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.

Airship!Of all things, it was my post about Tolkien that got me thinking more deeply about my “crossing over” as it were, from writing strictly high fantasy to steampunk. A snippet of a quote from The Two Towers briefly flitted over my brain last night while playing D&D with our new group (I do, in fact, roll polished brass d20s). We’re playing 4th edition, and it was the first time I got to combat with my new warlock. At any rate, I was thinking about Tolkien and his general distaste of all things mechanical.

Treebeard says to Gandalf at one point, re: Saruman:

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except insofar as they serve him for the moment.”

Holy cow. “Metal and wheels?” That’s totally steampunk.  However, Tolkien certainly didn’t mean this is a positive way. He viewed technology as a means of destroying nature–especially his beloved trees–with an ability to raze the calm, quiet, Shire he loved so much. Certainly I understand his trepidation growing up at the turn of the century as he did, facing the terrors of the two World Wars.

But strangely, it isn‘t the machines that really are the most corrupt in LoTR, but it’s magic itself. Though Sauron creates the One Ring, he is–in essence–descended still from the “magic” of Arda, part of the Creation. Of course this brings about all sorts of questions regarding free will, religion, and philosophy but, at the moment, I’m not in graduate student mode.

One of the common themes in steampunk literature is constant tension between good technology and bad technology. It’s a tension that we certainly feel today, as a nuclear reactor can both supply energy to millions of people and destroy them. We want technology to help people, to make their lives easier, but often it comes with unforseen consequences.

I guess my point here is that, in some ways, I’m more leagued these days than Saruman, at least without the massive destruction of Nature part.

Why steampunk? Once I realized that’s what this book was becoming, a steampunk fantasy, I began doing more reading and trolling the web for inspiration. The thing is, unlike the fantasy genre–which has certainly seen is share of hackneyed, cliched, and rather painful publications–steampunk literature is continuing to grow at a steady pace (just look at the Google Trends if you don’t believe me). And while some people are already heralding its death, I tend to disagree.

The thing about steampunk, if it even qualifies as a genre at all (this is up for debate, friends), is that it simultaneously reflects the tensions and concerns of our own world and transports us to another, whether re-envisioned, revisionist, or completely fabricated. This other world imagining is almost always a “distant but not too distant” past, unlike the bulk of science fiction that takes place in the future, or fantasy in an of ten very distant, mysterious past.

What that means for a writer is a little more freedom, I think, to work beyond the often allegorical mode of fantasy literature into a more mimetic mode. Because it’s not so far, far away, steampunk literature achieves a closeness to the reader; we can understand the ramifications and dangers of technology much better than we might, say, a great ring of power. Not that was can’t imagine that ring of power; but unlike magic, most people have actually seen technology at work in their daily lives.

The closeness of steampunk is that fuels the imagination of writers and makers alike with that closeness. A few trips to the dump or an antique shop, and you can mod your hard-drive with brass and mahogany. Peering through Victorian era newspapers is like a window into Verne.

I think as we continue to move toward nanotechnology and living in a hyper cyber world, steampunk will remain relevant as a hybrid, re-imagined past. It’s certainly captured its share of fans, and I think in time the general media will latch on, as well, as they did with Tolkien. But these sorts of movements start small…

My favorite things about writing steampunk fantasy literature:

  • You don’t have to worry about travel. Skip the horses and the backpacks: we’re boarding a train. Or better yet, a steam powered monocycle!
  • The clothing! I’ve mentioned this many times before on the blog, but one of my favorite research projects involves scouring the web for Victorian couture for my gals. You just can’t get better than that. Add a little steampunk modifier, and you’re in business.
  • The language. I’m a sometime linguist, and always struggle with the languages my characters speak in my high fantasy novels. It sometimes ends up sounding too formal, and it puts a reader at a distance. But I can never decide how the accents and voices of another world would sound. Not so much a concern with steampunk; sure there’s lingo, but it’s nowhere near as difficult.
  • The technology! A mind of metal and wheels indeed. There’s no limit on what the imagination can put together. And, it’s shiny.