Does Fallen London qualify as "steampunk"?

I no longer see it in the FAQ page, but remember a little nod to how this game may or may not be steampunk. I live in Seattle, where the steampunk community is quite friendly but always up for a debate about what makes something steampunk. In fact, the most controversial topic surrounds &quotWhat is steampunk music?&quot But getting back to my original question: How do the players view the steampunk genre as it relates to Fallen London? And more importantly, why do you hold that opinion?
I’m going to get the ball rolling by saying I DO believe Fallen London is a &quotsteampunk&quot game, because it takes the era of Victorian times and sets it an alternate universe (and the sci-fi element of alternate universes is one of my favorites.) Also…GOGGLES…and MONOCLES!

I’ve been told that steampunk is what happens when goths swap black for brown and slap cogs on everything.

As for Fallen London…I don’t really think so. Failbetter themselves have used the term “Gothic” before, but much more likely in reference to Gothic novels and the related aesthetics thereof than with the incredibly vaguely defined and opaque Gothic subculture (the Captivating Princess is, ah, not exactly a Ventrue, for instance).

As for the technological aspect of steampunk as far as I understand, it’s subtle at best and hardly present at worst. Most of the Fifth City runs on either traditional 19th century technology or on…alternative power sources (are wild words considered “green” energy? What about Correspondence sigils?). The one big “steampunk” technology that comes to mind is the Whirring Contraption, which apparently is kind of a stand-in for every single steam-driven, miraculous gizmo that does whatever precisely the storylet requiring it demands of it.

However, being set in a darkly comical 19th century London I can certainly see the appeal of Fallen London to people in the steampunk community, and I have no doubts that among the fanbase you will find more than a few steam…punks?

But if I were to drop Fallen London into a genre box, and mind, I am biased by my own interests: I think it is overall still a sort of cosmic horror setting, with a red thread of fate and romance woven through the length of its underbelly, which itself is the finest parabola-linen macramé.

P.S.: dieselpunk is better

@Nathanael: If “Cosmic Horror” is what you came away with, it’s a tribute to just how customizable the Fallen London storyline is. As a very squeamish person when it comes to horror, I enjoyed how easy the game made it for me to avoid the bloody bits (even if my dangerous quality languished because of it). Don’t get me wrong, I know the horror storylines are there if I wanted to pursue them, but again I think it’s just a fantastic idea that there are many genres, and we get the pick the ones we like. And while I had a few “ouch” moments at your digs on steampunk, I opened up this thread to get a variety of opinions, and that includes people I disagree with. I’m just happy my first topic post got a comment so quickly!

Steampunk to me seems to be a subgenre of sci-fi. It’s futuristic tech if it ran on steam and victorian aesthetics (i.e Airships instead of spaceships, etc). I think the connection to Fallen London and steampunk is just the fact that steampunk settings usually have a victorian style when it comes to clothing and manner, and Fallen London’s straying from reality with all its different creatures and the like. &quotCosmic horror&quot isn’t really about bloodiness and personal, earthly horrors like vampires and werewolves; I think its usually about vast unknowable beings who’s agendas are usually beyond mortals to stop. It’s full of mystery and occcult lore and madness. Think the Cthulu mythos. I think Fallen London definetely has that with the Bazaar and the Correspondonce and other things.

Oh, I’m sorry! The bits on steampunk were honestly just friendly banter (except the dieselpunk thing, I stand by that)

And well, yes! I like that about Fallen London, too. Especially the destinies were extremely varied in that regard. I mean, to show just how varied they were

one possible destiny included sacrificing yourself to vast underground horrors to bring about their doom, one was setting out to conquer the secrets of immortality with a rag-tag army and being known as a hero for it, and one was fleeing to the Surface with your one true love and ended with pretty much a flawless happy end (Liberation of Night notwithstanding)

Also, in the interest of fairness, I lied: there’s at least one major story involving clockwork automata, and several clockwork contraptions and otherwise schizo-tech items appear in London and certainly if your character has a penchant for dealing with and in those things, then I think he is perceiving Fallen London as a steampunk story.

Ah, look at me go! Talking about Fallen London and steampunk as if I were an authority on both when I am neither.

I believe FL has some light steampunk influences, but that it is not in fact steampunk. It has ratwork, and monocles, and steamboats, but nothing more exotic in that vein. Lately, it has definitely been furthering the aforementioned Cosmic Horror storyline.

