Tag Archives: Subgenre

Grimdark: a subgenre of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and how it relates to Steampunk and Gothic genres.

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.
From the Wikipedia article on Grimdark

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: even though Grimdark and Gothic share some common genre markers, they are not the same genre. The best way to define Grimdark might be to first look at the Gothic Literary Genre, and highlight the contrasts.

Gothic Genre Markers:

Symbolism – The Gothic style depends heavily on symbolism to create resonance within its setting, characters, and plots. A good example of this is the use of weather in Gothic novels; it is always thunderous and gloomy when the author is trying to create suspense. Indeed, flashes of lightening accompany a revelation or epiphany; thunder and downpours will foreshadow the appearance of a villainous character or the beginning of a significant – and usually tragic – event. Nature is seen as great and mysterious force.

Romance – I don’t mean kissy, kissy romance (though there may be some of that too), but Epic Romance, with weird fates, inescapable destinies, strange journeys and the unending battle between good and evil, the stuff of ballads and poetry. Stylistically, a Gothic novel had its roots in epic poetry. In fact, the Romantic literary movement had a strong influence on the development of the Gothic novel; the Romantics favoured natural, emotional and personal artistic themes.

Ambiguity Ambiguity dominates the characters, their motivations and lives. Anti-heroes abound. This was the genre that provided literature with the Byronic hero; brooding, damaged, and damn sexy.

The Macabre and the Supernatural – The Supernatural is the obvious flipside to the normal and natural. Vampires, ghosts, monsters, they have all had starring roles in Gothic novels. Often, science is seen as both a force for good and for evil (more ambiguity), creating both problem and cure. The darkness of humanity often meddles with the unknown, with dire consequences.

Morality and Consequences – Because of this darkness, there has to be consequences. Someone commits a crime, whether purposefully or accidentally, and there are repercussions: revenge, hauntings, and such like. The villains are punished, the protagonist receives some sort of reward if not an anti-hero. Not every Gothic story ends happily. Justice will be done, as the power of social stability is stronger than any transgression; this was particularly important in Victorian Gothic literature.

The Outsider  as a character – This could be the protagonist. This could the the antagonist. This could be the monster, as in Frankenstein,or, The Modern Prometheus, the most famous literary outsider of all time.By being ‘outside’ society, whether physically, intellectually, emotionally, or culturally, the Outsider works against society’s constraints. The Gothic novel can’t function without this vital character.

Secrets – Gothic novels abound in secrets: secret marriages, secret children, secret tragedies. It is often the hiding and final revelation of these secrets that underpin the entire plot. (Who is that woman you’ve got hidden in your attic, Mister Rochester?)

Some well known Gothic novels are Dracula, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Woman in White, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Turn of the Screw. You can see how these genre markers are common to all these narratives. Even modern Gothic novels, like An Interview with a Vampire, confirm to these genre markers.

George R R Martin

The most perfect modern example of the Grimdark genre would be George R R Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Grimdark novel might have secrets, symbology (Ice and Fire, for starters) and a horde of Outsider characters, like a Gothic novel, but there is a strong streak of cynicism and violence in this series that is completely opposed to the Romantic themes in Gothic literature. It is a dark and dystopic vision of human nature, in a fantasy setting with dragons and white walkers, and it is absolutely brilliant. Justice or morality have been thrown out the window.

Grimdark Steampunk isn’t my writing style, but I enjoy reading it. Many of the recent Steampunk novels I’ve read lean towards being Grimdark rather than Gothic, such as Jay Kristoff’s The Lotus War series and Stephen Hunt in his Jackelian series.

I like the definition by writer Jared Shurin, that Grimdark genre has three key markers:

  1. a grim and dark tone;
  2. a sense of realism (his example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and;
  3. the agency of the protagonists. Whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, Grimdark is “fantasy protestantism”; characters have to choose between good and evil, and are “just as lost as we are.”

