Fantasy, we all ought to know, is stuff we make up so it isn’t like reality, on purpose. “Fantasy” as a genre, does not require quests, dragons, swords, or strange places. In fact, science fiction is a subset of fantasy: fantasy is the oldest form of fiction (we can track it back into mythic tales, where the tellers may have thought that stuff was real, but it appears at least in Ancient Egypt, in “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”), and science fiction is a special form of it that came into existence about 1818, as a fantasy that tried to explain its non-reality in terms of postulated science rather than magic.
That’s the literary approach. In marketing terms, they both come under the 1970s term “speculative fiction,” invented to soothe the ruffled feathers of über-geeks who didn’t want their science fiction called fantasy, like it was icky Tolkien or something. Science fiction at least nods to science and makes up some good-sounding terminology to let them do whatever they need to do: the big word right now is “nanobots,” right? Anything you want to do, someone came up with some free-ranging nanobots that will provide the effect. The other big thing is wormholes, and they don’t even hold them with quantum foam. (Sometimes it’s hard to believe I was raised on Galaxy and Analog, and then again maybe that explains my attitude.) This coming up with good-sounding terms and theories is called hand-waving, smoke and mirrors, or phlebotinum, all meaning “stuff that doesn’t make hard science sense but works in the story.”
Fantasy, on the other hand, embraces its “irrational elements,” even when the writer doesn’t feel they’re very irrational.
We leave the level of science in specfi to you. It can range from hard-sci scifi to the most dreamlike fantasmagoria (say, The Song of the Pearl). What matters here is that you have to convince the reader to believe in your world and its story. This means your characters need to be convincing, your plot needs to be tight, and you just need to not contradict yourself anywhere. You also have to keep the reader in the story by keeping them in the world. You have to feed them the information they need without boring them out of here. Note that the harder the science, the more people tolerate info-dumps and Stapledons (characters who lecture you on the science). People who come to read hard-core scifi want to learn about your speculation: in fact, the Revelation template story may be all about reaching the point where the protagonist learns what’s up.
So this is a spectrum, not hermetically-sealed bins on opposite sides of the room. One form of specfi blends into another, and how you label it is strictly a marketing tool.
This is dividing the field by sub-genre.
You can also divide it by technology level, what era of Western history the story-world mirrors as to culture. Of late, this has gotten to be even more important than whether it is science fiction or fantasy.
This got going with the term “steampunk,” which was kidding around with the term “cyberpunk.” There isn’t necessarily any “punk” element to it: it’s just set in a steam-age kind of world, including one which has far-advanced technology but is culturally like the steam-age in Europe. In specfi, “–punk” has become a suffix meaning “kind of setting.” How else could we have mannerpunk novels?
All of these can have highly variant approaches, and some writers will deny they are in the genre. But look for a specialty bookshelf, and you’re find them there. For example, the Foglios insist their Girl Genius comic is “gaslamp fantasy,” but everyone points to it as the perfect example of steampunk fantasy. (And, yes, it’s all terribly Eurocentric, because it was devised by people who don’t read Asian or African specfi.)
One approach in punks is the “secret history,” which makes it like historical fiction with fantasy or science fiction elements, with the weirdness never being discovered to regular history. This is also called historical science fiction or historical fantasy. Philip Jose Farmer’s The Other Log of Phileas Fogg or Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula; Or, The Adventures of the Sanguinary Count would be sterling examples of both of these in steampunk.
More blatant is the alternate history with speculative elements, where the weirdness is followed out in it changing the world, as in the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman, which starts with Queen Victoria marrying Count Dracula (steampunk fantasy) and continues into dieselpunk and atompunk.
Retro-futurism involves looking at a future that never happened, but that people from early periods imagined would happen. Often this involves playing hob with physics or biology to make possible things they imagined would work that we know simply can’t function like that. This is done with a wink and a nudge, and the reader is supposed to settle into a good read while going along with the game. Your problem is getting the reader not to resent the nudge and not swear at how badly you are mangling science.
Think of all those Golden Age science fiction stories that knew that by 2000 we would have colonized swampy Venus and desert Mars and be wearing heavy spandex outfits while we zipped around in our space-speeders and took nutriment pills in place of food. If you set your story in that kind of world, it won’t be like the Thirties or Fifties, but it will be dieselpunk or atompunk, depending on what you use for technology. On the other hand, if you make a world as envisioned in The Mummy! or in Caesar’s Column, you have steampunk retro-futurism.
Farther out is the world, perhaps an Earth colony, perhaps a distant parallel to Earth, perhaps not connected in any meaningful way, that is built with the ambiance of an historical period. This may be consciously done by the society. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is a novel by Neal Stephenson is very much future-set science fiction, often called post-cyberpunk, but both major cultures, New Atlantis and Chinese, have chosen to revert to many attitudes of the 19th century, making it part of steampunk. So would be a futuristic romance set on a extra-solar colony that uses a mix of Victorian British and Old West technology and culture with egalitarianism and some shots of futuristic tech, as in medicine. (Sorry, only looked it over at the store.)
