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The Write Life: January 2019

While I was addressing comments on my steampunk novel, Lara Eckener was kind enough to share Victorian drop candy with me! Drop candy is made by rolling heated sugar between brass molds. As it is pressed between the molds, the sugar cools and hardens. To release the candy pieces, the rolled film is dropped, breaking the thinner film away from the candy, thus making it “drop” candy.

The candy itself is from a confectionary in Tallahassee called Lofty Pursuits. They have a magnificent YouTube channel showing their Victorian rollers in action and other videos of their hand-made candy.

The picture here is the drop candy composed around a section of the novel in which the main character watches automated robotic arms roll out and drop nectar candy. (Lofty Pursuits was absolutely the inspiration for adding this world-building moment.)

 

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Determining the Punk

In 2008 one of my friends introduced me to the term “steampunk.” I’d say that I fell in love then, except I’d apparently been a fan of this genre without having known it existed. That’s the thing about punk sub-genres, they’re still not well known and even if you know about them, there are so many—and so many new ones—that they can easily be confused by even the most knowledgeable.

With how many punk subgenres there are, figuring out in which one a story “belongs” can be a tricky thing. For me, punk genres are defined by three things:

  1. the time period and aesthetics
  2. the technology
  3. the punk social element

There are other elements that identify specific genres (steampunk is often optimistic whereas cyberpunk is often cynical), but these three earmarks are apparent in most punk subgenres, which is why I find them so helpful for classification.

I’m limiting my exploration to eight punk subgenres that are relevant either as to their popularity or for illustrating examples of identification. This is by no means a complete list of punk subgenres, and will probably be an outdated list within a year, so take this as an introductory guide to figuring out how to break down punk subgenres into their elements.

The Time Period & Aesthetics

The time period defines many of the other elements, so it is one of the most definitive indicators of a punk subgenre. Even stories set in the future or in a completely fictional universe on a different planet are inspired or influenced by these time periods. Identifying the historical influence can help narrow down the genre since there are very few overlaps in those aesthetics.

      Clockpunk 1300–1550
      Steampunk 1830–1900
      Dieselpunk 1910–1945
      Decopunk 1920–1950
      Atompunk 1945–1965
      Cyberpunk 1980–future
      Biopunk 1990–future
      Solarpunk 2000–future

For alternate histories, these dates aren’t hard starts and stops. One thing to consider is what those years have in common and if it makes sense to include a story outside of that range. For example, steampunk is largely defined by the Victorian Era, which corresponds with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). I’ve seen stories listed as steampunk (and that I recognize as being steampunk) taking place as late as 1910. But they worked as steampunk stories because they highlighted other story elements recognizable as steampunk (which I’ll get into below).

In addition to the time period, stories have to take into account cultural aesthetics. As mentioned, Victorian England has greatly influenced steampunk as a genre, but there is also steampunk based on American and non-Western settings. These stories take aesthetic notes from the locations and cultures in which they are set. While bustles and four-in-hand ties can be indicators of steampunk, so can spurs and boots and kimonos. It all depends on which time period and cultural notes are used for inspiration.

The Technology

The technology is partly dependent on the time period. Even though many punk genres have a science fiction element that pushes the technology beyond what was possible within that time period, it still has a historical (or contemporary) basis. For many punk subgenres, the technology is in the title.

      Clockpunk — clockwork technology, no engines (lots of clicking)
      Steampunk — steam technology, including trains and steam engines
      Dieselpunk — diesel-based technology, like combustion engines
      Decopunk — technologies appropriate to the time period 1920–1950
      Atompunk — nuclear technology, most especially the atom bomb
      Cyberpunk — cyber technology, internet, wired or wireless, virtual reality
      Biopunk — merging technology with biology, electronic or digital prosthetics
      Solarpunk — renewable energies, specifically solar powered

The only genre in the above list that doesn’t have a nod to the technology in the title is decopunk. The name “decopunk” refers to the aesthetics of the genre. To me, that means the aesthetics are as important to decopunk as steam is to steampunk or biotechnology is to biopunk. It also forces us to reconsider what we mean when we say “technology.” Is technology just weapons and vehicles, or does it include the ability to mass-produce clothing and furniture? Does it include the timesaving home technologies that allow people the freedom to visit a speakeasy? Does it include the ability for a detective to analyze fingerprints? The point being: there’s a lot of technology that isn’t easily summarized in one word, and decopunk is a good example of how that technology might appear in a punk subgenre.

An important note on the technologies: there is always an overlap in time periods because technology is always moving forward (and a story with strong science fiction elements may be leaning into that progress). Reality functions in much the same way. For example, the atom bomb was being developed during prime years covered by the dieselpunk time frame. In that case, to figure out if a story is dieselpunk or atompunk, the social concerns and aesthetics need to be considered. Would you classify a story set in 1938 about the construction of the atom bomb as dieselpunk or atompunk? What’s the primary technology being discussed/used?

