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Punked 101: An Explanation of the Various "Punk" Genres of Fiction
WHY IS IT SO CONFUSING???
There are a lot of "punk" genres.
Quick, do you know the definition of Steam Punk? How about Clock Punk? Diesel Punk? Cyber Punk? Post Cyber Punk? Gothic Punk? Ocean Punk? Can you give examples of each?
Here's the easy part though. They're all derived from Cyber Punk. So to understand all of them, let's start by getting a grasp on the history and meaning of the Cyber Punk genre.
The Cyber Punk Genre
Cyber Punk: The First "Punk" Genre
The term "cyberpunk" was first used in 1980 by American author Bruce Bethke as the title of one of his short stories. Bethke was describing a generation of teenagers with "punk" attitudes in the information age. Gradually writing in this style became popular with many other authors, until it became a full genre of literature in its own right. Cyberpunk authors include: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Rudy Rucker, Michael Swanwick, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, Richard Kadrey, and others. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberpunk_derivatives).
Cyberpunk is a specific sort of science fiction featuring certain themes: an underprivileged social outsider as the hero, usually a dark and dystopian setting, and technology that, while highly advanced, has not erased the dark side of human nature nor made our social problems such as greed and injustice disappear. Usually there are no happy endings for the heroes, they simply resist the world, but usually their rebellious spirit is put down by the oppressive authorities.
Cyberpunk fiction is usually about a world where technology has evolved rapidly but humanity itself has remained primitive and brutal. While technology has the power to save life and extend life, a huge gap between rich and poor people leads to a privileged few enjoying the benefits to quality of life the technology has to offer, while many others go without anything but their basic needs, or are oppressed and controlled by the technology, toiling cogs in a machine that turns and churns to make the wealthy happy. The setting might be extremely futuristic but early cyberpunk literature was not; it was only speculation about new technologies transforming societies that are quite similar to present times.These works are of great philosophical value because they explore what might plausibly happen to society as it exists today if extreme body modifications and information technology like we've never seen are born tomorrow.
In the 80's speculative fiction was aimed largely at the combinations of man and machine that could be possible in the future. Humans with artificial limbs would give way to humans with more and more artificial body parts, and the idea was for the authors to comment on the sadness of technology slowly chipping away at our humanity. Gone would be the bonding together we got from aging and dying naturally, gone would be love, warmth, and nurturing, as we would become cold, efficient machines, unable to feel. In some ways, this prediction is already coming true. The newer generation has a proven decrease in the ability to feel empathy, and like it was speculated in Brave New World or Anthem, we treat aging as something disgusting and deplorable, something we withdraw from in disgust and horror instead of embracing it as a dignified and noble phase of life, as our ancestors did.
However, as technology has advanced in other areas of life, similar ideas from cyberpunk have shifted into new territory, becoming the Bio-punk and Nano-punk genres.
The Horrors of Bio-Punk
The Bio Punk Genre
One writer, Bruce Sterling, said of cyberpunk, “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes. That is cyberpunk.”
The Bio-punk genre interests me because it speculates about the implications of synthetic biological technologies, including cloning, stem cells, and genetic modifications. In a way, many of these "scary technologies" are commonplace in nature: stem cells are used in nature to create an embryo that grows into a baby and for your body to create new blood cells from bone marrow, we've been selectively breeding crops for millions of years, choosing desirable traits over undesirable ones, and clones occur in nature all the time and we call them "twins" or whatever-lets. To me, being afraid of biotech is like saying your pants are "franken-pants" because they were artificially woven, sewn, and dyed and *gasp* might contain artificial polymers. Witchcraft, no? That's why when I read Biological Speculative Fiction, Bio-punk with it's terror fixation turns me off and I prefer when my sci-fi explores the beneficial possibilities instead.
For example, there was a science fiction book I read as a pre-teen that was like this genre but softened for a pre-teen or kid audience, called Star Split by Kathryn Lasky.
It was my introduction to the genre of speculative ficition that had to do with biological, rather than robotical, technologies. It's about a world where cloning has been outlawed outright, due to the existence of clones disrupting society in past centuries. The society is very functional and not at all dystopic, (You could call it Bio-prep because of its mostly optimistic feel, it's not really Bio-punk) although it isn't democratic either. There is a female ruler called the Prima, who is the only allowed clone (they use the term "umbellation" or "umbella") in the world, a clone of a clone of a clone dating back many clones ago to her predecessor. However, each new clone is not an exact copy. Instead, each one is enhanced with the DNA of every great genius of the time when the Prima is set to birth her next clone. Thus, each Prima is like the former Prima but with the addition of genes of very gifted people added to her genetic make-up, thus society creates a more perfect leader every generation.
