(Also posted on my website http://www.sbjamestheauthor.com)
Recently I had come across the question of what the difference between Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy was. It started because I was telling people that I actually had written some Gaslamp Fantasy novels. It turns out that though people are actually familiar with what Gaslamp is, they aren’t aware of the name of the genre. So today, I’m going to outline the differences between Steampunk and Gaslamp.
Before I do that though, let’s talk about the similarity between the two related genres and figure out why they sometimes get confused. Steampunk and Gaslamp often have a similar outward appearance, and if someone looks at a picture of a character in a Gaslamp tale, they would immediately think of Steampunk. The top hats, the goggles, the corsets, the Neo-Victorian or Neo-Edwardian settings, and of course the gadgets and tinkerings and dirigibles… These all remind people of Steampunk. And Gaslamp Fantasy has all these elements as well.
But where they differ is subtle sometimes. Some people even consider Gaslamp as an offshoot of Steampunk. But it is actually a branch of the Historical Fantasy family. This link to the website Goodreads has a good list of Gaslamp Fantasy books, and this link to Goodreads that shows a list of Steampunk genre books.
Let’s select two books, one from each category, and examine the differences.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher: this book belongs in the Steampunk genre. Why? Look at the plot description:
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator.Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.
Soulless by Gail Carriger: This book, though very well known as Steampunk, is quite frankly a Gaslamp Fantasy book:
Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.
Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire — and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.
With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?
Do you see the difference in the focus of the plot, just from the plot descriptions? In the case of Aeronaut’s Windlass, if you didn’t know that it was supposed to be a Steampunk book, you’d probably think the book was a space opera, with the focus being on a ship (dirigible airship in this case) that was damaged in battle (a space opera trope if ever there was one). The focus is on the technology, at least in this first volume of the series. Is there magic involved in this plot? Of course (this is Jim Butcher, after all), but as long as the scales tip in favor, plot-wise, on the technology and the gadgets, then it’s Steampunk.
In the case of Soulless, on the other hand, we see the words vampire, werewolf, supernatural, soul… If you removed the name of Queen Victoria, you might think this was urban fantasy! We see nothing about gadgets in the book description (though in the book, the reader is shown various examples of more advanced Neo-Victorian technology). In this book, the focus is on the magic, and therefore this scale is tipped toward Gaslamp Fantasy.
In the case of my own book, The Inventor’s Son, there are gadgets and tinkerings (and in the case of The Explorer’s Son, huge dirigibles). In the plot description, you can see there is some focus on those things:
The Inventor’s Son is the story of young Ethan Stanwood, whose father is a brilliant, but reclusive, inventor and scientist. Sickly and isolated, Ethan’s entire world revolves around his father and his work. He believes that this is all life has to offer him, in spite of the latent magical talents he’d inherited from his long-dead mother that are beginning to surface.
When his father flees London one Monday morning, Ethan’s quiet life is swiftly turned into a fight for his survival. His father tasks Ethan with bringing his most important prototype that he was forced to leave behind when he departed. Unfortunately, he has only left the vaguest of clues for Ethan to follow in order to find him. Ethan has to find his father, but he must also face his father’s foes who will stop at nothing to get Ethan and the prototype.
In my series, I have endeavored to make sure there was a fine balance between the focus on tech and the focus on magic, because Ethan is the child of an inventor and a witch. Because the focus seems to be on Marcus Stanwood’s prototype and the struggle to keep it out of enemy hands, you could almost call it Steampunk. But the books actually focus more on Ethan’s journey with the development of his magical abilities, especially in the later books. This is what puts my books in the Gaslamp Fantasy and Historical Fantasy categories more than Steampunk. For the sake of simplicity, readers have shelved my books as Steampunk, and that would not be incorrect, technically, but they do belong in Gaslamp Fantasy as well.