The Social Element

The counterculture element is the core of a punk story. Social concerns and a reaction against certain culture movements are, after all, what makes a story punk. Any of the isms can be a focal social concern: racism, sexism, and classism are common topics in steampunk. Individuality is a common topic in cyberpunk. Atompunk focuses around concerns of nuclear war and nuclear energy, whereas solarpunk tends to take on environmental concerns and renewable energy. Most of the social concerns grow out of the time period that influences the genre.

Some potential (but not all) social concerns for the genres:

      Clockpunk — religious influence, exploration & trade, diversified division of labor
      Steampunk — colonialism, sexism, racism, classism, factory work/unions
      Dieselpunk — nationalism, world war, factory work/unions, women’s suffrage
      Decopunk — decadence, apathy
      Atompunk — atomic energy, nuclear war/winter, space flight, civil rights
      Cyberpunk — individuality, autonomy, humanism, transhumanism
      Biopunk — humanism, transhumanism, body modification
      Solarpunk — environmental issues, renewable energy

For genres in which the time periods overlap, the social elements are often the defining traits of the genre. Decopunk and dieselpunk cover nearly the same time period and would ultimately use the same technology, however a decopunk story will be more urban, upper class, and decadent. The social concerns will likely include a reaction against decadence and apathy. In dieselpunk, characters will interact more personally with gasping combustion engines and the thrust and grime of mechanics, expressing opinions on nationalism and world wars or the advent of the assembly line.

Some social concerns are shared across genres, so the key to identifying the genre may lie in identifying how that social concern is being addressed. A transhumanism issue in cyberpunk is likely to include how the mind connects with a computer or virtual reality, whereas in biopunk the concern is grounded in modifying a physical body and exploring the question of what defines a body as “human.” Identifying the genre by the social element requires depth of knowledge about the genres and the subject of the story.

A Grain of Salt

While these are earmarks I find particularly helpful for identifying genres, there is a caveat here in that genre definitions can change as genres age and become defined by the works rather than the works being defined by the genre. Early steampunk work and some recently marketed novels don’t gel with the definitions I outlined above, so in general I recommend keeping your definition in mind for your own work and for your bookshelf, but not fussing too much if someone’s classification doesn’t entirely align with your own. Genres are used primarily for marketing, which means whenever a genre is hot, the definition for what fits in that genre widens considerably.

The Not-So-Lonely Path: Sci-fi in the MFA

When I decided to get an MFA, I knew that writing genre could be a challenge. As an undergrad I was discouraged from writing science fiction, enough so that I took more nonfiction workshops than fiction and didn’t write for a year following graduation. (My realistic contemporary fiction was uninspired, but I wasn’t “supposed” to write science fiction—mentally rectifying that disconnect took some time.) I didn’t want a repeat of that experience, but also in the eleven years between my degrees I had learned a lot about fighting for myself.

After I was accepted to the MFA program—following an application that was basically plastered in warnings that I would be writing science fiction—I still thought I might have a battle. After all, even I, future science fiction writer, had left my undergraduate days brainwashed that science fiction didn’t belong in an MFA program. Even if the faculty accepted me, I could still face challenges from the students.

In my first workshop, I was surprised by the overwhelming support I received. There were a handful of dismissive critiques, but the majority of my classmates treated me like a peer and not like I was an inferior sci-fi writer. One memorable critique recommended that I not be “constrained by the genre” while another student restrained his urge to critique my story using the rigorous standards he would apply to literary fiction (that is a paraphrase, but is fairly close to the actual quote that appeared in his critique). These were the comments I had prepared for and the attitude I thought I’d have to fight. I had thought I would have to demand to be taken seriously, to argue that I was in the MFA program to make myself a better writer—which meant developing the craft of writing as it applied to characterization, description, narrative, world building, and plot. “Literary” is a just word that defines the quality of the writing, not the content, I would argue. It applies to work by Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Nnendi Okorafor, just the same as it does to David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and Donna Tartt. I was ready for this fight!

But it never came. The handful of dismissive and confused critiques in my first workshop were the main confrontation. My classmates were curious and supportive. At a party, a student pulled me aside and quizzed me for an hour about steampunk and alternate history, just because he’d never heard of it before. Basically, my MFA classmates blew away my expectations and set a tone of acceptance not only for me, but for other students who wanted to try their hand at workshopping science fiction and fantasy.

I knew I wanted to approach the MFA on my own terms, and that I would have to work to get what I needed from it. I am lucky that the professors not only welcomed me into the program, but encouraged me to forge my own path. I still read a lot of realistic contemporary fiction for class assignments, but if I was willing to put in extra work, they were willing to let me write papers exploring point of view from robot narrators and examine the differences in structure between Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature. I always say “you get out what you put in,” and that was very much the case for me in the MFA program.

Before the MFA, I was concerned that the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction was too great. I felt like only my echo chamber understood the overlap, but the students and faculty in my program helped me see that we’ve come a long way and that when it comes to accepting science fiction as literature, I am not alone.

Punking a Genre

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?