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Stop Punking the Genre!

In 1983, the term Cyberpunk was born, with a story by the same name by author Bruce Bethke in Amazing Stories #94. The term is defined as a “[S]ubgenre of science fiction that focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters. (Prucher, Jeff, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, 30). The word itself comes from the meshing of ‘cyber’ and ‘punk’, which to me has always seemed as an electronics rebellion. Certainly, the subgenre is one that presents drastically different stories and meanings than what had traditionally been science fiction, and in a way, the style represents a degree of cutting edge thinking that really belongs to the first on the scene, with the truly unique and original thoughts that go against the grain. I think of cyberpunk as the books that are out looking for a fight, ready to cut those unprepared with what they have to say.


My main issue here is two-fold. The first is that with that in mind, it’s hard to apply that sort of label to any sort of science fiction after the term is pushing 30 years old, much as it’s hard to take someone seriously who’s been involved in the punk scene for a comparable amount of time, with several records under their belt to a major record label. The surprise and edge vanishes after a while, and in a way, the ‘Cyberpunk’ term has become a label that’s synonymous with electronics and dystopia. At the same time, the suffix ‘-Punk’ seems to be added onto any number of themes and styles of science fiction literature. Steampunk is a ready example, both visually with film, photography and costuming, but also with such books as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, where there is a blend of dystopic and steam-powered technology. The problem that I see is that the idea behind ‘punk’-style music, video, literature is that it’s something that ultimately rebels against a label, and in science fiction’s field of vision, -punk is the marketing term to rally behind in creating a subgenre, undermining or missing what the word in the meantime really means.

The term itself came at a time of globalization and a rise of technology around the world, and has since become a label for any number of stories that correspond to a use of technology, with dystopic and near-future themes. Promoted by Gardiner Dozois, the term has largely been used to describe books by William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, Neil Stephenson, and many more. Neuromancer >really cut in close at a time before the Internet and home computing, creating a vision of the future that was wholly unique, interesting and edgy. In a large way, the term really did apply to a lot of these earlier books. (This is not to say that modern books in the ‘cyberpunk’ genre are bad – far from it. This isn’t a specific criticism at the books within, just at the association and labeling that they’re saddled with). Like observing a quantum event, you change the picture simply by looking at it, and in effect, calling something ‘punk’ undermines the meaning of the term, and ultimately, does the books labeled as such a big of a disservice. In this day and age with computers and virtual worlds becoming the norm, computers and electronics aren’t necessarily that edgy, and any book written in the genre will most likely be compared to Neuromancer in some way or form.

At the same time, I’ve long been irritated by the Steampunk genre as a concept. According to Brave New Words, the term was coined just four years later by K.W. Jeter in a letter, noting that he believed that stories set in the Victorian era will become the next big thing, and suggested the term Steampunk, most likely in relation to the same edgy connotations that ‘-punk’ gave the word ‘cyber’. Once again, the idea of the word ‘punk’ being used as a label, especially a label right out of the gate, goes against all of the rebellion and fire that the term really should hold for that which it describes. Steampunk is a subgenre that is really beginning to grow a bit more, but doesn’t feel new or edgy as far as its content goes: much of what you can see in the stories has long roots in the genre: the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, for example, could easily fall well within the common definitions of Steampunk, and they did it when the concepts were really new and punkish in their own right. (Wells, especially, went across the grain in his literature and his personal life). Thus, a lot of this current steampunk fad is a retread over old ground, with stories that tell drastically different things this time around. Cherie Prist’s latest book, for example, isn’t so much about technology as it is about character inter-relations in a steampunk-styled environment, one that I’d really label as alternate history over Steampunk. The same goes for recent books by K.J Parker with Devices and Desires, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone. I’ve long believed that the term science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction in general really transcends the content and goes far more towards the themes, plotline and characters of each work.

