Genre Hell Part IV - Arcanopunk


What I refer to Arcanopunk/Arcanepunk is some seriously fun, messy territory to play around in.  Arcanopunk is a far less clearly defined genre than either Steampunk or Dieselpunk, but to me it shares the same ‘technological’ justification.  Magic or some other mystical energy ‘powers’ the world. This can be blended with spell-slinging, but at the end of the day, the thing that differentiates Arcanopunk from standard Fantasy is this blend of Magic and Technology.

‘Magical Technology’ is at the core of this genre.  And just let me say that I think that the entire concept of magical/arcane technology is SUPER cool!  I love the idea of things being imbued with arcane energies that then allow those energies to be used in some way.  Now, we see something similar in everything from The Dark Crystal to Warcraft, both the game and film.  Life essence is drained from creatures and is then directly used to enhance someone.  See Necromancy below.  

The Dark Crystal - Draining the Essence from a Podling (start at 1:10)

Warcraft - Gul’dan draining life

But this is NOT the same thing.  Warcraft certainly has Arcanopunk elements to it, items having mystical crystals that can be added to them, etc.  But this magical technology isn’t the CENTER of the narrative.  That’s where I see the line.  I don’t classify things like Warcraft and The Dark Crystal as Arcanopunk because of this distinction. 

So, what makes something Arcanopunk?  I'm not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination, but I'll toss out some ideas about how I break it out in my mind.

Arcane Crystals - Some form of ‘arcane batteries’ or 'foci' seem to be a set piece of this genre.  Arcane forges, soul cages, magically inscribed weapons, mystical matrices and all the rest are widely seen elements in Arcanopunk. 

Necromancy - I see Necromancy playing a significant role in some aspects of this genre.  The idea of souls or life force being stored in vessels to power machinery or abilities is pretty standard fodder.  And storing someone's soul in a cage is just so much more efficient than dragging around all those shrieking unfortunates you’re draining the life from, don’t you think?  Besides, their filthy rags tend to clash with the drapes.

Magical/Arcane Institutions and Governments - If you have a focus on putting magic in containers, the idea that there would be places where people learn to do that makes sense.  If arcane weaponry is the most powerful thing around, governments and institutions existing to control those sources of power would similarly make sense.  

Tool Wielders vs. Spellcasters - This is another foundation of what I see as Arcanopunk.  Tool wielders - characters who use magically imbued objects for some purpose, are very different from Mages, wizards and their ilk - people who cast spells.  This is a critical distinction for Arcanopunk.  In some settings, such as Iron Kingdoms, (a favorite of mine, I might add) it requires an amount of magical ability to use many magically imbued objects, but these people are not spell casters.  Iron Kingdoms bills itself as 'Heavy Metal Fantasy,' a cool and evocative theme.  Artificers in the Eberron D&D setting are another good example of this.  They create magically imbued objects others can use.  'The artificer uses Intelligence-based Infusions instead of typical magics and psionics.'  For my purposes, these fit pretty neatly into Arcanopunk.  One of the underlying mechanics in Iron Kingdoms is melding magic and pieces of machinery, such as the Jack pictured at the top of this post.  Yes, there are spell-slingers, but this melding of magic and tech is at the core of the story.  The folks at Privateer Press might differ with me, and again, that's okay.  Lots of room for different interpretations when we're talking about genre.

In Jim Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass, arcane crystals power everything from weapon gloves to airships.  Every facet of society is interwoven or dependent on this magical technology.  That's Arcanopunk.

Now that we've gotten this far into the genre swamp, I want to look at an example of how genres can be applied, or entirely ignored when we think about stories.  I'm using a film as an example because of the visual medium.

The Golden Compass - This is a great example of messiness.  Airships, gunslingers and a pseudo Victorian setting - Is it Steampunk?  Magically imbued objects.  What powers the alethiometer or the Magisterium airships? - is it Arcanopunk?  The world is inherently magical with Daemons, Witches, talking bears and alternate worlds hidden in the Aurora Borealis.  Does that make it straight fantasy?  It's all a matter of perspective.  It can be all of the above, or a cases could be made to fit it into a single box.  Like all other genres, It often just depends on who is looking at it.

How about a story where spacefaring spell casters use mystical energies flowing between the stars to drive their ships?  Is it scifi, or Arcanopunk, or something entirely different?  With the concept of magic being so wide open, then blending that with technology, Arcanopunk is filled with fantastic possibilities like this.  

Some references I give for Arcanopunk:

Psiforged (Warforged) from the Eberron/Athas setting

Iron Kingdoms