Genres Part Three – The Punks


The city is dark, and quiet, the only sounds the occasional rattle of animals searching through the alleys for food scraps. Suddenly a sharp whistle pierces the air, and several figures emerge from the shadows. Dark clothes, hair slicked back, and switchblades in their back pockets…it’s the Punks!

No, not really. So if it’s not a bunch of miscreants lurking in an alley, what are they? For us, the “punks” are certain subgenres of fantasy and science fiction that focus on the social implications of technology. Punk literature, on its own, is an offshoot of the punk music culture of the mid-70’s, which embraced individuality, nonconformity and rebellion. The first appearance of a speculative punk subgenre was cyberpunk. The word was created by science fiction writer Bruce Bethke as the title of his 1980 story about a crew of teenage computer hackers, and it swiftly became the label for a subset of science fiction writers who, around the same time, were all writing in somewhat dystopic worlds that envisioned people whose lives are utterly intertwined with the virtual world, people being able to access the ‘net by connecting their own brains to it instead of needing intermediary equipment. We can’t do that yet, but we’re a lot closer than we were then (once again, science fiction writer predicting the future.) You’re probably most familiar with William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (and if you’re not familiar with them you should be.)

So if cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre, how did the punk suffix come to find its way to fantasy? Generally it’s agreed that steampunk was the earliest of the fantasy punks. In 1987, K W Jeter wrote a letter to Locus Magazine, in which he said “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing” and suggested that his novels, along with those of Tim Powers and James Blaylock, be referred to as “steampunk”. He was kidding, but the label stuck, and has now become its own subculture. People not only write stories in this world, but make movies in it and even dress in elaborate, expensive Victorian clothing that’s been modified to fit the steampunk attitude. Steampunk focuses on the 19th century and posits that steam and spring-run gadgets were developed to a level rivalling that of electricity and gas in the real world. That’s a very simple explanation, but it’s somewhere for you to begin. Steampunk has a place in both fantasy and science fiction, although it seems to have found more writers in the fantasy side. Jeter’s Morlock Night, James Blaylock’s Homunculus and Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates are the originals, but lately there are lots of great stories to try, including Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and The Affinity Bridge by George Mann. I’d also recommend you listen to The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences’ Tales From The Archives podcast.

Dieselpunk picks up where steampunk leaves off, covering the period from the Roaring Twenties through the end of World War II. Instead of steam being the main technological component, this time it’s diesel fuel, although honestly, as far as I’ve seen, the technology isn’t as much of a focus as is the general alternate history aspect of setting stories in this period. Dieselpunk hasn’t given birth to its own culture in the way that steampunk did – maybe there aren’t enough chances to wear goggles, who knows? Some of the books that fall into this subgenre include The Keep by F Paul Wilson and Fatherland by Robert Harris.

But it’s not only about writing in a particular time period. There’s elfpunk, a subgenre of urban fantasy that involves the fae folk living in the human world’s urban centers. Holly Black’s Tithe, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely and the recent anthology Welcome To Bordertown are examples of this ‘punk. Mythpunk blends mythic fantasy with the urban reality, as in Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule series. And splatterpunk, which tends to appear solely in the horror genre, is characterized by extreme gore.

There are many other even tighter ‘punk niches that have been proposed by writers, published and not. Some of them can be considered subsets of the ‘punks already mentioned, and others stand all on their own. If you’ve written something that doesn’t quite fit the mold of fantasy you’ve seen so far, maybe you should join the ‘punks.


10 comments to Genres Part Three – The Punks

  • I’ll add Atompunk to your list of *punks. As Dieselpunk is basically the technological and historical increment of Steampunk, Atompunk is the same to Dieselpunk: it basically takes its technological and social cues from the late 40s and 50s. So far, the only immediate examples of what might be characterized as Atompunk that I can point to might be the Atomic Robo comic series, the video games BioShock and Fallout. I can’t think of any literary examples, however.

  • Misty, this was amazingly helpful. I’d never heard of half of these. And now I want to read in some of them, like elfpunk. I haven’t read Marr’s Wicked Lovely, but I’ve always been envious of the title! Now I want to read teh book.

    And I’d like to consider writing in Dieselpunk. I can see a motorcycle-riding fantasy MC, with weapons, set in a world blending 50s mores and tech with more modern mores and tech. Plot would have him coming to stop the marauding KKK from killing off a township. Or fighting for social justice in a world of Leave it to Beaver. This opens all sorts of possibilities.

  • In the introduction for the Steampunk anthology by Anne and Jeff Vandermeer. (read sample pages)

    In the lengthy history, Mr. Vandermeer explains that they called it Steampunk because the stories of the 1960s-80s were punking the steam-tech stories of the 19th and early 20th Century. Specifically the authors were against the trend in the older stories where the white man beat the aboriginals out of their treasure or technology won out over tribal mystics.

    I’m not sure how much validity there is to that, whether that was their intention or not, but it was an interesting introduction.

    Since then, there’s been a revival of steampunk that has nothing to do with punking the Edisonades and steam stories of the 19th century, either intentionally or because authors just love the settings and costumes.

    Charles Stross blew off some steam about Steampunk a while ago. This started a firestorm of retorts all across the web.

    Whether punking the 19th century steam-powered inventor stories, or just using the Victorian era’s setting and costuming, Steampunk has been gathering steam in the last few years. (I know that was bad.)

    NGD, who apologizes for such a lengthy comment.

  • Stephen, thanks for reminding me of atompunk. Since subgenres trend up and down all the time, I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t make an appearance, especially considering the popularity of BioShock and Fallout.

    Faith, you would LOVE Wicked Lovely! And if you start dabbling in dieselpunk, I want to see it first. 😀

  • Dave, thanks. I’d missed the firestorm, so I’ll have to go follow that for a while.

  • I miss cyberpunk. It’s gone out of vogue a bit, since most of the technologies prevalent in cyberpunk stories have come to pass. Heck, my current employment entails building virtual reality, and I just ate up Gibson’s books.
    (Some of my favorite cyberpunk novels are listed here

    Biopunk is somewhat fun too. I guess Frankenstein, Holy Fire (Bruce Sterling), Steel Beach (John Varley) have elements of this.

    As far as fantasy, I think it’d be fun to have dieselpunk involving elves, demons or vampires as 1920’s mob bosses.

    Atompunk? I think vampires would make dandy astronauts in the early space program. No need to breathe and all.

  • I still get hits to my own blog from people linking over from Stross’ anti-steampunk tirade. I’d written up an analysis of steampunk themes that one might find present in Steampunk stories, which I called “A Steampunk Society“. I suspect that post was at least indirectly responsible, if not in fact directly, for my first professional publication: a non-fiction article on Steampunk character archetypes (as cross-polinated with Fantasy) that was published at Fantasy Magazine called “Now Hiring in the Airship Lounge: Fantasy Archetypes Get Steampunked“.

    The thing is… Stross was half-right. He was reacting against the proliferation of Steampunk-flavored stories that fail to engage the dramatic potential inherrent in the difficult social issues present in the era from which Steampunk derives its inspiration, and those stories are legion. Yet, there is still a plethora of excellent, well-written Steampunk that is indeed more critical and in fact does engage in some level of social analysis. That’s where I still think he was slightly off-the-mark.

  • Thanks, Misty, for clarifying all of this. Turns out I’ve been reading in the punk arena for awhile now.

  • mudepoz

    I adore Steampunk. I have been beta’d one writer for a while now. It’s a kick.
    Harrison Bergeron might be Atompunk.
    I wanna do biopunk!

  • mudepoz

    Have been? Yeah. Right. Where is the suck up button!