As we all know, language, and especially individual words, can evolve over time. Sometimes a word can transmute into an entirely different meaning than it once had in a relatively short time. One of these is ‘Punk’.
Who could forget Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (1971) saying, “Well, do you feel lucky, punk?”
This line comes from a time when ‘punk’ was a term for an antisocial young man who got into fights and was involved in criminal activities. Just to make it more confusing, it was also a term, still used, for “any prepared substance, usually in stick form, that will smolder and can be used to light fireworks, fuses, etc.”
Roll on a few years to the late 1970s and Punk Rock altered the first definition to mean “a style or movement characterized by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc., and the defiance of social norms of behavior, usually associated with punk rock musicians and fans.”
This quickly adapted to include anyone with a particular hair style and/or style of clothing that was inspired by the punk rock movement.
Just a decade later in 1987, the word ‘Steampunk’ was coined by author K.W. Jeter to refer to a subset of the science fiction genre that poses an alternative history where 20th century technology operates in the 19th century Victorian age, portraying a world of modern machines in an age of steam power. Steampunk stories are often set in a dystopian London, though there is a Wild West version. Both include steam and clockwork mechanisms as sources of power. Khempunk is similar but the stories are set in Egypt.
That’s quite a journey for one little word! But it doesn’t stop there. Leaving aside the influence of Steampunk on fashion and music for the moment, just within the arena of speculative fiction literature, this evolution has made some giant leaps within a very short time. Steampunk itself diverged from the adventure stories with alternative technology it began with into a realm of Victorian Romance stories with vampires and zombies.
As early as the 1980s we had Cyberpunk, a subgenre set in a dystopian futuristic setting that focuses on a combination of the breakdown or radical change in the social order and high tech, featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics.
Many people have heard of Dieselpunk, a genre and art style based on the aesthetics popular between World War I and the end of World War II, and we also have Postcyberpunk, invented by Lawrence Person to explore themes related to a “world of accelerating technological innovation and ever-increasing complexity in ways relevant to our everyday lives.”
Lesser known derivatives of ‘Punk’ literature include Solarpunk, whose adherents proclaim their commitment to “ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community” and oppose the nihilistic tendencies of cyberpunk and the reactionary tendencies of steampunk. Also Hopepunk, stories that commit to remaining optimistic in the face of a bleak or dystopian world (opposite of Grimdark).
Biopunk emerged during the 1990s and focuses on the near-future unintended consequences of biotechnology experiments involving DNA, and Nanopunk, similar to biopunk, but the use of biotechnology is limited to only nanites and nanotechnology.
Clockpunk often portrays Renaissance-era science and technology based on pre-modern designs, as in Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters. Atompunk relates to the pre-Third Industrial Revolution short twentieth century, the Atomic Age, Jet Age and Space Age.
Splatterpunk is more a subgenre of Horror distinguished by its graphic, often gory, depiction of violence and Solarpunk is defined by an optimistic envisioning of the future in light of present environmental concerns, such as climate change and pollution.
The list goes on: biblepunk, biopunk, bugpunk, candlepunk, castlepunk, cattlepunk, deadpunk, decopunk, dreadpunk, dreampunk, dungeonpunk, graffitipunk, kidpunk, mannerpunk, mesopunk, middlepunk, mythpunk, neuropunk, nowpunk, oceanpunk, plaguepunk, salvagepunk, sandalpunk, sharkpunk (yes, seriously), silkpunk, even Trumppunk.
One I found of particular interest is Elfpunk, a subgenre of urban fantasy with traditional mythological creatures such as faeries and elves in modern urban settings. I’m going to add that one as a keyword for my Goblin series! Another that amuses me is Stonepunk, which refers to works set roughly during the Stone Age and technology that is constructed from materials more or less consistent with the time period, but with modern function. Flintstones anyone?
It feels like every offshoot of speculative fiction these days becomes a new ‘Punk’, but the emphasis is on era as well as technology and what kind of mechanisms are used in the story setting.
One of the newest of these is Smugglepunk, which puts a Steampunk twist on the Golden Age of Piracy and generally takes place on the southern English coast, which is already rife with romanticised legends of smugglers and pirates that grew out of the era.
I’ve been honoured to be invited to contribute a story to an anthology of these swashbuckling tales called Scaddles, which is scheduled for publication in early November, about when you’ll be reading this article. The listing isn’t live at the time of writing but you can easily find it through the editor’s Amazon page, Nils Visser [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY]
Airship pirates add a new dimension to these already fantastic and whimsical tales and make for a unique and adventurous style of speculative fiction. I hope you’ll have a read.
Have you come across any other forms of punk fiction not listed here? I’d be interested in hearing about it!
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