Punk- How Spec-Lit Fucked Up A Perfectly Good Word [SUB]

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This post was written by Josh Ishiro Finney, an author and artist for 01 Publishing.

You can contact Josh via Facebook or Twitter.


Punk.

Punk rock.

Punk ’til you puke!

As a youth revolution punk was a solid fist full of fuck you! An angry, ugly, straight razor attack on the bloated excess of 1970’s pop culture.

There was punk rock music from the likes of The Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and The Dead Kennedys.

There was punk cinema in films such as Repoman, Suburbia, and The Fabulous Stains.

There was punk lit, punk art, even a punk offshoot of gonzo journalism.

It was a way of life fueled by a belief that nothing is sacred, authority is never to be trusted, and most importantly, you can always Do It Yourself…better known as the DIY ethos.

In a word, punk is rebellion.

And I know a bit about words. Word have power. Words have strength. Words are the bits of DNA from which we craft dreams and nightmares onto the page. So I’ve gotta ask my fellow wordsmiths out there, how the hell did we manage to fuck up such a great word as punk? These days it has been reduced to a toothless suffix. Four empty letters all too often stitched onto the ass-end of genre labels to make them appear edgy and new. Ecopunk, angelpunk, dieselpunk, kaleidopunk, and of course the grand right bastard of them all, steampunk. Yeah, you read that right. Steampunk. If ever a genre needed a big fist full of fuck you right now, it’s that goggle-eyed pansyfest. Why? I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…

josh_titleA History Lesson

Back in 1982 when author Bruce Bethke coined the term “cyberpunk” it actually meant something. It became the moniker for a clutch of rebel authors who pried sci-fi out of the cold dead hands of the classic square-jawed heroes and dragged it through the gutter. These authors didn’t just earn the punk label, they embraced it. Their prose was as much inspired by the lyrics of Lou Reed as they were by the works of William S. Burroughs and Harlan Ellison. In the dark visions of cyberpunk computers and biotech were no longer exclusively the domain of lab-coated scientists, but rather wove into the culture of back alley bars and under the flesh of the damaged loners that frequented them. Or as the granddaddy of cyberpunk, William Gibson, once put it, “The street finds its own uses for things.”

Soon after, sci-fi’s creepy uncle, the horror genre, followed suit and dug its fangs into the punk vibe as well. Called “splatterpunk,” authors like David J. Schow, Clive Barker, and George RR Martin (yes, that George RR Martin) pioneered a new breed of horror that tested the limits of violence and decency. Like the cyberpunks, these authors were true literary radicals. They pushed boundaries. Broke rules. They dared to knife into topics long believed to be “too intense” for the written word. In short, splatterpunk was a big, bloody fist full of fuck you to the traditional spook story.

Then in 1990 William Gibson collaborated with fellow cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling, on The Difference Engine. An alternate history tale, this novel envisioned a yesterday in which the computer revolution occurred during the age of steam, and thus the term “steampunk” was born. But unlike the colorful whimsy that dominates the stuff masquerading as steampunk today, the London of The Difference Engine was a Dickensian nightmare. Poverty was rampant. Technology had run amok. Skies were clogged black by smokestacks forever burning coal to power the vast gear-computers of the powerful elite. Now that was steampunk.

Only one of these photos is steampunk. Do you know which?

Punk, my ass!

Frankly the so-called steampunk movement of today has near to nothing in common with the world Gibson and Sterling envisioned twenty-some years ago. No, now the genre is dominated by goggles and airship and women prancing about in corsetry. These stories have no actual “punk” to them. There’s no edge, no DIY attitude, and certainly no actual rebellion in a literary sense. If anything, the new stuff is a throwback to the days of adventure pulps, or is simply high-fantasy hidden behind a brass facade of gears and pistons.

But it didn’t end with steampunk. No, soon the punk suffix was getting slapped onto everything. Got a story that features a lot of biotech? How about give it some extra zing and call it biopunk!? Does your eco-apocalypse story feature a band of hipsters watching the world die? Repackage it as ecopunk! Got an urban fantasy story with moody angles in leather jackets? Leather jackets, that’s punk right? Call it angelpunk! The list goes on and on–dieselpunk, kaleidopunk, clockpunk, nanopunk, cthulhupunk, fairypunk, dinopunk, sexpunk…er…wait, that last one actually “gets” it.

