Update: I’ve received some useful feedback from people, both here and elsewhere. At first, I was considering re-writing this whole thing to be more coherent and intellectually useful as a piece of cultural criticism. And then it struck me: this entry was never MEANT to be intellectual or fully-formed as a statement. It is, in essence, a rough draft. Read it as you will, but know that this is not a formal essay that I am seeking to get published, nor is this some kind of absolute statement from an ivory-tower theorist. It is part of a work-in-progress, and should be taken as such.
But it can be read as if I am bad-mouthing some sub-genres. I suppose I did. That was from a lack of care, not from any actual intent. Read with caution, and I promise that in the future I will post with more care.
I am a big fan of Cyberpunk. I always have been, and I always will be. I do have to admit a bit of relief that science fiction fandom has moved on to a “post-cyberpunk” mode. After all, “post” indicates that cyberpunk is no longer a faddish subculture, but has been folded into SF more generally as one of the many tools in the box. But cyberpunk will always have a place in my heart: as a child of the ‘80s, I was raised on it. Blade Runner is one of the first movies I remember my father taking me to, and Neuromancer is one of the first non-fantasy novels that I read cover-to-cover.
But cyberpunk has a crime to answer for. Namely, cyberpunk gave us the mushrooming of “–punk” styles in SF criticism and subgenre fragmentation. Gibson, Sterling, and their compatriots might not have been personally responsible for their sub-genre’s name, but the “X-punk” convention is a result of the cyberpunk phenomenon. It seems to come and go every year or so, but I have noticed a significant upswing in the “–punk” discussions of late.
I think that some of my distaste for this phenomenon of labeling things “–punk” comes from the fact that I spent a brief but intense period of my youth (and another brief but intense period in my young adulthood) worrying about who (and what) was “punk” and who was hardcore, post-punk, psychobilly, and all kinds of other fragmented musical subgenres. It was the kind of thing a well-off suburban kid worries about when he has no real problems to concern himself with, and has way more free-time than he has common sense. It was, in retrospect, a waste of my time; I think the “–punk” discussions in criticism are similarly useless.
But to demonstrate what I mean, I think I must take us on a tour of the terms. Defining our terms is important in any analysis, and it will be of some use here.
Cyberpunk: This one is the grand-daddy, the one that started it all. The criticism of Paul Di Filippo aside, this one made sense. Cybernetic implants and cyber-tech creations were being used to explore a melding of man and machine that technological progress seemed to offer. And the stories were engaged with a low-life, street-culture aesthetic that had much in common with the aesthetic and social goals of the punk movement. Cyberpunk made sense.
Steampunk: This one made sense, too. In large part, it was tongue-in-cheek. It was suggested by K.W. Jeter in Locus magazine in 1987 as being “the next big thing” in the SF world. But I hold that it made sense even beyond its tongue-in-cheek suggestion, because the Jeter/Powers/Blaylock group that was writing Steampunk had something of the same kind of feel as the Gibson/Sterling/Rucker group. Of course, I do not mean that these two groups had similar literary or aesthetic goals. But rather, both cyberpunk and steampunk were groups who were united more by a guiding aesthetic principle than a hard-and-fast ideology, but in both cases ideology followed. Both cyberpunk and steampunk grew beyond the boundaries of SF to influence pop culture in multiple ways. Both cyberpunk and steampunk started as a core group that soon found an ever-growing number of people exploring the style. And both cyberpunk and steampunk, while existing even today in ideologically “pure” forms, are more of a tool for storytelling than an end in themselves.
But beyond here, there be dragons…
Biopunk: This one is a bit more problematic. In the case of both cyberpunk and steampunk, there were precedents and influences, but the movements themselves tried to take their influences and create something that split off in an entirely new direction. Biopunk failed here: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells did “biopunk” first, did it better, and has yet to be surpassed or transcended. Wells and Verne might have been the inspiration for steampunk, but authors like Meiville, Moore, and Blaylock have all taken steampunk beyond what Wells and Verne ever created. Biopunk, however, has yet to transcend its origin. For that reason alone, biopunk as a term occupies a problematic place in SF criticism and genre study.
