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.
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.
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?
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.
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!