Who Are You Calling a Punk?
by James Patrick Kelly
He grinned and rumpled his thick curly hair. He speared his chest with a forefinger. “You’re looking right at a small time operator in a small time business, Marlowe. All writers are punks and I am one of the punkest.”
The Long Goodbye
Once upon a time the word punk meant something very different from our current usage here in the realms of the fantastic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it originally referred to a prostitute. The first citation, from 1575, quotes the lyric from an entry in a volume of Loose & Humorous Songs: “Soe fellowes, if you be drunke, of ffrailtye itt is a sinne, as itt is to keepe a puncke.” By 1698 punk might also have referred to a “boy or young man kept by an older man, a catamite.” These sexual definitions have faded over the centuries; by the late 1900s, a new meaning of punk emerged, one closer to Chandler’s usage in the quote above. To our grandparents, a punk was a worthless or contemptible person, sometime young, sometimes a criminal, almost always a man. When Chandler’s Roger Wade, an alcoholic, self-pitying novelist suffering from writer’s block, confesses his “punkness” to gumshoe Philip Marlowe, he is comparing himself to the lowest of the low, talking about failure and moral collapse.
However, in the early seventies there came a cultural moment when rock critics retrospectively borrowed the term punk from crime fiction’s mean streets to talk about sixties garage rock https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_garage_rock_bands and especially protopunk bands like The Stooges www.allmusic.com/artist/the-stooges-mn0000562304/biography and the Velvet Underground www.velvetundergroundmusic.com, to name just two. Their heirs in the first wave of punk rock became critical darlings in the 1970s, groups like Television www.pitchfork.com/thepitch/1438-televisions-punk-epic-marquee-moon-40-years-later, Patti Smith www.pattismith.net/intro.html, the Ramones www.ramones.com, the Sex Pistols www.rockhall.com/inductees/sex-pistols, and The Clash www.theclash.com. These and other punks made fierce music in reaction to what they perceived as the vacuity and self-indulgence of many established bands. They had no use for over-produced and over-extended songs and asserted the artistic bankruptcy of radio-friendly genres like heavy metal, disco, and progressive rock. Punk songs were often short, fast, and nasty. They featured stripped-down and sometimes crude instrumentation and lyrics that tended to be political, certainly anti-establishment. The punks embraced their status as outsiders in the industry with a DIY ethic. Many bands self-produced their recordings and distributed them through independent record labels while reaching their fans through amateur ’zines. As the music drew more and more young and disaffected fans and rebellious artists, punk rock spawned a culture all its own.
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Did Seventies punk rock influence SF’s cyberpunk, which began to gather momentum in the early Eighties? Hell, yeah. As Bruce Sterling https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Sterling wrote in the introduction to Mirrorshades www.goodreads.com/book/show/302702.Mirrorshades, the first cyberpunk anthology “. . . like the punks of ’77, they [the cyberpunks] prize their garage band esthetic. . . . Some critics opine that cyberpunk is disentangling SF from mainstream influence, much as punk stripped rock and roll of the symphonic elegances of seventies’ progressive rock. . . . Like punk music, cyberpunk is in some sense a return to roots.” Credit for the use of the term cyberpunk goes to Bruce Bethke www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/cpunk.htm, although the label was first applied to the core of writers we now think of as cyberpunks by our own Gardner Dozois www.sfwa.org/2018/05/in-memoriam-gardner-dozois/ in a 1984 article for the Washington Post. It is an irony of literary history that none of this original group was exactly comfortable with the term cyberpunk. As the neologism gained general currency, they tended to distance themselves from what some called “the c-word.”
The history and meaning of that first cyberpunk moment has been argued by writers and fans for decades—among them your columnist. While I was certainly an outlier, “Solstice,” a story I published right here in Asimov’s, was included in Mirrorshades. As a sometime participant and engaged onlooker, I have my own version of what took place, which you can read here www.nyrsf.com/2013/07/who-owns-cyberpunk-by-james-patrick-kelly.html if you’re interested, although others saw things differently. But what always bugged me about the term was that suffix -punk. Hardly any of the writers in Mirrorshades were any kind of punk that a punk rocker would have recognized. So in what sense was the suffix accurate? Well, the cyberpunks were certainly anti-establishment, if by establishment we mean SF’s predominant culture. Like their rock counterparts, they thought that the genre had lost its way. Early cyberpunk explored outlaw tech deployed by streetwise characters; these were easily recognizable stories that were thin on the ground at the time. The cyberpunk critique was that the SF mainstream wasn’t paying enough attention to the coming revolutions in computers and biotech and that many of their futures were too often focused on the privileged white middle class. The cyberpunks saw not only their characters, but themselves as rebellious, even transgressive. However, unlike the punk rockers who tried to squirm free of the music industry, cyberpunks fell deep into the embrace of capitalist publishing. Like punk rockers, they reached out to their fans in ’zines, notoriously Cheap Truth http://fanac.org/fanzines/Cheap_Truth/index.html?, a series of clever screeds crudely published for extra street cred. And like punk rock, cyberpunk found a larger audience that had a keen interest not only in the art, but in the lifestyle it depicted.
