What is Punk Fiction?

What is Punk Fiction?

Punk fiction is not graffiti sprawled across walls and rail cars by gangs of underemployed, disgruntled youth wearing hoodies. It is a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that has many sub-sub-genres like Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Atompunk, Cyberpunk, Teslapunk, Petrolpunk, Biopunk, Elfpunk, Magicpunk, and more. By now, you might be thinking… this is too much of a ‘Punk-of-the-Month’ PunkClub kind of fad to be treated seriously. But you would be wrong. Very wrong.

Now, my opinion is just my own and I’m going to link you to other viewpoints as best as I can. So if you see a change in font color in this post, and in the others that follow, don’t be afraid to click on it and see where it takes you.

The punk fiction genres have been growing in popularity in terms of authorship and readership since the term steampunk was coined in 1987, the anecdotal birth year of the steampunk genre movement in fiction. But the term ‘punk’ goes far beyond just relating to books or graphic novels. Punk is also a popular sub-culture and has many other creative and social dimensions.

As a dieselpunk author, I’m often asked by readers… ‘what is punk fiction?’. Somehow I need to do more than just reply… ‘Try it, you’ll like it’ or… ‘If you like science fiction, fantasy or alternative history you’ll probably like whatever-punk’. Those answers seem like such a cop-out. I owe it to my colleagues to do much better than that if I profess to be one of the many ambassadors for this genre.

So, let’s get this conversation started by putting a simple definition on the table. Let’s see what ‘officialdom’ defines as ‘steampunk’. We’ll revisit steampunk culture in more detail in later posts. I want to start with a few standard dictionary definitions of steampunk because this, I believe, is where the misunderstandings lay:

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary:
Steampunk, noun – science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.
steam + cyberpunk… First Known Use: 1987

To this, Dictionary.com adds:
A subculture inspired by this literary and film subgenre: the fashion and gadgets of steampunk

Okay, fine. Great. For those who know steampunk on a more personal basis, this definition just won’t do. No siree, Bob. Au contraire, Michelle. Nicht, nada, kaput, Hans. This definition is so wrong and so very simplistic on so many levels. It implies that the steampunk movement is solely associated with works of fiction, as if the whole cultural milieu that now defines the movement doesn’t exist. If this definition is true then trying to define something like ‘steampunk art’ would create a definition like: noun, a variety of paperbacks stuck on poster boards with crazy glue, and hung in a frame on a wall. Oh boy. Wrong. And going frameless doesn’t fix it either.

Now, before we disparage the kind folks that run free on-line dictionaries and smartphone apps, we must concede their profession is highly demanding and their scholarship is admirable. They must be explicitly precise and economically measured in the types of words they use to avoid the crimes of politicizing definitions or bending to the winds of popular opinion and pop culture, or heaven forbid, slang. However… all that being said… the above definitions of steampunk would fit into what I think would be the following mold:

Cat: noun, a furry animal, like a small tiger (see tiger)
Tiger: noun, a bigger version of a cat, with black and orange stripes (see cat)

Okay visitors from another planet, did you get that? A cat is a small tiger and a tiger is a big cat. Clear? There will be a test.

So what elements are these standard definitions missing? There are two things I think: (1) punk culture’s roots in retro-futurism, and (2) the inclusion in these definitions of the required terms to convey their respective ‘punk aesthetic’.

Let’s deal with retro-futurism. What is retro-futurism? Okay, let’s go back to the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary to see what it says… and drum roll…
Retro-futurism: The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again using the search bar above.

Uh, say what? Can you believe it? It didn’t have a definition at all!

Oh that’s so cool… do you mean I invented this word? Let it be known, that from this day forward, I, Charles A Cornell, invented the word retro-futurism! Uh, well, sadly, no. So where next? I guess we have to start making sh#t up. That’s fine. I’m an author. I do that kind of thing for a pseudo-living. Please, let’s all keep calm and carry on. This trial will pass.

I plodded on through cyberspace and searched for more wisdom. Finally, through the magic of Google, I got this from Oxford Dictionaries.com
Retro-futurism: The use of a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era.

Now we’re getting somewhere! The key terms here are ‘style’ and ‘futuristic in an earlier era’.

So here’s my own proposal on how this simplistic definition could be restated, packed with a little more oomph (us diesel-types like a bit of torque in our soup):

An expression of creativity that either (1) projects the future as those in a past time period might have seen it or (2) is set in a future world that conveys the vibe of a bygone era.

Key words here are ‘expression’ and ‘creativity’ because this no longer confines us to just fiction or literature in defining whatever-punk but can be inclusive of art and design, fashion and costume, sculpture and craftwork, gaming software, photography, manners of speech, styles of writing, social discourse… or who knows how many forms of ‘expressions of creativity’ might fit into ‘retro-futurism’?

To me this definition of retro-futurism makes it easier to then define what a ‘whatever-punk aesthetic’ might consist of. So take ‘whatever-punk’ you like… steam-, diesel-, atom-, cyber-, tesla-, petrol-, etc and plug it into this equation:

The retro-futuristic themes and aesthetics reflecting the politics, society, culture and technology from the whatever-time period, expressed in creative form in order to project to others the future as those in this past era might have seen it, or to convey to others how this era’s vibe would look like in a future imaginary world.

There are so, so many blogs out there that are focused on steampunk. I’ll try to point out a few that I believe reflect the steampunk aesthetic for those that are new to steampunk. We will explore dieselpunk at greater depth in further posts as this is my primary interest and I’ll share as many other definitions of dieselpunk as I can find from other diesel ambassadors (like those here of Bard Constantine and Lindsay Kitson). But before I let you go, I want to leave you with my own personal definition of dieselpunk using the equation above. See if it strikes a chord with you:

Charles A Cornell’s Definition of Dieselpunk:
The retro-futuristic themes and aesthetics reflecting the politics, society, culture and technology from the 1920s to 1940s, expressed in creative form in order to project to others the future as those in this past era might have seen it, or to convey to others how this era’s vibe would look like in a future imaginary world.

So how did I do? I really want to know what you think.

Future Posts: The Punk Timeline; Building a Punk Fiction World (one retro-future at a time); and more stuff on whatever-punk topics I think I can add value to.

Thanks for spending time with me,

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Post by Charles A Cornell

As an author, my overactive imagination fills my mind with three dimensional puzzles of stacked what-if questions that cry out for answers. You can find me fueling my creativity amidst the chaos of a very busy life in my writer’s den where I dream up whimsical adventures that range from the satirical to the macabre which I then blog about on CharlesACornell.com

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