Historical Fantasy Sub-Genres: Gaslamp and Steampunk
Gaslamp (Gaslight) fantasy and steampunk are atmospheric sub-genres of fantasy that exploit historical features and foibles of the 19th century, particularly in Britain and its colonies.
A Bit of Background…
The European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries exalted Reason above all else, a focus that both ignited scientific enquiry and spawned revolutions. At the same time, the Enlightenment calcified the imagination. Two centuries of constrictive rationality created a hankering for escape and a hunger for whimsy. In other words, at the turn of the 19th century, the world was ripe for fantasy.
The Nineteenth Century
Welcome to the Romantic Era, the age of sturm und drang—intense emotion, when fairies flitted in gardens and mad scientists cooked up monsters during electrical storms. This shift of focus to emotions and intuition, myth and magic provided fodder for creatives of all types, not least writers.
The 19th century in England was a time of incredible social change. Starting in Great Britain, the Industrial Revolution (1780 – 1840) heralded a new urban lifestyle, featuring a working class, advances in trade and business, and the mechanical manufacturing. The power of steam was harnessed for transport, textiles, iron production.
The Royal Circus
A series of formidable monarchs ruled during the 19th century. George III’s chronic illness and mental health issues came to a head when his youngest daughter Amelia died in 1811. His intense grieve left him unfit to rule, so his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled as regent from 1811 - 1820 (aka, The Regency Period).
The Prince Regent made a right royal mess of things, running up debts, flagrantly spending, and generally behaving immorally. Upon his father’s death in 1820, he was crowned King George IV, dying ten years later after a prolonged illness.
His brother William IV took over, ruling for seven years, during which he did not produce a legitimate heir. His niece Alexandrina was next in line, ruling as Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. The British Empire grew during her long reign, and she, dour and indomitable, left an indelible mark on history.
Her son succeeded her, reigning from 1901 to 1910 as King Edward VII.
Historical Fantasy Genres
Both gaslamp/gaslight and steampunk occupy the above piece of historical real estate, Regency to Edwardian eras, but they use the space differently.
Gaslamp (or Gaslight)
Gaslamp fantasy is historical fantasy with magical possibilities. The setting is usually Regency, Victorian or Edwardian, and usually it’s placed in Britain or its (former) colonies. The name refers to the ambiance created by the gas lamps that lit the streets of the time. The nomenclature derives from the comic series Girl Genius by Kaja Foglio.
The tropes of gaslamp differ from those of straight fantasy (e.g., Tolkien) or straight Faerie (e.g., MacDonald). Victorian times saw a spike in curiosity about the spiritual world with many people dabbling in seances and other occultic practices. These themes sometimes make their way into gaslamp fantasy. Similarly, there was a resurgence of interest in fairies and other fey creatures and folklore.
Gaslamp explores fantastical possibilities and supernatural elements, time-slip, alternative histories and parallel worlds. Its tone can range from broodingly gothic to ‘swashbucklingly’ adventurous. A librarian from the New York Public Library described gaslamp fantasy as: “Jane Austen or Charles Dickens meets Harry Potter.” It can include mystery, boarding schools, pirates, monsters, spies, and manners.
Classic Gaslamp Examples
The gaslamp classification didn’t exist at the time these works were published, but they fit. Consider:
Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie – Victorian, magic, parallel worlds, magic, mythical and fey characters
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – Victorian, magic, portal, time-slip
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Victorian, time-slip, ghosts, eerie ambiance
Dracula by Bram Stoker Victorian, mythical character, magic, eerie ambiance
Contemporary Gaslamp Examples
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman (Australian author)
While gaslamp plays up magical possibilities, steampunk emphasises the technological possibilities afforded by 19th-century advances in steam power. Some argue that this focus on technology pushes it more toward science-fiction than fantasy. Often the technologies are anachronistic, for example, steam-powered robots or androids; or they can be ‘retrofuturistic’, for example, a reimagining of a blimp as a family vehicle or a war machine.
The punk aspect of steampunk refers to the tone of the genre, which can be irreverent, brash and disaffected. There’s a vague or overt sense of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, often an anachronistic callousness, and sometimes a lack of optimism about the future.
Steampunk is not only a literary genre, it’s also an aesthetic. Costumes and settings are Victorian but amped up, for example, women wearing corsets as daywear or men donning thick goggles as eyewear. Clockwork and steam engines of all sizes and descriptions abound.
Variations on a Theme
Some steampunk incorporates supernatural elements such as vampires, werewolves, and witches. Although usually set in Victorian times and generally in Britain (or its colonies), a strong off-shoot of steampunk is ‘weird west,’ usually a wild west setting with gadgets and horror elements. More recent additions to the steampunk canon include non-British settings and POC protagonists.
Classic Steampunk Examples
Consider the following works as forerunners to the steampunk genre. Again, the classification of steampunk didn’t exist at the time of these authors, but their works nonetheless fit:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Contemporary Examples of Steampunk
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore
Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
The Tremblers by Raquel Byrnes (Christian steampunk)
Maiden of Iron: A Steampunk Fable by Edie Melson (Christian steampunk)
Ali Stegert writes gaslamp fantasy adventure for children. The Temple of Lost Time, book one of The Whitherworld Chronicles trilogy, is currently in submission. Set in London’s theatre district in an alternative 19th century, cheeky theatre child Toby Fitzroy must find his long-lost father or end up in a notorious Workhouse for Wayward Children. But his search intersects with the dying, magic-addled king’s quest for the time elixirs of the mythical Temple of Lost Time and sends him to another world…
Writing gaslamp fantasy gives Alison a playground in which to indulge in her passion for Victoriana, fairy tales, and history. A former school counsellor, Alison now cares for her elderly father-in-law and writes books for children. She lives near the beach in Australia with her husband and two naughty dogs. Find out more on her blog, Spilling Ink.