As 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.)
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