Episode 14 – Introduction: On Punking Speculative Fiction
Sean Guynes-Vishniac – Special Edition Editor
Punk, today, is an easily appropriated symbol that signals cultural frustration, youth angst, and a generalized fuck-the-man attitude, at the same time that it remains a lively anti-capitalist, anti-state subculture. The dialectical tensions of punk—moving between resistance to and reification of mainstream social forces—are especially obvious in sf, where punk has long been affixed to subgenre movements as a way to signal resistance against cultural and, indeed, generic norms.
This began with cyberpunk, a subgenre emphasizing the relationship between the human and emergent computer technologies. The term itself was coined in a 1983 short story of the same name by Bruce Bethke (originally written in 1980), and was quickly adopted as the name for the fiction being written by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and a handful of others, mostly men. The genre was born from a revived anti-authoritarian movement responding to neoliberalism, as well as from interest in the reach of computer technology and its challenges to the stability of the human as an ontological category.
Today, there are over 30 subgenres using the “punk” suffix. These include, but certainly aren’t limited to:
atompunk, biblepunk, biopunk, bugpunk, candlepunk, castlepunk, cattlepunk, clockpunk, cyberpunk, deadpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk, dreadpunk, dreampunk, dungeonpunk, elfpunk, graffitipunk, kidpunk, mannerpunk, mesopunk, middlepunk, mythpunk, nanopunk, neuropunk, nowpunk, oceanpunk, plaguepunk, salvagepunk, sandalpunk, sharkpunk, silkpunk, solarpunk, splatterpunk, steampunk, stonepunk, Trumppunk.
Many of these are represented in a single anthology or are discussed in online forums as ways to code sf texts, more so than as intentional generic play. And these examples of punked sf are to say nothing of the “funked” sf written by largely black American writers responding to the historical whiteness of American sf, most prominent in the cyberfunk, steamfunk, and dieselfunk stories, anthologies, and novels written by folks like Milton J. Davis and Balogun Ojetade, published largely by the small Afrofuturist indie press MVmedia.
This special episode of Deletion is about punked sf and its proliferations, mutations, and radical experiments with genre over the past three decades. As the contributions suggest, cyberpunk remains central to how we think about punking sf today, both because cyberpunk texts hold a significant place in sf studies and because the legacy of the subgenre has been immense in sf as the relationship between humans and computer technologies becomes much more complex than it was in the 1980s heyday of cyberpunk. But the contributors in Punking Speculative Fiction explore other mutations of and experiments with punked sf, including biopunk, mannerpunk, neuropunk, and likely the newest one: Trumppunk. What the list above demonstrates, and what Punking Speculative Fiction as a whole grapples with, is that the many and versatile punked sf subgenres provide a glimpse at the ways in which creative communities and consumers of sf recycle the genre’s history in order to develop new meanings and possibilities for generic play, while at the same time offering insight into the ways in which the symbolic uses of “punk” mutate in the literary mode, occasionally becoming infused once again with the radical political sensibilities “punk” originally meant.
The special episode begins where punked sf does, with cyberpunk in the 1980s, and continues roughly chronologically. Andréa Gilroy begins with the cyberpunk master of Japanese manga, Katsuhiro Otomo, but rather than study the expected text, Akira, she argues that his earlier work Domo embodies cyberpunk and struggles through the horrors and deterritorializations of global neoliberalism. Then, Patrick Whitmarsh and Ashley Gordon dive into one of the key mutations of cyberpunk: what Peter Watts has (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) called neuropunk. This punking of sf emphasizes the genre’s disenchantment with mind. It finds its origins already in the cyberpunk of Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and blows up in the mid-2000s in the work of R. Scott Bakker and Watts.
The middle essays of Punking Speculative Fiction explores individual punked subgenres. Lars Schmeink continues his work on biopunk to consider, instead of its dystopian potential, the utopian possibilities opened up by work that uses sf technologies to “punk” the body. Brian Willems also builds upon his earlier scholarship to provide a speculative realist account of salvagepunk and its logic of building worlds out of the detritus of the apocalyptic present. Megen De Bruin-Molé turns to a very different kind of punked sf, mannerpunk, a rather contemporary brand of sf that has its origin—insofar as origins can be marked in the mass cultural genre system—with Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint (1987) and has found relevance in the current century as a play with 18th-century historical fiction, fantasy, and the strictures of society then and now. This portion of the special episode leaves off with a punking of American politics in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, with Marleen Barr’s argument for the generic, political, and historical necessity of Trumppunk, a genre that she theorizes here as a complement to her original fiction in the emerging punked subgenre.
Punking Speculative Fiction ends at the beginning, with cyberpunk and two critical questions for its relationship with present social and political crises. Anelise Farris asks, if cyberpunk has been primarily about the corporeality of body and mind in the face of computer and digital technologies, where has this put disabled “punks”? After briefly historicizing disability in cyberpunk, Farris focuses on cyberpunk YA of the past twenty years as one key locus where disabled characters punk cyberpunk. And finally, Anna McFarlane questions how cyberpunk—and its political and technological investments—survive the Anthropocene, venturing that the challenges of global climate change might finally spell the end of cyberpunk’s punk.
Together, the nine essays of Punking Speculative Fiction offer an incredible survey of the variety and complexity of what it has meant, and what it continues to mean, to “punk” sf. Individually, the contributors delve deeply into key problems in sf studies, raising new questions and probing old problematics of subgenres as diverse as cyberpunk, neuropunk, biopunk, salvagepunk, mannerpunk, and Trumppunk. Punking Speculative Fiction opens a way for sf studies. It looks deep into the legacy of the key punked sf subgenre, cyberpunk, and beyond to newer punkings to probe what it means to “punk” speculative fiction.
Bio: Sean Guynes-Vishniac (@guynesvishniac) is a PhD candidate in English at Michigan State University. He is co-editor of Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics (The Ohio State UP, forthcoming) and Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (Amsterdam UP, 2017), editor of The SFRA Review, and book reviews editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.