In Star Split, ordinary people are divided into two groups: Originals and Genhants. Genhants (genetically enhanced humans) are marked in their possession of another pair of synthetic chromosomes, added to the rest of their DNA, which can be used to tack on desirable traits such as athletic or musical ability. However, changing your offspring's DNA with "vanity genes", genes that change the appearance, is strictly illegal. Originals are the people who never got the enhanced genes due to poverty or opting out for various reasons. Darci, the main character, as a Genhant child went to Genhant schools and was kept away from contact with Originals for the most part. There was a separation implied but not strictly enforced as much as it was simply a cultural norm that Genhants and Originals did not mix.
However, when Darci goes to a rock-climbing camp, she ends up seeing more Originals than she's used to being around, and has been curious about the etymology of "Original" among other words she finds interesting or strange. She also becomes increasingly fascinated by the Originals themselves, their kind of natural beauty, the grace of their movements, their pronounced uses of flowing gestures while talking quietly and using a few short words, as opposed to louder Genhants who were capable of learning a more extended vocabulary.
Then, one day while climbing a challenging bit of cliff, Darci meets Vivian. An "Original" girl, Vivian looks exactly like Darci, right down to the last freckle. If this means what they both suspect it means, Darci, Vivian, and anyone involved in their creation (the birth mother of Vivian, Darci's parents) will be executed by incineration. They deduce from their birthdays that Vivian is the clone and Darci is the original. I don't remember how it ends but I know they both survive, but only after a terrifying run-in with the law.
The above, you must realize, is not anything like a real bio-punk, which would be more pessimistic, showing the horrific consequences of humans undergoing genetic modifications at the hands of merciless scientists who treat them like mere lab animals. Bio-punk also seems to fixate on biological technology being used to control the masses.
For example, in the Uglies Trilogy, (a science fiction series I'd definitely recommend for teenage to young adult girls,) the government makes everyone beautiful with surgery at the age of 16. However, the controlling is done as a secret aspect of the "pretty" operation; the "pretties" are given lesions on their brains during the surgery that basically turn them into shallow airheads. Since they focus only on things like parties and clothes, physically unable to tackle intellectual pursuits, the government (who are part of an elite group called the Specials who get another, secret operation done that makes them efficient killers and their training gets rid of their "bubble head" mentality) is able to create people that, for its purposes, are easy to manage and not a danger to the environment or society.
So, in Bio-punk fiction, the technology itself is sometimes not as evil as the human beings using it with what they think are noble intentions. In my opinion, a good Bio-punk story isn't about shock or horror, showing that you could create some kind of biological abomination; it's about what cyberpunk is about, the technology that is designed to enhance our lives instead being used to make us live in a state of oppression, inequality and fear.
Steam Punk: What The Cool Kids Are Into
After bio-punk and cyber-punk, which are genres of speculative fiction whose name derives from a particular type of technology, most other something-punk genres of fiction are named after the best piece of technology available during a given historical time period, in which the work is usually set. They then add things like alternative history, anachronistic modern technology, or supernatural elements to the period, hence the "punk" part.
One of the most iconic and popular is steam-punk, which dates to a time when the steam combustion engine was the most powerful piece of technology, in the 19th century. One example is the movie Wild Wild West featuring Will Smith. This is by far the biggest and most widely popular "something-punk" genre, and includes a signature fashion (gadgets and goggles paired with 19th century dress) and even a genre of music.
Steam punk is defined as "retrofuturistic" in that it combines elements of the past and modern or futuristic bits, usually with the setting being some kind of alternative past.
Diesel punk, when the most powerful piece of technology was the diesel engine, 1910-s through the late 30's in other words. Fullmetal Alchemist would fall in this category, as would the anime Baccano!.
Other Cyberpunk Derivative Subgenres
Explanation/ Name Origin
The Art Deco Movement
Webcomic Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz
sub-genre of horror
The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling
similar to the urban fantasy genre
The Spiderwick Chronicles
modern elements mixed with mythological ones
The Labryinth by Catherynne M. Valente
So what makes a genre "punked"? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if a work is truly a something-punk genre or simply an existing genre. However, most of these "punk" sub-genres (they're usually under the umbrella of either sci-fi or fantasy) have certain things in common.
1) There is a combination of elements of the story from close to the time the story was written and fantasy elements. For example, steam punk combines elements of today's time with elements of an imagined past.
2) Doing this creates a new world out of familiar old parts (like Leela's prom dress made from old carpet fragments). So, it's an alternate world but not exactly a completely new universe like that of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, it's an alternate world mixed with lots of familiarity with contemporary culture, designed to feel more immediate and less alien to the reader.
3) The stories are usually bleak, cynical, and subversive. They tend to be critical of modern times, like how the Uglies trilogy is critical of modern American culture's unhealthy obsession with beauty. I'm not saying if it isn't cynical, it aint art, but a lot of these literary works tend to be more serious and dark.