Still, there seems to be a tendency for new genres to be bestowed with the ‘-punk’ suffix to differentiate various groups of works by content and theme to perfectly define its own little sub-genre and capture a specific audience. In a large way, it’s a good move on the parts of publishing marketing departments to better make their books sell: define an audience, and target them. In some cases, it’s warranted. The stories of Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, such as The Windup Girl, “The People of Sand and Slag” and “The Calorie Man”, all exist within stories that are defined by their environmentalism-styled stories, ones that have a clear and defining message within a near future, influenced by current events. I’ve seen others, and called them myself, bio-punk, because in a way, they are some of the more raw, unique and though-provoking stories that I’ve yet seen. I’m sure that there are other stories, (including the upcoming story at Lightspeed Magazine called “Amyrillis”, by Carrie Vaughn), that looks at the environmental future and the speculative elements of the next several decades, at the same level of intensity as the early Cyberpunk stories. At other points, I’ve seen a tendency to apply the label to other things that really don’t warrant it, and I can’t help but wonder if ‘-punk’ has just become synonymous with ‘subgenre’ or ‘cool’. With the rise of steampunk and cyberpunk, what’s to say that there won’t be a major movement like ‘biopunk’, but alongside such things as woodpunk, ironpunk and stonepunk, each with their own style of stories, each more ridiculous than the last? In this possible future, Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey and the entirety of the Greek myths will be re-categorized as ‘Bronzepunk’, and the Apollo-era of space stories will be titled ‘Vacuumpunk’ (which will most likely be re-titled for ironic effect, vacuum pump fiction).

The main question behind all this is that if the term ‘-punk’ becomes an expected title for any style of sub genre, does it really convey the same meaning as it did in those early days, when? I think that it doesn’t, because the idea behind the term is that the fiction is unexpected and raw, and placing the label on it becomes an effective, safe bandage that sooths what shouldn’t be. The fiction isn’t at fault, it’s the hype behind it. Ultimately, speculative fiction as a whole is done a disservice by the constant subgenres, which separates out everything into minuscule categories that are ultimately meaningless, governed and sold based upon their superficial elements, but not the central themes that ultimately make a story worth reading. Punking a genre seems to be the epitome of posing, especially if the term is simply applied to a brand of stories for the simple purpose of finding a market for them.

[Originally Posted at Andrew Liptak’s Blog.]

About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at www.andrewliptak.com and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.

14 Comments on Stop Punking the Genre!

  1. Paul NYC // June 21, 2010 at 11:53 am //

    Like any named subgenre that begins life as an envelope pushing artistic movement, it eventually ends up a marketing tool. I don’t spend a lot of my time worrying about whether any *punk is sufficiently punky, if progressive rock is sufficiently progressive or if any work of literature is sufficiently literary. There are two kinds of anything in this world, what I like and what I don’t like. That’s the only distinction I make. Everything else, including labels, is marketing.

  2. I’ve actually seen the term “mythpunk” thrown around here and there, to describe SFF that uses mythology as a base – e.g. Elizabeth Bear’s Eddas of Burden series (All the Windwracked Stars, By the Mountain Bound”.  Also “greenpunk” for what you called “bio-punk”. 

    *shrug*

  3. I agree, wholeheartedly, though I suspect there will be more respondents who think “-punk” is just fine. Like it or not, we’re stuck with the suffix as a genre term now. I’d much rather have it be steamtech but “tech” or “teck” are also overused and falling away from current usage except in regards to computer support.

    Even at the beginning (and please note I was using a home computer well prior to the publication of Gibson’s Necromancer) I disliked the suffix “punk”, but that’s probably because I knew the term from it’s earlier meaning of something or someone worthless or unimportant, or a ruffian or hoodlum. I doubt those who affixed “-punk” to cyber even considered the earlier meaning of worthlessness, or they would have had second thoughts.

    Now, punk has become the addition of choice to make a noun qualifier into an genre adjectival noun. Thank goodness it hasn’t – to my knowledge – migrated to fantasy, so we don’t have dragonpunk, sword-and-sorcery punk, etc. 

