Chances are you’ve heard the terms ‘steampunk’ or ‘cyberpunk.’ But what do those terms mean in fiction? Does it have anything to do with punk acts like the Sex Pistols? What does punk even mean?
Let’s get into that.
‘Punk’ has many definitions. We will stick to the Cambridge Dictionary:
“A culture popular among young people, especially in the late 1970s,involving opposition to authority expressed through shocking behaviour,clothes, and hair, and fast, loud music.”The Cambridge Definition of the word ‘punk’
As the definition implies, punk is about opposition. ‘Taking a stand’ as it seems. This was certainly reflected in punk music, with bands making it clear that they were rebelling against perceived societal norms. As we apply ‘punk’ to fiction, we will notice that texts oppose themes that are prominent in today’s world. Just as the Sex Pistols sang about the British monarchy, we can see traces of punk in contemporary literature such as Black Panther.
However, there are different types of punk. Just as every genre has its subgenres, punk is no exception. There’s dieselpunk, steampunk, etc. All of the literature in them sprout a variety of philosophies and ideas. It’s impossible to box all punk texts to a single ideology or belief system. What it means to ‘resist’ has a different meaning in 2004 than it would now in 2019.
So, let’s discuss the variety of ‘punks’- that could spice up your writing, your viewing and reading habits or your outlook on fiction.
The medical discipline of biology has shaped our understanding of human body functions and capabilities. Biopunk uses biology as a source for inspiration- from the horrifying worlds David Cronenberg constructs, or to the recent Orphan Black that argues for greater insight into biotechnology, biopunk argues for a greater focus into biology. There is emphasis on business and capitalism, as well as genetic engineering. It’s an emerging genre- and we, the viewers are still yet to be fully chilled by the horrifying capacity of biopunk futures.
Realistic superhero fiction, pretty much. Once a genre that was known for its hopeful and sunny disposition, capepunk forces us to re-analyze our cape wearing heroes. From Alan Moore’s Watchmen to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, superheroes are just as flawed as the cities they attempt to protect. Capepunk is deconstructive at heart, and may alienate people who believe the superhero genre is about igniting hope and good feelings.
A very recent example of a capepunk film is Zach Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Batman is disgruntled and depressed, Superman is hated and Wonder Woman is secretive and almost hidden. The lives and times of superheroes are not glamorous, but mirror our own anxieties and inadequacies. The genre seems to not resist against society itself, but the traditional superhero genre.
A genre that marries dark dystopian futures with grand and ambitious themes of humanity and nihilism, cyberpunk is notorious for its ability to provoke strong feelings out of viewers. From films such as Blade Runner to the current Netflix show Altered Carbon, cyberpunk represents the postmodern world in horrifying detail. Technology has not enhanced human lives for the better, poverty runs wild, and philosophical and theological concepts are abandoned. Here, society has broken down while technology thrives. Themes such as capitalism are explored as well- to the point where it’s believed by many that cyberpunk is an attack on capitalism. Whether that’s true is another debate entire. What seems to be a point that we can all agree on is that cyberpunk represents our modern anxieties and fears, in a world where the future is unclear and uncertain.
How is this fit into the punk ideal of resistance, if its so defeatist? Well, in many ways. By highlighting the problems in cyberpunk worlds, the texts act as a warning to the viewers. Overall, cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that is worth paying attention to.
From the gasoline-stained leather jackets of Mad Men: Fury Road to Terry Gilliam’s weird and acidy Brazil– dieselpunk is a sensation of postmodernism. retro interwar aesthetics and stark technology. As the genre flirts with optimism and grand ideas of the past- dieselpunk resists modern trends regarding art (including fashion). Dieselpunk is interesting as a subculture and a literary movement. While similar to its history-tainted cousin Steampunk, Dieselpunk reimagines the trauma of World Wars into something fascinating and spectacular.O
What is solarpunk? Well, according to TvTropes, it originally stems from a Tumblr post back in 2014. Solarpunk clashes utopian ideas of community and sustainable renewable energy, with Asian and African aesthetics. The societies depicted in Solarpunk are mostly successful, however a writer that dabs in Solarpunk will argue that humanity has obstacles to overcome, if they will ever reach a solarpunk paradise. It’s punk because it reacts to nihilism and present problems regarding poverty, global warming, population and the developing anthrosphere.
A great example of Solarpunk in cinema is “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (released: 2012) where characters resist against oppressive governments, and encourage the viewer to reflect on the environment.
The nostalgic and historical sounds of steam trains shape one of the biggest punk subgenres. Whether it flirts with the Wild West of America, or Victorian England, the possibilities and interpretations for steampunk are endless. It’s also highly imaginative and whimsical at heart- from HG Welles’ work to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, steampunk argues that the world we live in is larger and more fantastic than originally considered. Brewing a genre potion of fantasy, horror, science fiction and historical drama, steampunk compels the viewer or reader in unique and in profound ways.
I highly recommend the French film City of Lost Children (1995) for those who want greater insight into the steampunk genre.
As that sums up the main genres of punk (there are plenty I have not covered- such as seapunk or splatterpunk), I will conclude this piece by stating that punk offers a sense of resistance for the writer, and can be therapeutic for the reader. Look closer at the punk worlds, and you’ll discover how artists frame their philosophy into exciting or terrifying universes where anything is possible.