Welcome to my article discussing everything ‘Punk!
Wait, no, not that kind of punk.
I’m talking about speculative fiction sub-genres!
That’s more like it! *Ahem*
Like a mechanical octopus rising from the deep, the various ‘punk genres of speculative fiction can be surprising, amusing, and frightening! The ‘punk genres often blur the lines between different types of speculative fiction. They also share a lot of common themes, such as antiauthoritarianism and disestablishmentarianism. The commonality of these themes is largely responsible for the use of the word “punk” in their names. The views expressed in early cyberpunk works—which birthed the entire movement—reflected those of the punk subculture of the 1970s and 1980s.
Yes, our leather-clad friends above do relate to this subject!
But what, exactly, is ‘punk fiction? It is a family of loosely-related speculative fiction subgenres that say ‘to hell with the rules’ and does their own thing. Cyberpunk may be a subgenre of science fiction, but it also falls under the umbrella of ‘punk fiction. And while there’s certain aesthetics and themes common to all cyberpunk stories, it is constantly evolving. The same can be said of any kind of ‘punk fiction. Just to ensure we’re all starting on the same page, I would define ‘punk fiction thusly:
‘Punk fiction is a group of speculative fiction genres which strive to move outside the boundaries of established science fiction and fantasy norms. Many of these genres will either focus on the effects of technology upon a society, or propose a fictional society with anachronistic levels of technology—sometimes referred to as ‘retrofuturism‘. Sometimes magical elements may be used and intertwined with the available technology. Works under this family of genres typically address social issues and express an anti-establishment stance.
A subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk was the father of the ‘punk genres. Cyberpunk works usually examine a near-future Earth where technology (esp. computers and the internet) have become the backbone of society, but where that same society has broken down at some level. Cyberpunk stories usually take place in dystopian settings with corrupt governments, often run by megacorporations. Neuromancer by William Gibson, published in 1984, was the first piece of fiction to be codified as cyberpunk. Although it was not the first example of the genre, it is considered by many to be the book that defined the movement.
Borrowing elements from the hardboiled and noir genres of crime fiction, cyberpunk stories often involve either a criminal investigation or and underground movement rooting out corruption in the government or ruling corporations. Common themes may include modern humanity’s reliance on technology, the blurring of lines between reality and virtual-reality, overpopulation, and the moral implications of self-indulgence.
Post-cyberpunk borrows worldbuilding elements from cyberpunk—showing characters interacting with technology in their every-day lives—but sheds the dystopian future for a more hopeful vision of a technologically-centrist future. This may or may not be a utopian society, but at the very least will be more optimistic than the typical cyberpunk story. Also, the characters are often more functional members of society rather than reluctant anti-heroes, social outcasts, or outright criminals. Examples often cited of this sub-genre include The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling.
Biopunk is very similar to cyberpunk in themes of dystopian near-futures ruled by megacorporations and totalitarian governments, but rather than focusing on the implications of information technology on future society, it examines the possible corruption of synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and eugenics.
Paul Di Filippo’s collected short fiction anthology Ribofunk is a prominent example of the genre, and he himself referred to The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells as a precursor to the sub-genre.
A relatively new entry into the ‘punk world, nanopunk is similar to cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. The settings may range from dystopian to utoptian, and anything between. Rather than investigating the potential applications of information technology, however, nanopunk explores the potential abuses and uses of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is any technology that manipulates matter on a molecular or smaller scale.
Steampunk is one of the first anachronistic offshoots inspired by cyberpunk. In fact, the name steampunk was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the cyberpunk genre founded only a few years earlier. Often taking place in a Victorian or American “wild west” setting (with the latter sometimes referred to as Cowpunk or Cattlepunk), steampunk embraces the steam-powered technology an aesthetics of the 19th century while extrapolating on possible applications of such technology to modern or futuristic devices. It may also take place in a futuristic setting where steam power remained the main method of energy production.
The term “steampunk” was coined by science fiction author K.W. Jeter in a letter to Locus magazine in 1987. He used this term to define his own work on Infernal Devices, among works of contemporaries that were inspired by Victorian science fiction such as the works of H.G. Wells.