You can immediately see that relates back to the genre markers for the Gothic Literary Genre. I have heard of the term ‘Steampunk Gothica’ used for Steampunk novels that borrow heavily from the Gothic Literary Genre, but the modern Steampunk genre has evolved from the Gothic genre so I consider it a redundant term. Grimdark is something else again. Something gritty. And when grit gets into the mantle of an oyster, it turns into a pearl.

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The Ghosts of Victorian Past: Gothic Steampunk

The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story was the very first Gothic novel, so it predates the Victorian era by several decades. It was published in 1764, and written by Horace Walpole. Walpole’s style was heavily influenced by the tragedies of Shakespeare. The Castle of Otranto was a popular book and its style was to be much imitated in the later 18th century and early 19th century, created the Gothic literary genre. The Gothic literary genre is considered to combine melodramatic fiction with the Victorian-era genres of Horror and Romanticism. Some of the most famous books of the Victorian era were Gothic tomes, like and it is easy to trace the influence the Gothic genre had on some of the more lurid genres of modern Science Fiction and modern Horror.

The Gothic novel held a particular fascination for the Victorians, with their morbid obsession with mourning rituals, mourning clothing and jewellery, mementos, Spiritualism, ghosts, post-mortem photography and death in general. In Britain, Charles Dickens wrote Gothic novels, like Bleak House and The Mystery of Edmund Drood and even A Christmas Carol. Edgar Allan Poe was the king of Gothic fiction in America, with his recurring themes of bizarre deaths, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning. Many of his works are considered part of the Romanticism subgenre of Gothic literary fiction, or fall into the genre of Gothic Horror.

Edgar Alan Poe by Pablo Bernasconi

Edgar Alan Poe by Pablo Bernasconi

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by English author Mary Shelley is another classic Gothic novel, and one of the direct progenitors of Science Fiction literary genre. It is consider Science Fiction because Victor Frankenstein creates his monster through scientific techniques, and he deliberately experimented with the specific goal of recreating life. It is also a Gothic Horror because it conforms to all the genre markers of the Gothic literary genre: the melodrama, the Romanticism, the use of Supernatural forces, the classic Gothic settings, and the ‘fatal flaw’ in the plans of the protagonist which leads to his tragic fate.

Some people have preferred to Steampunk, particularly Steampunk cosplay, as when ‘Goths were brown instead of black’. To the untrained eye, this may seem to be the case, as both genres are heavily influenced by the Victorian aesthetic. But in reality, they have very different underlying discourses. Steampunk isn’t exclusively about Romance or Horror, it is more about intellectual exploration, adventure and SCIENCE! Your average Goth doesn’t need goggles and a raygun, and most Goths wear their outfits as a lifestyle choice and not as cosplay. With not a cog in sight…

There is plenty of overlap between the Gothic literary genre and the Steampunk literary genre, but there are plenty of differences too. Many Steampunk writers use Gothic literature as a stepping off point for their own narratives, and very successfully too. Steampunk can adapt to ruinous castles and melodrama as easily as Doctor Jekyll can concoct a potion.

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Sharing Steampunk: some thoughts about popularity

Colour group photo.

Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction. In the past three decades, Steampunk has managed to generate several subgenres of its own, like Gaslamp Fantasy and Dieselpunk. These are growing large enough to count as genres in their own right, with their own aesthetics and genre markers, and with their own authors, illustrators, artists, and cosplayers. Some people think Steampunk is getting too popular, and this popularity is ruining the playing field for the ‘real’ enthusiasts, because the genre can be interpreted in too many ways.

Let me be the first to disagree with that attitude.

Some people see Steampunk devolving into an uchronic mythology based on the Industrial age in Victorian England. These are purists who want to see all the historical details remain accurate, forgetting that Steampunk shares many of characteristics of the Alternative History genre. The important word in the previous sentence is ‘alternative’, which means creative changes can be made to the details. Lots of changes, such as changes to the time period, social mores, technology levels, the existence of magic and magical beasts, and anything else that takes your fancy.

It is these fluctuations in the details that creates the subgenres.