What this new generation of authors (or maybe it’s reviewers and publishers) fail to grasp is that spiked hair and outrageous clothes isn’t what makes spec-lit punk. Sure, punk imagery did occasionally appear in old school cyberpunk stories, such as The Panther Moderns in Gibson’s Neuromancer. And splatterpunk had Clive Barker’s sadomasochistic bondage demons, the Cenobites. But this isn’t what made these stories punk. It was the attitude behind the prose. These authors wielded words like flaming molotov cocktails being hurled at the literary establishment. They didn’t play nice. They didn’t follow the rules. And they constantly challenged the accepted principles of genre. For example, as one reviewer once said about William Gibson, “For years sci-fi has been warning us about the dangers of technology, meanwhile Gibson’s characters are having sex with it.” Or as Sid Vicious once sang in a cover of the old Blue Eye’s classic, “I done it mmmmmmuh waaaaay!

So where do we go from here?

In the modern era the punk suffix has come to be a poor excuse for a lack of imagination. It’s the go-to term for anyone wanting to make their tired, dried up idea seem edgy and cool. What this has resulted in is dooming punk to the same fate as now empty words like “extreme” and “Cthulhu.” I say it’s time we give the “P” word a rest. Or at least use it damn correctly. And for all those half baked genres out there misusing the term, I have a few suggestions…

josh_punk

Steampunk.

For Steampunk and all it’s various spin offs, such as Dieselpunk and Clockpunk, replace the “punk” with either the word fantasy or pulp and you’re good to go. And you know what? There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Pulp has had a long, proud tradition. Why not wear the label with pride? And fantasy? Fuck, the fantasy genre has been needing a good, firm kick in the ass. Why not make that cause your own? Even better, want a cool name for your genre? The guys over at Privateer Press had the right idea when they rejected the steampunk moniker for their Iron Kingdoms game. Instead they called it “Full-Metal Fantasy.”

Biopunk.

Okay. This one is simply redundant. Biotechnology has and always will be a staple of the cyberpunk genre. Biopunk tales, more often than not, are simply cyberpunk or classic cautionary tales under a different name. It’s time to call a spade a spade.

Ecopunk.

Until this genre does something that actually challenges the standard conventions of the classic eco-apocalypse / dystopian tale, this genre has no business rubbing itself up against the likes of punk. You want a counterculture scene to glom onto, ecopunk? Try emo. It’s right up your alley.

Cthulhupunk.

Look, in spec-lit there are few mythos so ingrained into the fabric of a genre than Lovecraft’s nightmares. Cthulhu and his elder pals are about as establishment as you can get. And that’s fine. I enjoy that stuff, too. But you’re hardly going to rock the pillars of horror by borrowing from the ideas of a man whose stories have been an institution for nearly a century now. The term Lovecraftian has become a genre unto itself for a reason.

Fairypunk.

Really? Seriously? Fairypunk??? Bad ass Tinkerbells living on the edge? Look, unless you’re writing some form of homoerotic lit, which in itself can be pretty damn punk, just fuck off okay?

Dinopunk, Dragonpunk, etc.

Consider suicide.

This post was written by Josh Ishiro Finney, an author and artist for 01 Publishing.

You can contact Josh via Facebook or Twitter.

39 Responses to “Punk- How Spec-Lit Fucked Up A Perfectly Good Word [SUB]”

  1. Amen. I’ve been shouting this for years. We agree on just about everything.
    Punk is not fashion. “It was the attitude behind the prose”, as you say. Or, to quote Mike Pondsmith, it’s about the feeling. You can’t throw a leather, or an anachronistic fabric on you, and expect to feel (the) punk.

  2. Bruce Nugent

    Article makes some good points but I’m fair sure that Steampunk predates the awesome “The Difference engine”. Arguably The works of Verne and Wells and Their cinematic versions qualify. Also, K.W. Jeter’s delightful “Infernal Devices” predates D.E. by three years. I’m sure there are other literary examples.

