While that title above might be a mouthful, it poses a straightforward question: ‘What makes something punk?’ Unlike the genre of music, punk as it pertains to fiction is somewhat loose. In fact, it’s not even a genre but rather a style of storytelling merged with aesthetic that weaves its way into other types of genre fiction, most commonly science fiction, fantasy or horror.
“Punk,” at least outside music, usually shows up as a suffix to a more precise descriptor, as in cyberpunk, steampunk or dieselpunk. The common thread running through all of these styles is the type of world-building the writer wants to engage in. In most of the punk genres, the world is not just the setting but a core topic and a character in its own right.
It’s why the the prefix descriptors often refer to the styles of aesthetic, fictional environment and the central themes rather than how genres describe the mood of the work (comedy, horror, thriller etc.). Types of punk run the whole gamut from the usual suspects like cyberpunk and steampunk to obscure artefacts like Teslapunk and Bugpunk (yes, those are real, and not even the most ridiculous ones). Often the punk genres seem like a mishmash of retro-futurism with a bleak or exaggerated outlook on its subject.
So, is setting your story in a distinctive time period and tweaking the themes to suit the setting all you need to create a new punk genre? I, frankly, don’t have the answer to that. If, a year ago, someone had come up to me and suggested that the Flintstones was “Stonepunk,” I’d have laughed them off entirely. However, having read DC’s recent Flintstones series (easily one of the best comics of the past year), I’d be inclined to at least give the argument another glance.
Fascinatingly, while I was not among the American cohort of the show’s original fans, the new series is precisely my cup of tea. What’s more, it bears all the hallmarks of punk fiction. There is retro-futurism in the form of stone age tech, a fair bit of grit, and thoroughgoing world-building, down to the everyday minutiae of consumerism and bureaucracy. Surprising as it might be that a Flintstones title could be described as “gritty,” the creative team dedicated a whole issue to war, politics and emasculation. PTSD and the horrors of combat are a running theme of the comic. In the first four issues alone there is commentary on environmentalism, social constructions of gender norms and a deconstruction of the American post-war paterfamilias archetype that Fred Flintstone was based on.
Admittedly, though, it feels slightly wrong to insist that DC Comics’ Flintstones revamp belongs on the same list as Neuromancer or The Difference Engine. Yet, the case can be made that despite a disconnect between these works, even on the level of aesthetic and setting, the traditional determiners of genre, these “punk” pieces bear certain similarities, loose and informal as their categorization might be. Is the difference between the Flintstones and Blade Runner all that much wider than the difference between Blade Runner and Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan?
So what separates the definitive staples of the punk styling from other fiction? It’s not a genre, as evidenced by the fact that a plethora of labels proliferate attached to the suffix. Rather, “punk” in fiction constitutes a combination of certain elements that cumulatively give the work some or all of the qualities we generally associate with that tag. Precise academic descriptions are hard to come by, and every definition one could attempt is debatable, considering this is more a general feeling a work gives than an actual play by play set of genre conventions.
The project of cyberpunk works like Transmetropolitan and Ghost in the Shell is to extrapolate from the facts of the modern world, to create a new technofuturistic normal. This normal, though, is dangerously unstable, breaking apart under the stress of the narrative to make a deeper argument about human nature or set up allegories for the present using the lexicon of the future. Replace the cybergadgetry and the androids with a 1950s aesthetic, a touch of neo-noir and post-WW2 social commentary, and you have dieselpunk (Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is a good recent example).
Another prominent punk convention is that of the surly, tired anti-hero (Spider Jerusalem, Rick Deckard et al.). In fact, most punk stories have a sense of world-weariness built in. Warren Ellis’ first cyberpunk comic, Lazarus Churchyard, pushes this convention to the extreme with its main character, an immortal who longs for death. Often characters represent (or are literally part of) a marginalised group; in Transmetropolitan, for example, there is a massive amount of commentary on gender, class struggle and sexuality.
Fittingly, the tone is ironic, skeptical toward the state of it’s own world. Much like the music genre that gave it its name, punk fiction thrives on rebellion and defiance. There’s a sense of the seedy underbelly of society in each of these works. Often times outlaws or rogue criminals are the main faction. The video game Fallout blends its dieselpunk aesthetics and vintage nuclear paranoia with the cheery tones of swing music and cutesy art design to create a surreal, dystopian atmosphere.
