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The Truth About -Punk

There is something that really gets me thinking (well, there are many things, really, but this is a big one) about the genre and its tendency to label things, to pigeonhole authors and books into categories with ‘helpful’ titles. In a sense labels can be useful; they can separate and advise. But when they’re misused (as they eventually are, because otherwise we would end up with too many categories and sub-categories to logically approach) they begin to lose meaning and become nothing more than words; they no longer convey a real meaning, rather, they act like a convenient place to shelve things with only a vague sense of true order. But can labels help the genre to evolve, as well as force it into tidy shelves? What about –‘punk’?

At Steampunk Villain by Jeff 'Dekal' Beckerface value (we’ll look deeper at this later) I’m confused by steampunk. Mainly because it is, essentially, a lie. The very first instance of “-punk” as a Thing, was in the brief and fleeting genre of cyberpunk. This genre did not last very long (indicated by the writers whose world heralded its inception) and anything now that clams to be cyberpunk is either working to a dated archetype or, in fact, postcyberpunk (Yes, it’s a thing.)—or something else completely different, borrowing from a dead genre whilst creating something new.

Cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s, birthed by a group of writers said to have been marked by their ‘allegiance to 80s pop culture’. These writers merged the previously separate realms of the ‘high-tech’ and the ‘modern pop underground’[1]. Among these writers is William Gibson, whose Neuromancer (1984) is said to have created the ‘underlying myth, the core legend [of cyberpunk]’ [2]. Here’s where we get to the part around which my argument hinges: the definition.

Bounty Hunter by el-grimlockWhen it was at its purest, at the very beginning, cyberpunk was intended as a marriage of ‘high-tech’ and ‘low-life’ [3]; not only did the hero of cyberpunk embody the 80s rock aesthetic, but he was an entirely new kind of character. He wore leathers, rode motorcycles and donned the ironic mirrorshades (the 1986 anthology Mirrorshades was named for these accessories; the height of cool and the best-known symbol of the cyberpunk protagonist). He hailed from ‘the street’; the urban underworld whose denizens were junkies, half-villains, spies and anti-agents. He was a rebellion against the dominant culture. [4] (NB: remember this point—it’s a big one.)

Essentially what sat at the heart of cyberpunk as a genre was the ‘punk’; the low-life hacker. He was not from high society, rather, a rebellion against the clean heroes populating all manner of fiction. So imagine my problem with steampunk. Where are the punks? If we take what springs to mind first, Liesel Schwarz’s A Conspiracy of Alchemists, which is classed as steampunk, the problem presents itself immediately. The protagonist is a becorseted lady of high society. She is not a punk. Often we see authors choosing a warped, alternative view of Victorian England as a base for their steampunk fiction. It makes sense; the period is amenable and the technology is easily manipulated. However: anyone not from the ideal of the ‘street’, the low-lifes, cannot claim the ‘punk’ title, can they? Most steampunk actually isn’t.

Planetary Alignment by Julie DillonThe –punk suffix is tossed about so wildly: clockwork-punk; airship-punk, etc. If it is so necessary to separate this subgenre of steam and clockwork from the rest of SFF, why has another label not been thought up yet? Isn’t it enough to call it ‘alternative history’ or ‘historical urban fantasy’ or even just ‘speculative fiction’?

When it first started, the idea of airship pirates certainly adhered to the ethos of its –punk heritage, but with more high society lords and ladies taking to the trains, planes and automobiles of steampunk, the idea suggested early in the genre by ill-fated stories such as that of television’s Firefly, with a ship of off-radar, outside-the-law misfits flying their way through space has mostly been abandoned. (Yes, Firefly is in space—it’s also more adherent to the base nature of steampunk than many other things: examine the planets and the history of the “world”. The steampunk is there; only in space.) We have steampunk with vampires and figures of state (The Greyfriar, by Clay and Susan Griffith – Vampire Empire), steampunk with vampires and werewolves and social decency (The Parasol Protectorate, Gail Carriger) and steampunk with aether currents and Vernian adventures (Emilie and the… by Martha Wells)—but no punks! Where mirrorshades and motorbikes, cyberspace and hacking became the symbols and tropes of cyberpunk, thus goggles, the corsets and waistcoats and Victorian(esque) England have become the mainstays of steampunk.

Where have all the airship pirates gone? The very people who make steampunk sound like ‘something’ –punk seem to have taken a backseat in the very airships they used to command. However.

Alarla Nruneree by aaronmillerHowever.

If we go with the spirit of the word instead of the letter of it, we can suggest that –punk is merely, as we stated earlier: a rebellion. So therefore, in a new decade with different elements to rebel against, isn’t it normal that the new ‘punks’ have become women throwing off the bonds of expectation to venture out on their own adventures, unheeding of male and/or social disapproval? Looking at the steampunk genre under this new light, the label no longer seems disjointed—in fact, it seems to work.

Actually, it seems to thrive under this heading.

