*punk

Recently, we’ve seen a spread of *punk terms referring to new sub-genres of Steampunk. Some terms have a long history and are very famous while others are known only to the community of role-playing gamers. In this article we will present a short overview of these terms with some discussion of their meaning. We don’t want to give precise and extensive definitions, however, as the aim is simply to suggest a starting point for reflection.  In the article we will mention many *punk terms. For your curiosity, you will find a table where such terms are ordered for epoch of reference with some examples.

Inside Science Fiction there is the genre known as Cyberpunk. The term was coined as a short story title by Bruce Bethke (Cyberpunk,1983) and was made famous by editor Gardner Dozois to define writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Rudy Rucker and Michael Swanwick.

It derives from the contraction of the terms cybernetic and punk, and perfectly describes the essence of the genre: on one side the cybernetic and information technologies (cyber), and on the other a level of rebellion toward the established social order (punk).

Descending from Cyberpunk we have Postcyberpunk, which leaves intact the technological aspects but doesn’t accept the social background. For example, while the cyberpunk protagonist is probably an outcast, an underdog or even a criminal, the Postcyberpunk hero is probably a person with a legal job and a regular position in the society. There is even the Cyberprep (cybernetic + preppy) sub-genre in which the same technology described in Cyberpunk has made life better.

Continuing the Cyberpunk concept but updating it to more modern technologies are Biopunk and Nanopunk, in which the speculative elements of the story are centered on the sciences of biology and nanotechnology respectively.

It is to be noted that Biopunk was coined outside the Science Fiction genre and refers to movements which emphasize the extreme consequences of heavy genetic manipulation and applications of synthetic biology.

Steampunk as a term was coined by the author K. W. Jeter as a definition for his and Tim Powers’s novels; their stories were set in Victorian times and used sci-fi conventions of that epoch. The creation of the term steampunk is well documented in Jeter’s letter to Locus magazine (April 1987):

“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…”

Very close to Steampunk is Clockpunk, in which the steam element of the former is substituted by springs and clockworks, which are the main source of power.

Dieselpunk was coined by game designer Lewis Pollak in 2001 in his RPG Children of the Sun. The term describes an imaginary world in which technology is based on diesel power. It was then used to describe any story set in an alternative/possible history, in the period raging from 1920 to 1950. Dieselpunk tends to include elements of Neonoir, Adventure Pulp and Art Deco.

At this point the “algorithm” should be clear: you take the technology you prefer and add the “punk” term in order to describe a fiction regarding an alternative (in one way or another) use of that technology, or an alternative version of the historical period in which that technology was prominent. So, if we take the Stone Age, for example, the first era of technological development, we obtain Stonepunk (The Flinstones are the best example). We can go on to coin Bronzepunk, Ironpunk, Middlepunk, and Transistorpunk. The term to be added doesn’t necessarily need to be a type of technology. General terms describing historical settings can be used also, forming terms like Sandalpunk or Nazipunk.

By drawing from other fantasy settings we can have the sub-genres of Elfpunk and Mythpunk, even if probably at this point there are no differences between those and the genre of Urban Fantasy.

On an Italian SF magazine I even found the term Stalinpunk, referring to a movie like “First Squad: the Moment of Truth”, which is set during WWII with a plot involving a Soviet Army special squad formed by people who had ESP powers and strange technologies (Continuum n. 32).

It is self evident that such terms can be only a vague indication of the spirit of a novel or movie; much of the terms just overlap each other, like Spacepunk, Atompunk and Transistorpunk. In these cases different characteristics of the same Age can be enlightened, like the term Castlepunk, Candlepunk, Dungeonpunk or Plaguepunk which can be all filed under the Middlepunk, but each one refers to a particular characteristic of the Middle Ages.

We can even play with this algorithm. Let’s imagine, for example, a future in which the only source of power is the solar energy. Photovoltaic panels are added to all buildings and devices have a new design incorporating panels. Nations fight for control of desert lands where they can plant panels, or force people to live underground in order to free surfaces for solar energy gathering. What would we call this genre? Solarpunk.

Homework for the reader: invent three new punk genres.

What should be important with pieces of fiction attributable to these genres is that the historical period that is going to be “punked” should be evaluated and interpreted from a present perspective, having the actual knowledge of all that happened between that time and ours; it should tell us more about the present than about the past. This is what separates stories about clockwork and steam power from actual Steampunk tales.

