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New Year, New Trends: The Punk Genres of Fantasy

Starting a new year means new goals, new predictions, new trends…

Today, I’ve decided to continue my series of articles on the fads of the fantasy genre… what’s the newest in new… THE PUNKS.

Punk literature is a natural offshoot of the mid-70’s punk music culture, embracing the values of individuality, nonconformity, and rebellion.


The first speculative type of punk was cyberpunk, an adaptation of science fiction. The word was coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his 1980 story about a crew of teenage computer hackers. It soon became a label for many new works featuring dystopic worlds about people whose lives were intertwined with the virtual world— people being able to access the internet directly by brain connection. William Gibson’s Necromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash are prime examples.

It didn’t take long for the same flavor to show up in the fantasy genre. Most agree 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.” He suggested that his novels, along with those of Tim Powers and James Blaylock, be referred to as “steampunk.” A joke that stuck!


To define steampunk I like this idea I’ve run past a few times—it’s what happens when Goths discover the color brown, a big 1899 party. There are requirements for the fantasy worlds. Steam and natural gas serve as primary power sources. Fantastical geared, steam-powered inventions promise convenience and wonder. The worlds abound with airships, gas lamps, cogs, and brass goggles and are populated with mad scientists, philosophers, adventurists, and air pirates. An important difference between steampunk and cyberpunk is that steampunk traditionally lacks the dystopian/anarchist elements of the other subgenre. Examples include The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic series written by Alan Moore, Boneshaker (Clockwork Century Series) by Cherie Priest, and the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger.

Those two punks started the whole rebellion. New ones pop up each year. Here is an incomplete listing (only those I could justify with examples of authors). If I leave out one you especially like, please share.

Many are timepunks, referring to specific periods in history, designated by the advancements of the day.

Steampunk-Ship

Dieselpunk picked up where steampunk left off, covering the period from the Roaring Twenties through the end of World War II. This term, coined by game designers Lewis Pollak and Dan Ross for the roleplaying game Children of the Sun, denotes an Industrial Age civilization with futuristic petroleum-based technology. The requirements for the fantasy world shift to a diesel powered society.

Some of the books of this subgenre are The Keep by F Paul Wilson and Fatherland by Robert Harris.

Dieselpunk has also been called Teslapunk, when describing futuristic electrical technology in an Industrial Age civilization. Teslapunk represents works about a utopian society whose sustenance is totally derived from clean electrical energy sources: solar power, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy. Teslapunk was named after scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, a pioneer in developing electricity. He also dreamed of creating an airplane without propellers or engines, powered by electromechanical ground stations or an on-board energy source.

Bronzepunk is a term, coined by the GURPS role-playing game Steampunk, that denotes a Bronze Age civilization provided with steam-based technological advances.

Mary Renault’s novels are good examples of this subgenre.


Candlepunk denotes a late medieval civilization with futuristic technology. It has also been called Castlepunk, Middlepunk, and Dungeonpunk or modified into Plaguepunk when describing a plague-ridden candlepunk society.

Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an example.

Clockpunk is another timepunk coined by the GURPS role-playing game Steampunk. It involves Renaissance era civilization with spring-driven, clockwork-based technology and Da Vinci inspired advances.

Examples include: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Jay Lake’s Mainspring, Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters, and Pasquale’s Angelby Paul J. McAuley.

Biopunk uses elements of noir fiction to examine the social effects of genetic engineering. Biopunk fiction typically describes the struggles of individuals or groups, often the product of genetic experimentation. Complications in the plot arise from totalitarian governments and bureaucratic megacorporations which misuse technologies as means of social reform or control or profiteering.

Biopunk has also been called “ribofunk” by Paul Di Filippo, a lead author in the genre, after ribonucleic acid.

biopunk

Punks are not only about writing in a particular historical time period, as these punks show:

Elfpunk is a subgenre of urban fantasy that involves the fae folk living in human urban centers. Elfpunk has also been called “modern faerie tale” by such authors as Holly Black, describing her novel Tithe or “urban fantasy” by such authors as Emma Bull, describing her novel War for the Oaks.

Holly Black’s Tithe, considered definitive elfpunk, and Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely are both already on my ereader.

Mythpunk blends mythic fantasy with urban reality. The term was coined by Catherynne M. Valente. Themes, symbols, and archetypes of folklore and myths are combined with postmodern fantasy techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, worldbuilding, and academic fantasy.

“For me,” Valente claims, “mythpunk describes a writer who uses myth and folklore as a launch-point and then warps it with their own voice. Someone for whom language is more than a simple tool, whose use of it is sometimes jangling, sometimes melodious, often musical, always passionate. Someone who uses the basic set of authorial instruments: character, plot, setting, and the fabulous orchestra of human language in a way that challenges and innovates, changes the reader’s perception of mythology, both traditional narrative and new worlds combined and recombined. It’s more fun to write than anything I know, and more profound to read than most things I find.”

