Steampunk stories are sometimes viewed as either-or in terms of setting. They take place in either a fantasy, magic-based setting or a science fiction, technology-based setting. Yet some stories straddle the fence between the two. This is also true of steampunk romance.
(I’d like to make the distinction between fantasy settings and fantastical steampunk. A story’s elements and/or style can be wildly imaginative and larger-than-life, but the root of the setting is still either technological or magical in nature.)
How does one approach such hybrid steampunk stories? Is it possible to be in the mood for both types of settings at once? If so, how does a reader reconcile a world in which power is generated simultaneously by both magic and machines?
A number of issues come into play with these stories: reader expectation; an author’s worldbuilding approach; the genre learning curve; and possibly an ability to doublethink!
Are some authors mixing the magic and steam-powered technology in the hopes of developing cross-over appeal? Or is using magic a deliberate attempt to ease the learning curve for readers unfamiliar with steampunk? Perhaps there’s a feeling that readers have greater knowledge of stories with magic elements. Kind of ironic, though, given that steam-powered technology actually exists!
Of course, authors mix magic and steam-powered technology in a story simply because they can. Sometimes you just crave a pickle-and-peanut butter sandwich, dang it! Still, such a blend makes me wonder: what is the core fantasy being offered? To illustrate, I’m going to discuss a few examples from steampunk romances.
“In a Victorian era ruled by a Council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch, and sorcery the demon enemy of the Empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines…”
The above statement makes me wonder if the machines are simply a tool to channel magic, like a wand (and if so, why not just use a wand?). But perhaps the story incorporates an element like aether, which in quite a few steampunk stories can seem to have magical properties. The best part about something like aether is it can be adapted to serve various purposes. The risk, though, enters when its qualities are muddled with too much handwavium.
The premise for A Study in Silks raises the allegorical nature of magic and technology. Either can be positioned as good or evil; beneficial or destructive. On that level, plausibility can be a moot point. The two elements are being mixed or placed in an adversarial context in order to provide commentary on human nature.
Bec McMaster’s Kiss of Steel is the first installment of her London Steampunk series. This series features a distinct paranormal element in the form of a plague that induces a “blood-craving” in infected persons. In other words, it’s a reinvention of the vampire myth. There are also werewolf characters. The steampunk makes its presence known in the form of incidental technology.
Perhaps steampunk as an accessory is of interest to readers who are satisfied with just a hint of steampunk, as when one garnishes a dish with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro. That would help ease one’s way into something new better than, say, a mouthful of cilantro chutney.
Gail Carriger’s Soulless has a reputation for steampunk, but after reading it I feel it’s more accurately described as a paranormal romance with steampunk elements. This story is populated by supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves. Plus, as even the blurb indicates—”Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing?”—the heroine’s soulless nature is set up as an element that will play a significant role in the plot. The steampunk elements are more backdrop than front-and-center.
As for the story’s automatons, they veered into zombie territory for me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but more of a “How do I process those elements?” issue. I’m a reader who loves both zombies and automatons. While it could be argued they can share some similarities (e.g., a slow, ungainly gait; mindless personality), I usually have different expectations for each kind of character. Other readers, however, may enjoy an automaton character more if it resembles the familiar zombie.
S.A. Huchton’s Master of Myth (Antigone’s Wrath #1), releasing in September 2014, features a heroine airship captain who ends up with a “strange ring” and who “must fight against an ancient power and those who would command it.” The blurb explicitly reveals the element of “dangerous magic.” Implicit is the question of whether the world will be magic-based or technology-based. How will the author blend the two? Will one or the other dominate, and if so, why?
Authors may or may not be expecting the questions I’m posing! In some cases, the answers won’t matter, but on the other hand, there are definitely readers to whom a seamless integration or a clear explanation is important concerning tales blending magic and technology beneath the steampunk umbrella.
What expectations do you have for these kinds of steampunk stories?
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit heathermassey.com.