Confusion has always existed amongst enthusiasts regarding the genre of steampunk. Most people argue that steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction while others classify it under fantasy. Both the arguments won’t be wrong as science fiction and fantasy have a lot of similar settings like dystopian, hyper-technological future, mythical creatures, and supernatural events.
Science Fiction Vs Fantasy
Science fiction and fantasy overlap quite a bit. The key difference between the genres is that the fantasy genre deals with the supernatural imaginative world. Science fiction, on the other hand, includes speculative fiction that draws its internal logic from the real world.
The author, Austin Hackney, suggests that these subgenres fall into a broader category of speculative fiction as seen below.
According to him, anything that isn’t strict realism falls into the category of speculative fiction. He is firm of the opinion that steampunk belongs in the fantasy camp, however, others may not feel the same way.
Is Steampunk Science Fiction or Fantasy?
To understand which genre steampunk belongs to, we need to understand the context or setting before coming to any conclusions. The settings may range from alternate histories to futuristic imaginations, historical fantasies, etc. Depending on the setting, the genre may be classified as science fiction or fantasy or a mixture of both. Some steampunk settings also include supernatural and paranormal elements. There is a whole subgenre of the subgenre, known as Gaslight fantasy, which is a sort of paranormal steampunk. An example of this can be seen in the animated movie Gotham by Gaslight which features Batman in the 19th century.
For example, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy features elements mainly from the sci-fi genre, with an essence of social commentary and verisimilitude that adds realism to the story. It delves into the ideologies that tore Europe apart in those days, using the fantastic elements to expand upon the grim realities of the time.
However, Disney’s Treasure Planet fits more into the fantasy genre containing whimsical and fantastical ideas which use steampunk elements to enable mystical concepts rather than to critique the world as it is.
To conclude, we can assume that steampunk isn’t necessarily one or the other, but a subset of both science fiction and fantasy. A lot of alternating history settings are part of steampunk literature where most of the past is presumed to have happened as in our own history. However, somewhere along the lines, it diverges into speculative science, taking inspiration from real-world scientific discoveries. In steampunk, the revolutions in flight and computing often happened well before the establishment of internal combustion and electronics with relatively low-tech solutions used to produce similar results.