Punk sub-genres still seem like something the cool kids are doing, but I feel like a lot of people I talk to don’t understand what makes a genre “punk” as opposed to all the other ways that you can describe a genre—alternate history, science fiction, speculative fiction, urban fantasy, gaslamp fantasy, etc. So why do we keep throwing “punk” on the ends of other descriptors?
Punk movements started primarily in the 1970s as counterculture movements, growing out of the music scene. In the UK, unemployment rates were high, the economy was crap, and the youth were angry and had something to say about it. For the purposes of how punk relates to fiction, many punk genres embrace that same DIY ethic and are anti-establishment with an emphasis on individual freedom; in short, the authors are angry and have something to say about it.
So the punk element of steampunk, for example, is not that an author has thrown in anachronistic technology, thrust petticoats into a steam-powered future, or pasted gears and goggles on a top hat. The punk element is what the author has to say about social and political movements that are counterculture to the time period or to their contemporary society. In the realm of steampunk and Victorian culture it might be a story that is concerned with classism or feminism. In the same time period, but set in New York City, a story might focus on Unions or factory work. In Japan it might have something to say about isolationism or feudalism. Or set in Australia or New Zealand it might focus on the treatment of aborigines and be anti-colonialism. What topic is tackled doesn’t matter so much as the fact that a topic is tackled, and that it is a topic that aligns to problems of that time period and culture.
All punk-genres have this counterculture element in mind, so no matter if the story is alternate history and rewriting the 1940s with diselpunk, exploring the 1500s with clockpunk, or if it’s catapulting into the future and commenting on contemporary society through cyberpunk or biopunk, a punk story will have a social commentary that is counterculture to the society presented in the story.
New punk genres are popping up all the time, so now that you know the crucial element, what sort of new punking do you want to see?