“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — The Princess Bride
What do various subgenres really mean? It’s important to think about the answer to that question because SFF works are constantly being categorized and re-categorized. The English language is a living thing in that it constantly shifts and changes. Words are dropped out of current use and others are revived. The particulars of grammar alter over time as does spelling. One can object to such things, but it doesn’t do much good. (Although, I do wish sometimes that people had a bit of historical context.) Readers need labels in order to find what they like. There are simply too many books out there. Here are my thoughts on a few subgenre labels.
The meaning of Urban Fantasy seems hotly contested these days. There are those who swear it is Fantasy with a romantic sub-plot (a newer definition) and those who deny that romance has anything to do with it and that it merely means fantasy set in an urban environment (an older definition.) As I’ve said before, while I don’t agree with the first definition (I’m in the ‘not romance’ camp) it does have merit. Those of the first group tend to use television (specifically Buffy the Vampire Slayer which aired starting in 1997) as the start point. Those of the second group are referencing Borderland (an anthology published in 1986) and authors which contributed to it and the subsequent series such as Terri Windling, Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Emma Bull, and Will Shetterly. Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher are (in my opinion) Urban Fantasy authors. Traditional Urban Fantasy also has a musical (usually punk but also country-folk) element. Laurel K. Hamilton started as an Urban Fantasy author and then drifted into Paranormal Romance, that is, fantasy with romance plots. (She is where the lines between the two start to fray.) If you ask me, the whole argument is a bit like asking music fans about the origins of punk music. Some will say that punk started in New York and is defined with music and fashion only. Others will state with absolute certainty that punk started in London and also encompassed a political movement. (I’m of the belief it started in London.) The truth is, while the London scene had a bit of a jump on the New York crowd — each heavily influenced the other from the very beginning. Which brings me to the next set of subgenres.
As you can probably tell, I’m into punk music. So, the word punk has certain associations — subculture, youth, rebellion, shock culture, artistic edgy-ness, fringe, political upheaval, anger, DIY, chaos, anarchy, and anti-establishment. Now that ‘punk’ has become a genre suffix… well… I don’t believe that it’s necessarily being used in the same way. In the case of Steampunk, I’m dead certain it isn’t. However, it can be argued that Cyberpunk (the first subgenre to use -punk) did intend the ’70s era meaning of the word. Cyberpunk stories contained high-end technology combined with a disintegrating social order, that is, chaos. It tended to glorify the loner, had a DIY (do it yourself) mentality (if you were a programmer) and very definitely was anti-establishment. Steampunk, on the other hand, is about nostalgia, more specifically, a nostalgia for empire. My theory is that the movement is rooted in the anxiety that America (like Great Britain before it) has lost its status as the dominating super-power in the world. Thus, steampunk looks backward instead of forward — to the good old days when men were men and women wore corsets and looked dainty and everyone (well everyone not being oppressed by the empire in question, anyway) was optimistic and financially stable and all was right with the world. (Again, provided you weren’t a minority.) For that reason, I don’t understand why Steampunk rates the punk suffix. Perhaps it’s because of the DIY costuming element, or maybe it’s the mad scientist angle, but for me that isn’t enough. Of course, there are authors who are challenging the Steampunk stereotype. Frankly, I look forward to seeing that aspect of the subgenre develop more fully.