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.