One of my favorite writing resources, Mythic Scribes, recently published a great post exploring the world of -Punk subgenres: think Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk. The post, by Cathy, the Overprepared GM, PsychoJuliet, Jaren J. Petty, and Cryssalia Noire, was presented by Worldbuilding Magazine. The complete post is pretty detailed (I suggest you read it at your leisure) but here are the main genres mentioned:
Perhaps the most famous of these -punks is the cyberpunk school of the eighties and nineties. Bruce Bethke coined the word cyberpunk in a story of the same name back in 1982. Cyber- stemmed from the words “cybernetics,” the science of replacing human functions with computerized ones, and -punk came from the musical genre and referred to a group of aggressive young people who eschewed convention.
A subgenre of sci-fi, cyberpunk takes place in near-future settings that tend to focus on a “combination of lowlife and high tech.” It juxtaposes advanced technological and scientific achievements (such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics) with some degrees of breakdown or radical change in the social order. Cyberpunk can also serve as an umbrella term for dystopian stories that depict dreary futures where information technology enforces governmental control and individuals receive mechanical or electronic augments.
Much of cyberpunk is rooted in the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Writers like Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, Philip José Farmer, and Harlan Ellison examined the impact of drug culture, technology, and the sexual revolution while avoiding the utopian tendencies of earlier sci-fi. Released in 1984, William Gibson’s influential debut novel Neuromancer solidified cyberpunk as a genre by drawing influence from punk and early hacker culture. Other influential cyberpunk writers included Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. The Japanese cyberpunk subgenre began in 1982 with the debut of Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series Akira with its 1988 anime film adaptation popularizing the subgenre.
Cyberpunk plots often center on conflict among artificial intelligences, hackers, and megacorporations. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias that feature extraordinary cultural ferment and usage of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors. Much of the genre’s atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.
Several subcultures have been inspired by cyberpunk fiction, including the cyberdelic counterculture of the late 1980s and early 90s. Cyberdelic, whose adherents referred to themselves as “cyberpunks,” attempted to blend psychedelic art and drug movement with the technology of cyberculture. Early adherents included Timothy Leary, Mark Frauenfelder, and R. U. Sirius. The movement largely faded following the dot-com bubble implosion of 2000.
Deriving from cyberpunk, biopunk focuses on the bleak near-future consequences of scientific and technological advancement. Unlike cyberpunk, it builds on synthetic biology (an interdisciplinary field of research that features concepts from biotechnology and genetic engineering, among others) instead of information technology, and individuals are usually modified and enhanced by genetic manipulation rather than cyberware.
Biopunk generally examines the ethical pitfalls of synthetic biology, which can involve conflict with bio-hackers, biotech mega-corporations, and oppressive government agencies that manipulate human DNA. Its stories explore the struggles of individuals or groups, who are often the product of human experimentation, in a typically dystopian backdrop where totalitarian governments and megacorporations misuse biotechnologies for social control and profiteering.
A common feature of biopunk fiction is the “black clinic,” which is a laboratory, clinic, or hospital that performs illegal, unregulated, and/or ethically-dubious biological modification and genetic engineering procedures.
The origins of steampunk appear to go as far back as the scientific romances of authors like Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and even the historical accomplishments of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Midway through the 20th century, the genre was unintentionally born out of the literary works of Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock between the 60s and 70s. By 1985, the genre had even seen its aesthetics brought to life on the silver screen in the British-American cult film, Brazil. Though steampunk shares many similar -punk themes with its slightly older cousin, cyberpunk, the now-common term was not coined on purpose. The term came from an off-the-cuff statement by author K. W. Jeter who had written to the sci-fi magazine Locus:
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 for [Tim] Powers, [James] Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like “steam-punks,” perhaps.
Central to steampunk’s aesthetic is the bleak, Dickensian retro-futurism visible in such eccentric creations as airships, automatons, and mechanical/clockwork prosthetics. The fashion meshes with the era of rich tailcoats, top-hats, corsets, petticoats, and parasols. Contrasting the excess of the higher class, blue-collar workers wear overalls, aprons, rags, gas-masks, and even—as it seems necessary to mention—goggles. Factories stretch into the skies, belching acrid clouds of smoke. Homes and places of business are cobbled together from bricks, lit from within by gas-lamps, candles, or early electrical lamps. In some cases, steampunk even looks to the American West and attaches its Victorian fashion to the revolvers and spurs of ranchers, rangers, and ruffians alike.
