Baltimore Book Festival 2012 - is Steampunk sci-fi or fantasy?




The 18th annual Baltimore Book Festival took place September 28, 29 and 30th, 2012. There were  nationally known writers


Alex LewinAlex Lewin


There was of course the ever-popular cooking talks—my favorite was Alexi Lewin's book on food fermentation.



One of the big surprises for me, since this is only my second real visit to Baltimore, was the lively theatre scene. Center Stage had numerous productions and readings on during the festival, and the Chesapeak Shakespeare Company and many other small theatre companies advertised their cutting edge work. 


But for me the big hit of the fest was the SFWA tent. They had interesting presentations there, like the one by Writer Beware on How To Avoid Writing Scams.

There I heard sci-fi writers like Walter Greatshell talk about his Xombies series and horror writers like Damien Walters Grintalis talk about his latest e-book with Samhain, Ink.  


But I was there for the Steampunk, and Steampunk there was: Tiffany Trest talking about her new novel series, starting with The Unnaturalists














There was also the writing team of Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris, authors of the Steampunk novels The Janus Affair and Phoenix Rising.

I listened to everything they said with rapt attention, but gradually a sense of unease settled over me. First, it was the way everyone said "sci-fi-fantasy" as if that was one genre. Then, it was the way people talked about Steampunk as if it were only a subgenre of fantasy. 

The latter made my hackles rise up. I started reading steampunk, and writing it, because it was a new kind of sci-fi—something that enabled me to combine my historical bent (I am an early film historian, after all) and my love of sci-fi. Books like The Unnaturalists, with it's twist on the 19th century mania for scientific categorization, really appeal to me. But sometimes the panelists seem to be assuming that Steampunk was only a subgenre of fantasy—or maybe they were assuming that sci-fi-fantasy is one word. Maybe it was just sloppy panelling. It was hot and humid, after all, and the panels went on and on, with many panelists participating in panel after panel.

Windup Girl at Baltimore Book FestivalWindup Girl at Baltimore Book Festival

Ballantine & Morris have a page where they talk about what Steampunk is, which seems to clearly spell out that it's a subgenre of sci-fi and/or fantasy. But before they get too deep into prying apart the various threads of meaning, they refer us to a book called Steampunk Style Jewelry, with an introduction by no less than Paul Di Filippo and numerous sidebars that serve as an overview to steampunk style. 

I'm eager to look at that book, especially Di Filippo's introduction, but the reference sends me back to the original question: is steampunk a subgenre of sci-fi or fantasy or both? Is Steampunk sci-fi categorically different from Steampunk fantasy? It must be, because sci-fi and fantasy are categorically different from each other. Yes, the reach of Steampunk is spreading, its influence being felt in music and jewelry and clothing as well as literature. But it originated as a sci-fi genre, and IMHO that is still its primary identity. First and foremost, steampunk is sci-fi. If you combine steampunk with fantasy, then you are actually hybridizing sci-fi and fantasy. But that doesn't mean you can say sci-fi-fantasy without taking a breath in between. Fantasy and Sci-fi are different genres—many readers read one or the other, but not usually both. So when you tell someone about this blog, make sure you say "sci-fi {breathe} fantasy." Or, trust me, eventually you will choke.