While a Literary genre is growing and changing, it can’t get stale. It is this acceptance – nay, embracing! – of change that keeps Steampunk vibrant and interesting. This is the same reason why the English language is alive and well in the modern world, because it isn’t afraid to try out new words and new concepts. Steampunk loves to experimentation and innovation; in fact, it is one of the biggest genre markers of the category. New subgenres are just a sign of a healthy literary genre.

I don’t understand how Steampunk can be ‘too’ popular. Popularity means more Steampunk genre books & art, and Steampunk-themed movies and television shows, and much else. It means that people understand what Steampunk is without a lengthy explanation. It means more creative people joining the Steampunk community, making it richer and more complex.

Steampunk isn’t a secret to be clutched to your chest and hidden away, like some old curmudgeon in a dusty apartment. Open that door and let other people join the party. The more, the merrier!

HANDS2015-white

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The Edisonade Literary Genre: a Steampunk Perspective

The 1868 cover of 'The Steam Man of the Prairies' by Edward S. Ellis.

The 1868 cover of ‘The Steam Man of the Prairies’ by Edward S. Ellis.

Edisonade – definition gleaned from Wikipedia

‘Edisonade’ is a modern term, coined in 1993 by John Clute in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, for stories based around a brilliant young inventor and his inventions, many of which would now be classified as Science Fiction. This sub-genre started in the Victorian & Edwardian eras and had its apex of popularity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, circa 1875

I don’t know about you, but that sounds suspiciously like something I would write about the Steampunk genre. In fact, you could almost classify my current Work-in-Progress as sitting in the Edisonade genre. Almost … except my protagonist is a female inventor, and I am writing in the 21st century. Does this mean I write in the Neo-Edisonade genre?

 At this point, let’s take a deep breath. Genre is all about labels, and labels are nothing more than a way of organising. And I know I said I was looking for a better term for Steampunk, but Edisonade isn’t the label I am looking for! Neo-Vicwardian Retro-Futurism is still out in front.

The perfect example of the Edisonage genre hero would be Frank Reade (and Frank Reade Junior). The four Frank Reade stories concerned adventures with the character’s inventions – robot-like mechanisms powered by steam. The first book,  Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, is frankly a rip-off of The Steam Man of the Prairies, even to the illustrations (see the examples above). Frank Reade Junior was a cog that didn’t fall far from the engine. This teenaged inventor built airships, submersibles, steam-powered and electrical vehicles for getting about on land, and steam-powered robots (proving that he was just as able a plagiarist as his father). He has been the protagonist in many a story and novel, even to this day, by an assortment of authors.

Tom Swift is a slightly more modern example of the boy inventor genre. These books were also written by more than one author. They made famous the ‘Tom Swifty’,  in which a ‘spoken’ sentence is linked by pun-ish adverb. For example:

“I find the interior of this submarine very roomy,” said Tom, spaciously.

“The lava is hot,” said Tom magnanimously.

“We have to move, right now!” exclaimed Tom, swiftly.

(Gosh, I can hear you all groaning. I’ll stop.)

What I find sad is the lack of girl inventor fiction. Thank goodness for ‘Girl Genius’ webcomic and Michael Pryor’s ‘The Extraordinaires’!!

Joking aside, the term Edisonade was only ‘recently’ been coined in 1993, well after the term Steampunk was coined in 1985. Because of this, I would argue the Edisonade could/should be considered a subgenre of Steampunk. As well, Steampunk is a much broader genre.

 

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Horror and the Steampunk Genre

Pumpkin from Flickr

The Steampunk literary genre and the Horror genre are a match made in heaven. All the great monsters had their origins in the Victorian era. Frankenstein’s monster was created by Mary Shelley in 1818. In 1827, English author Jane C. Webb Loudon published The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century – a science fiction novel I would recommend for its originality of vision. I might suggest Mrs Loudon and Mary Shelly were the first Steampunk novelists, as Jules Verne wasn’t even born until the next year. Another woman writer, Clemence Houseman, wrote about a female lycanthrope in her 1896 novel, The Were-Wolf. A year later, Bram Stoker had success with Dracula, though there had been popular vampire fiction published all through the 19th century, like John Poldori’s short story in 1819, The Vampyre. There were even robots and other mad inventions. About the only classic monster not introduced into popular culture in the Victorian era is the zombie, which didn’t make its appearance in popular horror fiction until the 20th century.

