component in their treatment or representation of technology is not steampunk, for they immediately disregard the “punk” aspect of steampunk. Then questions arise…I’m not directly them at you but if you’d like to offer some insight that would be amazing.

    In your entry you gave an example of gaslamp fantasy that involves magic replacing technology. In my mind Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel magically appears. But that is besides the point. I want to bring up issues where magic is depicted as a complex, elaborate form of science, say, alchemy. Fullmetal Alchemist may be a good case to discuss. I think, when magic is presented as technology and a mix of artistic intent, machination and design, and manipulation (not erasure) of limits, then the fictional work can still be considered as steampunk. Upon impression, being punk is about testing the limits. So naturally when magic is used to embrace, work within, or turn a blind eye to the limits of technology and science, then it’s not steampunk. However, when the novel uses magic to recognise, test, or even transcend the limits, then such a novel can deservingly called steampunk.

    Another issue I wish to highlight is this obsession with Victoriana in steampunk. Of course I cannot disregard the fact that the industrial revolution occurred in Europe, but, since I have no substantial idea to present yet, I can only voice my wish to see steampunk novels that are more saturated with the rich cultural diversity that globalisation has offered to us in the 21st century. We live in an age that the histories of other countries are offered to uss freely. Is it not possible to imagine a steampunk Japan where ninjas use highly stylised and mechanized weapons?

    I’m looking forward to more of your analysis of steampunk. Cheers.

  5. I could write a post about this; and I probably will. But my quick answer is that I instinctively balk from including magic as a form of technology. There is, in steampunk, an implicit link between the word “steam” and that which it powers, various forms of mechanical engineering. Steampunk usually focuses more on the mechanism than the energy source. It may make toss-off comments about real or imagined energy sources (steam, Tesla energy, aether, etc.), but a steampunk story’s problem revolves around the material ways in which the energy is used. Magic usually conceptualized as another form of energy, so in itself it’s not that interesting to steampunk unless it’s used to power a machine, in which case I agree that the term “steampunk” could apply.

    For example, I used a kind of “magic” in my story “The Manufactory,” in which peoples’ spiritual force was used as an energy source. The description of a technology driven by spiritual force didn’t make the story steampunk; what made it steampunk was the fact that the upper class was literally surviving on the life of the lower class, deepening the economic divide and ultimately leading to a riot. The tech provided the steam, but the social problems it caused (and their reflection of the current, deepening economic divide between upper and lower class) was, I hope, the punk.

    But a story that just includes magic in a Victorian industrial setting? Not steampunk, IMO. And re: the obsession with Victorian England, I agree entirely that more steampunk fiction needs to be written about other cultures!

    One other issue to consider is more technical; a category or definition that is so broad that it includes everything ceases to be of much use. So we need to figure out some boundaries to steampunk, or else it becomes as useless a term as “fantasy” or “speculative fiction” — too broad to be descriptive.

    Great comments … very thought-provoking. I will turn this into a better-thought-out post sometime soon!