And even ratwork things are only notable in the fact that they are built by sentient rats, and so work with mechanisms smaller than humans could design at the time. Monocles and steamboats were real things in use at the time. However, to be fair, the Masters probably have all sorts of contraptions that could be seen as steampunk up in the Bazaar’s spires. We have seen so little of the Fallen London universe that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an island comprised solely of items that could be considered steampunk.
edited by Sarsmos on 12/31/2013
edited by Sarsmos on 12/31/2013

I’m glad to learn what the “Cosmic Horror” genre means since I might have avoided that knowledge forever with the connotation “horror” has for me. I rather like the idea of mysterious Masters controlling things In FL that I couldn’t even comprehend.

While it’s tempting to focus on the technology side of steampunk, the years of conventions and comraderie have taught me how broad it is. It encompasses art, fashion, music, fiction, games, theater, DIY spirit, and yes, also, fun gadgets. So…the idea of twisting the 1800s in an imaginative way doesn’t require you to point to steamy technology.

But this is a debate that is incredibly subjective, so I’m not prepared to call anyone “wrong.” Unless they say ancient Greece is steampunk.

Lots of excellent arguments in this thread! I’ve written a lot of Opinions on steampunk, which is… faintly amusing, yes! Personally, I’d say that what makes steampunk steam-punk- is some level of analysis and criticism of the social role of technology. (I’d also say that steampunk doesn’t have to be Victorian - it doesn’t have to be from the actual Age of Steam; it just has to use a historical setting to make its point. So, dieselpunk and clockpunk are also steampunk.)

Fallen London does have some social criticism, but it’s much more a fantasy story in a modern-historical setting - I’d even say that the effect of the Bazaar on London has been to reverse some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Fallen London’s not nearly so mechanised as its surface equivalent of the time, and much of the Masters’ money and power come from trading raw resources and basic artisinal goods from the colonies - a very pre-Victorian economic model!

Thematically, though, the focus of the story is on eldritch beings, forgotten magic, terrible forces lurking beyond the light of humanity’s campfire - gothic fantasy all over. Gaslamp fantasy, to borrow Girl Genius’ appellation, but with more cosmic horror mixed in. We might put on elaborate goggles and armoured top hats, and talk about conquest by airship, but we’re ultimately microbes crawling on the eyeball of a sleeping god.

In the early days, I believe we said ‘shroompunk.’[li]

ETA: Was that really my 77th post? Perhaps I should have said candlepunk.
edited by theodor_gylden on 12/31/2013

I think anybody trying to encompass Fallen London in any one cathegory/genre is going to have a bad time :)

There are undoubtedly steampunk elements - the Zubmarine (though it relies on Correspondence too, thus very nearly bordering on raw magic), most things requiring Whirring Contraptions and Brass, the various Goggles, the infernal machin of doctor Denuntiata - but in the end there are just too many references, different moods and settings to just stick the steampunk label on it.

[color=#009900]I agree with a startling amount of what other people have said here, which I’d like to believe means that we’re all clever and correct. [/color]
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[/color][color=rgb(0, 153, 0)]I’m not an expert on steampunk, but I am an expert on Fallen London, and I used to be quite militant about how it wasn’t steampunk. I’ve softened on that over the years. It seemed a mean-spirited use of the authorial bully pulpit to keep harping on it when so many of our players have steampunk affinities.[/color]
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[color=rgb(0, 153, 0)]But when I’ve been writing FL, or directing others in writing it, I’ve steered away from stuff that seems ‘too steampunk’. Goggles and monocles are in the game partly because drawing distinctive hats at icon size is challenging. Dirigibles were just the natural way to reach New Newgate, and New Newgate was a deliberately Gothic, fantastical, only borderline realistic invention. ([/color][color=rgb(0, 153, 0)]FWIW, the Whirring Contraption came in during a period when I was trying to step back from creative direction, and I wouldn’t now write in something that looked so much like a generic modular steampunk device.)[/color]
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[color=rgb(0, 153, 0)]I’ve always said that FL was more Gothic (in, as Nathanael points out, the Ann Radcliffe–>MR James sense, not the subcultural sense) than steampunk, because steampunk looks to the skies and to progress, and FL is concerned with the subterranean, the antique and the decaying - but actually Sir Fred’s point about the social role of technology is a better way of articulating this. Steampunk has an extrapolatory element that FL lacks. FL does have a small SFnal extrapolatory element about subterranean life, but the focus is on the fantasy, the colour and the chamber music of human interaction. tl;dr: steampunk is about the knowable, Gothic literature is about the unknowable.[/color]
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[color=#009900]I can’t leave this thread without recommending Felix Gilman’s [/color][color=rgb(0, 153, 0)]The Half-Made World[/color][color=#009900] and [/color][color=rgb(0, 153, 0)]The Rise of Ransom City[/color][color=#009900], which are two of the books I’ve had most fun with this year. Gilman has, as it happens, also said that they’re not steampunk, although they’re set in something very like an alternative nineteenth century (starring Evil Trains and an alternate American frontier). [/color]Crooked Timber did one of their occasional seminars about it[color=#009900] - major spoilers, read the books first. And if you care enough about this stuff to make it to the fourth para of this post, you totally should read the books.[/color]
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edited by Alexis on 12/31/2013

