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Going Punk: A Writer's Guide to the Punk Side of Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi comes in many shapes and sizes, and punk has found a cozy niche amongst them.

Photo credit to Hans Splinter on Flickr.

When you hear the word "punk," what do you think of? Hoodlums on skateboards? Or maybe a kid wearing black eyeliner and their bangs all swept over one eye? Punk means different things to different people, but the word—and everything that goes with it—has forged a new meaning in the genre of science fiction. 

The punk movements all have a couple of basic elements: their narratives and worlds focus on technology—often a single technology or a group of similar ones. The second basic is what makes it punk: rebellion. Subversive movement and the genres' use to lay down important social narratives defines punk, and the characters reflect that. Often—but not always, mind you—they are marginalized, living on the fringes of society in one way or another.

Since its beginnings in cyberpunk in the 80s, punk has exploded across sci-fi, taking a vast number of forms. There are literally hundreds of punk subgenres, and they're all slightly similar to one another. So, I've organized the ones I've selected for this article into three basic categories: Modern Tech, "Ancient" Tech, and Organic Tech. More on these later.

Modern Tech

These are the genres that we most associate with punk; the ones that include technology that we either have now or think we could have later on. These are some of the first punk subgenres because they most closely follow the vein of mainstream science fiction.

Cyberpunk

This is the grandfather of the punks: not only is it the most widespread, but it's also considered the first. The term was coined in 1980 in a short story by Brian Bethke, who proposed the term as a descriptor for a newly emerged generation of punks that were being inspired by the Information Age. The hallmark of cyberpunk is a sort of grungy futurism, where the tech has advanced significantly, but the quality of life has dropped. Sci-fi author Lawrence Person puts it this way:

"Classic cyberpunk characters (are) marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures, where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, a ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body."

This is one of the most nihilistic of all punks; it's grungy and oppressed, often set amongst the dregs of society that dwell beneath the more affluent.

Examples: Neuromancer by William Gibson, Bladerunner, Judge Dredd, Bubblegum Crisis

Post-cyberpunk

As new writers flooded the cyberpunk scene, many began to deviate from the attitudes of true cyberpunk. Post-cyberpunk uses the same immersive techniques and aesthetics of cyberpunk, but post-cyberpunk characters are often integral members of society, and the futures that they occupy aren't necessarily dystopias; the whole trick with post-cyberpunk is optimism. Many believe that this blend of dystopia and utopia creates a more accurate and mature vision of the future than cyberpunk usually features.

Examples: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Cyber-prep

A subset of post-cyberpunk, cyber-prep describes a world in which the world is affluent and society is largely leisure-driven, meaning that the uses of technology differ from what you might see in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. For example, advanced body modifications are used for sports, beauty, and entertainment, rather than other uses.

Examples: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Codepunk

This genre is surreal and often deeply conceptual, and its concepts are deeply tangled up with coding and programming. The idea is that the physical world can be manipulated by anyone who can access it and code accordingly; the aesthetics often involve "physical" things dissolving into their raw text form. Strangely, The Matrix actually falls into this category—at least, in the scenes that you don't see. Remember, while Neo and Morpheus are bending spoons, there are people that are actually typing at keyboards and rewriting the code of the world.

Examples: .hack//, Fate/Extra

Laserpunk

These aesthetics are the antithesis of everything that cyberpunk holds dear; laserpunk is a clean, sharp cyber future. Everything is sleek, glossy, and glows even when it probably shouldn't. Though its aesthetics differ greatly, the themes of laserpunk often echo those in cyberpunk.

Examples: Xenosaga, I, Robot, Star Ocean, Tron, Resident Evil

Solarpunk

Ironically, this genre rebels against everything that has been seen in its precursors. Solarpunk is founded in an optimistic or even utopic future that is characterized by diversity and equality amongst its peoples, clean energy, and a harmonious relationship between nature and technology. The aesthetics are heavily influenced by art nouveau, though more modern solarpunk also seems to be taking cues from laserpunk, with cleanliness and sleek lines taking the stage. Unfortunately, this is an incredibly niche genre, though elements of it can be seen in San Fransokyo, the city in which Big Hero 6 takes place.

Cassette Futurism

Also known as formicapunk, this genre uses late 20th-century analog technologies, like cassette tapes and VHS, rather than the more modern tech seen in other genres. While digital technology still exists, it often looks incredibly primitive, with 8-bit or 16-bit aesthetics being relatively typical. Chronologically, it centers on the 1980s, but it can cover anywhere from the late 60s to the early 2000s. I would say that Back to the Future is a good example of this, though it still features technologies that go outside the analog era.

'Ancient' Tech

These types of punk sci-fi are rooted in technology that's obsolete or outdated, like steam engines. They also tend to take place in those time periods and are characterized by anachronistic technologies made with materials and concepts available at the time. I find that there's a touch of the whimsical in a lot of these types of things—its almost an examination of what the world could have been like.