First coined in 2001 by Lewis Pollak to market his role-playing game Children of the Sun, dieselpunk evolved from a steampunk offshoot into its own distinct subgenre. It is rooted in the period from 1920 to 1950 rather than the Victorian era, drawing literary influences from action-filled pulp and gritty noir. Dieselpunk diverges more strongly from the other -punks in its thematic influences. It can veer between the decadent hedonism of the Jazz Age to the earnest patriotism of the WWII era and the existential dread of modernism, but it often ignores the politics of disenfranchisement that underlie so many of the other -punks.
The aesthetic mixes the streamlined shapes of art deco, the bright brass of the big band era, and the experimental bent of the modernist movements. It’s a style composed of chrome and steel, glass-pierced skyscrapers, oversized vehicles, and the oily grit that accompanies modern machinery. It has pin-up girls and fedoras, zoot suits and flapper dresses, cigarettes and gasoline, Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam Wants You. Technologically, the genre’s hallmark depends on combustion engines (particularly the eponymous diesel engines), radio, and guns.
Although the term dieselpunk has not broken into mainstream consciousness, big-budget Hollywood movies like Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, and Captain America: The First Avenger have established its aesthetic. Because of them, most people can recognize dieselpunk as a cohesive genre, even if they don’t know its name.
Atompunk, a close cousin and immediate offshoot of dieselpunk, draws inspiration from the post-war Atomic and Space Ages. Some use the end of WWII in 1945 as the dividing line between the two genres, although others consider the advent of television in the 1950s to be the transition. Although atompunk shares some of the same art deco/streamline moderne aesthetic with dieselpunk (its slightly better-known cousin), it generally has a brighter, more futuristic feel, with Googie architecture, Sputnik vibes, and cigar shapes. As TV Tropes puts it, “Everything is slick and streamlined, with geometric shapes and clean parallel lines constructed of shiny metal and glass, lit prominently by neon. Sweeping curves, parabolas, and acute angles are used to suggest movement—movement into The Future…. all decorated with little blinking lights that don’t really serve any purpose (but they sure look futuristic!).”
Electronics and atomic power dominate the retrofuturist technology of atompunk—spaceships, radioactivity, scientific laboratories, rayguns, aliens, cathode ray computers, televisions, and jetpacks. It’s sometimes optimistic about the power of science and the march of technology in a way that most -punk genres never quite capture. With the early Cold War as its cultural backdrop, some atompunk works lean into the espionage and space race side of the genre. Most atompunk stories ignore the patriotic and military fashions widespread in dieselpunk. If dieselpunk is exemplified by Indiana Jones and action pulp, atompunk is exemplified by Fallout and 50’s to early 60s sci-fi and Silver Age comics.
Solarpunk is defined by its often optimistic outlook on the future. It has a few distinct aspects that separate it from the rest of the punk worlds which include a focus on community, equality, craftsmanship, and environmentally friendly technology using renewable resources. Solarpunk tends to have a high level of cultural awareness, gender equality, self-expression, and artfulness. It combines facets of biopunk, cyberpunk, and skypunk to create a lighter outlook. Solarpunk may have come to being out of a reaction to nihilism in cyberpunk.
Solarpunk has its cultural roots in both African and Asian cultures. This may be a byproduct of the Victorian/Edwardian era fascination with the “exotic” that accompanies the Art Nouveau veneer attached to the genre. This influence appears mostly in the artwork of missolivialouise who can be considered one of the potential originators of solarpunk when she pushed the idea to the public on Tumblr in 2014. Even though solarpunk is usually characterized by a positive outlook, it can be utopic or optimistic. More importantly, it can provide social commentary by focusing on the struggles of the real world and looking for solutions to those struggles. The majority of solarpunk worlds focus on a free, egalitarian world where no one is better than anyone else and everyone has equal opportunities. Solarpunk worlds look to a brighter future by deliberately undermining the systems that keep it from getting to its ideal state.
Solarpunk is still in development. The other types of -punk genres have solid roots and criteria as far as what makes that type of -punk. This is part of why some people are reluctant to call solarpunk a full-blown genre: it lacks the clarity and identity necessary for acceptance. Without that solidity, few authors or artists have delved into what solarpunk has to offer. Hopefully, in the years to follow, we can officially add one more distinctive -punk genre to the already veritable buffet of choices.
You can read the complete post here. if you’re not already following Mythic Scribes, it is one of the best websites out there, especially if you’re a fantasy fan. It includes tips on everything from legal systems in fantasy to creating a fictional religion. Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. This article was featured in their April 2019 release: Technology. You can visit their website to read full issues for free here. Follow them on twitter for the latest news.