The protagonists of steampunk are usually women and they are often, as suggested, of high society. Isn’t then, the idea of these well-bred ladies upping and leaving, running headlong into adventure in the skies, across the seas, the perfect notion of rebelling against the expected, the accepted? Not only are they rebelling against familial expectation, social expectation, but if they’re also engaged in some kind of underground activity, the rebellion is official—it is now at least a little criminal or suspect. Even our male steampunk protagonists, with their airships and heists, are rebelling against the constraints of being gentlemen. Their acceptance to work beside and under women is in itself a rebellion. They are no longer taking over the family businesses, no longer attending court or government; they are rebelling by engaging in adventure. Sometimes they even do so wielding the noble or lordly titles of their fathers. This is history we’re talking about. Men aren’t supposed to take women seriously, remember? In the very settings that our steampunks inhabit, their very natures and how they conduct themselves—male or female—are part of a rebellion against historical societal expectations. These characters are actually living the very punk ethic the genre evolved from.

Cyberpunk by Filipe AndradeMaybe steampunk developed because the cyberpunk ideal could only go so far before it ‘grew up’. Arguably the genre was attached to the writers who saw through its inception and therefore, once the leathers were scuffed and the mirrorshades were scratched, the jig was up. The writers themselves suggested that cyberpunk’s lifespan was a short one. A letter to John Kessel (included in Rewired: the Post-cyberpunk Anthology) by fellow cyberpunkie Bruce Stirling, said that ‘by ’95 we’ll all have something else cooking’.

When things cannot go forwards, they tend to go backwards, retracing steps. In a sense that’s what postcyberpunk did; it maintained the now-dusty cyberpunk manifesto but bent its shape into something quirkier, something unexpected. Postcyberpunk became the voice of ‘other people’. It relays the narratives of technologically inept, the electricians behind cyberspace. The hacker-engineer upgraded; AIs become nonhumans; the government agent is a wheelchair-bound imposter. The mirrorshades are gone and the villains wear chinos. All this was the natural upgrade from cyberpunk into postcyberpunk; all explored in the flagship anthology, Rewired.

Imagine by Antonio CaparoBut what about the backwards? Instead of imagining this evolved punk ideal in the future or even the present, the past was ready and waiting to be explored. Arguably, steampunk was the natural shift from cyberpunk into the historical realm. The same ideals are there; the same suggestions of rebellion and an overbearing city-state or rigid, immovable governments. In many ways, the past created the perfect stage, with these themes being written into historical fact with little tampering needed. This gave way to further flights of fancy—hence how we eventually began to find vampires and werewolves and magic and the supernatural in our steampunk.

So this label, this –punk suffix, seems to be at the heart of two subgenres within the bounds of speculative fiction. Without it, we lose the idea of rebellion; without rebellion we could never have invited cyberpunk into the fold, and thus perhaps steampunk might not have in turn become the varied, quirky and ultimately rebellious genre it did.

In this instance, a label did more than just suggest where the paperback should be shelved.

Title image by el-grimlock.

– – –

[1] Stirling, B. ‘Preface’ in Stirling, B., (ed) Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology. London : Paladin p vii-xiv

[2] Leary, T., (1995), cited in Burrows, R., and Featherstone,M., (2000 edn) ‘Cultures of Technological Embodiment’, in Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk; Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London : SAGE p7

[3] Ketterer, D., (1992) Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Indiana University Press p141

[4] Kelly, J.P., and Kessel, J., (2007) in ‘Hacking Cyberpunk; introduction’ in Kelly, J.P., Rewired; the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. San Francisco : Tachyon, p vii-xiv

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one this annoys. There is just nothing punk about steam/carnie/kitchen-sink-punk.

  2. Avatar Inkedexistence says:

    You’re ignoring the aesthetic foundation of the overarching –punk meta-genre.

    Yes absolutely, modern steampunk stories seem to gravitate towards the rebellious high society lady–and the manner this embodies the “punk” philosophy is interesting, as you pointed out. However, the reason these stories are classified together into the loose “–punk” meta-genre is largely due to the aesthetic similarities of the stories.

    After all, steampunk is largely an aesthetic movement outside the pages of literature. People craft props and dress in a manner that really isn’t just simple cosplay. It is a kind of fashion statement, and more than that, an aesthetic.

    Compare a cyberpunk story with a steampunk story, and you may find a great deal of difference in the plots and themes… but if you replace the genetic modification and jury-rigged microchips with cogs and brass… suddenly two don’t LOOK different at all.

    The same can be said for any of the –punk sub-genres. Atompunk. Oilpunk. etc.

    Each of these contains stories which may or may not share similarities in plot and philosophy. But DEFINITELY contain similarities in aesthetic.

    What is punk?

    It’s the kid in his garage wearing three layers of modified thrift-store clothing, jury-rigging together five or six speakers he cannibalized from cars in the junk yard, so that he can play something really wild on a a franken-guitar he forged from the remains of three different instruments. It’s stripped wires wrapped in duct tape and a sense of dress and style unified in its own discordant nature.

    It’s about bootstrapping technologies beyond anything safe or reasonable. And finding a unified aesthetic in the mess that results.

    Saying its about “low-life” and “high-tech” is often correct, but it’s a superficial analysis. It’s about the world, not the characters, and the recognition that high-tech isn’t always Apple Store sleek–especially when you’re using a level of technology that should never be capable of the things you’re demanding of it.

  3. Avatar VNV NATION fan says:

    I recommend you to listen to VNV Nation, a Futurepop electronic group.

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