“Something Is Broken in Our Science Fiction. Why can’t we move past cyberpunk?”
That’s the title of a Lee Konstantinou Future Tense article Slate ran in January. The entire article is worth a read. But for me the precious metal is in the final paragraph:
“If you’re writing science fiction that decides on its attitude toward the future in advance of doing the work of imagining that future, you’re not heeding the most ambitious calling of the genre…. If, instead, you retain the hope of writing fiction that confronts readers with new ways of thinking about their relationship to the future—our future—you may need to drop the -punk suffix.”
[Sound of one hand clapping]
True ‘Punk’ isn’t about trying to be different. It is about seeing yourself and being yourself in the face of pressure from others. About writing the story that wants to be, needs to be written.
I cut my reading teeth on fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Speculative fiction. Gary Budden notes in his 2016 talk that the term ‘Speculative Fiction’ is relatively new. It is. Robert Heinlein coined it in 1941, it seems to escape the negative connotations of Sci Fi. And yes, they are still negative. Yes. Very yes.
Speculative Fiction shares the same abbreviation as Science Fiction, SF. It doesn’t seem to have the schlock baggage attached to Science Fiction’s alternative label, Sci Fi. I won’t dwell on the storied Sci Fi vs. SF debate, or the ‘Science Fiction isn’t literature’ debate.
I will note that “The Handmaids Tale” was marketed as Futuristic Horror. Jeff Vandermeer’s novel “Annihilation” was listed as New Weird. Oh. And “The Martian” won for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy.
No wonder then that I dislike most labels. Old Man Crump would have said “Labels are for packages, not people!” Still, labels have utility. When someone asks for reading recommendations, we probably ask “What do you like?” Based upon their responses, we identify a genre/subgenre, authors, and titles from there.
Labels can also be excellent lenses.
Take for example this wonderful 2018 essay by Anelise Farris, “Young, Punk, and Disabled: New Worlds for Marginalized Bodies”. The view through the lenses of the labelled can be unsettling or downright disturbing.
The ‘Punks are relative newcomers, children of the ’80s. The laundry list of Science Fiction punk and sub-genres is alive and growing. That’s a good thing, because it means that Science Fiction didn’t go blind in 2005 and die in 2006. It is still alive, still growing.
One old niche always worthy of muse time now has a new punk label, Hope Punk. The inestimable Cat Rambo characterizes HopePunk as only she can–and even took the time to include a reading list. Thanks Cat!
You can read all nine of the Punking Speculative Fiction essays at the links below. They are hosted by Deletion, the open access online forum in science fiction studies administered by Australia’s Deakin University. My heartfelt thanks to them and the individual authors.
- Andréa Gilroy
- Patrick Whitmarsh
- Ashley Gordon
- Lars Schmeink
- Brian Willems
- Megen De Bruin-Molé
- Marleen Barr
- Anelise Farris
- Anna McFarlane
If you aren’t familiar with Slipstream, give Ryan Britt’s 2015 essay “Oh, Slippery Slipstream: Who Is the Weirdest Genre of Them All?” a run.
Slipstream or New Weird, NextPunk or FuturenextPunk, it’s still fiction, written by people, for people. Niche or not. Me? I’m going to write the story that wants to be written and leave it to the beta readers to decide where it fits.
Thus, hence, and because it seemed like a good idea at the time and it is after all the Month of Fools, I give you the classic Monty Python Cheese shop skit retooled for Punks Like Us:
Customer (John Cleese): Good Morning.
Owner (Michael Palin): Good morning, Sir. Welcome to the SciFi Book Emporium!
Customer: Ah thank you my good man.
Owner: What can I do for you, Sir?
C: Well, I was, uh, sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through ‘Rogue Herrys’ by Hugh Walpole, and I suddenly came over all chimerical.
O: Chimerical, sir?
C: ‘Ee I were all ‘fictive-like!
O: Ah, fanciful!
C: In a nutshell. And I thought to myself, ‘a little recondite suspended disbelief will do the trick’, so, I curtailed my Walpoling activites, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some libri legerebles!
O: Come again?
C: I want to buy some books.
O: Oh, I thought you were complaining about the bouzouki player!
C: Oh, heaven forbid: I am one who delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse!
C: ‘Ooo, Ah lahk a nice tune, ‘yer forced to!
O: So he can go on playing, can he?
C: Most certainly! Now then, some books please, my good man.
O: (lustily) Certainly, sir. What would you like?
C: Well, eh, how about a little First Contact.
O: I’m, a-fraid we’re fresh out of First Contacts, sir.
C: Oh, never mind, how are you on Slipstream?
O: I’m afraid we never have that at the end of the week, sir, we get it fresh on Monday.
C: Tish tish. No matter. Well, stout yeoman, four volumes of Stitchpunk, if you please.
O: Ah! It’s beeeen on order, sir, for two weeks. Was expecting it this morning.
C: ‘T’s Not my lucky day, is it? Aah, TeslaPunk?
O: Sorry, sir.
O: Normally, sir, yes. Today the van broke down.
C: Ah. ElfPunk?
C: SteamPunk? DieselPunk?
C: Any Retro Futurism, per chance?
C: Post Apocalyptic, perhaps?
O: Ah! We have Post Apocalyptic, yessir.
C: (surprised) You do! Excellent.
O: Yessir. It’s ah… it’s a bit wordy.
C: Oh, I like it wordy.
O: Well,.. It’s very wordy, actually, sir.
C: No matter. Fetch hither the liber aspexit ! Mmmwah!
O: It’s Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney. I think it’s a bit wordier than you’ll like it, sir.
C: I don’t care how fucking wordy it is. Hand it over with all speed.
O: Oooooooooohhh……..! (pause)
C: What now?
O: The dog’s eaten the spine clean off of it.
C: (pause) Has she?
O: He, sir.
O: No sir.
C: You… do have some books, don’t you?
O: (brightly) Of course, sir. It’s a book store, sir. We’ve got-
C: No no… don’t tell me. I’m keen to guess.
O: Fair enough.
O: Uh, not as such.
C: Uuh, Cassette Futurism?
O: Not -today-, sir, no.
C: Aah, how about Cyberpunk?
O: Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, sir.
C: Not much ca–It’s the single most popular SF subgenre in the world!
O: Not ’round here, sir.
C: (slight pause) and what IS the most popular ‘punk ’round hyah?
O: Raygun Gothic, sir.
C: IS it.
O: Oh, yes, it’s staggeringly popular in this manor, squire.
C: Is it.
O: It’s our number one best seller, sir!
C: I see. Uuh… Raygun Gothic, eh?
O: Right, sir.
C: All right. Okay. ‘Have you got any?’ He asked, expecting the answer ‘no’.
O: I’ll have a look, sir.. nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnno.
C: It’s not much of a book store, is it?
O: Finest in the district sir!
C: (annoyed) Explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please.
O: Well, it’s so clean, sir!
C: It’s certainly uncontaminated by books…