Author Topic: Spec-lit's use of the "P" word  (Read 3894 times)


  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 18
    • Josh Finney's "Worlds Within World"
on: September 08, 2012, 08:28:14 AM
So here's an article/rant I recently posted to my blog. I figure if any community of spec-lit writers/fans can offer an honest and insightful critique, it's this one. So you tell me --am I onto something here? Or out of line?


Never Mind The Bollocks…
Or: How Spec-Lit Fucked Up A Perfectly Good Word.

Punk rock.
Punk ‘til you puke!
As a youth revolution punk was a solid fist full of fuck you! An angry, ugly, straight razor attack on the bloated excess of 1970’s pop culture.
There was punk rock music from the likes of The Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and The Dead Kennedys.
There was punk cinema in films such as Repoman, Suburbia, and The Fabulous Stains.
There was punk lit, punk art, even a punk offshoot of gonzo journalism.
It was a way of life fueled by a belief that nothing is sacred, authority is never to be trusted, and most importantly, you can always Do It Yourself...better known as the DIY ethos.
In a word, punk is rebellion.

And I know a bit about words. Word have power. Word have strength. Words are the bits of DNA from which we craft dreams and nightmares onto the page. So I’ve gotta ask my fellow wordsmiths out there, how the hell did we manage to fuck up such a great word as punk? These days it has been reduced to a toothless suffix. Four empty letters all too often stitched onto the ass-end of genre labels to make them appear edgy and new. Ecopunk, angelpunk, dieselpunk, kaleidopunk, and of course the grand right bastard of them all, steampunk. Yeah, you read that right. Steampunk. If ever a genre needed a big fist full of fuck you right now, it’s that goggle-eyed pansyfest. Why? I’ll get that in a bit. But first...

A History Lesson
Back in 1982 when author Bruce Bethke coined the term “cyberpunk” it actually meant something. It became the moniker for a clutch of rebel authors who pried sci-fi out of the cold dead hands of the classic square-jawed heroes and dragged it through the gutter. These authors didn’t just earn the punk label, they embraced it. Their prose was as much inspired by the lyrics of Lou Reed as they were by the works of William S. Burroughs and Harlan Ellison. In the dark visions of cyberpunk computers and biotech were no longer exclusively the domain of lab-coated scientists, but rather wove into the culture of back alley bars and under the flesh of the damaged loners that frequented them. Or as the granddaddy of cyberpunk, William Gibson, once put it, “The street finds its own uses for things.”

Soon after, sci-fi’s creepy uncle, the horror genre, followed suit and dug its fangs into the punk vibe as well. Called “splatterpunk,” authors like David J. Schow, Clive Barker, and George RR Martin (yes, that George RR Martin) pioneered a new breed of horror that tested the limits of violence and decency. Like the cyberpunks, these authors were true literary radicals. They pushed boundaries. Broke rules. They dared to knife into topics long believed to be “too intense” for the written word. In short, splatterpunk was a big, bloody fist full of fuck you to the traditional spook story.

Then in 1990 William Gibson collaborated with fellow cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling, on The Difference Engine. An alternate history tale, this novel envisioned a yesterday in which the computer revolution occurred during the age of steam, and thus the term “steampunk” was born. But unlike the colorful whimsy that dominates the stuff masquerading as steampunk today, the London of The Difference Engine was a Dickensian nightmare. Poverty was rampant. Technology had run amok. Skies were clogged black by smokestacks forever burning coal to power the vast gear-computers of the power elite. Now that was steampunk.

Punk, my ass!
Frankly the so-called steampunk movement of today has near to nothing in common with the world Gibson and Sterling envisioned twenty-some years ago. No, now the genre is dominated by goggles and airship and women prancing about in corsetry. These stories have no actual “punk” to them. There’s no edge, no DIY attitude, and certainly no actual rebellion in a literary sense. If anything, the new stuff is a throwback to the days of adventure pulps, or is simply high-fantasy hidden behind a brass facade of gears and pistons.

But it didn’t end with steampunk. No, soon the punk suffix was getting slapped onto everything. Got a story that features a lot of biotech? How about give it some extra zing and call it biopunk!? Does your eco-apocalypse story feature a band of hipsters watching the world die? Repackage it as ecopunk! Got an urban fantasy story with moody angles in leather jackets? Leather jackets, that’s punk right? Call it angelpunk! The list goes on and on –dieselpunk, kaleidopunk, clockpunk, nanopunk, cthulupunk, fairypunk, dinopunk,, that last one actually “gets” it.

What this new generation of authors (or maybe it's reviewers and publishers) fail to grasp is that spiked hair and outrageous clothes isn’t what makes spec-lit punk. Sure, punk imagery did occasionally appear in old school cyberpunk stories, such as the Panther Moderns in Gibson’s Neuromancer. And splatterpunk had Clive Barker’s sadomasochistic bondage demons, the Cenobites. But this isn’t what made these stories punk. It was the attitude behind the prose. These authors wielded words like flaming molotov cocktails being hurled at the literary establishment. They didn’t play nice. They didn’t follow the rules. And they constantly challenged the accepted principles of genre. For example, as one reviewer once said about William Gibson, “For years sci-fi has been warning us about the dangers of technology, meanwhile Gibson’s characters are having sex with it.” Or as Sid Vicious once sang in a cover of the old Blue Eye’s classic, “I done it mmmmmmuh waaaaay!

So where do we go from here?
In the modern era the punk suffix has come to be a poor excuse for a lack of imagination. It’s the go-to term for anyone wanting to make their tired, dried up idea seem edgy and cool. What this has resulted in is dooming punk to the same fate as now empty words like “extreme” and “cthulu.” I say it’s time we give the “P” word a rest. Or at least use it damn correctly. And for all those half baked genres out there misusing the term, I have a few suggestions...