It is to be noted that all the above mentioned genres may have very little “punk” inside, which makes more than one person ask why we still use the punk term. In my opinion, at this point “punk” inside a *punk term is to be intended as an “alternative/anachronistic” use of a determined setting, like “let’s use it in another way”. Otherwise we can start using other terms. Similar to Science Fiction we may start to use the terms Steam Fiction, Diesel Fiction and so on.

Are so many terms useful? I want you reader to answer this question. I personally believe there is a sense in using them, as they denote an increasing awareness of the retro-futuristic elements characterizing a specific work, and should denote a certain maturity of the author. That is, she/he takes all the legacy of Cyberpunk/Steampunk and applies it to another epoch.

Genre

Reference period/culture

Notable examples

Stonepunk

Stone Age

The Flintstones,

The Land That Time Forgot by E. R. Borroughs

Bronzepunk

Bronze Age

Conan the Barbarian by R. E. Howard

Ironpunk

Iron Age

Sandalpunk

Iron Age

Middlepunk / Candlepunk/Dungeonpunk/Plaguepunk

Middle Age

Clockpunk

Renaissance

Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters.

Steampunk

XIX Century

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Dieselpunk

1920-1950s

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Nazipunk

1930s-1945

Indiana Jones,

Return to Castle Wolfenstein

Stalinpunk

1930s-1950s

First Squad: The Moment of Truth

Atompunk

1945-1965

Fallout videogames

Spacepunk

1950s

Flash Gordon,

Barbarella

Transistorpunk

60s-70s

James Bond movies

Cyberpunk

Cybernetic

The Neuromancer by W. Gibson

Nanopunk

Nanotechnology

Prey by Michael Crichton

Biopunk

Biotechnology

Bioshock,

Gattaca

5 comments for “*punk

  1. December 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Tropicopunk? Think Swiss Family Robinson.
    Comedypunk. It works as long as it’s funny. Like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or the devices in Flubber.

    I like flipping it around such as your quoted Cyberprep – I call my brand of Steampunk “SteamPulp” as it’s more rollicking adventure and less punk rejection of societal order.

    Although PulpPunk could work too.

  2. December 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Good afternoon, Lorenzo.

    Matt pointed this article to me, probably in response to my thoughts on this diluting of the steampunk genre. I’ve ranted and railed about this on panels and blogposts, most notably one I penned for Steamed this summer…

    http://ageofsteam.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/foggy-goggles-the-problem-with-steampunk-sub-genres/

    In a nutshell, I find some of these sub-sub-sub-genres to be diluting the nature of the steampunk genre. Okay, I might be able to give dieselpunk a pass (because in all truthfulness I didn’t know that term had been around for ten years) but when you are attempting to explain steampunk to the masses, you tend to lose them when you start getting that particular. For example, in one of my blogposts today I describe HUGO as steampunk. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as Clockpunk but really when making a point to a wide audience, you risk losing the point of an argument or the explanation of a genre.

    Another problem I have with the need to split hairs is how offensive these terms can be. The one I find most offensive is “ricepunk” which was explained to me as “steampunnk set in Japan/Asia.”

    Seriously? So what’s next? Steampunk in India is Currypunk?

    Then we have steampunks classifying what NYT bestseller Gail Carriger writes as “Bustlepunk” which is “female steampunk” or “steampunk romance novels.” Again, that’s crossing a line with me.

    I find the need to classify thinks with “punk” to be a slippery slope, and with the current direction of derogatory terms, I think we need to step back and simplify it. Right now, we are muddying the waters. And that usually makes for bad boiler performance.

  3. Lorenzo Davia
    December 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Dear Tee Morris.

    Thank you for you comment.
    The intention of my article was not to express a value judgment regarding all those *punk terms. I was not interested in saying that it is good or bad to distinguish between, let’s say, steampunk and clockpunk.
    I was interested (and still I am) in collecting those terms, because I find it intriguing from the lexical point of view.

    A complete different thing is the opportunity of having so much terms. In your article you make the example for stonepunk. It seems you find it ridiculous. But how would you define the flinstones?

    If we find a recurring theme which is different from our well-known steampunk, IMO, it is not wrong to give it a name, so that we can identify it and compare it with other similar works.
    For example, as I don’t like romance, I want to know if the book I’m going to buy is steampunk or bustlepunk.

    From my point of view, I’m not muddying boiler water. I’m fractionating the huge ocean of *punk to separate all the themes and sub-themes,in order to have a little order.

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