Which (sub)Genre are you reading, anyway?

Here at The Book Adventures, we’re librarians. This means we like categorizing things. Organizing them, and packing them away in neat labeled boxes for easy and swift retrieval later. Today, I’m going to apply that to sub-genres. Because sometimes they can be confusing (or at least I find them so).

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read at least one steampunk novel in your life. Have you? Raise your hands… ah, yes, I see a few hands. To get back to the point, you probably have a pretty good idea of what makes a steampunk novel a steampunk novel. Right? So you could describe the main characteristics:

  • airships
  • unusual clockwork machines
  • alternate technology that relies on steam, or clockwork, to function
  • Victorian-esque England

(What would your main characteristics list have in it?)

Have you ever heard of “gaslamp” fantasy? If so, have you read a gaslamp novel?

I’m not sure, either. So today, I attempt to clarify the distinctions between steampunk and gaslamp fantasy. By the way, I won’t get into plot development or relationship-building or character development, because those vary from story to story, and the scope of this post is really much smaller than that. The focus here is world-building. In this case, that means the era, culture, dress, technology, transportation, etc.

Steampunk, the Genre

As mentioned above, I’ve noticed a few common characteristics of what I would call steampunk. But, you don’t have to take my word for it – I’ve done some research, too.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction briefly notes the history of the term before delving into all sorts of characteristics and examples of the sub-genre. Apparently it was first coined by K. W. Jeter in 1987. Originally, steampunk seems to have been a “critique and a nostalgic expression of the technological optimism of the Edwardian era” (2).

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. (1)

So far, I’m not that far off with my original observations. Wikipedia goes on to say the genre:

…Most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. (1)

Other characteristics that can be included in steampunk novels include vampires (surprising, but not really), time travel, werewolves, and AI (2).

Gaslamp, the Genre

As I’m entirely new to this genre (probably dumping all gaslamp novels into the “steampunk-ish” bucket that I’d been using before, though apparently I’m not the only one), I’m starting from scratch, here. No previous ideas about what it’s about. I discovered it through Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells at my library. In the preface, Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling describe “Gaslamp Fantasy” as:

…Stories set in a magical version of nineteenth-century England. Gaslamp tales can take place at any time during the 1800s, from the Regency years early in the century to Queen Victoria’s long reign… [they] may occasionally stray into the Edwardian era, but the genre ends with World War I. (3)

The timing, then is set. As for the location, most are set in England, but they also take place in former British colonies. The common thread here… is British culture (3).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has no entries for “gaslamp,” but does describe “gaslight romance” under the Fantasy genre.

[Gasllight Romance] is … our default term for Urban Fantasies (and other generic fictions) set in the high Victorian or Edwardian period, usually but not invariably in London; their tone is often melancholic and there is often an underlying sense of the transitoriness of imperial glory. (4)

The Buckets (or Categories)

Both steampunk and gaslight/gaslamp can be set in alternate worlds (4); both are generally set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and in a British culture.

To add a twist to this seemingly-straightforward comparison of two sub-genres at the same level of the hierarchy, Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow write:

Steampunk fiction, which blends nineteenth-century settings with science fiction elements … is only one form of the diverse range of fiction that falls under the Gaslamp Fantasy label. (3)


Well, it appears that the gaslamp bucket holds a smaller bucket for steampunk. Thus, we establish their relationship to one another, in addition to establishing the characteristics of each. Further, steampunk sits under the umbrella of science fiction, while gaslamp fits under fantasy’s umbrella. How confusing is that? In the end, I suppose we’re left with a set of distinct and shared characteristics to help us determine the sub-genre of these books, but nothing more concrete (or discrete) than that. By that I mean, the two are clearly tangled up in each other and in their broader categories. While there has been much more written on these two sub-genres (just look at the references on the Wikipedia page, if you don’t believe me), I hope that this post helped you dip your toes into the exploration of genre and categorizing books by genre, and that you found it interesting. Thanks for reading!

Now, onward, to examples:

Steampunk, the Books

Below are some classic and more recent examples of the sub-genre (and if you haven’t read Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series and you enjoyed His Dark Materials, you definitely need to check it out!):

sallylockhartquartet boneshaker thosewhohuntthenight steampunk

And a bunch of books we’ve reviewed already (click the images to read our reviews):

studyinsilksgildedlily1851375617572901girl genius

Gaslamp, the Books

As you can see, even with my extremely small sample size, there is some overlap.



1. “Steampunk.” Wikipedia.org (22 August 2014). Retrieved 22 August 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk This quote references (is a direct quote from) the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. “Steampunk.” Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (5 August 2014). Retrieved 22 August 2014. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/steampunk

3. Datlow, Ellen and Terry Windling. Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy (2013).

4. “Gaslight Romance.” Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. From Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). http://sf-encyclopedia.co.uk/fe.php?nm=gaslight_romance


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