Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Which is the better term: Steampunk or "Historical SF"?

I stumbled across a new blog for me: The Steampunk Scholar. (hat tip to Chris Roberson). The post Roberson linked to was an interview with Rudy Rucker. The entire interview is enlightening but I gravitated toward one exchange (bold text by me):
MP: Do you think the recent reprint of The Hollow Earth by Monkeybrains Books has something to do with the current increased interest in steampunk?

RR: I think the reprint of The Hollow Earth was a personal decision by Chris Roberson, the author who runs Monkeybrains Books. He enjoys reading and writing historical SF.
Rucker goes on to describe steampunk as a literary movement and a term.

"Historical SF." I seriously like that term mainly because I think it can apply to any story with historical elements and SFnal elements that take place out of the typical Victorian Era that steampunk seems to occupy.

Even now, as I conceive and write my own "historical SF" novel, I still use the word "steampunk" but, more and more, it's not, really, a steampunk story. I've got magic in the story, but also airships. I've got conjured cities and, yet, regular old six-shooters. I'm not necessarily all that interested in how some of my technologies work, just that they do. I have a group of people, ostensibly heroes, who have different pieces of technology based on their needs and talents. It's not all steampowered. Much of it is.

Thus, I think I'll start using the phrase "historical SF" when I refer to my story. If I get strange looks, I'll probably still drop the word "steampunk," but, even then, I'll still have to explain myself.

So, Readers, which term do you like? And, just like in school, please explain your answer. ;-)


  1. At first blush, Historical SF strikes me as an oxymoron.

    I think of history as an immutable record of non-fiction. As terminology, mashing it up with science fiction feels to me like mixing oil and water.

    (I concede the truism 'history is written by the victors,' but I don't think of genuine history as suspect.)

    I could probably buy Alt-historical SF because the disclaimer is right there in the term's title.

  2. I just found out what steampunk was a few weeks ago. How much easier it would have been to understand what they wanted if they'd just said historical SF or steam powered SF. Punk always reminds me of really bad rock and roll or a kid who's looking for trouble.

  3. Phy - I like the "alt" in front of the title. That's where my steampunk heroes will live, an alternate Earth. BTW, love Ray Gun Revival.

    Sandra - "Steam-powered SF" is also a good term. I think the work "punk" clung to "steampunk" mainly because the guy who coined it (K. W. Jeter) was a cyberpunk author.

  4. Hello Scott. Interesting posting to me as my publisher was just explaining steampunk to me a while back. I'd never even heard ot it. Historical SF sounds very Jules Verne! I like it, though I'll doubt it will replace the term "Steampunk" fans. But who knows, you could well be at the leading edge of a new genre.

    By the way, have you looked into attending ConClav (October 6-9 in Romulus, MI)? You might find an interesting audience there and I believe that steampunk would be an interesting panel discussion if you're so inclined.

  5. Rick - I just finished reading "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" for the first time. I like the Verne asthetic and am happy to be writing something he might have.

    I don't know about ConClav. As I re-enter the SF/F field, learning the names of cons is part of my task. Love the name of the town, however. If you are going to ConClav, take some notes on the steampunk panel and let me know about it. Thanks. And thanks for stopping by.

  6. (I'm posting this for Todd Mason who e-mailed his comments to me)

    Alternate-history sf is as old as sf itself (and the term is almost as old as “science fiction” the term), and thus "historical sf" is also...while steampunk is and has been a subset of that subset. Not just cyberpunk, but splatterpunk and the aborted calf that was cowpunk had already traipsed by by the time someone decided that stuff like Verne-ish, dime-novel-steam-robot, THE WILD, WILD WEST fiction could be reasonably be called steampunk.

    --(Me to Todd)

    I have never heard of cowpunk. The more I don't write the second chapter of my steampunk book, the more I realize I need to create my steampunk/magical laws of physics in my alt-Earth. One law I'm leaning toward is magic with consequences, that is, the use of magic has some sort of physical consequence on the person conjuring the magic. Harry Potter Magic is fun and it's the type of magic I gravitate towards but I'm starting to think differently.

  7. (A second Todd Mason comment)

    Of course, if you’re introducing out and out fantasy elements, you’ve slipped into science fantasy, another old and noble form. See Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore.

    --(me to Todd)

    I just purchased Leiber's Swords and Deviltry. Any recommendations on books by Moore and Vance that stand out?

  8. I can't help you with Moore, but Vance is something else.

    I recently had an e-mail conversation with John C. Wright, who recommended the Demon Princes series (I picked up the five books spread over two omnibus editions, Demon Princes 1 & 2). He then recommended the Planet Adventure books, aka the Tschai books: THE CITY OF THE CHASCH, the SERVANTS OF THE WANKH, THE DIRDIR, THE PNUME.

    You can't talk about Vance without mentioning his Dying Earth series. Personally, I also very much liked his fantasy trilogy, Lyonesse.

    He had some well-received stand-alone novels. I liked The Gray Prince, Galactic Effectuator (SF meets noir?), a book entitled Space Opera (how can you not like that?!), and the Hugo award winning The Dragon Masters. John C. Wright also mentioned to please read EMPHYRIO as it is a personal favorite of his.

    But perhaps my favorite Vancian work is his short story that takes a page from Alexandre Dumas, the Chateau D'If. "The story... extends H. G. Wells's "The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham," whose subject sought immortality by trading bodies with healthy young men; Vance's villain sells this service to the rich and the poor."

    I have learned more new and varied vocabulary from Jack Vance than all the remaining SF authors combined (with the possible exception of Somtow, who I think made up many of his, and exempting Harlan Ellison, who was also gifted with a wide and colorful vocabulary). Vance has a singular writing style that is varied and magical without descending into the pedantic. Nobody else writes quite like him.

  9. Phy - Wow! Thanks a lot for the information about Vance. And Galactic Efectuator sounds intriguing: SF + noir. That's my kind of book. But, then, for the other part of my brain, so is the space opera stuff. I'm going to find me some Vance.

  10. I wouldn't know how to tell you where to start with that list. I can tell you that I've recently picked up the five books of the Demon Princes and have found the adventures of Kirth Garsen to be very entertaining:

    "The Demon Princes is a five-book series of science fiction novels by Jack Vance, which cumulatively relate the story of one Kirth Gersen as he exacts his revenge on five notorious criminals, collectively known as the Demon Princes, who carried his village off into slavery during his childhood. Each novel deals with his pursuit of one of the five Princes."

  11. While I heard of steampunk years ago, I always envisioned it as a use of existing period materials (natural or man-made) by an application of anachronistically futuristic knowledge. (Suck that, Merriam-Webster!)

    Perhaps steampunk is a subcategory of historical fiction, as it tends to involve historical periods for its settings. Suppose that steampunk is possible in the present, as long as the materials or technology isn't magical, supernatural, alien, or from the future.

    The more I think about it, the less defined it becomes. However, I like the element of steampunk vs magic as the basis for a duel between characters. Mixing genres hits the plus column for my taste. Two words: Dark Tower.

  12. Phy - I noticed, this past weekend, the New York Times ran a story about Vance. I think someone somewhere is telling me something about what I should put on my TBR pile.

    Robesque - I agree that steampunk becomes less defined the more you get into it. A foundation is anachronistic technology. Other than that, I think we're free to create what ever we want. And I'm about mixing and matching and mashing. One of my latest stories has a cowboy vs. a dragon.

  13. Jo Walton has an interesting article up at Tor.com that covers some of this same ground: