This article is by by Cathy, the Overprepared GM, PsychoJuliet, Jaren J. Petty, and Cryssalia Noire, and is presented by Worldbuilding Magazine.
The mid-seventies saw the birth of a new artform, punk. It was a style, an ideology, and a way of life. It was a reaction to the peaceful acceptance of the hippie culture, the bombastic glamour of disco, and the calculated, slick production of corporate rock. It was aggressively rude and unapologetically raw. Punk wove together the pared down simplicity of the beat poets, the distrust of institutions from sci-fi dystopias, the revolutionary zeal of the Marxists, and the throw-yourself-at-it ethos of the garage rock scene into a chaotic cocktail of anarchy, nihilism, honesty, and creative expression. Although the word punk started as an insult by an older generation, the new punks revelled in the epithet, owning their image as troublemakers and unwilling to gloss over ugliness.
Punk music gave voice to a young, disenfranchised, and angry working class and dealt with problems on all scales, from the looming threat of nuclear war to being depressed. It shouted that society was screwed up—that not all was well and not all were equal. Eventually punk music exploded, attracting both popular and corporate attention. No longer an underground scene, the punk movement, anarchic and individualistic, immediately fragmented. Some combined the original punk ethos and style with new musical sources, evolving punk into a more refined sound. Some focused on particular parts of the punk ethos and served highly focused fan bases such as Anarchopunk and Nazipunk. The New Wave movement continued along the same musical tradition as earlier punk music but tried to avoid the baggage associated with them. Hardcore punk developed in contrast, doubling down on the hard edge image and pushing a hard, fast rhythm. Record and fashion labels tried to cash in on the aesthetic, commoditizing the movement and giving birth to pop punk. And a million Hot Topic stores sprang up across the nation like emo bourgeois flowers after a desert rain. A new lexicon emerged to distinguish the various camps as purists, sellouts, and posers.
Like music, science fiction is not a monolith, and new subgenres are born from a variety of social, artistic, and technological forces. Almost a decade after punk music coalesced, Bruce Bethke coined the term “cyberpunk,” attempting to capture the mix of punk’s troublemaking attitude and the computer-driven future he could see coming. Just like the original punk movement, cyberpunk gave voice to people who saw a gritty reality of powerful corporations and disfranchised populaces. Also like the original punk movement, the genre quickly fragmented. Cyberpunk inspired a variety of -punk genres, their fans sometimes claiming hard stances on the purity of each one. The -punks are a messy, chaotic stew of overlapping definitions, decisive aesthetics, distilled worldviews, and ardent creator-fans. But more than that, as Joey Romone said, “All punk is attitude. That’s what makes it. The attitude.”
Cyberpunk & Biopunk
Perhaps the most famous of these -punks is the cyberpunk school of the eighties and nineties. Bruce Bethke coined the word cyberpunk in a story of the same name back in 1982. Cyber- stemmed from the words “cybernetics,” the science of replacing human functions with computerized ones, and -punk came from the musical genre and referred to a group of aggressive young people who eschewed convention. However, Gardner Dozois, a science fiction editor, is generally credited for popularizing the term. A subgenre of sci-fi, cyberpunk takes place in near-future settings that tend to focus on a “combination of lowlife and high tech.” It juxtaposes advanced technological and scientific achievements (such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics) with some degrees of breakdown or radical change in the social order. Cyberpunk can also serve as an umbrella term for dystopian stories that depict dreary futures where information technology enforces governmental control and individuals receive mechanical or electronic augments.
Much of cyberpunk is rooted in the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Writers like Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, Philip José Farmer, and Harlan Ellison examined the impact of drug culture, technology, and the sexual revolution while avoiding the utopian tendencies of earlier sci-fi. Released in 1984, William Gibson’s influential debut novel Neuromancer solidified cyberpunk as a genre by drawing influence from punk and early hacker culture. Other influential cyberpunk writers included Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. The Japanese cyberpunk subgenre began in 1982 with the debut of Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series Akira with its 1988 anime film adaptation popularizing the subgenre.
Cyberpunk plots often center on conflict among artificial intelligences, hackers, and megacorporations. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias that feature extraordinary cultural ferment and usage of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors. Much of the genre’s atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.
Several subcultures have been inspired by cyberpunk fiction, including the cyberdelic counterculture of the late 1980s and early 90s. Cyberdelic, whose adherents referred to themselves as “cyberpunks,” attempted to blend psychedelic art and drug movement with the technology of cyberculture. Early adherents included Timothy Leary, Mark Frauenfelder, and R. U. Sirius. The movement largely faded following the dot-com bubble implosion of 2000.
Deriving from cyberpunk, biopunk focuses on the bleak near-future consequences of scientific and technological advancement. Unlike cyberpunk, it builds on synthetic biology (an interdisciplinary field of research that features concepts from biotechnology and genetic engineering, among others) instead of information technology, and individuals are usually modified and enhanced by genetic manipulation rather than cyberware. Biopunk generally examines the ethical pitfalls of synthetic biology, which can involve conflict with bio-hackers, biotech mega-corporations, and oppressive government agencies that manipulate human DNA. Its stories explore the struggles of individuals or groups, who are often the product of human experimentation, in a typically dystopian backdrop where totalitarian governments and megacorporations misuse biotechnologies for social control and profiteering. A common feature of biopunk fiction is the “black clinic,” which is a laboratory, clinic, or hospital that performs illegal, unregulated, and/or ethically-dubious biological modification and genetic engineering procedures.
Steampunk (and Friends)
While surrounded by some small debate, the origins of steampunk appear to go as far back as the scientific romances of authors like Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and even the historical accomplishments of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Midway through the 20th century, the genre was unintentionally born out of the literary works of Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock between the 60s and 70s. By 1985, the genre had even seen its aesthetics brought to life on the silver screen in the British-American cult film, Brazil. Though steampunk shares many similar -punk themes with its slightly older cousin, cyberpunk, the now-common term was not coined on purpose. The term came from an off-the-cuff statement by author K. W. Jeter who had written to the sci-fi magazine Locus:
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 [Tim] Powers, [James] Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like “steam-punks,” perhaps.
Central to steampunk’s aesthetic is the bleak, Dickensian retro-futurism visible in such eccentric creations as airships, automatons, and mechanical/clockwork prosthetics. The fashion meshes with the era of rich tailcoats, top-hats, corsets, petticoats, and parasols. Contrasting the excess of the higher class, blue collar workers wear overalls, aprons, rags, gas-masks, and even—as it seems necessary to mention—goggles. Factories stretch into the skies, belching acrid clouds of smoke. Homes and places of business are cobbled together from bricks, lit from within by gas-lamps, candles, or early electrical lamps. In some cases, steampunk even looks to the American West and attaches its Victorian fashion to the revolvers and spurs of ranchers, rangers, and ruffians alike.
Through the years, small schisms have divided the greater steampunk community. Purists battle it out with what they view as other genre “posers” that are often called by other names to separate their specific aesthetics from the more classical definition. Those looking to simply attach gears to things to make faux-steampunk creations are deemed “clockpunks”. More romantic or supernatural writers are deemed “gaslamp Victorian” or “gaslamp fantasy” authors. When magic is added to the mix, works tend to be deemed “aetherpunk” (though the term hasn’t quite caught on). Even the American Western take can be pushed under the umbrella of “cattlepunk.”
Even in the light of steampunk’s seemingly fractured fan-base, it is undoubtedly the next biggest -punk next to cyberpunk in terms of cultural influence. One need only search the internet for “steampunk” in order to find conventions, cosplayers, and various media showcasing the future that never was.
First coined in 2001 by Lewis Pollak to market his role-playing game Children of the Sun, dieselpunk evolved from a steampunk offshoot into its own distinct subgenre. It is rooted in the period from 1920 to 1950 rather than the Victorian era, drawing literary influences from action-filled pulp and gritty noir. Dieselpunk diverges more strongly from the other -punks in its thematic influences. It can veer between the decadent hedonism of the Jazz Age to the earnest patriotism of the WWII era and the existential dread of modernism, but it often ignores the politics of disenfranchisement that underlie so many of the other -punks.
The aesthetic mixes the streamlined shapes of art deco, the bright brass of the big band era, and the experimental bent of the modernist movements. It’s a style composed of chrome and steel, glass-pierced skyscrapers, oversized vehicles, and the oily grit that accompanies modern machinery. It has pin-up girls and fedoras, zoot suits and flapper dresses, cigarettes and gasoline, Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam Wants You. Technologically, the genre’s hallmark depends on combustion engines (particularly the eponymous diesel engines), radio, and guns.
Although the term dieselpunk has not broken into mainstream consciousness, big budget Hollywood movies like Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, and Captain America: The First Avenger have established its aesthetic. Because of them, most people can recognize dieselpunk as a cohesive genre, even if they don’t know its name.
Atompunk, a close cousin and immediate offshoot of dieselpunk, draws inspiration from the post-war Atomic and Space Ages. Some use the end of WWII in 1945 as the dividing line between the two genres, although others consider the advent of television in the 1950s to be the transition. Although atompunk shares some of the same art deco/streamline moderne aesthetic with dieselpunk (its slightly better known cousin), it generally has a brighter, more futuristic feel, with Googie architecture, Sputnik vibes, and cigar shapes. As TV Tropes puts it, “Everything is slick and streamlined, with geometric shapes and clean parallel lines constructed of shiny metal and glass, lit prominently by neon. Sweeping curves, parabolas, and acute angles are used to suggest movement—movement into The Future…. all decorated with little blinking lights that don’t really serve any purpose (but they sure look futuristic!).” It overlaps the Raygun Gothic aesthetic; while some fans merge the two, others treat atompunk as the darker, dirtier side of Raygun Gothic. Those who differentiate between the two see atompunk as having less focus on sleek space suits with bubble helmets and more on radioactive fallout and existential dread of nuclear war.
Electronics and atomic power dominate the retrofuturist technology of atompunk—spaceships, radioactivity, scientific laboratories, rayguns, aliens, cathode ray computers, televisions, and jetpacks. It’s sometimes optimistic about the power of science and the march of technology in a way that most -punk genres never quite capture. With the early Cold War as its cultural backdrop, some atompunk works lean into the espionage and space race side of the genre. Most atompunk stories ignore the patriotic and military fashions widespread in dieselpunk. If dieselpunk is exemplified by Indiana Jones and action pulp, atompunk is exemplified by Fallout and 50’s to early 60s sci-fi and Silver Age comics.
Solarpunk is defined by its often optimistic outlook on the future. It has a few distinct aspects that separate it from the rest of the punk worlds which include focuses on community, equality, craftsmanship, and environmentally friendly technology using renewable resources. Solarpunk tends to have a high level of cultural awareness, gender equality, self-expression, and artfulness. It combines facets of biopunk, cyberpunk, and skypunk to create a lighter outlook. Solarpunk may have come to being out of a reaction to nihilism in cyberpunk.
Solarpunk has its cultural roots in both African and Asian cultures. This may be a byproduct of the Victorian/Edwardian era fascination with the “exotic” that accompanies the Art Nouveau veneer attached to the genre. This influence appears mostly in the artwork of missolivialouise who can be considered one of the potential originators of solarpunk when she pushed the idea to the public on Tumblr in 2014. Even though solarpunk is usually characterized by a positive outlook, it can be utopic or optimistic. More importantly, it can provide social commentary by focusing on the struggles of the real world and looking for solutions to those struggles. The majority of solarpunk worlds focus on a free, egalitarian world where no one is better than anyone else and everyone has equal opportunities. Solarpunk worlds look to a brighter future by deliberately undermining the systems that keep it from getting to its ideal state.
The influences of Solarpunk mainly revolve around the environment. Concern for global warming led to a call for more eco-friendly solutions, which in turn ran into the creative arts. The threat of climate change unintentionally spurred a rejection of the bleaker visions of the future that most punk genres provide. In some ways, solarpunk artists and authors are punk to the -punk genres in that they refuse the negative outlook on the future and, instead, substitute it with a much brighter, more accessible potentiality.
It is also worth noting that Solarpunk is still in development. The other types of -punk genres have solid roots and criteria as far as what makes that type of -punk. This is part of why some people are reluctant to call solarpunk a full-blown genre: it lacks the clarity and identity necessary for acceptance. Without that solidity, few authors or artists have delved into what solarpunk has to offer. Hopefully, in the years to follow, we can officially add one more distinctive -punk genre to the already veritable buffet of choices.
Like punk music, -punk genres within speculative fiction constantly evolve. They have distinctive, evocative styles, but resist clear-cut boundaries. We can try to define them by some combination of aesthetic influences, technological bases, and inspirational periods. We can try to link them by underlying themes, such as capitalism’s inevitable corruption of society. We can point to how they center their stories around the literary analogs of the rebellious punks that so definitely defined the music scene—misfits and antiheroes, working class stiffs, criminals, inventors, and artists. We can see that in a lot of ways, they all embody the “high tech, low life” description of cyberpunk, but applied to broader definitions of tech and life.
However, the sci-fi -punk genres defy easy categorization as much as the real world punks hated to be put into neat boxes. Is steampunk still steampunk if it steals the style but drops the tech? Is dieselpunk really punk when it’s unapologetically patriotic? Is solarpunk established enough to be a cohesive genre, or do the various strands that its adherents trumpet need to coalesce into a more solid idea? The fandoms that collect around each genre heatedly debate each other’s true interpretations, not so much purists against posers as true believers disagreeing on dogma. Except the dogmas in this case are ossified into expected tropes that both signal the genre and restrict it.
As worldbuilders, this colorful, evolving set of subgenres gives us plenty of inspiration, but also a bit of a challenge. How do we write in the genre without it sounding like a rehash of unquestioned stereotypes? If we stray too far from the genre, we’re not in it, but if we don’t stretch the boundaries, it can be easy to make a tired copycat of earlier works. Here are five strategies to address that risk:
- Lean into the genre. Identify the stereotypical aspects of the genre and analyze the roles they serve. Consciously use tropes to create emotions or themes rather than just subconsciously adopting them as part of your world. For example, when George Lucas developed Indiana Jones, he began by exploring what he loved most about the old serials he watched as a boy. The resulting film enthusiastically embodies the pulps from which it draws, but doesn’t feel tiredly derivative.
- Break the non-core tropes. Find tropes that aren’t central to the genre and explore what happens when you break them. For example cyberpunk stories classically envision a world ruled by multinational mega-corporations, often Japanese ones. But what if Nigerian companies ruled instead? Then you’d have an afrofuturist cyberpunk, a much less explored space.
- Start from the basics. Choose a technology and cultural influences and work through how they shape the world. Avoid mindlessly copying the ideas others have already developed. For example, you may start with the same Victorian era steam technology ingredients as traditional steampunks, but if you didn’t automatically add in goggles and airships and all the other accoutrements, what do you personally think steampunk would look like?
- Start with new basics. There are a lot of different -punk genres that cover many combinations of technologies and styles. However, history is wider than that. Look for a less used period to draw from. For example, I don’t think I’ve seen a -punk example using futuristic Polynesian style and technology based on a deep understanding of the ocean and tropical island practicalities.
- Continue the conversation. Art reflects back on itself and can have interesting things to say about what’s already been said. For example, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, with its hero named Hiro Protagonist and a world called the Metaverse, is a parody of cyberpunk as much as it is a standout example of it.
About Worldbuilding Magazine:
Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. This article was featured in their April 2019 release: Technology. You can visit their website to read full issues for free here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on twitter for the latest news. Mythic Scribes is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.