The Shared DNA of Epic Fantasy and Steampunk

I am not a sociologist.

Normally, this doesn’t really mean anything. I’m not a lot of things. I’m not a firefighter, or an accountant, or a Buddhist, or an anarchist, or a zucchini. Normally, these are all of about equal relevance.

In this case, however, the fact that I’m not a sociologist matters a little, since what I’m suggesting dips a toe into those waters. But I’m going to speculate anyway, and if I’m way off base, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

(It would, in fact, be the seventh. I have been wrong exactly seven times in my life. Or eight, if you count this assertion.)

Anyway, all of this is just me dithering aimlessly, so enough of that. It’s time to dither with purpose.

Trends and tastes in entertainment tend to rise and fall in cycles. Something’s popular for a while, falls out of popularity, the pendulum swings back and it comes back for a while, and so forth. Some details my change. Maybe sword-and-sorcery fantasy is popular during one surge, whereas sweeping epics are dominant in the next (Not that such things can’t both coexist, of course; I’m just talking trends being more or less common.) The details may change, but the core aspect of a genre/style/whatever—and the purpose it serves for its particular audience—returns.

My hypothesis, after giving it some thought, is this: The surge in popularity of steampunk over the last decade or so is an upswing in the same cycle that gave us the popularity of epic fantasy from the 70s to the 90s. Not similar. Not related. They are the same cycle and fill the same needs for the speculative fiction audience; only the cosmetic details have changed.

Yes, you now think I’m crazy. Steampunk and high fantasy are pretty far apart on the spec-fic continuum, and when most people do look for connections, they suggest a much closer link between steampunk and sci-fi than between it and fantasy (due, in part, to the reliance on technology).

And you’d be right, I am crazy. But not because of this.

(Before I go any further, let me be clear. I’m well aware of the fact that I’m oversimplifying the specific history/development of these genres. I know, for instance, that steampunk went through a number of iterations–some of which were a lot more "punk" and a lot less "steam"–than where it is now. But that’s not the point. My point is in discussing broad trends, and the genres as they finally wound up being defined, not the specific individual developmental steps they took to get there.)

Steampunk very strongly resembles the sci-fi of the Victorian age, yes. And I’d hazard a guess that many fans and writers of steampunk think of it as “retro-future sci-fi.” But again, those are the trappings, not the soul.

Let’s look at the core of epic fantasy. We have a historical period from the distant past on which the genre’s settings are based. In real-world history, that period—the Dark and Middle Ages—was a horrible time. It was violent, filthy, diseased, unenlightened, rife with social inequality. But epic fantasy romanticizes most of that away. Oh, those aspects still exist, but they’re present primarily to contract the good guys from the bad, or to give the heroes something to fight against. They certainly don’t exist as an ingrained, inextricable, and dominant part of daily life for our noble heroes.

To said romanticized Medieval-like setting, epic fantasy adds the existence of magic. The specific limits or cosmetics of said magics vary from fantasy to fantasy, but it’s always there. It builds an extra layer of wonder into the “cleaned up” period, adding a sense of lost knowledge and lost secrets that humanity can no longer access. It transforms what was, in reality, a pretty terrible time into an escape from the modern world—a place with its own dangers, absolutely, but where heroic deeds can change civilization and where the daily life of our heroes, at least when they aren’t engaged in such deeds, are much simpler than the lives we know.

Now, let’s look at the core of steampunk.

Uh-oh. See where I’m going with this?

The Industrial Revolution and the Victorian Age weren’t fun. They weren’t romantic, or glorious, or wondrous—at least not for the bulk of the citizens of Western civilization. It was rife with poverty, starvation, illness, and social injustice on the part of the poor; and militant colonialism and disregard for human welfare on the part of the powerful.

Speculative fiction has done the exact same thing: Taken a relatively unpleasant historical period and romanticized it, emphasizing the positive aspects and minimizing the negative. Once again, the period in question has become an escape—not a perfect one, by any means, but one of relative simplicity—from the modern world.

But there’s no magic, right? (Except for those few steampunk stories that deliberately combine steampunk and fantasy, but that’s the exception, not the rule.) So doesn’t that cause the theory to break down?

No, because there is magic in steampunk. We don’t call it magic, and it doesn’t look like magic. But it is. We call it clockwork. We call it steam power. We call it alchemy. But we’re still talking about wonders, powers, and effects that are absolutely impossible by any real-world technology. And I don’t just mean technology of the time; if that were the case, we’d be talking about a stronger resemblance to sci-fi. But much of steampunk technology is simply impossible by the use of technology, period. Mechanics and chemistry simply do not work that way. We go with it, because it’s part of the genre, and it’s easy to suspend disbelief because of the scientific trappings. In terms of the purposes it serves in the story, and in the setting, however, it’s exactly the same element as magic in epic fantasy.

