An Introduction to Punk Genres in Speculative Fiction

In the broadest sense, the punk subculture is defined by anti-authoritarianism, anti-“big corporate,” and personal freedom. In the literary world, these themes are most often seen in the speculative (namely, sci-fi) genre, where current-day anxieties and issues can be examined in a fantastical way. Many of these genres have been co-opted in visual mediums because of their aesthetic value. But in “cool” media such as literature, the commentary is front and center.

1. Cyberpunk

The genre currently on everyone’s minds, their worlds are full of cutting-edge technology, yet the lower classes still struggle. High-rise tenement buildings are surrounded by bright neon. Many early sci-fi stories focused on utopias and limitless possibilities, but the gritty themes of cyberpunk bring that crashing back to reality. Compare The Jetsons to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Seminal works in the genre include Neuromancer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Snow Crash, and Accelerando.

2. Biopunk

In the same vein as cyberpunk, biopunk speculates on grim futures caused by the research and mass adoption in technology, specifically biotechnology. Human experimentation, genetic engineering, and governments that directly control the DNA or bodies of the populace are common subjects.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is an early example, unique because it features what we could consider bioengineering via vivisection. It was published when medicine was still primitive, 30 years before the discovery of penicillin. Oryx and Crake and The Windup Girl are more modern works that focus on the modern possibilities of technology.

3. Steampunk

Many people are familiar with the name, as “gears randomly slapped onto a tophat” is a striking image. This retrofuturistic (i.e. what people of the past thought the future would be) genre has a large fanbase of people who enjoy it for aesthetic reasons.

The Difference Engine, about a steam-powered mechanical computer, is one of the early famous works of the genre. Mortal Engines features entire steampunk cities that crawl around a planet decimated by war, while the Leviathan sets the stage for World War I, with the diesel-powered Clankers and their metal machines facing off against the British Darwinists and their engineered animals, including an airship built around a hydrogen cell-filled whale.

4. Atompunk

The Atomic Age has influenced modern Western storytelling in ways that we don’t even realize. How many famous characters have gained their powers from radioactive goo? How often has the looming threat of the Russians drove the government to take radical action? Atompunk encompasses the atomic age, the birth of the space race, and unique architecture and aesthetics.

Some of my favorites include Watchmen, The Iron Giant and all the incarnations of Godzilla. For a less-fictionalized version, anything related to the Chernobyl disaster is an excellent pick.

5. Stonepunk

The first technologies were the stone tools made by the earliest hominids. Despite the simplicity of the materials, the education and skill needed to craft Clovis points or the decorations found on the body of Ötzi show they had a deeper understanding of material science, physics, and biology than we give them credit for. But as none of their stories have made it to the present day, all fictional accounts end up having anachronistic elements. Clan of the Cave Bear was written to be as accurate as possible, but has the main character being the first to both domesticate a dog and a horse.

Many stonepunk works feature characters who end up in a situation that requires them to adopt stone age technology. Dr. Stone is an ongoing manga series where a teenage prospective rocket scientist finds himself in the far future after a global disaster resets the world back to the stone age.

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