I have been noticing interesting discussions in various blog sites and forums, regarding, in particular, the definition, or purpose (for want of a better word) of steampunk, and satellite discussions of a similar nature on fantasy and science fiction (perennial, those last two). Being in the IT industry, a maxim that I follow is to simplify, not over-complicate or over-analyze, and I humbly suggest that this is where we go with these topics.
I will not go to dictionary or wikipedia definitions of the terms in question, and I will wing this without research, other than what’s in my head. At the least, you will get an insight into how my head works. I should add that my comments are in terms of literature, not lifestyles, subcultures, etc.
With regard to steampunk, I have read much on concepts, like it being inherently utopian, optimistic, etc. While I have read a lot that are, I fail to see this core definition as working, and I think it deviates from what it intrinsically is. Some of the best steampunk stories that I have read are in fact dystopian in nature and provide a deep insight into the darker side of society, and like all good science fiction and fantasy stories, say something about us (Excellent Service by Tonia Brown, is an very good example – Steampunk Anthology – Sonar4, 2010). I have written 3 steampunk short stories (1 published, 1 to be published this year) and I admit to preferring to exploit the dark side of the subgenre.
I recently joined a steampunk group on Facebook that has a HUGE membership, and absolutely love its definition: ‘steampunk is Victorian science fiction’. That’s it. And in my mind it materially works. While stories do not have to take place in Great Britain or one of her Empirical settings per se, nor for that matter strictly while Queen Victoria was alive (hey, nothing wrong with a 1910 setting, right?), it couldn’t be steampunk without the Victorian flavor. What I like about the setting element of the definition is that it still has huge potential for variety – US Western setting, or in the case of one of my stories, on a planet in a far off stellar system. Steampunk is about a society that is still largely technologically oriented toward steam mechanisms and its derivatives, and this originated largely during the Victorian era. Steam technology is critical to the definition and atmosphere of the subgenre – I contend that little else matters.
Now to the second part of the "steampunk is Victorian science fiction" definition – yes, it is science fiction. It is the science fiction of the Victorian era, such as Jules Verne and H G Wells (at least part of his career). It is, as I recall Jay Lake referencing recently, the science fiction extrapolations that emanate from the Victorian era. It becomes, in essence, an alternate reality set in the Victorian era.
I really like this definition as it is simple, despite my long explanation. It begs, of course, for a definition of science fiction, and also asks the question, why isn’t steampunk fantasy?
Firstly, steampunk in some references, is defined as a subgenre of fantasy, and in other sources, co-subgenred with scifi and fantasy.
Again, trying to simplify, and accepting criticism from hard-core speculative fiction commentators, I believe science fiction is about ‘what if’, but consistent with the understanding of known science and human behavior/history. It can be set in any timeframe, and it doesn’t need to have high science content, but it has to speculate scenarios with consistency to science (it can in fact achieve this by avoiding science, up to a certain extent). This is why ‘science’ is in the category name. I should add, however, that some elements of extrapolated science can be untested, and in my mind still falls within science fiction.
Fantasy, on the other hand, expects the suspension of disbelief to work harder, and poses ‘what if’ scenarios in contradiction to current science and current knowledge.
Yes, one could argue there is a gray area between the two genres, but I think it is a moot point. If in doubt, categorize as fantasy and be done with it.
Science Fantasy is a funny category. I see it, at a high level, as contradictory (particularly against my simplified definitions), but I see it as a handy subgenre of fantasy, where ‘harder’ science is interspersed with fantasy.
So, returning to steampunk, it could be expanded (for definitional purposes) to mean "Victorian ‘what if’ stories, set within consistent science as understood in that era". It is important to point out the importance of ‘understood in that era’ – as the writer of a steampunk story will assert that reality (truth, science) is relative to Victorian society’s understanding. If it doesn’t it becomes a quaint and interesting fantasy sub-subgenre of steampunk.
Hmm, a lot of writing to assert something simply, but hey, my definition contains 13 words.