Genre Talk

Genre Talk: Is there room anymore for steampunk minus the magic?

By Craig Hatfield (Nyah.  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsI’m one of those that defines the paranormal genre as more than just creature fiction–anything that is outside of our normal world fits the bill for me, though I know some disagree, and that’s okay.

Being the analyzer that I am, when I set out to write my steampunk romance a year ago, I bought a Kindle book on how to write steampunk, in case I missed crucial elements from the books I’d read or from my appreciation of the cosplay aspect. It gave me some great ideas to work off of, but one thing stuck out for me, and that is, the writer said that one of the elements that needed to be present to be considered steampunk was an element of magic or that appear to be magic. This didn’t jive with what I’d read in the genre, or even with the antecedents in the likes of Wells and Verne. Like any rule that messed with the story I wanted to tell, I ignored it, and wrote away.

However, in the past year, I’ve read more and more steampunk that blends into urban fantasy, populated by zombies, werewolves, and vampires, or that have magic wielders.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this development (I am a member of this blog that celebrates pushing genre boundaries). In fact, I just finished reading Kiss of Steel, which Amber reviewed last week, and WOW. I add my wholehearted endorsement to that review. In fact, I was so blown away, I went to my local bookstore yesterday and bought the second in the series.

I digress. I think. I have a point here somewhere, I just know it. *Shuffling things around* Ah, yes. So, blog readers, do you agree with the writer who said steampunk must include magic of some kind–that the genre bending has changed the face and expectations of what’s considered steampunk that it no longer allows room for kicking it old school?

To me, what I love about writing and reading steampunk is the chance to play with history, since I’m a history nerd.  Explore the what-ifs, and that’s what I had fun with in mine.

Do you read steampunk? What are your expectations when reading it? Why do you like it?

Photo credit: By Craig Hatfield (Nyah. Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

12 thoughts on “Genre Talk: Is there room anymore for steampunk minus the magic?

  1. Hmm for me steampunk is a changed history, where technical devices are way more advanced than should be. If you throw magic into it, all the better ofcourse, but that is not a requirement. The only series I can recommend is Gail Carriger – Parasol Protectorate books. With vampires and werewolves.

    • Great series, though that just reminded me of the term gaslamp fantasy! Over a year ago (and back when I’d read that series) this was termed gaslamp fantasy and I remember someone at a steampunk panel at a conference saying–if it’s magic-based, then it’s gaslamp, if not then it’s steampunk–and I’d totally forgotten that. And that gaslamp generally lacks the ‘punk’ part. Perhaps we’ve gone away from making that distinction, thus the confusion re:magic must be in steampunk.

  2. Well, I think it’s one of those things where no matter what kind of ‘steampunk’ you write — whether it’s got magic or not, whether there are dirigibles or clockwork men or steam-powered potato peelers — there will always be someone who says ‘but that’s not REAL steampunk!’

    A lot of what’s labelled ‘steampunk’ is really paranormal romance with added brass corsets. But that’s totally okay. A static genre is a dead genre. And any book that mixes genres is always going to have one that’s a little more prominent than the rest. To say ‘it’s a Victorian vampire romance with steampunk elements’ helps no one. So we just call it ‘steampunk romance’.

    To those who say, ‘it’s not steampunk if it doesn’t have steam’ – well, y’know. Move on. It’s become a catch-all term for any kind of anachronistic fiction.

    Rather, bemoan the loss of ‘punk’.

    • So true (re: someone will always say it’s not) and it initially scared me from attempting it, but then I thought, to heck with it… And I think you’re right about it becoming a catch-all phrase. In my previous comment, I mention that these types of stories used to be called ‘gaslamp fantasy’ and perhaps what’s happened is that term has been eclipsed by ‘steampunk’ making it catch-all as you say. One of the differentiations too between the two was that gaslamp fantasy didn’t have the ‘punk’ part.

      I can’t do dark or dystopian so technically mine won’t have the ‘punk’ part either, but it does have some light social commentary.

  3. I agree with you, Angela–I think there’s plenty of room for steampunk without magic. I get the blending, but have we really saturated the non-magical steampunk market already?

    • I certainly hope we haven’t! There’s so much still to explore without having to use magic to make it different! Mine is set in Mobile, AL, in a timeline where Lincoln doesn’t get shot, so while it’s Victorian, it’s with Southern/Gulf Coast sensibilities, mores, and the like

    • Well, I think it’s certainly easier for publishers to pigeonhole a book if it’s got magic in it. As soon as you slide over into no magic, pure science, it becomes ‘sci-fi’ instead of ‘paranormal’ or ‘fantasy’ in the bookstore.

      And of course, it is a truth universally acknowledged that ‘sci-fi doesn’t sell’ 🙂

  4. I love my classic steampunk without the magic, though I’m also a big paranormal reader too. I adored Kiss of Steel, though I think that book actually could have been pretty much the same book without the steampunk angle – just a historical paranormal (later books in the series are a bit different though). I actually wrote a post-apocalyptic steampunk without a lick of magic, but as it didn’t get picked up, perhaps you’re onto something. . .

  5. I don’t see why steampunk would have to have magic. Personally I love magic in all kinds of books, urban fantasy, horror, science fiction. But a horror story without magic is still a horror story so why isn’t steampunk without magic still steampunk?

  6. Great post, Angela. I’ve read little steampunk but I have to agree with Erica — “a static genre is a dead genre”. And also, as a writer, I’d add “follow no rule off a cliff.” Write the story your Muse demands you write and add magic if you want. Or not. 🙂

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