The “sub” stands for “subversive” in the case of the punk subgenres. These are the rebels of literature, for readers who like their fiction full of street smarts and grit. Though the settings are often futuristic or fantastical, readers want a strong dose of seamy realism.
There are a fair number of punk subgenres. I’ll be concentrating on the two most popular: cyberpunk and steampunk.
Cyberpunk takes place in the near future, usually in a high-tech dystopian society, with hackers as the protagonists. Multinational corporations are the villains and have often taken over the government, either openly or behind the scenes. Cyberspace, though still virtual, is portrayed as physical and visceral. Hackers enter cyberspace through their consciousness and encounter real dangers that can harm and even kill their physical bodies. Cyberpunk first came into popularity in the 1980s and was fueled by the visionary science fiction film, “Blade Runner.” “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, published in 1984, set the tone for the genre with a tale of futuristic Tokyo, illegal substances, and corporate sabotage via cyberspace. Other popular authors include Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and Peter F. Hamilton.
The word “steampunk” describes both a speculative fiction subgenre and the subculture it inspired. In literature, steampunk envisions an alternate history of the nineteenth century where the world is powered by steam, moved by gears and traveled by zeppelin. Steampunk influences include 19th century speculative fiction writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. To quote Steampunk Magazine:
Steampunk as a genre is descended from Cyberpunk, which questioned the scientific optimism prevalent in mainstream science fiction and instead offered a gritty, grimly realistic world in which corporations ruled the earth, empowered in many ways by the development of communications technology. Cyberpunk protagonists were hackers and subcultural street fighters who navigated endless metropolises and uncovered corporate conspiracies. Steampunk authors realized the same sorts of values could be used to re-imagine the Victorian era, with the empire serving a similar role as corporations. Steampunk has of course developed since its creation in the 1980s, and has, since roughly 2006-07, become an art and craft movement as well as a subculture with its own fashion and music.
Cyberpunk and steampunk crossover in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel, “The Difference Engine.” This book imagines an alternate history where Charles Babbage is successful in his invention of the Analytical Engine, thus spawning the computer and information age in the mid-nineteenth century.
Popular steampunk authors include Phil and Kaja Foglio, Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest.
Splatterpunk is a horror subgenre that reached its main popularity in the 1990s. Not for the faint at heart, it ratcheted up the gore and mayhem to 11.
Elfpunk could be called an urban fantasy subgenre. Usually in a gritty, contemporary urban setting, the stories involve elves and other denizens of Faerie. Vampires, werewolves and Olympic deities need not apply.
Mythpunk is mythic fiction, i.e. fairy tales, folklore and mythology, given a postmodern edge. Boundaries are not just crossed but broken as social issues are examined. Experimental writing styles are welcome.
A more complete list can be found in Wikipedia article, Cyberpunk Derivatives.
Below are a couple of classic novels and a few free-for-now steampunk novellas and short stories to give you a taste for the genre.
Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
One ill-fated evening at the Reform Club, Phileas Fogg rashly bets his companions that he can travel around the entire globe in just eighty days — and he is determined not to lose. Breaking the well-established routine of his daily life, the reserved Englishman immediately sets off for Dover, accompaned by his hot-blooded manservant Passepartout. Traveling by train, steamship, sailboat, sledge, and even elephant, they must overcome storms, kidnappings, natural disasters, Sioux attacks, and the dogged Inspector Fix of Scotland Yard — who believes that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England — to win the extraordinary wager. Around the World in 80 Days gripped audiences on its publication and remains hugely popular, combining exploration, adventure, and a thrilling race against time.
The Time Machine H. G. Wells
The novel is considered one of the earliest works of science fiction and the progenitor of the “time travel” subgenre. Wells advanced his social and political ideas in this narrative of a nameless Time Traveller who is hurtled into the year 802,701 by his elaborate ivory, crystal, and brass contraption. The world he finds is peopled by two races: the decadent Eloi, fluttery and useless, are dependent for food, clothing, and shelter on the simian subterranean Morlocks, who prey on them. The two races–whose names are borrowed from the Biblical Eli and Moloch–symbolize Wells’s vision of the eventual result of unchecked capitalism: a neurasthenic upper class that would eventually be devoured by a proletariat driven to the depths.
Dreams of Steam by Kimberly Richardson
Travel back to a time when steam powered inventions ruled the land, water, and sky. It’s a time of extraordinary contraptions and innovative ideas created by men and women who dared to ask the question, “What if?” Peer through the glazed window into a world long gone, but not forgotten. Make a cup of tea, find a comfortable chair, strap on your goggles, and be amazed at the power of steam!
Clockwork Fagin (Free Preview of a story from Steampunk!) by Cory Doctorow
Imagine an alternate universe where tinkerers and dreamers craft and re-craft a world of automatons, clockworks, calculating machines, and other marvels that never were. Where scientists and schoolgirls, fair folk and Romans, intergalactic bandits, utopian revolutionaries, and intrepid orphans solve crimes, escape from monstrous predicaments, consult oracles, and hover over volcanoes in steam-powered airships. In Steampunk!, fourteen masters of speculative fiction, including two graphic storytellers, embrace the genre’s established themes and refashion them in surprising ways and settings as diverse as Appalachia, Ancient Rome, future Australia, and alternate California. Get a preview of the anthology by sampling one of these inventive tales for free Cory Doctorow’s (Clockwork Fagin,) in which orphans use the puppet of a dead man to take control of their lives.
Flash Gold by Lindsay Buroker
Eighteen-year-old Kali McAlister enters her steam-powered “dogless sled” in a race, intending to win the thousand-dollar prize and escape remote Moose Hollow forever. The problem? Fortune seekers and airship pirates are after her for the secret to flash gold, her late father’s alchemical masterpiece. With her modified rifle and a pocketful of home-made smoke bombs, Kali wouldn’t normally hide from a confrontation, but taking on a whole airship single-handedly is a daunting task. Unfortunately, the other racers won’t assist her–they’re too busy scheming ways to sabotage her unorthodox sled.
The 19 Dragons by SM Reine
There are nineteen provinces in the Land held aloft by nineteen pillars. Above the earth there is sky, and nobody knows what goes below except the Nineteen Dragons. That is all you need to know, but that is not all there is to be known. The Device has been stolen and the godlike Dragons have been rendered mortal. Someone is murdering them one by one, and each death brings the world closer to its end. Unless the the Device is somehow restored to its deceased owner, the Dragons are doomed to destruction–and the human world will go with them.
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