Clockpunk is similar to, and considered an offshoot of, steampunk. Rather than focusing on the possibilities of steam-powered technology of the Victorian era, however, clockpunk takes things back a step and speculates on the potential of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The main source of mechanical energy during this time was gear-driven machines, which often stored energy using a spring that could be wound by hand.
Machines in this genre are often beautifully decorated, matching the styles of the eras upon which it is inspired. Often, the energy output of certain machines may greatly exceed the seeming level of input, such as winding the mainspring of a device. Rather than resorting to handwavium to explain this, many authors will incorporate some sort of practical magic application.
“[Clockpunk] can be very fun to write in because one can easily limit the powers available, while still going absolutely fantastic with the imagination.” — Stephen Coghlan
Magepunk—also sometimes called Dungeonpunk, Arcanepunk, or Magicpunk—is defined by a setting where technology and magic coexist and are readily available. This technology can range from the inception of gunpowder to industrial, modern, or futuristic settings, but its operation is either partially or entirely dependent on magic as a catalyst.
I have personally seen more representations of this genre in gaming than literature, such as the Eberron setting in Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop wargame Warmachine, and in the Magic: The Gathering setting of Kaladesh.
Dieselpunk is a cousin to steampunk which is set in the interwar period ranging from the latter part of World War I through just after the end of World War II. As the name suggests, the setting leans heavily on applying science fiction elements to diesel technology prevalent during this age. A shift in themes from steampunk to dieselpunk is a more grim outlook compared to the optimism of the Victorian age and more of a focus on the wars of the era.
Other than being defined by its temporal setting and focus on diesel technology, dieselpunk also incorporates many pulp-fiction-inspired tropes such as pulp adventure, noir, and weird horror. In fact, the term “Weird World War” is a common affectation to fictional situations set during World War II that incorporate elements of the supernatural. While dieselpunk and weird world war stories often exist independently of one another, overlap between the two is not uncommon.
Further, Dieselpunk can be subdivided into two primary themes: Ottensian and Piecraftian. Ottensian, named for author Nick Ottens, explores the utopian optimism of the roaring twenties. In these stories, war does not damper the spirit of progression and prosperity, nor is there an early 20th century economic collapse. Alternatively, Piecraftian dieselpunk—named for the author who coined the term, Piecraft—is the gloomy and dystopian side of dieselpunk. Often, piecraftian stories take place in a post-war period where either the second world war has devolved into a cold war, continues to be fought, or was won by the axis powers.
Decopunk is the shiny, optimistic, stylized cousin to dieselpunk set in the same time period of the 1920s through the 1940s. Author Sara M. Harvey helped to define the sub-genre, stating in an interview that “DecoPunk is the sleek, shiny, very Art Deco version; same time period, but everything is chrome!”
Arguably, one could say that this sounds very similar to Otessian dieselpunk. As both terms are fairly recent and both sub-genres are still relatively small, the future will show which affectation will become more generally accepted, or where the line between the two lies. It seems to me that decopunk would be less involved with the great wars of the time and more with civilian life, possibly even showing an alternative history where the horrible atrocities of the world wars never even happened.
Atompunk is generally set during the Cold War era and incorporates speculative applications of nuclear technology. Things such as robots, powered armor, and even cars powered by nuclear reactors is commonplace. The Fallout series of video games is probably the most popular example of atompunk (although this takes the nuclear retrofuturism of the 1950s and thrusts it into a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic future). Often, works in this genre will include an aesthetic of 1950s style retrofuturism and explore the potential gains or downfalls of atomic age technologies.
Teslapunk is often set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, covering the Victorian and Edwardian eras. While there’s some overlap with steampunk as far as the time periods involved, the difference is that mosts or all technological applications are powered by electricity. Named for famed physicist Nikola Tesla, this genre explores the what-ifs of an industrial revolution fueled by clean electricity rather than coal power.
Teslapunk settings usually involve an abundance of free energy and empowerment of the masses, bucking the societal norms of the industrial revolution. During this time, there was a monopoly on fuel sources and the common people suffered under oppressive labor standards. In such an empowered setting, alternative structures of society during this time can be explored.
Dreampunk is probably the most esoteric of the ‘punk genres, and therefore is the hardest to define. In its most basic form, dreampunk can consist of a story that entirely takes place in a dream. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll can retroactively be considered an excellent example of dreampunk. Also, the film adaptation of Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz can be considered dreampunk (although the original novel did not contain the “it was all a dream” ending.)
Sorry for the spoiler, but you’ve had 82 years to watch it. Now go read the book.
On the other hand, dreampunk can consist of any story where the imagination or psyche has power over reality. A protagonist able to conjure objects or other characters into existence through pure imagination would arguably be in a dreampunk story. Finally, dreampunk might be a work that focuses more on the state-of-mind of the characters than the reality in which they live. Elements of Jungian psychology are often explored in these stories. Also, a character’s perception of reality may differ from the reality itself through some sort of mental disconnect.
Yes, I just invoked H.P. Lovecraft. If you look past the tentacled monsters, the work of Lovecraft is really about the horror of mankind’s insignificance. A common theme in these stories is that true knowledge of the cosmos drives people insane. This insanity can produce an altered reality—an element of dreampunk. Dreampunk can appear in other forms of fiction, often without even being noticed. The dream-walking scenes in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is a good example of this.
“The best advantage to dreampunk is that it’s ageless. You can have anyone, anywhere, doing anything. Now, that also lends a problem to the creator. How do you limit the possibilities, or what rules will one set in place?” —Stephen Coghlan, author of the amazing dreampunk novella Urban Gothic
Elfpunk has proven to be difficult to pin down, but I have found two different camps on the subject. One defines it as any speculative fiction in a contemporary or futuristic setting that utilizes common fantasy creatures such as elves, dwarves, and dragons. I rather prefer the first definition, as it is open to and inclusive of a wider variety of themes and concepts. The popular role-playing game and associated books and video games in the Shadowrun setting are a fusion of Cyberpunk and Elfpunk.
Another viewpoint on the label is that it is contemporary fiction which incorporates creatures of Celtic and Norse faerie myth. This second definition seems to describe a very niche subject, and probably should be its own sub-subgenre.
FaeriePunk? That’s right, you read it here first!
In addition to those listed above, there is word out there regarding many other ‘Punk genres. Sandalpunk, Transistorpunk, and even Stonepunk (exemplified by The Flintstones… Really?). Needless to say, some of these thematic groupings are so niche as to provoke discussions as to whether there’s enough recognized content to codify a “genre”.
In some cases, the -punk suffix is attached to words to arbitrarily define new subgenres or niche sub-subgenres without specifically fitting into the original “Punk” cultural themes. Admittedly, the same could be said of the more optimistic categories above—such as decopunk—fit into this category.
There are also several subgenres of speculative fiction which relate to the ‘punk genres, but that are more variations on existing subgenres than totally isolated themes. Among these are Gaslamp Fantasy, which is essentially steampunk with magic (which blends with magepunk).
One could argue for or against the inclusion of these and other genres in this article, and even for the exclusion of some of those mentioned in the main headings. As always, this is intended to be an editorial article as much as an informative treatise, and should be interpreted as such. I am a proponent of researching multiple sources when studying any subject, and because this article is broad in scope, it is by no means comprehensive! Each of these subgenres deserve their own focus, but my intent is for this to serve as an introduction to the breadth of the ‘punk genres. I invite you to dig deeper into this subject and explore the many resources available, both online and in print.
Thank you for joining me on this tour of the ‘Punk genres. As mentioned before, these sub-genres of speculative fiction serve nicely as a bridge between fantasy and science fiction. If you haven’t read it yet, you can CLICK HERE to find my 3-part series on the history of fantasy and exploration of fantasy sub-genres. Or, continue to the next article in my Genre Studies series for a look into the History of Science Fiction.
Special thanks to Stephen Coghlan, whom I interviewed as a source of information on the sub-genres of clockpunk and dreampunk. Stephen is an author of various genres, including several mentioned here! His insight into these genres was invaluable, especially in navigating the turbid depths of dreampunk.