    One can only hope that it’s eventual proliferation will kill it just as surely as the popularity of some slang terms drives them from usage. It can’t happen soon enough for me. 

  4. @ Paul – I wholeheartedly agree – I stick to whatever catches my eye, rather than the marketing pitches, but there are those out there that really stick to the labels, somewhat thoughtlessly, I think, which is what bothers me more…

    @Stefan – someone mentioned to me that they have seen a ‘Bronzepunk’ label as well. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s the intention behind it that bothers me. 

  5. Jeff VanderMeer // June 21, 2010 at 5:13 pm //

    Let’s not forget that Punk itself is getting up there in years.

    “I can’t help but wonder if ‘-punk’ has just become synonymous with ‘subgenre’ or ‘cool'”

    You could help the wondering, if you tried hard enough. Try harder! I know you can do it.

    It’s like the addition of “gate” to any scandal (e.g. “Punkgate”) following Watergate. It’s a convenient short-hand. Sometimes lazy, sometimes less lazy. (Having to google “Watergate” = fail.)

    The great thing about stuff that irritates you? You can ignore it. It’s not going to follow you into your house and snarf your cookies.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

     

  6. Biopunk has been around nearly as long as cyberpunk, since Paul Di Filippo put out “Ribofunk” (which is what he wanted to call the subgenre), back in the 80s.  

  7. I have problems with this post, but it’s 12:23 AM and I don’t have the brain capacity to respond at this exact moment.  Needless to say, I will be back at some point in the next 24 hours to make a lot of corrections.

  8. As an ex-punk in the mid-80s and a tentative writer and reader of SF and fantasy, I couldn’t agree more. The only time the sufix “punk” made sense when applied to a subgenre was in “cyberpunk”, really. Steampunk is OK, but it’s just steam, not punk. Vaporpunkware?

  9. There are some interesting points in this text. Its the same problem with everything when trying to put it into genres. Lets take (darker) music for example: there is hard rock… heavy metal, speed metal, nu metal, dark metal, doom metal, death metal, black metal, atmospheric black metal, viking, pagan, whatever… the fans discuss the hell out of it, and the bands mostly don’t care. And in my opinion it just doesn’t matter which genre it is, as long as I like it. 
    Its pretty the same with literature. It is true that the name “steampunk” has become a synonym for “cool” and a special subgenre and has nothing to do with the word punk in the traditional meaning.

    Btw. its exactly the same with cyberpunk.

    I wonder if this is a problem?

    I don’t know where you all come from,  but here he feelings I share with punks in the traditional meaning are not very nice. Well, they rebel against something, sometimes they are unpolitical, sometimes they are for anarchy, most time they are for alcohol, cigarettes, primitive, they are dirty and disgusting. Sorry to say that. (If there are any punks reading this and dont liking it, tell the ones sitting on the street and begging to change something for the punk-reputation) Thats what I associate with punks. I have no real problem with them, but I also don’t like them.

    What I associate with “steampunk” has nothing to do with my traditional association of the word punk.

    In fact, Steampunks and the things they create are highly professional and advised on a very high level.

    And when it comes to other punkgenres as Biopunk, yeah I even read “Dieselpunk” I’m closing the wheel. That’s exactly the same like with the music I mentioned in the beginning. Puting everything in the right category is however a strong wish of mankind. Its not an easy task and in my opinion its definitely not necessary. Yeah, I guess by trying to define the exact genre, you want to get off the mainstream. Its the also very human angst that there are coming bad influences. You won’t stop them by creating an elite group mentioning that “our steampunk” is totally different to the mainstream steampunk and more true.

    No offense, in the hole I agree with the article, this are just additional thoughts. Everything changes. Thats improvement and I guess (or am I scared? I dont know) it won’t stop at steampunk!

