Say a word often enough, and it starts to lose its meaning. Let me demonstrate.
Cyberpunk. Steampunk. Clockpunk. Cavepunk. Farmpunk. Dieselpunk. Fairypunk.1
Kinda like that. Seems to me that there are a whole bunch of people out there slapping the word ‘punk’ on any bloody book they can, and the net effect is that the word itself has lost all of its original meaning.
So what’s that meaning? To answer that properly, I think it’s necessary to go back to original use of the word in modern culture — in music.
Punk2 wanted to change the world. It wanted to undermine the prime institutions of authority. For some punk musicians, this message made for run-ins with all sorts of enforcement arms of said authority: the KGB, the CIA, the IRA, MI6, Margaret Thatcher, or whoever. The lyrics, music and imagery were often about the Establishment — ‘big picture’ politics — but the effect on people was personal; a howling cry against inequality and injustice. Punk was about small people making a difference against or at least breaking free from everything Big; about the autonomy of the individual human soul.
The cyberpunk movement in Sci-fi held onto this ideal in a lot of important ways. Someone who wants to change the world? Check. Undermine the prime institutions of authority? Check. Clashes with authority as a result of these desires and actions? Check. Focus ends up on the effect on people? Check. Small people making a difference against or at least breaking free from everything Big? Check. Autonomy of the human soul? Double-plus check.
Where did the ‘cyber’ part come in? Easy: the tech was the element that enabled the little guy to affect the bigger guy. It levels the playing field — makes the whole personal uprising possible. Yes, sometimes you’d get something ostensibly in that genre that was more about the imaginary-tech-porn, but the good stuff? The stuff we still talk about? That was about the people.3
Steampunk? When I look at the stories with that label (except for a very few early claimants) I see ‘steam’. I don’t see punk. The emphasis is on the trappings of the setting; not class struggle, social revolution, or protagonists who are at odds with authority but who lack social power or influence without the leveling effect of the tech.
Good stories? Sure.
But don’t pretend it should be called punk.
In fact, let’s just not use that word without some kind of intent toward accuracy, because right now, it pretty much gets slapped on any story that can’t dodge fast enough — I heard someone refer to The City & The City as steampunk, which tells me that there was absolutely no thought at all going into assigning that label, as that story (first) contains no trappings of a steam setting and (second) may be the very pinnacle of a punk anti-anthem: a two hundred ninety page love-letter to sticking with the establishment and maintaining the status quo.
Punk? Right now, it’s just this thing you tape to the end of another word to make it sound cooler; shorthand for “hip/weird contemporary fantasy”, when that’s actually a pretty good description already.
Faeriepunk? Farmpunk? Dieselpunk? Stop saying that. You just sound silly.
You’re not punk,4 but honestly? That’s okay.
1 — Of those ‘punk’ words I listed, only cyberpunk didn’t end up with a little red squiggly line under it. The spellchecker knows.
2 — Or what we now imagine punk to have been, the same way we imagine the Wild West a certain way
3 — Of course it was. How could it really be otherwise?
4 — And if you find one that is, let me know in the comments.