This mirrors my own thoughts on the subject. My brain tends to compartmentalize things whether I like it to or not, and I’m prone to butcher a quotation here: &quotAdvanced technology and magic are indistinguishable.&quot Many works of fiction incorporate the &quotweird&quot or the &quotfantastic&quot. There are typically two good (usually distinct, but not always) explanations: tech or magic. The Fantasy genre falls mostly on the magic side, while Sci-Fi leans on technology. I see steampunk as clearly leaning on the technology side of the line.

Fallen London goes more deeply into the fantastical and magical elements to power its wonder, and not so much on the technology side. In this way, the forces that power things are rarely harnessed by the players in the same amount of ease that technology is within a classic steampunk story. There’s a bit of a powerlessness/empowered dichotomy that comes along with it, and I think the disempowerment works for FL in a way that it wouldn’t for steampunk.

The funny thing is, powerlessness is no small part of cyberpunk, and you’d think the same would be true of steampunk - after all, it’s calling back to a time of massive disparities in wealth and power, political disenfranchisement, government/capitalist suppression of popular movements, and so on. And yet, the go-to hero of the genre seems to be an independently wealthy aristocratic genius with some kind of super-weapon.

The romantic heroes of cyberpunk are so well-established, they’re character classes in more than one RPG - poor but honourable hackers who live by their wits outside of corporate society. Can we just not identify with the Victorian underclasses enough to create an equivalent figure? Maybe because we’re still clinging to the hope that the internet will remain an equalising, liberating force even as the rest of society falls into a New Gilded Age, but we’ve long since become disenchanted with the social reforms of the Victorian era - general education and universal suffrage.

…now I want to come up with whatever the steampunk equivalent of a decker would be. But not in FL because, like a sentence that won’t fit in a Twitter post, I have too many characters.

You mean that isn’t what Correspondents are doing? Hacking in the metaphysical equivalent of assembly?

That’s true. Now that I think about it, the Urchins are a good example - semi-literate at best, not enough money to eat tomorrow, absolutely and systematically excluded from the institutions of power and respectability (unless they’re interested in becoming a cannibalistic chorister,) but carrying secret knowledge that allows them to achieve extraordinary things.

I was actually repelled for years because it looked steampunk. It wasn’t until I realized that it was not playing into those tired tropes that I became interested and started playing (and then I stayed for the cosmic horror).

How about the New Weird movement? When I first started playing FL I was reminded alot of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and I’ve always wondered if it served as a sort of inspiration for some parts of the game (eg. Prisoner’s Honey, Devils)

I think Fallen London is pretty steampunk - sorry :D But then I think steampunk as a genre of fiction is markedly different to steampunk as a community of people who dress up etc etc - in fiction, it is just a shorthand for saying something is fantasy that’s generally set in Victorian England, or an AU version of Victorian England, with a certain amount of anachronistic technology and usually supernatural/horror elements. Maybe Fallen London veers more towards to the gaslight fantasy than true steampunk, but I think steampunk as a genre is nebulous enough that FL can fit, to be honest!

Ok, phew! I was starting to think I was the only player on these forums that saw steampunk in Fallen London. I agree with you that steampunk is more nebulous a term than some might think. Sometimes it goes in the fantasy side of things, sometimes the sci-fi. Sometimes it goes towards technological, sometimes towards sociological, sometimes towards magic. Sometimes the hero is rich aristocracy, although I see a fair amount of grease-covered mechanics and pirates. It’s not even accurate to limit steampunk to Victorian Europe, when the late 1800s were happening all over the world. But I suppose it can be alienating to some to think steampunk is so ill-defined.

I agree with streetfelineblue who mentioned Fallen London fits inside a lot of genres, and I’ll pull back a bit to mention I think strwmpunk is one of those many genres, but can’t encompass ALL of Fallen London. Just as I can admit I see &quotcosmic horror&quot (now that it’s been defined for me) but it can’t really cover everything.

And Alexis commented on my thread. Yaaaay! It’s funny to hear &quotwhirring contraptions&quot were added to the game while he wasn’t looking. Setting aside my thoughts on steampunk, I think the art for &quotwhirring contraptions&quot are perhaps my favorite item art.