Steampunk everyone knows. But how about Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, and Clockpunk? Or Gaslamp? These are the specialist terms of the hard-core fantasy-fan. They are all sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which are sub-genres of Speculative Fiction.
I love Gaslamp because it combines Historical Fiction with fantastic possibilities. A librarian from the New York Public Library described Gaslamp as “Jane Austen or Charles Dickens meets Harry Potter.” I like that.
Spotlight on Gaslight
When I describe my book The Temple of Lost Time as a Gaslamp fantasy adventure for middle-grade readers, lots of people reply, “I’ve never heard of Gaslamp fantasy.” Maybe not, but I bet you’ve read it! (Read on for a list of classic and popular titles.)
Gaslamp (or Gaslight) is a sub-genre of both fantasy and historical fiction. It is usually set in Regency, Victorian or Edwardian times, and it’s generally set in England or its (former) colonies. It refers to the gas lamps of the time, which cast a peculiar, eerie ambiance. The fascination with faeries and spiritualism in the Nineteenth Century informs the genre. Comic series creator Kaja Foglio coined the term Gaslamp to describe her Girl Genius series.
Gaslamp fiction is often mislabelled as Steampunk, which doesn’t work because the literature lacks a ‘punk’ tone, i.e., disaffected, brash, irreverent. [Some people are quick to point out that much of Steampunk itself isn’t exactly ‘punk’ either, but I’m not going anywhere near that debate!]
Gaslamp incorporates themes, subjects, and tropes that aren’t found in pure fantasy (Tolkien) and faerie (MacDonald). While Steampunk emphasises (mad) science, clockwork mechanics, and steam power, Gaslamp explores magical possibilities and delights in supernatural elements, time-slip, alternate histories, parallel dimensions, etc.
Gaslamp comes in many flavours from dark and broodingly Gothic to swashbuckling and adventuresome, from polite and romantic to sassy and theatrical. It can include romance, espionage, boarding schools, sleuthing, piracy, and more. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Popular Examples of Gaslamp Fantasy
Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed or plan to read:
From the Classics:
- Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
Recent Popular Gaslamp Titles:
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
- Drood by Dave Simmons
- A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
- Kat Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
- His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
Fancy A Gaslamp Sampler?
- Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: a Gaslamp Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow et al
My Gaslamp Fantasy Series The Toby Fitzroy Chronicles
A little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones…
I can’t wait for the day when my middle grade novel, The Temple of Lost Time, is added to the list of popular Gaslamp titles above. I like to describe it as a little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones because it’s a swashbuckling, adventure-filled quest laced with magic and danger. Real places and factual personalities mix with imagined characters and fantastical beings. Myths and legends intersect history as my characters sail out of this world into another, a place called the Whitherworld.
At first, I thought I had written a Steampunk story thanks to one critical scene that involves a pretty cool steam-powered device. However, while editing my third draft, I sadly conceded one scene doesn’t make something Steampunk. Steampunk is a tone, a theme and a philosophy, all rolled into one.
I did some research and concluded that I had the makings of a Gaslamp fantasy. With that bit of understanding, my redrafting became more focused. I rewrote the whole thing with the conventions and aesthetic of Gaslamp uppermost in my mind. My opening scene now shimmers with weird and wonderful possibility. My earlier, rather watery denouement has transformed into something much richer and more fantastic.
Allohistory – When History Becomes a Playground
Like many Gaslamp tales, my story takes place in an alternative Nineteenth Century England. It’s 1853, but Queen Victoria is not on the throne. Instead, I went to the annals history to devise another monarch—one far less benevolent and mild than our Victoria.
Victoria became queen when her uncle, William IV, died without producing a legitimate heir. Uncle Will had nine illegitimate children to his long-standing mistress, stage actress Dorothea Jordan, but his poor wife, Queen Adelaide, was not so fortunate in the motherhood department. She birthed two daughters who died within weeks. Between these girls, there was a miscarriage, and subsequent to the second girl’s death, there were twin boys who were stillborn.
I gave lives to those boys, and named them Augustus and James. I imagined England under the rule of Augustus. With one wave of my writerly wand, a puff of smoke, and a Hey-Presto! the Victorian Era becomes the Augustan Age. Augustus inherits more than the throne, namely the physical feebleness and mental illness of his grandfather, George III. What’s more, I made him riddled with paranoia and positively obsessed with the magical possibilities of myths and legends. Old King Augie is not a popular guy. He’s unpredictable and tyrannical, and is hell-bent on cheating death. To do so, he is desperate to find and raid The Temple of Lost Time
That’s all I’ll say for now. Fingers crossed, a publisher will pick up my book so you can find out the rest!
[P.S. I’d love to know what you think, so please leave me a comment!]
More on Genre and Gaslamp Fantasy…
Check out the following resources:
- Tor/Forge description of Gaslamp
- Goodread’s List of Gaslamp titles
- Best Fantasy Books website’s Gaslamp summary
Over to You!
Are you a Gaslamp Fantasy writer or reader? Got a favourite? Share below!
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