My curious mind wonders how this differs from mythic fiction. Any thoughts?

Writers of mythpunk include: Catherynne M. Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, Theodora Goss, Sonya Taaffe, and Mark Chadbourn (Age of Misrule).

Mannerspunk is a punk where etiquette is critically examined through the lens of a fantastical comedy of manners–a sort of Jane Austin meets C.S. Lewis. Elaborate social hierarchies and complex traditions are presented in a fantasy setting. Mannerspunk has also been called a “fantasy of manners,” a term coined by science fiction critic Donald G. Keller.

Examples include: The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells and Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner.

Nowpunk is a subgenre created by author Bruce Sterling, applied to contemporary fiction set in the time period in which the fiction is being published. Technically, all contemporary fiction fits this category, so this label confuses me. Seems like he might have been looking for a marketing device. Hmm.

Example: The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling, which follows the story of a hacker whose life is changed by the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

Splatterpunk or Extreme Horror is a subgenre which tends to appear solely in the horror genre, but some works have touches of fantasy. The author attempts to disturb the audience by an onslaught of a variety of grotesque and gory images. The term was credited to David J. Schow at the World Fantasy Convention at Providence in the mid-80s. Splatterpunk has also been called Gross-out, Gore Horror, or Body Horror.

What new fantasy and sci-fi trendy subgenres will originate in 2012? Predictions are welcome!

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13 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    Wow I only knew about one or two of these, and even then I wasn’t too sure what they were. I think Mythpunk sounds really quite fascinating.

    I bought a book in Waterstones about a week or so ago. It was under a collection marked “Magical realism,” which I think was describing real world settings but with the supernatural and fantasy adding an element.
    The book was by Jeff Vandermeer. It was a collection of short stories, many of which fit into these categories, but the one that interested me the most was the book’s namesake, The Third Bear.

    The story could probably be classed as Mythpunk as it reads like an old fairy tale. There’s growing sense of dread throughout the plot and it makes for an unsettling read. Its one of those stories that you can read in an hour but it stays in your head for a long while afterwards.

  2. Hi Louise! You’re on to my next topic, comparing and contrasting mythpunk, mythic fiction, and magical realism. Those all all closely related, but fascinating genres…among my favorites!

  3. RSAShark says:

    I feel the same about the “-punk” branding as to the general media branding anything “-gate” when some shady dealing was involved. For sure there are fundamental differences between the worlds and some feels almost compulsive to give each new idea a label. Pretty soon each author will have his own speciality sub genre. That just wont work.

    They should have stopped with Cyber and steampunk. If your book was different enough to warrant a new subgenre, rename it. You are a writer, use your brain.

    Cyberpunk would include the future with virtual reality, even the modern day world with a dystopian twist.
    Steampunk is everything before that. All those subgenres are read by me as steampunk with diesel engines. OK etc etc etc.

  4. Anne Lyle says:

    You forgot about alchemypunk, Marsha – a Renaissance-ish alternative to clockpunk that relies on an advanced command of chemistry/pharmacology. I think aspects of Scott Lynch’s world-building in the Gentleman Bastards series qualify, as well as the semi-magical skraylings in my own forthcoming trilogy 🙂

  5. Cas Peace says:

    All these subgenres just go to show how reliant we’ve become on labels. Must we REALLY assign different tags each time someone writes a book that utilizes a unique or rarely-used setting or style? I accept that a reader needs some fundamental information before buying a book, but isn’t that what the cover copy’s for? For me, the broader labels of sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thriller, etc are enough. 🙂
    Having said that, I found this post very interesting – I hadn’t heard of half these labels before! 😀

  6. RSAShark, I left out many labels that were so obscure they gave me a headache–terms someone coined for stuff that isn’t even published.

    Anne, that sounds interesting. My upcoming series has lots of alchemy. I think I’ll stick to the plainer label of fantasy romance though, but I will check out Lynch’s work for that idea. Thanks!

  7. Cas, these small labels seem to me to be distilled versions of the blurbs or taglines, like the shortening effect Twitter has on our thinking.

  8. An interesting description. One example that’s similar to the punks but (as far as I know) hasn’t been given a punk label is Mary Gentle’s Rats & Gargoyles, which she describes as Hermetic SF – ie it’s written like SF, but assuming that Renaissance Hermetic magic is the real science.

  9. Huh, I was unaware of so many punks in the universe. Sounds as though I am going to need to branch out on my reading a bit. Thanks for sharing the list with us, mighty kind of you!

  10. Sarah says:

    Salvagepunk, by Evan Calder Williams & China Mieville

  11. Jill Archer says:

    Great list. Have been meaning to read more punk. This list (and some of the books mentioned by other commenters) gives me a great place to start!

  12. Eli Clark says:

    Whoa!!!! This blew my mind and excited me! I didn’t know there were so many punk genres and I’m excited to try my hand at each of them. Hmm…what about spacepunk?

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