    • Bruce,

      Thanks for enjoying the article. Actually, the works of Verne and Wells are anything but “steampunk”. These works are the science fiction of their day, seen through the lens of their own social and technological era. Typically, this is what is known as “Gold Age” sci-fi. There’s no “punk” edge, no intentional retro imagery, or alternate tellings of history. Also, more to the point, the word “steampunk” was actually coined by Gibson and Sterling to described their novel The Difference Engine.

    • I agree with the overall argument of your article. “Punk” has gotten to be a ridiculously-overused term. When you can buy rubber “steampunk” goggles at Halloween stores you know the genre’s jumped the shark…

      However, William Gibson didn’t invent “steampunk”, nor did he coin the phrase.

      It was actually K. W. Jeter who coined the term – as an in-joke play on the “cyberpunk” genre that was all the rage at the time. He was referring to the works of himself, Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (The Digging Leviathan, Homonculous, Lord’s Kelvin’s Machine). Not to mention earlier precursors like Michael Moorcock’s “Nomads of the Time Stream” trilogy (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan & The Steel Tsar), George H. Smith’s The Second War of the Worlds, etc.

      http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5055/5488347370_e606a43ffe_o.jpg

      Steampunk is somewhat of a misnomer as the original roots (19th century scifi and 20th century homages to it) have _nothing_ to do with dystopian, depressing futurism. Gibson added that, which is his usual modus operandi 😉 “Steampunk” in the modern era, as I understood it, was much more of a real world reaction to the sterile, Apple-driven world of white plastic, mass-produced tech. That’s when you had people make wooden laptops with old keyboard keys, etc. because it harkened back to the hand-made (or at least hand-crafted) feel of 19th century materials and technology.

  3. Mark Harris

    Firstly, “punk” predates punk rock by a goodly long way. You kids think nothing happened before you were born, but then, young punks have always been that way. Punk rock got the name because it was punk kids making music without the benefit of the industry machine (or talent, for many of them). The word is first recorded in 1596 FFS! You don’t get to own it just because you want to. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/punk

    Secondly, what Verne and Wells were doing *was* rebellious in the literature of their day. It’s only ever a golden age in hindsight – at the time it was revolutionary.

    Thirdly, and more to the point, the word “steampunk” was used by Gibson and Sterling in 1990, but was coined by KW Jeter in 1987 to describe a book he wrote in 1979. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk#Origin_of_the_term

    Research, punk – do you speak it?

  4. Todd Clark

    I disagree on what you considers edge or rebellion within the various genre’s, good steampunk or diesel punks stories do have edge and rebellion for the times and environments they occur in. Rebellion and edge doesn’t automatically mean the accoutrements of the punk rock movement, it is standing up to or going against the established notions or rules of the day etc.
    The punk rock movement did this but it isn’t like the word punk started there so they don’t have claim to the word.
    I do agree that the term “punk” is being over used It is being slapped on to any genre or sub-genre around. I prefer atomic Age over atomic punk because i think it better reflects the attitude in most stories of that period.

  5. Yes, but modern steampunk AUTHORS grew up inspired as much by Wells and Verne as by Gibson. For me, I was bottle fed the first two as a lad. Gibson and the rpg Space:1889 came to me in the early 90s. Those merged with my love of comics to make my Rail Legacy, which I call steampunk but also historical fantasy and science fiction in reverse. Is it punk? Book One sort of. Book Two, in the works, yes. But that, like all other books depends on the story being told. The Sex Pistols wanted to bring out the new, the individual, in people. But people rarely work that way. They work in mass identifiable symbols.

