When people describe steampunk, they often do so in relation to science fiction. “It’s like science-fiction from the Victorian period,” or “Neo-Victorian technology”. And certainly, yes. This is a large component. But I think that the relationship between steampunk as a literary genre and fantasy as a literary genre is too often overlooked. One of my goals with The Aldersgate Cycle was to create a steampunk fantasy world, where technology and a Victorian “feel” were part of the world itself, but not necessarily the defining factor.
The thing is, the steampunk aesthetic is as preoccupied with the tinkerer as with the alchemist, as invested in the blueprints as the spellbooks. Our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors embraced ideas of magic, the occult, an the otherworldly, perhaps moreso than any period before them.
Part of my argument rests on the whimsy inherent in the steampunk aesthetic. It’s not just about pipes and brass, it’s more than that. It’s making art that moves, that has a life of its own, that seems to impart its own power instead of just exist. The best objects I’ve seen, whether by Jake von Slatt and the Steampunk Workshop, or Datamancer, or any of the dozens of other makers out there, is when the creation is finished it looks like it should be magic. It looks worthy of magic, of mystery. (I think much of this dates back, from an art historical perspective, to the practice of making reliquaries… but that’s a whole other post in and of itself…)
The other side to my obsession with making steampunk fantasy is that I don’t think technology is that far away from magic at all. Of course, this is far from my own argument. But I think the line is blurred even more in the age of Steam, because technology is, at that point, such a well of fascination rather than a true science. From a historical perspective, you might say that the pursuit of technology was in some ways the pursuit of magic. I mean, if you go back to Newton, for example, one of the fathers of science, he was brilliant, yes; but Newton also was devoted to alchemy, and believed that he could find a way to turn metals to gold. That he and others failed in their attempts doesn’t mean it was any less noble to explore–simply that some things, in this world any way, do not seem to be possible.
It has to do with imagination, with invention. Steampunk is about reinventing the past, taking what we know and shaping it into something that it could have been. Take the whole concept of aether, for instance. It’s taken on a new, quasi-magical life in steampunk as something that’s hybridized science and fantasy.
I guess I just hate genre definitions in general. The reason SF and F are spoken in the same breath so frequently is because they stem from the same concept: “If ___ is possible, then ___” — it’s exploring capabilities, whether by magic or technology, and seeing what influences those capabilities have on greater societies, cultures, and universes. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the “past” or the “future” (or future present, past future, wormhole)–it’s an imaginative exploration of what is possible.
Some people prefer proton bullets to magic missles, of course. But at the heart, it’s important to remember that the blacksmith is just as ancient as the thunder god: in some ways, magic and technology have lived hand-in-hand since the beginning.