But even more, “biopunk” lacks any, well, PUNK. For that reason (and many others that you can read in his RIBOFUNK: The Manifesto1), Paul Di Filippo suggested the term “ribofunk.” But that term has failed to catch on, for good reason. Di Filippo intended the term as a portmanteau of “ribosome” and “funk,” but both of these are duds. Ribosome is a failure because most non-specialists don’t know what a “ribosome” is, and probably think of “riboflavin” instead. And “funk,” while an excellent musical style, is just that: a style of music. Punk might have been a style of music, but it was also a social movement. Funk? Not so much.
Clockpunk: This is basically steampunk, but without the steam. I find this one problematic because punk doesn’t even remotely belong in a Renaissance-style universe. I might be showing my lit-crit/culture studies background here, but “punk” is a feature of Modernity. It can only happen in a society so thoroughly saturated by media spectacle and capitalist alienation that a small part of culture turns on itself in an anarchic return to the libidinal. It is only possible in a world like that described by Walter Benjamin2, Guy Debord3, and Henri Lefebvre4. Alienation certainly existed before Modernity, but the flavor of life in Modernity (and post-Modernity, if we accept that such a thing exists) is simply different than it was prior. “Punk” existing in a Renaissance-style society makes about as much sense as Marxism existing in an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society. Besides, clockpunk has yet to show itself as more than a sub-sub-genre of steampunk.
I can anticipate the counter-argument here: “punk” has nothing to do with the social movement; it is a name that captures a feeling. “Clockpunk” doesn’t have to actually have any “punk” in it to BE “punk.”
My response: if there is no actual “punk,” then why use the term? Cyberpunk deals with the low-life street culture of punk. Steampunk does, at least sometimes, deal with the lowlife of the Industrial Revolution; while it might not be “punk” properly, it has something in common with punk. But clockpunk doesn’t seem to have a similar cultural connection.
Sandalpunk: This is a “punk” derivative set in a bronze-age or iron-age society (and I have also seen the term “ironpunk” proposed5). The problem here is similar to that proposed above. Specifically, I cannot accept that “punk” would have been even possible in an iron-age society. After all, if large numbers of people are spending a significant chunk of their day either struggling to eke out a living or trying not to die of chicken pox, pneumonia, and the plague, there can’t be a whole lot of time left over for a social movement of privileged, middle-class kids revolting against a stifling social order of conspicuous consumption.
Nowpunk: Evidently, Bruce Sterling used this term to describe his contemporary techno-thriller, The Zenith Angle. Sorry, Bruce, I love your work… but wouldn’t “nowpunk” just be “punk?”
Atompunk, Dieselpunk, and Teslapunk: Okay… what? These terms are nonsense, and in large part seem to be invented by people who want a culture to exist that just plain isn’t there. They are trying to invent a sub-sub-sub-sub-genre that pulls itself up by its bootstraps. Atompunk seems to exist in the minds of three or four people, most of them Dutch. And Teslapunk seems to exist in one place, and one place alone: the Wikipedia page for “Cyberpunk derivatives.”
Dieselpunk has slightly more reason to exist: it has two or three existing aesthetic examples, and a sub-genre seems to be coalescing around those few examples. The problem is, one of those examples is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Did you see that? No? Oh, right… no one did, partly because it is just too narrow and too specific a sub-sub-sub-genre. When you split a hair that fine, there isn’t enough left to be of any substance.
There are others, and I don’t even want to have to think about them. But just for completeness’ sake, there is mythpunk, elfpunk, dwarfpunk (is that really so different from elfpunk?), vamp-punk (please, God, no…), furrypunk (eww…), nanopunk, and probably a few dozen more that I have yet to hear of. And hopefully, I will never have to.
So, can we please put the “—punk” thing to rest? It is played out, and has become meaningless. Unfortunately, there isn’t a better term yet. But SF fans are a clever bunch. If we put our minds to it, we can come up with something far better.
But trust me: “funk” won’t have anything to do with it, either.
1. Which is actually quite good; despite the fact that I seem to say only negative things about Di Filippo, I actually find his work interesting and engaging. Problematic, but interesting and engaging.
2. Who wrote The Arcades Project. Go read it NOW.
3. Society of the Spectacle. Read it after you’ve read Benjamin.
4. Critique of Everyday Life. Read it after Debord. You’re welcome.
5. While I think that idea is just as bad as any of the others suggested here, at least the name has a nice ring to it.