Historically first up we would have to put stonepunk, where metallurgy is non-existent or restricted to the soft metals. All those ancient tombs with stone-built deathtraps reflect a lost stonepunk high technology. It would also cover worlds like The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt or The Blue World and Big Planet stories by Jack Vance where metals are not available, or very rare, so that technology relies on stone, wood, fibre, and perhaps glass and ceramics. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories might go here, except he actually ignored historicity and slopped together everything from bronze age through the Middle Ages in his world.
Right after this, we move into bronzepunk of Homeric Greeks, Pharaonic Egyptians, and Phoenicians, but especially the Minoans of Crete, which can become almost anything a writer wants or needs. The very early-set work by Thomas Burnett Swann, like The Forest of Forever can stand for bronzepunk fantasy, while The Dancer from Atlantis is bronzepunk science fiction time-travel by Poul Anderson.
With the coming of iron and steel, we get sandalpunk, so-called because it’s often associated with the sandal-wearing Classical Greeks, but especially the Roman Empire. Wolfwinter by Thomas Burnett Swann would be sandalpunk fantasy, like a lot of his. I would tend to throw H. Warner Munn’s King of the World’s Edge in here, though it might be considered medievalesque, being set in the start of the Dark Ages.
Medievalesque might be taken for any high fantasy with a medieval-like setting, like The Lord of the Rings, besides specfi set in the actual Middle Ages. It’s not all fantasy: The High Crusade is a science fiction novel by Poul Anderson.
This slides into the Renaissance-like clockpunk, where high technology is in mechanical devices. Avram Davidson’s tales of Virgil Magus are clockpunk fantasy. While historical Virgil would be sandalpunk, of course, Davidson’s setting is a fantasy Renaissance. This would also extend through the Age of Enlightenment.
Next up is steampunk, which can be historically oriented as about 1780 to 1918, though some prefer the round-number tidiness of 1800 to 1900. At this point, since science fiction exists (as the Gothic romance or scientific romance, having nothing to do with our concept of a Romance genre), the works can become self-referential. That is, you can start using characters from Victorian specfi and adventue fiction, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being the primo example of that element of steampunk. If you have Jane Austen with elven lords at the ball, it’s steampunk. It doesn’t require corsets and hoopskirts. The iconic elements are steam-powered robots (originated in The Mummy! in 1827), submarines, airships, and electricity. Do remember that what was technological fantasy in 1820 is everyday in 1890: telegraphs, steam trains and steam ships, and Zeppelins. Visually, steampunk is often a cross of Classicism, Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau, and industrial elements. The scientific icons are Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Robert Fulton, and Count von Zeppelin. Strangely enough, the Cthulhu Mythos of HPL, though not written or published until the 1930s, is often called in, perhaps because of confusion or some stories he set back in time.
Starting about 1910 (these aren’t cages but spotlights that overlap) and running to our 1945 is dieselpunk, sometimes called electropunk or radiopunk, but the other term seems to be winning out. Defining icons are hot jazz and swing, Art Deco and Streamline art, Nicola Tesla, Albert Einstein, movie and radio entertainment, television as cutting edge tech, and pulp adventure magazines. This is the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and works will often be happy to slip in an appearance by Doc Savage or his aides, as the original The Rocketeer did. The elements of American prohibition, the Yellow Menace, and the looming or active hostilities of WW2 often come into play. The perfect dieselpunk movie from before the term existed: Raiders of the Lost Ark. From after the term, making them conscious creations in the genre: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or the movie of The Rocketeer.
With the advent of atomic power we naturally pick up atompunk, that runs a much shorter age, 1946-1964, though some will push it through to 1973. Elements may slide over from film noir, and it often shows a greater cynicism than dieselpunk. The icons are the Cold War, television in the home, atomic-swizzle-stick decor and Scandinavian modern, cars with chrome and fins, the New Look, and the rise of computers.
I’m looking forward to what they eventually call the settings and retro-futures based in the Rock Age (modpunk?) or the Disco Age (discopunk would seem to come naturally, but is as flat as clockpunk).
Mannerpunk, on the other tentacle, has no temporal orientation. It refers to any story set in a world of manners and punctilio, where murder may be deplored as a breach of etiquette in the drawing room but perfectly okay in a formal duel. The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust was handed to me as a perfect example, being an Alexandre Dumas story in a fantasy world. Jane Austen with elves? It would be steampunk, but it would be mannerpunk, even more. If Madame de Maintenon actually is summoning demons, if you concentrate on poor demon-hunting curates of Paris, it’s clockpunk, but if the demon-hunter is operating inside the court of the Sun King, it’s mannerpunk.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: the sub-genres by the kind of story or world.