The Punks of Science Fiction Literature

When browsing through types of non-fiction writing genres, a popular group of subgenres that really stand out are the ‘punks’. From cyberpunk to steampunk to dieselpunk, it’s not hard to start wondering: what exactly is literary punk? To understand all these genres, I decided to embark on a journey of sorts. We might not be able to cover all the subgenres of punk literature, but I will try my best to include the most popular ones, as listed earlier. If there’s anything that we missed or any questions that you may have, leave them in the comments at the end! Don’t forget to share the post if you liked what you read.

What is Punk?

I personally was not able to fully define punk, but it didn’t change the fact that there is a sense of recognizing what is and isn’t punk. Perhaps it’s due to the typical media picture of ‘punk’ where we imagine a person wearing black clothes and a mohawk and bright colors and generally being aggressive or even entirely dismissive towards the law and higher authorities. Punks were the rule breakers, the ones jamming out loud music, the ones who didn’t conform to the norms.

It turns out that punk is an entire subculture that ranges not just from fashion, music, art and eventually literature, but also to beliefs and political stances. Its main characteristics are anti-establishment views and expression of individuality and personal freedom. This is what makes punks incredibly loud; they purposely choose to do things with the intention of shocking society and reinforcing their views. This ‘punk’ stance spreads across an entire political spectrum. There are liberal punks and conservative punks and hate punks and apolitical punks. While they may all seem to appear similar, it’s important to remember that ‘punk’ is merely a culture of expression. What you decide to convey with the brush of punk depends solely on you.

The punk ideology involves concepts of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-war, non-conformity, egalitarianism, humanitarianism and overall rejects mainstream corporate culture. Most of this stems from problems in society that we see even today, from economic inequality, the elite class system, and the middle-class struggles. Interestingly, the term DIY (do-it-yourself) also stems from punk culture as it is an attempt to deviate from mainstream consumption by creating what you need yourself, as opposed to purchasing and powering corporate companies.

Punk in fiction is basically taking this culture and applying the gist of it into a fictional setting.

Futuristic Science Fiction vs Cyberpunk and Biopunk

When talking about science fiction, especially futuristic science fiction, we are usually dealing with concepts of advanced technology, from space exploration to hover cars to deep sea laboratories and advanced medicine. Most of the time, science fiction focuses on these creative ideas, expanding on their potential and their implications. You could say that science fiction stays within the realm of the laboratory.

Cyberpunk, on the other hand, goes beyond science fiction and instead deals with the effect of all this technology on society. Usually taking a dystopian turn, cyberpunk reflects on a society with high technology and a majority of a low-class human population. Perhaps cyberpunk delves into the fear that has been creeping up on humanity since the invention of machines: the fact that these creations can perform better than humans and reduce the need for human labor, further increasing economic inequality as it’s pretty much a given that technology would be in the hands of the rich to be further manipulated for personal gain.

Biopunk is pretty much the same, only the type of science involved is different. Biopunk refers to the effect on society of biotechnology, more importantly, of the science of recombinant DNA and human experimentation. A common theme in biopunk fiction is illegal genetic/physical modification against the typical ‘punk’ background.

Some examples of relevant literature include books like Neuromancer by William Gibson, manga/anime like Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, and films like Bladerunner.



Historical Fiction vs Steampunk/Dieselpunk

In simple terms, historical fiction is any fiction that takes place in a setting of the past. Whether it is set in the British era of industrialization or during medieval times or the age of renaissance- anything and everything. To turn this historical fiction into an alternate historical setting of steampunk or dieselpunk requires a little bit of research.

Steampunk is the incorporation of 19th-century technology- the ‘steam’ era into fiction. It could be an alternate universe to history (like the alternate modern day fiction that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or it could also be futuristic, but relying on steam technology again (a future where fossil fuels and oil run out perhaps?). Similarly, any fantasy setting that involves steam technology would also be classified as steampunk.

Dieselpunk involves technology from the 1940s or the diesel era of Western development. If you recall corrects, this was the era of the World Wars and hence, dieselpunk carries with it the dark, grimy industrial setting that focuses more on output and production, much like an ammunition factory. Wonder Woman is very much a dieselpunk aesthetic.

It seems like there’s a very thin fine line between steampunk and dieselpunk, which leaves a lot up for interpretation. There’s a difference of technology (steam vs diesel) and then there’s the difference of attitude (steam is considerable less polluting and more optimistic, diesel carries with it the smear of war and pessimism). Again, it’s all up to how you want to take things as. For example, Avatar the Last Airbender is considered steampunk, but the Legend of Korra can be argued to be either a continuation of advanced steampunk or a transition into dieselpunk.

Some examples include books like His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, manga/anime like Full Metal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa and films like Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Walt Disney’s Treasure Planet.


I hope you enjoyed this post! Have you consumed any of the punk fiction mentioned above? What type of punk is your favorite? Thank you for reading! Have a nice day.

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Author: Kanra Khan

I'm a Pakistani American student of medicine, or more precisely, an almost-graduate of MBBS Class of 2019. I like to write about my experiences in med school and my adventures in life, which range from traveling, to art, to blogging and photography. Like what you're seeing so far? Consider exploring a bit more! The Lunar Descent is endless.

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