Steampunk

This is probably the most recognizable of all punk genres. The term was invented in 1987 as a reference to some novels, such as those by Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock. However, it was pretty niche until Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill came onto the scene in 1999 with their comic book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which was made into a half-decent film in 2003). This made it popular and moved it more into the mainstream.

This movement could be more accurately described as 'Neo-Victorianism'—many subscribers to this aesthetic blend the technology with the feeling and look of Victorian England. HOWEVER, if that's not your scene, steampunk can be applied to any part of the world, and even to fictional and fantasy worlds. I've read some awesome steampunk pieces that are set in Wild West era USA, for example.

The biggest thing to remember about steampunk is that it utilizes components that were available in the time periods that your work takes place in. Instead of batteries and wiring, think steam, gears, and brass. You can do anything with these in mind - I've read stories with everything from zeppelins to full biopunk-style apparatuses made with these. My favorite by far is automata; basically, huge clockwork toys that function as servants and guards.

Examples: The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross, The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

Dieselpunk

Dieselpunk is an offshoot of steampunk that takes its inspiration from slightly forward in time when fossil fuels are replacing steam. The aesthetics were also taken from what was popular between WWI and the end of WWII—things like pulp magazines, serial films, film noir, art deco, and the wartime pinup aesthetic. The term for this was first coined by a game designer named Lewis Pollak in 2001, when he was describing his role-playing game, Children of the Sun. Though it began as a subgenre of steampunk, it has since become its own full fledged aesthetic.

The trick with dieselpunk is that, when you're designing your tech, its generally powered by combustion. The look also includes grease stains and sludge as a major component.

If you're not into the sludge aesthetic, another option is decopunk. This is a recent offshoot from dieselpunk that focuses more on art deco and Streamline Moderne artistic influences, which are based in the period from the 20s to the 50s. Basically, decopunk is a sleeker, shinier dieselpunk. The most notable reference to this type of style is probably Bioshock.

Examples: The Legend of Korra, Rocketeer, Iron Sky, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Trashpunk

Nobody's really sure when this genre emerged, but the concept is very simple. Trashpunk, or garbagepunk, is characterized by a world in which everything is made from something else—often, these materials would be salvaged in a post-apocalyptic type of environment. Often, trashpunk work is set in harsh, unforgiving environments where survival is key, and thus, you basically have free reign to give your characters whatever they like, as long as you can make it from stuff you find lying around.

Examples: Mad Max, Deponia, Water World

Clockpunk

With this one, think steampunk, but set it back about a millenium. Clockpunk is generally set in the Renaissance, with more clockwork and machines that you'd find in Da Vinci's notebooks, like that funky helicopter machine.

The term was coined by the GURPS role-playing system, and its also been used to describe a form of steampunk in which only clockwork components are used—however, these instances are incredibly rare.

Examples: Mainspring by Jay Lake, Gormenghast, Assassin's Creed II

Atompunk

Sometimes referred to as "atomic-punk," this is set within a very specific time period: 1945-1965. This is where we get into things like modernism, the Atomic Age, the Jet Age, and the Space Age. This is when atomic power and world dominance were "the future," and technological optimism was at its peak. The aesthetic tends towards Populuxe and Raygun Gothic—your meals come as convenient pills, and plucky robot companions clean your house and babysit your kids.

Examples: The Jetsons, Fallout

Organic Tech

Up to this point, we've been talking about technology as we're all semi-familiar with it—tech made from wires, cogs, metal, and plastic. Now, we're taking a walk on the wild side. These next genres delve deep into the organic side of tech—body modification, biowarfare, and unconventional materials.

Biopunk

This genre emerged in the 90s, and it focuses on the possible unintended consequences of the biotech revolution. Fiction in this genre typically describes struggles of individuals or groups that are often the product of human experimentation, against a backdrop of totalitarian governments or megacorps that use and misuse these as a means of social control or profiteering.

Unlike its parent genre cyberpunk, its built on DNA and biorobotics, and the modifications are often to the person's genetics, rather than to their physical body with more mainstream tech.

Examples: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo, Gattaca

Nanopunk

Comparative to its predecessors, this genre is in its infancy. It's similar to biopunk on a lot of levels, but it describes worlds in which proper biotechnology is limited or prohibited, and the only pieces of it that are in wide use are nanites and/or nanotechnology. Currently, the genre is more concerned with the artistic and physiological impacts of the technology than the actual aspects of it.

Examples: Crysis, Generator Rex, Transcendence

Naturepunk

This is where it gets a bit funky when it comes to organic tech. Naturepunk is most common in fantasy genres, and it comes about when a setting includes modern or even futuristic technology that is made from locally sourced natural components, rather than mainstream materials. The name for this is also used in settings where natural things are used by humans as substitutes for more mainstream tech. For example, a naturepunk character would use mushrooms with flammable spores in place of grenades.

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