Victorian-Inspired Fantasia

This past week, I’ve been focused on revising my novel The Brazen Shark based on notes sent to me by me editor. My goal has been to tighten the novel in places, show not tell in others, and generally work to make the prose paint the pictures I want it to paint. This novel makes a break from the wild west setting of Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. I’ve been having a great time making a trans-Pacific airship voyage with Captain Cisneros, and having Samurai Imagawa Masako match wits with the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. I even wander the streets of Meiji-era Tokyo with our heroes Ramon and Fatemeh.


There’s a definition of punk rock over at that essentially reads as follows: One fellow asks another, “What is punk?” The second fellow kicks over a garbage can and says, “That’s punk!” So the first fellow kicks over the garbage can and says, “So, that’s punk?” To which, the first guy responds, “No, that’s trendy.”

Moving the action in my series from the western U.S. to Asia is one way I kick down my own garbage can. Hopefully it helps to put a new layer of “punk” in my “wild west steampunk.”

With that in mind, I came across a discussion this week about the definition of steampunk. The problem is that steampunk often gets the off-handed definition of “Victorian science fiction.” Well, some steampunk certainly is Victorian science fiction. It’s also true that for many readers, “science fiction” encompasses anything even remotely fantastical from paranormal horror to stories of space travel to stories of crossing over to the realm of faerie. And, the thing is, I’ve seen steampunk stories that would encompass all of those.

Another problem with calling steampunk “Victorian science fiction” is that it doesn’t do justice to how broad steampunk is. It’s not just a literary genre, but a music genre, a visual arts genre, even a lifestyle. Thinking about it, the phrase that popped to my mind is “Victorian-Inspired Fantasia.” Paraphrasing Merriam-Webster, a fantasia is a work in which the creator’s fancy roves unrestricted.

What I like about this definition is that it seems to cover all of the steampunk I can think of. It covers the diverse musical styles that steampunk bands play. It covers science fiction set in the Victorian age. It covers post-apocalyptic stories where people have returned to Victorian technology. It covers creative costumers who might start with some Victorian clothing and modify it, taking it in new and unusual directions. The definition also takes into account the punk element, because when you rove unrestricted, you’re liable to kick down a garbage can or two.

Have you heard or do you have a definition of steampunk that you particularly like? If so, feel free speak up in the comments.


4 comments on “Victorian-Inspired Fantasia

  1. Jack Tyler says:

    Interesting. I don’t view steampunk as a genre at all. The genre is sci-fi, mystery, a detective story, a tale of faerie, a paranormal romance, a normal romance. Steampunk is the backdrop that it plays against, and will define or focus the technology and customs involved in the story. It’s a definite flavor that you know when you taste it, but I really believe it is a mistake to call it a genre. A really inspired effort to pin it to a corkboard, though. I sure haven’t been able to do it yet, and maybe that’s the reason why. People want to say “steampunk is the ship;” “no, steampunk is the crew!” I think steampunk is the wind. You can’t see it, you’re usually only barely aware of it, but it’s always there driving everything.

    • Great thoughts, Jack. Part of my inspiration is that I’ve seen many writers who discuss steampunk in terms of being a genre or subgenre, but I think it’s something that goes beyond that kind of stamp collecting. The difficulty in trying to describe steampunk is that it’s a spectrum. Of course, for those of us who are interested in solar sails, a spectrum is like the wind. As you say, it drives everything!

    • Greg Long says:

      I am thinking “a rose by any other name…”. It matters not to me whether it is a genre or not, just as long as the label means something to the people involved (author, audience, etc) and informs/drives their decisions and expectations.

      Sorry, feeling very philosophical 🙂

      • Good point, Greg. I think the challenge is to define it tightly enough that people do form some reasonable expectations, but not so tightly that it chokes off creativity. Hey, it was feeling philosophical that drove this post! 🙂

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