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On Gaslamp Fantasy and Steampunk (Podcast Episode #1)

It’s official, I’ve started a podcast.

I recorded a test episode for my patrons (who will receive an exclusive episode every month) and worked up the confidence to record my first ‘public’ episode. I really hope you enjoy it!

In this episode, Yolandie talks about point of view. Why she writes in third pov, what is the difference between deep and shallow pov, and how she chooses viewpoint characters for her scenes. Links mentioned in the episode A Study of Ash & Smoke purchase links: https://yolandiehorak.com/books/a-study-of-ash-smoke A Trial of Sparks & Kindling purchase links: https://yolandiehorak.com/books/a-trial-of-sparks-kindling Blog posts about deep point of view: https://yolandiehorak.com/2017/08/16/three-steps-to-deep-point-of-view https://yolandiehorak.com/2019/03/06/on-writing-advice Yolandie's Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/luminlore
  1. Point of View
  2. My Publishing Journey
  3. Dedications
  4. Why I Write
  5. On Gaslamp Fantasy and Steampunk

Just in case you’d prefer to read it rather than listen, this is how it goes:

Welcome to the very first episode of my podcast. Today we’re talking about genre, so strap in and let’s get to it.

So, this is how it goes. ‘I’m a writer’ is always followed by ‘oh, what genre?’ And it’s hard enough just to admit to being a writer because impostor syndrome, but okay. The genre.

I’ve been doing this for years now, and I still don’t know how to answer that question. Not in a cohesive way, anyway, which is why I’m so thankful I can talk about today. Maybe with my thoughts neatly ordered, I can create something meaningful to refer people to in the future.

Technically, Fall of the Mantle classifies as a subgenre of steampunk called gaslamp fantasy, but few people know what steampunk is and even fewer know about gaslamp fantasy.

But before I knew about gaslamp fantasy, I just skipped over the steampunk thing and went with the mother-genre, science fantasy. And those words already draw glances. Sure, some people will be really excited and start rambling away about their favourite books in the genre, but others have been known to hold eye-contact while backing away slowly. Like, they know how creatives can endlessly prattle about their interests, but creative combined with geek is a recipe for police-board level vocalised thought jumping and regular people just don’t have the time.

So I’ve learned to kind of wince when I say it. “I write science fantasy, which is fantasy without magic, but with pseudo-science and advanced tech instead.” If I seem self-deprecating enough, people pick up on the fact that I’m unlikely to gush about my work. If they express interest, the prattle train will leave the station, but otherwise, I’m on board for a topic change.

But okay, say the person in question is interested and asks the thing I dread most. “So, what are the books about?”

I mean, what are they about? I write stuff that tends to be Frankensteinian in nature.

And that’s what’s so great about the genre of gaslamp fantasy–it borrows ideas and tropes from other genres and stitches them together into something new.

But let’s start at the beginning. What is steampunk?

It’s a subgenre of science-fiction, which combines industrial revolution type technology, powered by steam, and either a Victorian or Edwardian era setting, or the American ‘wild west’ frontier. Think corsets and tophats, paired with steam locomotives and airships. Basically the love-child of Downton Abbey and Wild Wild West. Some people consider H.G. Wells and Jules Verne the fathers of the genre (though we’ll come back to Mr. Verne when we talk about gaslamp fantasy), but author K.W. Jeter actually coined the term steampunk.

The technology typically allows for futuristic concepts in a vintage setting, and is based on the idea that people could’ve imagined different technological advancements in an alternate history. Honestly, anything goes. Some steampunk tech even includes primitive computers and technological enhancements to humans. Basically, cyborgs, which is something I incorporated in the trilogy I wrote before Fall of the Mantle. One day, I’m going to rewrite those books, you wait and see.

Anyway, this mashed up old and new part of steampunk is called retrofuturism, and is honestly my personal favourite aspect of the genre. In my own books, for example, there’s a forcefield surrounding one of the kingdoms. I’ve read many articles debunking the possibilities of working forcefields, but in steampunk, the ‘what if’ outweighs what science can make in our world. The creativity of that gives me wings.