  6. I’m very involved in the steampunk movement where I live. Literature is not really my area, focusing more on costuming, prop making and the community itself so I can’t really have an opinion on steampunk books in general but I can tell you that, in the areas I do work with, there definitely is a challenging of the established ways. It may not be as obvious at first glance when they’re wearing a top hat and a tailcoat but those who really get steampunk do move against current by making stuff that society teaches us we need to buy, usually from big corporations. Putting the power back in the hands of creative people and making people realize they have this power to at least partly free themselves from this economical slavery and creative void is at the heart of steampunk. I always say, “you come for the steam but you stay for the punk”. Most of the serious steampunks I know started in the movement because they liked the look but when they started making stuff they realized what it was about and that’s now much more important than the goggles themselves. Yes, steampunk do things in a much, much gentler way than punk rock people might have but it’s still a force against establishment. And of course, there are many people who limit themselves to the look without exploring the more important values. that doesn’t mean steampunk shouldn’t be called that, it means someone needs to tell these people what steampunk actually is and it’s not what they’re doing. It’s kind of like people who just dressed weird with spiky hair and called themselves punk without adhering or even being aware of the more fundamental values behind it, and there were people like that. Real punks probably didn’t consider them punks, like there are people who call themselves steampunk which we do not consider steampunk. Steampunk cannot exist without the DIY approach. I’ve given a lot of conferences on steampunk and when I explain the origin and the link to punk mostly through the DIY approach, most people are not even aware that was a thing about punks. So I’ve found myself teaching people about the punk movement, though summarily, while wearing a top hat and machines hand made out of leather, wood and brass. Steampunk may be Punk’s more well behaved little brother but it does share many of the same family values and I think it deserves to share the family name.

  7. Alex, what you are describing is the age old hippy “recycle, reuse, re-appropriate” mantra from the 1960. The only difference is you’ve glued some gears on it and called it steampunk. Is it creative? Oh, absolutely. You’ll get no argument here, some steampunk costumers put Hollywood prop-masters to shame. But a bunch of kids play acting they’re the aristocrats of one of the most classist cultures in human history? Punk? Uhhh…no. I mean, sure. Go ahead and enjoy the fantasy. Golden age pulp has a long, proud tradition and is a lot of fun. But does it lick the razorblade of discontent and raise a fist full of fuck you? No.

  8. The -punk suffix is attached nowadays to evoke a certain kind of imagery more than anything else (and not Mohawks and leather), although I do agree the context, specifically the attitude of what ‘punk’ means, is lost.

    I don’t know if “Cthulhupunk” is wrong though, as it came about to label a genre that blended Lovecraftian mythos with cyberpunk, which sets it apart from the rest of the mythos.

    I tend to label my projects as “-punk” things, at least in the development stage, because I do try to keep a focus on the DIY, rough, fast, and messy style, and that suffix serves as a reminder of the attitude I need to maintain while working. Whether the names stick afterwards I can’t say yet, but they might, if the edge is there and real and in your face and uncomfortable.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve an afternoon tea scheduled with the Duchess aboard her airship. Toodleoo!

  9. “Punk” is a word that, in American slang, meant “catamite.” When somebody called you a punk, it didn’t mean you looked tough; it was a deliberate insult. Before that, in Shakespeare’s day, it meant “prostitute.”
    The word got co-opted long before punk rock got to it.

  10. Hi, great article, I’m into steampunk and agree it could definitely do with a big fistful of fuck you/punk, I do get a bit tired of the military worship and “no politics please, we’re steampunks” it’s a genre that’s pretty open to everyone, which i like, but a lot in the steampunk scene, especially online, will get mightily annoyed at anyone expressing their political views through their steampunk, especially if it’s left wing. The only issue I take a bit of umbridge is the fairy punk bit, smacks a little of “that’s girly/feminine, that can’t be dark or political.” Plus from travelling round festivals for years a lot of the people I know really into the fairy thing were punks and new age travellers and I’d see all the same faces, often in their fairy gear, at marches, protests and activists gatherings. Sadly I’m not greatly mobile anymore so don’t get to as much stuff in person nowadays, maybe it’s changed a bit in the last decade, but if it’s not still the case now, it definitely was through the 90s and early 00s.
    Much love and cake
    enjoying the blog.
    frock
    xxx

  11. Ignoring all the misinformation in the article, I would argue that steampunk is decidedly punk but the “rebellious and edgy” definition. Steampunk means different things to different people, but to me it means willfully embracing ideas and IDEALS that are quite unpopular. They are a -rebellion- against sloth, complacency, and ugliness.

    Etiquette and courtesy rather than Political Correctness.
    Respect for the past rather than blind adoration of the latest trends.
    Glass and wood and brass and leather art over glossy plastic garbage.

    It is a flat rejection of the vulgar modernity that tells you sweat pants and a white undershirt are good enough to be seen in, or that it’s all right to allow corporations to trample your freedoms as long as they keep cranking out better smartphones.