     

     

  10. Doug Hulick // June 22, 2010 at 9:49 am //

    I think a lot of it comes down to how much you have invested in the word — in this instance, “punk.” Just reading the comments, it is clear that the tag carries different meanings for different people: rebellious vs. criminal vs. anit-establishment vs. personal denigration. Each of these is going to bring a different sensibility to the term “cyberpunk”, let alone steam and all the other variances.

    It also has a lot to do with timing. When cyberpunk came out as a genre tag, the punk movement was still very visible. Depending on how your personal timeline works, it was either ascending, descending, selling out, main-streaming, or whatever. But, at that point in time, the tag had a harder meaning. At the same time, some of the SF that was getting the label attached to it had a harder edge, and so the two seemed to mesh well.

    Fast-forward to even a decade ago. Punk is dead, or sleeping, or morphed, or commercialized, or whatever. And so is the cyberpunk sub-genre. What was edgy is now a motif for many, a setting with a handful of expected, or at least predictable, set pieces. That doesn’t mean it is bad, just that it is no longer new. Like punk is no longer new. It is not longer being defined: it is now being copied.

    While the original intent might have been a homage to a specific sensibility (again, a slippery personal slope), the suffix “-punk” has changed as well within the genre. It now speaks to something “new-ish”, but not necessarily in the rebllious or cutting-edge sense (at least in terms of social revolution, etc.). It is now a way of saying, in effect, “Hey, this is something with a bit of an edge, a sensibility of the non-typical SF that has a darker side, that involves near-fantastic, or at least uncommon, tech….” Or whatever your spin on the definition may be. That’s not the point.

    The point is, to expect “-punk” to meet the classic definition of cyberpunk, let alone your personal definition of what the work “Punk” means, is unrealistic and, in many ways, bitching because the world isn’t what is was like back when. It’s self-indulgent. The term is maleable enough that what may be “-punk” (or “Punk”) for one person is completely different for another. There is no broader, purer “-punk” in the genre any more, and may have never been (once you get past Neuromancer or the like). As others have said, it long ago became both a marketing tactic and a broader form of shorthand meant to convey a specific kind of feel or sensibility. Originally, that sensibility was limited to one sub-genre; but it has proven so handy, we find it a lot of other places right now. And while it may not be pure to the original ideal — however a person chooses to define it — it does do a decent job of conveying a sense of place or expectation in most instances.

    Are there better possilbe tags? Of course. But that isn’t what is being used. So while whateverpunk may not meet everyone’s personal litmus test in terms of ideological purity, it’s not going to go away, either. And I can live with that. Because for me, it’s just a handy tag. If your baggage makes it heavier for you to bear, that’s your issue, and I respect that; but don’t expect me to sympathize over much.

  11. Your post seems to be based on the idea that ‘punk’ = new and edgy. 

    As far as my understanding goes, punk is a term applied to people/literature/music/ideas etc which backs the idea that power should be as devolved down to an individual level as possible.  It’s art is support of anarachy, which is a lack of centralised control and power.  So the suffix of ‘punk’ can be applied to anything, regardless of age.

    And to be honest, part of your problem seems to be that you’re picking up stuff that’s been labelled as ‘punk’ by people with something to sell, by the big companies with the big marketing budgets.  You’ve not gone out there and found stuff which is off the corporate radar.  If you’re doing that, of course you’re going to find it’s been turned into nothing more than a marketing term.

    In a world of increased globalisation and centralisation, we need more anarchic thinking than ever.  Every year since cyberpunk was first coined it’s become more and more necessary.

  12. Boden.Steiner // June 22, 2010 at 9:37 pm //

    It’s just the evolution of language. I’d imagine that the characters in a cyberpunk novel would embrace that concept.

  13. I just read a book by Bruce Bethke called “Rebel Moon” and I really enjoyed it. I went looking for a sequeal and could not find one. So I wanted to contact the author and could find no way to contact him, I was hoping someone out there knew how. If anyone dose please contact me and let me know.

    T. James

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