Now, I know the ‘punk’ part of the name causes confusion. We imagine something totally different when we hear the word ‘punk’, and many steampunk enthusiasts have commented in the past that the term ‘steam-dapper’ would be more appropriate. But the punk suffix comes from the genre cyberpunk, which existed first. Many people are shocked to learn cyberpunk mothered not only steampunk, but also teslapunk, dieselpunk, silkpunk, elfpunk, and so many more.

Personally, I like the term. It comes with a kind of attitude and feel that you just don’t get from the word ‘dapper’. But that’s just me.

The most important thing to note about steampunk is how incredibly important the technology becomes. Like, the tech is such a huge part of the world that it’s often portrayed as an entity of its own. For example, in Mortal Engines, half the story is tied up in the idea that the cities not only move, but they chase down and absorb smaller cities and towns, and incorporate their technology into their own. I mean, some of the characters exist only to sort through the bits and bobs they find from absorbed towns. So, the technology often drives the story, and the rest of the plot wouldn’t stand if the tech was removed. Or if it managed to stand, it would be really wobbly and less impactful.

You’ll also find many storylines involving characters falling in love with tech. In fact, loving the AI is almost as big a trope as goggled inventor women.

Finally, steampunk loves to combine old-timey weapons and steam-driven tech, once again thanks to retrofuturism. In my own novels, I’ve included crossbows with steam nodes and rapidly reloading magazines. At the press of a button, these crossbows shoot almost like small gatling guns, but more quietly because hey, fantasy. It’s in the name.

On that note, magic and paranormal creatures do exist in steampunk works, though it’s rarer. When they exist, you’ll usually find it has something to do with the aether, which is the term used to explain all the inexplicable steampunk things. Carnival Row is a good example of steampunk paired with magic, though I would argue this series is also closer to gaslamp fantasy than pure steampunk.

So what is gaslamp fantasy?

It’s a subgenre of historical fiction and fantasy, with strong roots in gothic literature. Most often, gaslamp fantasy stories are set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras, sometimes even Regency, with similar technological advancements as you’d find in steampunk works, but the tech isn’t as important. What I mean is, though it does help create a setting, it’s not a plot driver, and you can often separate the tech from the story without losing half of what is necessary to make the story work.

The name comes from the setting–a time when gas lamps lit the world–and was coined by author and illustrator Kaja Foglio–I apologise for my pronunciation–to better describe her comic, Girl Genius.

Gothic literature wants to draw strong emotional responses from readers, right? So gaslamp fantasy tends to be more emotive and character-driven. It wants the reader or viewer to be both awestruck and horrified, while falling in love with and grieving characters on the side.

Which is probably why gaslamp fantasy is known to borrow tropes and stylistic elements from other, sometimes completely unrelated, genres. It’s easier to guide the reader’s feelings when you’re not constrained by the tropes and specifications of a single genre.

See that Frankensteinian idea at work?

For example, in my books, you’ll find a setting and narrative style typically associated with epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but no magic or elves. You’ll find the kinds of plausible technology mixed with pseudo-tech you’re used to seeing in shows like Firefly and Doctor Who, but there is no space travel or alien races. There’s also a strong political plot, but not enough to classify the books as political fantasy, like you’d find in A Game of Thrones. Then we haven’t even touched on all the tropes I’ve borrowed from romance, medical dramas, and international spy novels.

And the best part is, you’re probably already familiar with gaslamp works! Remember Jules Verne? His work has retroactively been relabeled as gaslamp fantasy. As has the work of Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. Another notable gaslamp book is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Most recently, you probably enjoyed the new series Shadow and Bone (I know I sure did). Author Leigh Bardugo describes her books as tsarpunk, but sites like Wikipedia actually classify the series as gaslamp fantasy. And of course, it is. It has magic but doesn’t feel like epic fantasy, it has technology but the tech isn’t central to the story, what the characters feel becomes what the viewer feels, and hello Ketterdam? You don’t get more gaslamp-y than that.