The 1868  'The Steam Man of the Prairies' by Edward S. Ellis

The 1868 ‘The Steam Man of the Prairies’ by Edward S. Ellis

We all know the horror-genre influences in the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. For example, there were the prehistoric monsters in the Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and the Martains from The War of the Worlds. There is a great deal of historical precedence for horror to mash-up with the Steampunk genre.

My favourite is the mad scientist, who doom himself with his own creation, which is – of course – the main plot of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. This gives equal balance between the science and the horror, to create a Steampunk genre narrative. You can either go the ‘bucket of guts’ route with the horror, or run with lots of atmosphere and psychological horror. And there is no rule that says you can’t use both.

This article was inspired by Halloween. So tap into your dark side, and write a spooky Steampunk story!

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The Subgenres of Steampunk

Dieselpunk

Dieselpunk

I want to be right upfront and state that this list of Steampunk subgenres is of my own devising, and I’ve made a stab at developing my own categories and definitions. However, Dieselpunk looks to be a subgenre with legs, and the others look to be making a good attempt at marking their own territories, so any inaccuracies or fuzziness can be attributed to me.

The Steampunk literary genre is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and it has subgenres of its own. Science Fiction is a genre that is changing and evolving as new technologies are discovered and as we grow to understand the human animal better. It can be used to tell a simple and straightforward adventure story, or it can be a multilayered narrative that is making pointed observations about a culture, such as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, and so can be everything in between. There are hundreds of subgenres of Science Fiction, and more are being generated all the time. All of the Steampunk subgenres are a type of retro-futurism.

Dieselpunk

Dieselpunk is set in the early days of development of the car, the motorcycle, and the airplane. As you can see, this means there is quite the timeline overlap with the Victorian and Edwardian era, but the technology is of a more sophisticated level. Less steam engines, more petrol engines. More of an obsession with speed. Less of the florid and fussy Victorian aesthetic, and more of the streamlined beauty of the Art Deco (I mistakenly put Art Nouveau here last night).

Valvepunk

Valvepunk

Valvepunk

It is all about valves, obviously, the technology of radio sets and the early television. I have also heard this referred to as Teslapunk. I would place this at a slightly later timeframe than Dieselpunk, but with lots of overlap. Valvepunk’s aesthetic is all about Bakelite, which was invented in 1907 and stopped being popular around the Second World War, after which it was replaced with more modern plastics and resins in the home and most industrial applications.

Cogpunk

Again, the name on the box tells you exactly what’s in it. Cogpunk is about clockwork and gears, which many might argue is the heart of Steampunk. However, Cogpunk includes the handmade automations and horological wonders that were made before the Industrial era, and the French Industrial clocks of the Victorian era, Twentieth Century clockwork tin toys and much, much more. It is a meticulous aesthetic, all about uniqueness and one-offs.

The Strasberg Clock at the Powerhouse Museum

The Strasberg Clock at the Powerhouse Museum

Gaslight Fantasy

Gaslight Fantasy is where Steampunk is leavened with magic, or mythological creatures, or time travel, anti-gravity, or aliens; anything that isn’t strictly a technological innovation invented by human beings. Most of the books I’ve read in the Steampunk Literary genre have a Gaslight Fantasy aspect. The webcomic Girl Genius is classed by its creators as a Gaslamp Fantasy.

Girl Genius

Girl Genius

If you have any categories you want to add, or to comment about these definitions, please comment. I would love your input! As well, I have on Facebook, Steampunk Sunday: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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Filed under Cogpunk, Dieselpunk, Gaslight Fantasy, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Subgenres of Steampunk, Valvepunk