For Steampunk and all it’s various spin offs, such as Dieselpunk and Clockpunk, replace the “punk” with either the word fantasy or pulp and you’re good to go. And you know what? There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Pulp has had a long, proud tradition. Why not wear the label with pride? And fantasy? Fuck, the fantasy genre has been needing a good, firm kick in the ass. Why not make that cause your own? Even better, want a cool name for your genre? The guys over at Privateer Press had the right idea when they rejected the steampunk moniker for their Iron Kingdoms game. Instead they called it “Full-Metal Fantasy.”

Okay. This one is just stupid. Biotechnology has and always will be a staple of the cyberpunk genre. These stories, more often than not, are simply cyberpunk or classic cautionary tales under a different name. It’s time to call a spade a spade, alright?

Until this genre does something that actually challenges the standard conventions of the classic eco-apocalypse / dystopian tale, this genre has no business rubbing itself up against the likes of punk. You want a counterculture scene to glom onto, ecopunk? Try emo. It’s right up your alley. EcoEmo, perhaps? If the shoe fits...

Look, in spec-lit there are few mythos so ingrained into the fabric of a genre than Lovecraft’s nightmares. Cthulu and his elder pals are about as establishment as you can get. And that’s fine. I enjoy that stuff, too. But you’re hardly going to rock the pillars of horror by borrowing from the ideas of a man whose stories have been an institution for nearly a century now. The term Lovecraftian has become a genre unto itself for a reason.

Really? Seriously? Fairypunk??? Bad ass Tinkerbells living on the edge? Look, unless you're writing some form of homoerotic lit, which in itself can be pretty damn punk, just fuck off okay?

Dinopunk, Dragonpunk, etc.
Go to hell.

Author, Artist, Twisted Mentat.
Read the first chapter of my biotech noir novel free online:
My personal website:
Or me just ranting into the ether: @josh_finney


  • Caution:
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 4904
  • Amateur wordsmith
    • Mirrorshards
Reply #1 on: September 08, 2012, 09:26:46 AM
I agree that the word "punk" is nearly meaningless in those contexts, but then, look at the "-gate" suffix in the arena of political scandals.  These things happen; it's a part of language changing, and I don't think the solution is to make all the various -punks more edgy and actually punk-ish, nor to bemoan the use of the word being watered down.  It's just a new genre naming convention.  Already most people couldn't tell you much about the original cyberpunk movement; give it another decade or two and we'll probably see the sections in electronic bookstores being referred to as "punks".

Basically, I can't get mad about it 'cause I can't see it as a desecration; no one is using the word "punk" in these contexts with consciousness and awareness, and most would probably be surprised to learn that this use ever had any connection to actual punks.  If I were ten years younger and encountered the various -punks, I'd note the similarity to the music genre but would likely assume that it was one of those situations where separate etymologies end up with words that sound eerily similar.  As well bemoan how everyone uses their "umbrellas" to protect themselves from rain instead of sun, as was the original purpose, just like the root word (umbra-, meaning "shadow") specifically references.


  • Caution:
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 4904
  • Amateur wordsmith
    • Mirrorshards
Reply #2 on: September 08, 2012, 09:27:14 AM
Don't get me wrong; it's a funny rant and well worth posting to a blog.  But it's not an actual problem, no.


  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 754
  • Commenting by the seat of my pants.
Reply #3 on: September 22, 2012, 10:23:29 PM
I agree with both of you for the most part.

The one nit I have to pick with the blog post is that your history of SF neglects the New Wave SF movement. Guys like Moorcock and Ellison and Ballard (and ladies like LeGuin) weren't writing about "square-jawed pulp heroes" and cyberpunk was hardly the first time people tried to be rebellious.

This whole issue tends to get confused when people do things like retroactively decide Philip K. Dick was writing cyberpunk. (Maybe he was, but the real world background was certainly different.)

Anyway, I get annoyed about this too, and I've given a similar rant plenty of times. And I really like the word "steampulp".  I'm going to start using that for those stories.

On the other hand, Scattercat is right on a very fundamental level. There is nothing we can do about idiotic publishing categorizations or changes in words. I think I'm more in line with the OP annoyance-wise, but it does happen. It isn't nearly as annoying as Scandal-Gate.

I do think we have a right to be annoyed by idiotic uses or developments of language, but it is only healthy to a certain level. Ever read the comments on any news story even tangentially related to politics? It will be the most disgusting slurry of stupidity and vitriol you've ever seen. Doesn't matter what the topic is.  If you read that stuff too much, you'll give yourself an aneurism, but that doesn't mean you can't get a little pissed off when you accidentally catch sight of some stupid comment.

Just treat the entire media and the entire publishing industry as two idiot trolls on the message board of the world. You can't make them smarter by arguing, and you shouldn't worry to much about it.

No offense to the exceptions, the small publishers, the quality magazines (including Escape Artists), and the rare responsible journalists.
« Last Edit: September 22, 2012, 10:28:42 PM by Umbrageofsnow »


  • Caution:
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 4904
  • Amateur wordsmith
    • Mirrorshards
Reply #4 on: September 23, 2012, 04:47:47 PM
The difference being that irresponsible journalism results in an ill- or mis-informed populace, which has real and significant implications for our society, whereas calling things topic-punk results in mild annoyance for fans of particular segment of an important phase of music history.  (I'm willing to concede that an over-reliance on trappings to define genre can have negative consequences for the quality of work overall, but that's not at all the same problem, and you're not going to stop humans from identifying categories and sorting things into them any more than you're going to stop humans from breathing oxygen or being bipedal.)