What is the difference between Steampunk Science and Steampunk Magic?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws :

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Witch with vacuum as broom

Steampunk Witch with a Vacuum-cleaner for a broom

Scientist

Steampunk Scientist, off to give a seminar

Steampunk is a literary genre that doesn’t mind a dash of fantasy mixed in with its Science! The best example of genre this would be the Laws of Magic series by Michael Pryor, who also wrote two Science & Magic Steampunk books around his characters, the Extraordinaires. There is no reason as to why you can’t have a mix of both scientists and magicians in a Steampunk setting.

So, how does magic work in a Steampunk setting? Well, you can work it two ways. You can either make the magic so outrageous without any rhyme or reason, for an Absurdist literary take on magic. Personally, I prefer the other extreme, where the laws of magic are just as ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ as the laws of physics. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld runs on this kind of magic; when a man is turned into a frog, conservation of mass means that there is a balloon of extra matter floating bout the ceiling. Magic takes work, effort and training, as well as a modicum of natural talent (though that never slowed down Granny Weatherwax). I’m using Discworld as an example because Raising Steam is most certainly a Steampunk narrative, and several of the other novels certainly overlap the Fantasy and Steampunk literary genres.

Rational magic works in a Steampunk setting because it still conforms to rules. And – if you reread the quote that introduced this article – you can see why magic and science are easily confused by the ignorant or mechanically naive. After all, do you really know what makes a television work? For all you know, it could be magic…

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9 Comments

Filed under Magic, Mash-ups, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing

9 responses to “What is the difference between Steampunk Science and Steampunk Magic?

  1. awesome, steampunk witch looks like a really great thing! thank you for sharing! – btw, are you going to wgt? i think this year is the first year they will do a steampunk picknick thing, too 🙂

  2. Prof. von Explaino

    I feel it’s the source and the method that provides a gradient of science vs magic. Science and magic can both rely on laws and structure. After all, an incantation with components that is repeatable and reliable is a form of expression of the scientific method. Science, as a formalised rigor for discovering the universe, is perfectly reasonable applied to magic in this case.
    Saying your outcome is the result of pacts with gods, or exploiting arcane energy points, or the result of tickling a fairy can be reasonable if that’s the laws of your reality. Science is the method of discovery and documentation. Streams of science, such as physics, would need more work if E=mc2 unless powdered troll tongue is applied to the tongue before enchanting “veni, vedi, speedy”. At the very least it would make textbooks unfathomably dense.

  3. It is always important to remember your audience when you’re depending on Clarke’s Third Law for your suspension of disbelief. Doctor Who recently failed miserably in this, assuming its audience lacked even a grade school comprehension of gravity. That failure, along with a lack of internal consistency, broke the suspension of disbelief, and crashed the story. If your target demographic is smart enough to know what scientific laws the story’s “science” breaks, or to know that magic isn’t needed for what the narration insists is magic, then you risk alienating the audience before they can get emotionally involved in the story you’re telling. It’s fine, though, to have characters not know and the story never say for sure which it is.

    • It is true that once you’ve ruined your verisimilitude, it is a long hard haul to gain it back, and you’ve probably lost most of your audience. However, creating an ambiguity between whether science or magic is at work is a great tool for a Steampunk writer to keep in mind. Michael Pryor and Stephen Hunt both excel at this.

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