Now, technically gaslamp fantasy works tend to lean more towards the ‘includes magic’ part of the spectrum than the ‘does not’ side, but the genre is more forgiving than others when it comes to overlapping.

It’s interesting that I wrote gaslamp fantasy long before I’d ever heard of it. Literally every story I’ve worked on in my adult life.

I guess what draws me is the idea that you don’t need magic to make magic. Like, the technological advancements you find in the genre are their own kind of magic. That speaks to me. We live in a world where humans can’t fly, so we built planes. We can’t run at the speed of sound, but we can build vehicles that can. We make our own magic, you know? And since I’m not an engineer who can build her own forcefield, I figured I’d better write one.

And this isn’t a knock on the sparkly swirly kind of magic. I mean, I grew up on Tolkien and Eddings, and I love magic as much as the next fantasy geek, but it’s all been written. The challenge is to see if I can achieve the same kinds of fantastical worlds as the authors I idolise, but with technology instead.

It’s fun and difficult and wonderful.

And I mean, I’ve always been drawn to certain periods in history. The Victorian era does it for me. I’d never want to live there, thank you. I like having more rights than the ladies of the time did, and I’m not going to complain about the internet and microwaves and such, but the simpler way of life fascinates me.

Also, the backhanded insults and strategizing to gain favour or standing with the peerage. I incorporated a lot of that in my own work, in the form of the great political game, which is the fancy way nobles make war over a glass of wine. And though I’m always dressed in either grey or black, jeans and sneakers, I love the Victorian dress code. Can we not make canes and tophats a thing again?

Because gaslamp fantasy likes to borrow, all of these topics get to live in harmony with medical elements, politics, fantastical settings, and real-world issues. They don’t have cars, but the people in Fall of the Mantle travel in automotives, which are small, single-family steam locomotives. The forcefield, which is called the Mantle, cuts off the elements, right? So I had to get creative and employ street lamps that can change colour to simulate the movements of the sun and moon, or to help the crops grow. I mean, I have hundreds of facts that never actually make it into the novels, to prepare for issues before they arise.

Writing in this genre forces a person to think outside the box, sometimes way outside of it, and problems can’t be explained away by ‘oh, but magic’. And because my neurodivergent mind works in mysterious ways, almost all of the tech mentioned in my novels is at least partially plausible. Sure, the forcefield thing remains an issue, but like the medical equipment is all based in real-world tech, and most of the equipment also happened to have existed in the Victorian era, even if the steam-advancements have gone beyond what was possible in that period.

It’s important to me that the things I write could be real, especially when it comes to the medicine.

Which brings me to the next topic. Once I’ve explained the steampunk thing, people want to know where the medical storyline comes from. I mean, medical fantasy is a teeny tiny niche that barely exists.

I don’t know. This medically trained heroine thing is a personal quirk that has also featured in almost everything I’ve ever written. Eva could heal, Cara heals, and I’m fairly certain the next one will heal, too. Did I watch medical dramas growing up? No. I mean, I might’ve seen an episode of ER as a kid, and I’ve only recently gotten into Grey’s Anatomy, and only because my husband had it on the TV when I entered the room. I’m squeamish around blood and can barely stand the sight of a needle, so this makes zero sense to me.

But I love writing this stuff. I don’t even know how many surgical procedures I’ve watched on YouTube, completely in awe, in the name of research. And as I said, I don’t like blood. It’s weird.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this is why gaslamp fantasy is the perfect fit for me. It combines everything I love about steampunk with everything I love about other genres, and creates something uniquely me.

I really hope this genre grows. If you know someone who might enjoy the eclecticness that is gaslamp, please point them to this podcast so we can spread the word.

They might also enjoy my books. If you’re into steampunk, but with plague, spies, and intrigue, this might just be the series for you. Please consider having a look at Fall of the Mantle. Book 1, A Study of Ash & Smoke, and Book 2, A Trial of Sparks & Kindling, are both available on Amazon.

And that’s a wrap on this topic. Until next time, folks!

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