Monday, May 23, 2016

Genre Question: Is Steampunk Science Fiction?

A man riding a steampunk-style robot cat.
Photo Credit: Solomon Barroa/

Defining science fiction can be tricky. The term science fiction can refer to anything related to science that is fictionalized, even if the story is simply set in space and with a futuristic technological background. Star Wars falls under this loose definition of science fiction, which many, including the creator of the franchise himself, George Lucas, do not like to consider it as such. Others have a more strict definition which is often: any scientific, plausible phenomenon that has not yet become a reality. Along with this definition is that the scientific phenomenon is central to the plot. Perhaps trickier yet is defining science fiction’s subgenres such as space opera, post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk and steampunk. In fact, some raise the issue whether or not steampunk is science fiction.

Defining Steampunk

So what is the definition of steampunk? For sure, steampunk is alternative history fiction which doesn’t necessarily have to convey scientific explanation. However, in its early years, this subgenre often dealt with retro future technology or technology reflecting our own of today with the exception that it ran on more primitive resources available during its time setting, the 19th century, such as steam and coal. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel, The Difference Engine is an example of this in which information and communication technologies are used in the setting which are much like our own computers of today only at a much more primitive level.

Is It Science Fiction?

However, over the years, steampunk has opened up to ideas that go beyond alternative Victorian settings and retro futures based on them. It has come such a long ways that many people now ask, “Is steampunk science fiction?” This is something that was discussed at a panel entitled “Steampunk Is SciFi (?/!)” at this past Sunday’s Intergalactic Expo, Sacramento’s big annual sci fi con. The panel was almost canceled, but a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in years until then, saved the day. The panelists themselves were not able to make it, but my friend, who I won’t name here because I did not get his permission to use it, decided it would be a great idea to turn it into a Q & A session.
At the panel, we discussed how steampunk has opened up to other cultures beyond that of Anglo Victorian, cultures such as Asian, Latin American and U.S. Western. It has also opened up to many fantasy genre elements like magic and the supernatural, including the paranormal such as vampires and werewolves. Some stories mention very little about the science and technology of the setting and centre more on the fantasy. Yet some are equally mixed with supernatural and scientific phenomena. Many of China Mieville’s books are like that, namely Perdido Street Station. Sometimes this mixing of genre elements are for not much more than commercial ends rather than literary or ascetic ones, other times they are just the opposite and truly convey the author’s (or director’s/screenwriter’s) vision.

But let’s return to the question: “Is steampunk science fiction?” My friend gave a straight out answer of yes. Mainly this was because, as with all science fiction, it is a subgenre that asks the question “What if?” Like much of science fiction asks questions about what future technology and science will do to society, steampunk asks questions about alternative pasts, such as “What if the atomic era never occurred?” (I credit my friend for this example), or “What if World War I was never fought?”, or, better yet, what if Imperial England never lost her colonies?” Whereas science fiction overall asks questions about the future such as “What if robots become the most intelligent race on the planet?”, steampunk asks questions about the past, questions that speculate what would have happened if certain events in history didn’t occur, or if certain ones did occur that didn’t in reality.

To Come

Speaking about steampunk and retro futures, I’m planning to launch an atompunk blog. However, I don’t have a date for it yet. I’m also still working on the colouring for my book cover art for “Circa Sixty Years Dead”. I’ve been behind on it, especially this past week since I’ve had graduation ceremonies and related events to attend for graduates in the family. I’m hoping to catch up on it during the week and to publish the book in the next couple of weeks. So next week I will try to have the cover reveal. I’d also like to talk about the other neat panel I attended at yesterday’s expo; it was about the history of science fiction and was hosted by a really interesting author by the name of J. Daniel Batt. The best way to keep updated is by subscribing to the blog. You can do that on the form at the lower right.

So, in your opinion, is steampunk science fiction? Feel free to leave your answers in the box below.

Until next time . . .

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