I've been recently thinking about the term "steampunk." The steam part I get, but the punk part still makes me uneasy. What exactly is this growing sub-sub-sub genre and what is its relationship to "splatterpunk," "cyberpunk," and the ever popular "romancepunk." Okay, I made that last one up, but it's coming.
First, what exactly is punk? It's was, and is, an ill-defined self-indulgent, nihilistic, anti-authoritarian movement which began in the late seventies. It mocked commercialism while steeping itself in the commercial. A youth movement, or niche, it changed as its adherents aged and moved on. What was punk became goth, which became emo, which became..
But what about as a form of literature?
Cyberpunk, popularized by authors such as John Shirley, John Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Lewis Shiner, is characterized by stories with an emphasis on technology and characters marginalized by society. The heroes are loners and outcasts who fight to maintain their dignity and identity in a global society where uniformity and not individuality is a state of being. In cyberpunk the anti-authoritarian thread, woven with a hint of anarchy, ties plot, theme, and character together.
Splatterpunk? The term, which was allegedly coined by David J. Schow, probably has a greater place in film than literature. The term splatter refers to violence. Gore. Blood and guts. Chainsaws. Meat hooks. Instruments of torture. Get the picture? And if we add the term punk to that, we would expect a literature which focuses again on marginalized characters, loners and outcasts. One suspects the violence and the characters in "punk" lit is aimed folk feeling powerless who might identify with someone acting out the anger which burns.
Which brings us to steampunk. The steam refers to science fantasy, usually set in a bygone era, where parallel science has developed allowing computers and airships to exist before their time. These alternate histories are perhaps a rebellion against the world of hard science fiction where it seems the modern reader might need a degree in engineering or biochemical science to understand what is going on. Perhaps that's the punk part, the idea that the literature itself is a form of rebellion. Maybe its fans feel that through the work they are able to retreat to a time where the technology was safer and where the individual had more control. And like its siblings splatterpunk and cyberpunk, the characters are often on the outside, trying to cope with a world gone wry. They are misfits before the onslaught of industrialism has taken the artisan from behind his bench and stuck him on a faceless assembly-line.