Bruce Bethke has a wonderful post describing what led to his creation of the word “cyberpunk” and his publication of a short story of the same name, forty-one years ago in 1980. He writes, “I would have bloody well trademarked the thing” if he’d known how revolutionary the word was which is pretty un-cyberpunk, if we take as a cyberpunk axiom that the self is, if not a completely artificial construct, at least very much bound up with the artifices around it.
Those ties between the self and the artifices around the self are the thematic ground for cyberpunk’s derivatives. Some of those derivatives are “retrofuture” (such as steampunk, atompunk and dieselpunk) and others are post-cyberpunk and contemporary-to-futuristic (including the very-optimistic solarpunk and other less-optimistic derivatives).
The subjectivity with which characters encounter the technology around them has been a central feature of cyberpunk and its derivatives from the start. “Classic cyberpunk characters,” writes Lawrence Person, “were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change. ” And while that alienation and pessimism is not an essential trait of the “punk” meta-genre, in each iteration there is a clear intent to make the reader feel encircled by the aesthetic of the age. We feel steampunk, for example, seeing its archetypal goggles. The image of characters’ arms wired and connected to machines is iconic to original cyberpunk.
Here are three -punks I find especially interesting:
First, Clockpunk: Clockpunk is “a little further back” than steampunk. “Clockpunk machines may literally have to be wound with a key. Science-savvy audiences may note that the amount of energy stored in a clockpunk device often seems far greater than the amount of energy it takes to rewind them.” It is renaissance/Baroque in aesthetic. Thus, in L’apprendista di Leonardo, Luca Tarenzi re-tells the Second Italian War in 1499 as a murder mystery contextualized by complex weaponry and enhanced human abilities through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci’s apprentice.
What’s interesting is that there is at least one historically organic “clockpunk” novel written in 1666 by English writer Margaret Cavendish called The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. Submarines figure significantly as a mode of transportation in the story.
Next we have Rococopunk.Talk about the centering of aesthetics on these derivatives! I think that the visual manifestation of rococopunk is its defining characteristic. “Rococo” itself is defined by elaborate ornamentation from the late baroque period. Artist Prince Poppycock and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood both manifest rococopunk. While in the 1980s, Adam and the Ants dressed in and played what we would now perhaps call rococopunk rock, a seductive new wave/postpunk sound contextualized by their rich costumes.
Rococopunk stories are still rare, and this would be a great subgenre for the up-and-coming, romantic-minded alternative history/sci-fi writer to explore.
Finally, my personal favorite: Islandpunk. The Best Science Fiction Books blog points out that islands have been a staple setting for science fiction. Islandpunk isn’t just science fiction set on islands, though. It’s about island-based technologies that develop when castaways or pilgrims build micro-civilizations on islands. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and most especially the television series Gilligan’s Island manifest this sub-genre. The technological development is tied to immediate needs and limited by availability and the skills of the characters. The technology helps define the mini-society’s sociology and social parameters, and is always integral to the plot lines. What results is a microcosmic analysis of human behavior and our relationship to technology — a foundational feature of speculative fiction.