The two peaks of this cycle developed in the same fashion. I’m not going as far back as mythology or any of that, because ultimately almost all storytelling can be traced to that. I’m talking about more modern influences.

In a modern sense, then, epic fantasy grew out of the early 1900s. The pulp sword-and-sorcery of Howard, Smith, etc. was part of that development. No, Tolkien and the other early epic fantasy writers likely weren’t influenced much, if at all, by Howard and that crowd. But I do believe that the existence of the earlier form of fantasy helped prime the audience to accept epic fantasy later on.) The early experiences and ideas of Tolkien, dating back to the first World War, fed into it as well. While there were a few earlier fantasies that are epic in nature, the formal birth of the epic fantasy traces to The Lord of the Rings, published in the 50s. (Yes, The Hobbit came first, but it was LotR that really defined and shaped the sub-genre.)

Epic fantasy slowly ramped up for about two decades, and then pretty much exploded in the 70s. By the 80s, epic fantasy was a juggernaut. Massive numbers of best-sellers, and the majority of the seminal epic series, come from that time. (The Riftwar, the Belgariad, Dragonlance, just to name a few.) I’m not getting into whether or not the epic fantasies of this time were the best, and of course they’re not the first, but they were certainly among the most influential.

Said dominance began to fade a bit in the 90s, as other sorts of spec-fic—fantasy and otherwise—took its place. Today, epic fantasy is certainly still going—witness George Martin—but without nearly the strength or popularity it had thirty years ago.

Okay, how about steampunk? Obviously, the aesthetic is drawn, in part, from the writing of Victorian-era authors. But that alone doesn’t define the genre. A few early works that can reasonably be considered precursors to steampunk came out in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. These would be analogous to the pre-Tolkien fantasies mentioned above. The genre was named in the early 80s, and began to really flourish in the late 80s and early 90s (with, just for instance, The Difference Engine). This, under my suggested framework, would be the equivalent of the publication of Lord of the Rings and the works immediately following.

And just as it took epic fantasy a couple of decades to ramp up to its peak of popularity from its “formal” birth, if we jump ahead twenty years from the early 80s, we find ourselves early in the twenty-first century where—oh, look, steampunk begins to really catch on!

I think that one could even argue—though I admit that this particular point may be a stretch—that both genres go back about as far from their originating points, in terms of cultural development, as one another. Here’s what I mean by that: Fantasy that first began to really blossom in the 50s looks back on the Dark/Middle ages, while steampunk, which really blossomed in the last decade, looks back to the 19th century. Obviously, in terms of elapsed time, these are very different durations; there’s much longer between the Middle Ages and the 20th century than between the Industrial Revolution and the 21st.

But culturally and technologically, that’s not as true. The past hundred years have seen a geometric acceleration in the advancement of technology and certain cultural ideas. I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to suggest that the degree of technological/cultural change between the Middle Ages and the first World War is compatible with the degree of technological/cultural between the Industrial Revolution and now. Again, however, I’m not a sociologist, and this particular argument requires knowledge greater than mine to support. I’m just throwing it out there because it’s interesting, and I think it’s accurate.

Leaving aside more questionable sociological assertions, the two sub-genres even share an element of play in the growth of their popularity. For epic fantasy, it was Dungeons & Dragons. That game began as a niche-within-a-niche, often looked at askance even by other fans of fantasy—to say nothing of people outside the audience—which managed to help spread the influence of its inspirational sources as it gained wider acceptance.

(And yes, the original D&D was inspired less by epic fantasy such as Tolkien than by grimmer fare such as Elric, but it very swiftly shifted to a primarily epic identity.)

Steampunk has no widespread game through which it spread. (Although several steampunk role-playing games, such as Space: 1889, do exist, the lot of them together never came anywhere near to even a fraction of D&D’s popularity.) What steampunk does have, however, is cosplay. It has become its own fashion, with gatherings, events, conventions, and even establishments devoted to it. It may involve costumes and large gatherings rather than small groups of friends rolling dice, but in the end, it’s all role-play.

What’s the point to all this? Well, mostly I just find it an engrossing topic to explore. I’m not claiming that steampunk and fantasy share the exact same influences by any means; that’d be foolish. I just think it’s a fascinating notion that epic fantasy and steampunk are basically the same genre trend in different clothes; that they developed the same way, and fill the same cultural niche, because they are, at their core, two manifestations of the same thing.