    Steampunk, for me, is the avenue by which I opt out of the hideousness of the Now and replace those elements to which I object with pieces of the more elegant Then.

    If that isn’t sufficiently ‘punk’ for you, then I bid you good day.

    • I humbly disagree that just challenging the norm is a punk thing. It *can* be, but not always. You can slap the “anti” prefix, such as anticonformism, you can say “alternative”, “niche” or “unconventional”. Being a peaceful pagan does not make you punk. Being a communist or anti-capitalist does not make you punk. Boycotting big corporations products does not make you punk. Everybody is fighting for something, if you think about it. And, especially, in speculative fiction, the “punk” suffix has a much more specific mindset and attitude, albeit subjective (like other themes; noir, cult etc.); yes, nostalgic, but raw depiction of human nature and society, it’s guerrilla survivalism in controlled dystopias. It’s just the setting that changes the prefix.

      • Your point is well-taken. Truth is, I’ve never been terribly fond of the term steampunk, and as much as I would gladly embrace steampulp, gaslamp fantasy, vernianism, or any number of better-suited phrases, steampunk as a term isn’t going anywhere. Sadly, whinging about it in a poorly researched article is unlikely to change that.

        • Yes there are other wonderful themes that do share common elements. When I think about steampunk in cinema, the first that comes to mind is The City of Lost Children. About pulp, it’s John Carter. The mood and tone difference is huge. I can understand why you say that steampunk as a term isn’t going anywhere. That’s because it’s much harder to develop a steampunk setting and throw both elements in a technologically alternate developed state of society, whereas cyberpunk is much more tangible, foreseeable and perhaps realistic.

          Despite what anyone thinks about how informational this article is, it does make many valid points that I wholeheartedly agree; we slap hip terms such as steampunk and cyberpunk everywhere, but we forget all about the “punk” element in them (and remember, a punk is not a saint; he is a d*ck in one way or the other).

    • Sales & Account Executive Crawley, Surrey £24 – £40k The Company: We are a family run magazine publishing company that is coailnuntly growing and we are therefore seeking to appoint a Sales & Account Executive to sell

  12. Hello there. Just as a quick remark… If you think there is no “punk” in Steampunk, I suggest you check the following:

    Unwoman
    Vernian Process
    The Cretins
    The men that will not be blamed for anything

    The list goes on

  13. Blue Rose

    I agree with Mark Harris’s comment that “punk” as a word has had a long history pre-dating us. As one of the few women commenting here or maybe the only one, I am not sure why you are putting the Sex Pistols high on a shelf. Sid Vicious was addicted to drugs and killed his girlfriend, before ODIng himself. I do not find anarchy to the point of self-destruction that intellectual and therefore, punk, as you are putting it. I find more “punk” in people trying to be polite at steampunk cons and making people think in a way that does not make violence or blanant disregard for others “cool”. I use the word “steampunk” to find like-minded individuals, because without solid words to describe things, then it is a bunch of people working in their basements making items that give the finger to the mainstream and not bonding together in any big way. I, for one, write books that are a mix of pulp yet show off, for one, a world where women’s powers have been taken away my military types and I feel, yes, it is “punk” by your definition. It rebels against the corporate overlords because as a woman, I live with fears of violence and all things men never have to deal with. I feel fairypunk might be in this area too, I have not encountered it when I speak and present things at steampunk cons all over the U.S., but if it is about women or homosexuals raging against the machine, then I would say that is more “punk” then your beloved punk rock, that has people like Malcom McLaren exploiting people and making punk fashion mainstream like Vivian Westwood did. But in saying that, the mainstream appeal punk eventually got as it settled into “new wave” made a solid impact and if that helps people know there is a different world out there other than comforting to being blind consumers, then all the better.

    Is there going be a time where all this dystopian fiction will be replaced with something else? All the “punk” writing is general tends to not contain much hope, at least the works of Phillp K. Dick and Lovecraft. I feel at least steampunk contains hope. A lot of the fiction gets Sid Vicious with a lot of fist pounding, but overall, drops into apathy and violence for its sake and not any sort of true rebellion.