Punk genres, if they may be termed that, use a hyperbolic caricature of an era, past or future, to place real and present problems within a framework of critical distance and light satire. Much like cartoons use over the top expressions, the punk work’s setting is the end result of a certain cultural facet pushed to its extreme. Transmetropolitan tackles consumerism with ads that literally burrow into your brain, and Cowboy Bebop does something similar with rampant criminality, turning bounty hunting into not just a normalised, everyday occurrence but one that warrants syndicated television spots with plucky celebrity TV presenters.
The dystopian atmosphere is often treated as normative, the only world the characters can imagine. This serves as build-up for the eventual subversion of such complacent assumptions that come with the resolution of the narrative. The cyberpunk anime Psycho-pass is set in a hyperregulated society where every person’s mental health is constantly monitored. Through this MacGuffin, the show explores citizens’ relationship with security and order and how we view mental health and criminality (Foucauldian themes if any can be called such). Eventually the obvious cracks in such a system appear, and the protagonist’s faith in the status quo is tested. Transmetropolitan accomplishes something similar with themes pertaining to the abundance of information, technology, and consumerism.
The motion of the plot within most cyberpunk works hinges upon this sort of societal deconstruction. Many use techno-futurism (or retro-futurism) to tackle issues of personal identity and the individual’s place in a seemingly too-complex, too-demanding world. Neither this world nor the story it sets the stage for offers either escape or easy answers. Blade Runner is often considered the definitive work of cyberpunk, and I am inclined to agree. The world feels lived-in, the characters are evocative and mysterious, and the story has layers upon layers of intrigue and misdirection. The futuristic cityscape with its lavish advertisements and gleaming neon belies a certain savagery underneath the surface.
Blade Runner is the quintessential cyberpunk story because it utilizes its world as both a broad canvas and a cautionary tale. The replicants are created, used and discarded with such callous disregard that it begs us to think of existence in new means. Like all great sci-fi it places us in a world where what it means to be alive is put into question. The nature of sentience is played with in, not just Deckard, but also the antagonist, Roy Batty (unlike Deckard unambiguously a replicant).
Much like Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner employs cybernetics and implanted memories as a means of exploring the thin line between the human experience and that of its manufactured lifeforms. The main villain seeks only to prolong his inhumanely short lifespan and to be considered properly human by the society that created him to help extend the reaches of western settler-colonialism to the outer planets.
Blade Runner subverts the premise of its world using a very interesting trick. While the Christ allegory is employed to death throughout contemporary genre fiction (The Matrix, Man of Steel, The Chronicles of Narnia), Blade Runner uses it to a very different effect. In the final battle the antagonist as opposed to the protagonist enacts a miniature passion play, breathing fresh life into this overused plot point. Batty drives a nail through his palm, absolves Deckard of his sins and saves his life, and then dies. In the story’s cynical, ironic cyberpunk world, there is to be no resurrection, except perhaps Deckard’s dawning consciousness of his own status as an artificial being (depending, of course, on your preferred cut of the film).
In that last, goose-bump inducing monologue, Roy comes to terms with his mortality. Is his humanity diminished by the circumstances of his birth? Does everything he’s lived through not make him human? By having the villain go through a character arc that is generally the sole preserve of protagonists, Blade Runner catches us off-guard and places doubt into the whole premise of the world it creates.
Much is made out of the speculation of whether Deckard is replicant or not. If one believes the movie’s director, he most certainly is, yet in reality it almost doesn’t matter. The entire point of the story is that being a replicant should not diminish one’s own experience as a human being. That’s the entire purpose of subverting the Christ figure and revealing humanity in what pockets of society an authority has unjustly vilified.
Within Blade Runner, we see the possibilities of the punk genres and an visual flair that many lesser movies have tried to ape. While it is archetypal it is by no means the final word on subject. Whatever the outward aesthetic, whether futuristic sci-fi dystopia or nostalgia-heavy retro landscapes, these genres provide us with beautiful, sprawling, flawed worlds to inhabit. Ones infinitely far from, yet so eerily reminiscent of our own.