The Origins Of Punk Literature: Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, Biopunk and more

“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term . . . like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps.”

K.W. Jeter, 1987

In the previous volume of Shakespeare Goes Punk, I attempted to give a loose definition of punk literature, and what differentiates it from mainstream science fiction and fantasy. I started out as a steampunk author, and still attend a lot of local steampunk events. When I attend conventions and speak to people who are relatively new to these various subgenres of science fiction, the question that usually follows “What is steampunk?” is “How long has steampunk been around?” or something similar.

The roots of steampunk date to the science fiction of the 1800s: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and others. They were just writing science fiction true to their times, but the subgenre still uses many of the ideas they set into motion.

A number of works in the 1960s took their inspirations from Wells, Verne, and other science fiction of the 1800s. Disney – and a few others – borrowed visual cues not from the actual look of the Victorian era, but from the sepia-tone photographs of that time. The television show The Wild Wild West and Disney’s adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea both have the look and feel of steampunk works. Meanwhile in literature, books like Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium and Ronald Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb were being written. Some people would consider these works to be steampunk, but they didn’t self-identify as any kind of subgenre of literature.

For the first of the punk genres to self-identify as a subgenre of science fiction and a literary movement in its own right, we need to get to the mid-1970s and cyberpunk.

John Brunner, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson, and Philip K. Dick are among the earliest cyberpunk authors. Cyberpunk differed from a lot of the science fiction of the era and before by emphasizing atmosphere over everything. A lot of the work, in particular, was a response to the utopian science fiction of the times, which featured space travel and technology that improved the life of the common man. In contrast, while the technology was often no less impressive, cyberpunk took place in dystopian settings, and tended to focus on crowded urban environments instead of far-flung, exotic worlds. A common motif of cyberpunk was the low-life versus the corrupt elite – often in the form of corporate entities. The works of George Orwell, hard-boiled detective fiction, and film noir are often cited as influences by the listed authors.

Bruce Bethke coined the term in 1980 for his aptly named short story, “Cyberpunk,” but the term was quickly taken for use in describing the works of Gibson, Dick, and others. Bruce Sterling, in particular, championed the movement in his fanzine Cheap Truth. By the time Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was adapted into the movie Blade Runner in 1982, and William Gibson won most of science fiction’s biggest awards with 1984’s Neuromancer, cyberpunk was a fully recognized subgenre of science fiction, with its own tropes, proponents, and critics.

Steampunk is the second “punk” genre to self-identify as such, and it emerged from the writings of three authors who cited Philip K. Dick as a particular influence. While many of the early works later adopted into the genre were written in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the first group to identify what they were writing as similar, non-mainstream, and a literary movement in its own right, were K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock. Jeter’s Morlock Night (1979), Blaylock’s Narbondo series, and Powers’ The Anubis Gates all echoed similar themes, and were published around the same time, leading to comparisons between the three, and eventually leading to Jeter coining steampunk as the collective term for a derivative of cyberpunk in a letter to Locus magazine.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, again, had a major hand in giving the subgenre an identity with their novel The Difference Engine. Published in 1990, the book didn’t just tell its story, but set out to build a world and explain its aesthetic. Moving from a successful use of Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1824, the world of the novel’s Victorian era had changed drastically, adopting a lot of the visual cues we now associate with steampunk.

Eventually, the term “punk” was added for numerous technologies that helped define particular eras. None have been as successful as cyberpunk and steampunk, but a number have become accepted. Dieselpunk has been regularly applied to works that mostly center around World Wars-era technologies, with their own noir style applied to the look, and plenty of era mad science included.

Teslapunk imagines the electrical era of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, with their inventions, and those of similar innovators, writ-large upon the world.

Biopunk looks to the future, but instead of the cybernetics and internet advances of cyberpunk, derives its defining look and feel from unintended consequences of bioengineering. Nanopunk is an overlapping subgenre which examines the impact upon society of using nanobots in the human body – whether for good or ill.

Outside of technology, some derivatives using the name “punk” use other elements as their defining characteristic, from which they draw the defining style that shifts them from works of typical adventure science fiction or fantasy, and deems them punk. Splatterpunk is one such appropriation of the punk title, being applied to horror films that take a great deal of license in the name of style, or have horror tropes as defining background elements of their world. Elfpunk is another, drawing fantasy creatures into the modern world, and pitting them against very modern threats.

Not everyone agrees on all of these variants, and only time will tell which will become literary movements of their own, and which may fade. But for the time being, with the explosion of steampunk culture in the early 2000s, there’s no shortage of authors, filmmakers, crafters, cosplayers and so on making their mark on the world of “punk” today.

Jeffrey Cook