  14. For me, the word “punk” suits me very well because of what I was going through at the time. I was a teen during the 1980’s and had a lot of anger towards my parent’s era. As a “Child Of The Age Of Aquarius” it was pretty clear I was pretty low on the totem pole and a mere by-product of the mantra; “If it feels good, do it.” Being a punk was in direct response to feelings of abandonment from a father, indifference from my mother, and cruel abuse from my pseudo-stepfather. I was a punk since I was the definition of defiance, rebellion, cynicism, and anti-conformity.

    Dieselpunk in the 1980’s was an absolute repudiation against all the trends and fashions that were being feed to us via the blunt glass needle of the picture tube. It was against the preppy trend or the Miami Vice aesthetic that was all the rage. Sure we’ll take your popped polo shirt collars and your tropical weight fabric suits while we bastardize them with fedoras, leather gun belts, and holsters.

    Oh, what’s that mom? You don’t like me gun belt over my cargo pants? Then how’s three?

    Dieselpunk was a means of grappling onto the clarity of purpose from the World War 2 era, a place and time when there was a legitimate reason to be angry and something to fight against. In a way we wanted to revisit that “all together in the war against fascism” that was clearly missing from the “Greed Is Good” decades, we wanted to turn back the clock and go live in the idealized vision of that period. We missed that era when there was a clear purpose to the anger and a way to funnel it.

    There’s a reason why some of us “Retro punks” pick specific eras to fixate upon, and some of don’t even know why. But the fact is that you can gender-bend and called courageous, show up to work Monday morning to work with all of you favorite team paraphernalia and that’s been normalized decades ago, I dress like it’s still 1936 and that’s a problem?

    In short…

    Roses Are Red
    Violets Are Blue
    I wear a fedora,
    If you don’t like it,
    Go fuck yourself, too.

    • “In a way we wanted to revisit that “all together in the war against fascism” that was clearly missing from the “Greed Is Good” decades, we wanted to turn back the clock and go live in the idealized vision of that period. We missed that era when there was a clear purpose to the anger and a way to funnel it.”

      Great way to put it. If this is punk, then it is hard to revisit it in times like these when the “enemy” and the “purpose” are not that clear. The “tyranny” goes through a labyrinth of channels way beyond idealism. We’re waiting for the dust to settle and come to terms with whom we’re up against before we connect cyberpunk -or any punk alternative- to our present lives and not just to spec-lit, music and fashion. I just hope that we won’t be too late before we realize it.

  15. I would think that people would have to go way out of their way to strip the punk elements out of steampunk. The industrial revolution was ripe with punk ethos. Class warfare, the growth and spread of both Anarchy’s “Propaganda of the deed” and socialism’s Workers of the World clashing against the robber barons and massive monopolistic industrial conglomerates against the background of ancient tradition crumbling against the facade of faster and faster social and technological change…

    How do you not make that punk as fuck?

    • When steampunk was primarily about those things, it *was* punk as fuck. But as I said, it’s been reduced to a culture of pageantry–whimsy, airships, and aristocratic dress-up. Bring back the edge, bring back the punk elements, and I’ll support you the whole way.

  16. Han Rasmussen

    I’ve been saying it should be called “steampulp” for years, glad to see someone agrees. Maybe if enough of us join the chorus we can spread the meme and retake the word punk. Gods know that the way it’s used now as a suffix for whatever is totally wrong.

  17. Daniel Kelmer

    What’s your opinion towards Interface Zero?
    I’m from Brazil, and we haven’t no cyberpunk tabletop RPGs since 20 years ago. Now Interface Zero promises to bring back the genre here. as far as I know, the game do a good job focusing in dystopian social order, and tech versus humanity. Everybody is pretty excited with the game, but there are some stuff like hybrids, psionics, and cybermonks (which I kinda like, but it looks like the authors take the spiritual connetion too literaly). I realy want the genre to come back to my country, but I realy don’t like the idea of a game which let’s you be a Psichic Chicken, representing cyberpunk.

  18. Veritas

    Daniel, I’m not familiar with Interface Zero, but there is a pretty solid history of psionics in cyberpunk. Mindplayers immediately comes to mind, it had telepaths. Also, the more recent by Jeff Somers, the Avery Cates series, has psions in it.

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