Steampunk: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Here’s something I’ve been puzzling for a little while.

Is steampunk science fiction, or is it fantasy? 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “steampunk” refers to a genre of speculative fiction (that lovely umbrella term that covers both SF/F while sometimes meaning neither) which is, usually, a creative reinterpretation of the Victorian era. Alternative history, if you will (though it doesn’t always have to be), with airships, goggles, and steam-powered gadgets of all kinds. It’s not dissimilar to Jules Verne, but with the benefit of hindsight. According to one guest on I Should Be Writing, it’s what happens when “Goth kids discover the colour brown.” 

I like steampunk. The aesthetic trappings appeal to me: the brass, the cogs, and yes, the goggles. Obviously, I appreciate a dose of Victoriana. And it’s a fun genre – one in which earnestness and placing the tongue firmly in cheek are both viable options.

But is it science fiction? Or fantasy?

Those genres are notoriously difficult to define, but the best I’ve heard is, “Science fiction is the fiction of what could be, but isn’t. Fantasy is what couldn’t be, but is.”

Steampunk’s an interesting one, because it doesn’t extrapolate into the future, it offers a hypothetical past. “What could have been, but wasn’t.” That being said, you can have steampunk dragons. Magic and steam aren’t mutually exclusive – which would place it in the fantasy camp.

Perhaps steampunk is just steampunk: a boundary-crossing species unto itself. Maybe that’s another reason I like it so much. It freely draws from science fiction, fantasy, and history, while binding itself to none of them.

And while being dashingly attired, to boot.

Posted on March 29, 2012, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It often rides in both of those catagories. China Mieville wrote fantasy in a sci fi word in Predido Street Station. I call it speculative and therefore it falls into the genre with both fantasy and sci fi beside it.
    I do love it though, where ever it sits.

  2. Hey KT… Your china plate picture struck a chord with me. I’m deep into the Regency period with another read of Mansfield Park and can picture you with that spot of tea. Muttonchops and Steampunk… Great words, great mouthfeel. They have a Hugo (the book) atmospheric feel to them. .Belated Happy Easter from Lisa, Claudio and Massimo in Winnipeg!

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