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Steam et. al.
By the end of the eighties there were those who were eager to proclaim the death of cyberpunk. But if it was indeed over, there was another day coming for -punk. For example, when my Mirrorshades comrade and current ’Mov’s reviewer Paul Di Filippo http://paul-di-filippo.com attempted to move beyond -punk by calling his movement ribofunk www.streettech.com/bcp/BCPtext/Manifestos/Ribofunk.html, he soon became a victim of suffix-mania, and was cited as an exemplar of the new biopunk https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biopunk.
Meanwhile there were stirrings in another precinct of our genre. The -punk suffix forsook its sf future and relocated to the Victorian era. In a letter printed in Locus www.locusmag.com in 1987, K.W. Jeter www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/jeter_k_w, himself an accomplished cyberpunk, proposed the term steampunk www.steampunk.fandom.com/wiki/Steampunk_Wiki to refer to the works of his fellow retrofuturists James P. Blaylock www.sybertooth.com/blaylock and Tim Powers www.theworksoftimpowers.com. For better or possibly for worse, Jeter’s coinage stuck.
For the next decade the new subgenre explored alternate histories of the nineteenth century in which anachronistic steam-powered technologies—computers and robotics and air travel—were extrapolated. It started as a literary movement, or perhaps a moment, insofar as the first steampunks were not necessarily conspiring to shake things up like the cyberpunks had. Rather, the steampunk label was often applied to writers who might have been surprised to find themselves in each other’s company! For example, this list of the 23 Best Steampunk Books www.best-sci-fi-books.com/23-best-steampunk-books rounds up such disparate authors as Thomas Pynchon www.thomaspynchon.com, Cherie Priest www.cheriepriest.com, Jules Verne www.unmuseum.org/verne.htm, Phillip Pullman www.philip-pullman.com, and Mary Shelley www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-wollstonecraft-shelley.
While steampunk may have been less ideological than cyberpunk, it certainly has a better sense of humor, as you can see in The History of Steampunk in Photos www.thevintagenews.com/2019/02/04/steampunk/. And steampunk quickly and spectacularly moved on from its literary origins into a cultural movement. For example, the fashions, oh, those fashions www.buzzfeed.com/steampunk/the-6-rules-of-steampunk-fashion-3n9d. It was a paradise of goggles and top hats, corsets and leggings. And because there were no steampunk stores in 1990, DIY was baked into the new subculture.
The many publishing triumphs of steampunk in the nineties gave the suffix -punk a new life as successor sub-sub-genres were proposed. Perhaps best known was Dieselpunk www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/dieselpunk-steampunk-beginners-guide, which booted the alternativity and retrofuturism ahead from the age of Victoria into the twentieth century, and especially the years between the World Wars. Think films The Rocketeer www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi0Et31E7s4 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY3ypQD6p2s. Then there was Stonepunk www.wired.com/2007/03/make-way-for-pl, modernity mashed up with the Neolithic—think Flintstones www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL7beNWNLEQ — and Sandalpunk www.allthetropes.fandom.com/wiki/Sandal_Punk, which fast-tracked the technologies of Ancient Greece and/or Rome. Clockpunk www.allthetropes.fandom.com/wiki/Clock_Punk Steelpunk posited that technologies based on springs and clockwork could have produced robots and other mechanical marvels at pretty much any time in history.
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And -punk was just getting started in the wake of steampunk and its derivatives. Some of my fantasy pals wanted their own punk action, and so there was mythpunk www.theodoragoss.com/2011/02/01/mythpunk, witchpunk www.modernmythology.net/witchpunk-the-sub-genre-we-need-f7481f868e36?gi=6edac41ae49a, and elfpunk www.ageofsteam.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/what-is-elfpunk, to name just three.
It’s not surprising that there has been -punk pushback. Check out Punkpunk: A Compendium of Literary Punk Genres www.litreactor.com/columns/punkpunk-a-compendium-of-literary-punk-genres, which ranks the various subgenres as “Established,” “Semi-Established,” “Questionable,” and “Ridiculous” (cf. Lobsterpunk and Mannerspunk).
The meaning of -punk has changed so drastically over the last four decades that its usefulness is questionable, especially now that it’s perilously close to cliché. So what is it good for? In my opinion its primary use is to identify a new or proposed sub-genre of fantastic literature. To some extent, its use may imply that a writer’s -punk fiction stands in contrast to or in dialogue with the dominant literary conversation. However, some -punk practitioners may dip deep into literary history to cite canonical works as founding documents and claim membership in a movement across decades because they are returning to roots and correcting excesses.
For myself, I wouldn’t mind seeing -punk retired from critical discourse; its baggage makes me skeptical whenever I see it. However, there is a kind of -punk that I do intend to draw attention to, in part because it harks back to the glory days of cyberpunk, and in part because it may be the most important kind of science fiction being written today.
Next time, let’s take a tour of solar punk www.rewire.org/our-future/learn-solarpunk-movement, shall we?
Copyright © 2020 James Patrick Kelly