In the 1980s, authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote dystopian novels set 20 Minutes into the Future, where they explored themes such as the impact of modern technology on everyday life, the rise of the global datasphere as an arena for communication, commerce, conflict, and crime, and invasive cybernetic body modifications. The heroes of these in dark and cynical stories were marginalized, disillusioned, and rebellious "punks" striving for survival against overwhelming odds, often futilely, in corrupt megacities and surreal cyberspace realms. Bruce Bethke called this Cyberpunk, and it was good.
As a new generation of authors explored and expanded this new realm of fiction, the punk genre evolved. Many stories began to depart from the nihilistic tone and introspective focus of the early works of cyberpunk, expanding the genre to encompass a wider range of characters and broader plots and settings. The original angsty punks began to find themselves side by side with fewer melodramatic nihilists surrendering to their fates, and more of a new breed of punks. These newcomers are often still fully aware of the Crapsack, Half Full (or, rarely, Crapsaccharine) state of their worlds, and the protagonists are still nearly always outsiders, but to these punks the world isn't unlivable or irreparable, and the fight for survival may not be so futile. Some even go so far as to embrace the worlds they live in, and find a niche they can thrive in on the fringes of society. Others remain Rebels and outsiders- but now they stand not alone, but together, and they may even have a cause, even if they remain fully aware that they are likely doomed. Success isn't guaranteed- but it can help the odds when you aren't bound up by things like playing fair and don't really care about keeping the moral high ground.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine was a landmark book, codifing a new movement grafting the cyberpunk asthetic into an alternate Victorian era where electromechanical calculators had been embraced instead of treated as a novelty, spawning a cascade of advanced technology powered by steam engines and clockwork computation. For obvious reasons, this was soon dubbed "steampunk". This opened the floodgates for numerous Punk Punk genres, spreading punkness to other time periods and settings ranging from the distant past to wildly varied possible futures. Common for all such genres is that the technology (and/or magic) level is turned way up, an ultra-modern sensibility is grafted on (or its absence is highlighted), and the world is frequently either an ultra-regulated Privately Owned Society, a world in turmoil, or some combination of the two. Badass Longcoats wearing mirrorshades and adventurers sporting goggles and toolbelts are a common sight, as are brilliant eccentric tinkerers in garage laboratories building fantastical feats of SCIENCE! and Impossibly Cool Weapons from scavenged parts.
No relation to "splatterpunk", a horror subgenre, aside from having attained popularity at about the same time. Tangentially related to Punk Rock, in that both often have the same antiauthoritarian underpinnings, but other than that they don't really overlap much.
Shared genre conventions
Technology (and/or Magitek)...
- ... is ubiquitous and, in retro-futuristic settings, considerably more advanced than that available in the corresponding period.
- ... is a means to control the public. The actual form of government varies, but it is usually somewhat sinister and oppressive (Dystopia, duh?).
- ... provides some kind of medium for global or at least wide-ranging communication that is driven by research and/or business, piggybacked by military/political needs.
- ... is a strategic resource. In our timeline, this started in the 19th century with railroads, the telegraph, and the machine gun; in later settings wars are lost and won in cyberspace, before the army even leaves its barracks. Speaking of the army, while most of the soldiers are using relatively crude weaponry, there will often be an organization whose units pack state-of-the-art weapons and equipment for black-ops work.
- ... is regularly applied in transhumanistic ways, i.e. to make people stronger, faster, more perceptive, etc — for instance through body modifications/prosthetics. The science of medicine is typically quite sophisticated.
- ... can create Artificial Humans, Clockwork Creatures, or Ridiculously Human Robots.
- ... is developed with little regard for harmful consequences to society or nature.
- ... is found throughout the world as artifacts of a lost golden age, variously viewed by individuals as precious objects of study, useful curiosities, or dangerous black magic that destroyed the world.
If there is magic, it may...
- ... be simply another branch of science that provides Magitek, or
- ... be Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, or
- ... have to do with powers and beings beyond human experience or
- ... actually be a form of science applied in a sufficiently advanced way without full understanding, part Lost Common Knowledge, part Lost Technology. Fun Fact
It typically does not involve divine miracles, and will not depend on faith. Nor does it require a Deal with the Devil note Magic users might suffer deleterious side-effects or risk their own sanity, especially if this power does stem from forbidden sciences or knowledge. Spells occasionally go horribly right.
A Punk Punk variant either exchanges the basic technology for that of another historical period or mixes in another genre.
- Stone Punk: (Stone Age) Bamboo Technology based Punk. The Flintstones plays this for laughs and is probably the most famous version. Gilligan's Island also does it, to a lesser extent, but still Played for Laughs.
- Sandal Punk: (Bronze and Iron Age) Technology based around legendary inventors and inventions of the ancient world, both historical (Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria, aeolipile, Antikythera mechanism...) and mythical (Hephaestus, Daedalus, bronze automata...). Alternatively, Ancient Astronauts (or Atlantis) impact the dawning classical civilization.
- Dungeon Punk: (Medieval European Fantasy) A heavily magical world where spells and enchanted artifacts take the place of modern technology.
- Clock Punk: (Renaissance/Baroque) Leonardo da Vinci-style clockwork mechanica and gunpowder. Works Showing Their Work set outside of Europe often invoke the aesthetic styles of equivalent cultural figures — a work set in China or its Fantasy Counterpart Culture, for instance, may have the chain drives and cage-gear mechanisms of Su Song instead of the compact gearboxes and springs of Leonardo, but the general concept remains the same. Gormenghast, some of the Discworld novels. Assassin's Creed II plays it literally by having Leonardo himself build some Clockpunk machines.
- Steam Punk: (Victorian Era) Steam-powered machinery in the vein of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. This setting is often more romantic, heroic, and optimistic than other Punk Punk settings, but some works in this genre are every bit as cynical as the darkest Cyberpunk. For specific tropes, see Steam Punk Index
- Diesel Punk: (1920s - 1940s) Internal combustion engines and electricity. A fairly rare setting (well, compared to Steam, Atom, Cyber, and Bio); until the release of BioShock (which blends Diesel with Bio Punk) the most famous example was probably 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
- Raygun Gothic, aka Atompunk: (1940s - 1960s) The world of pulp sci-fi where everything from inter-galactic space ships to pens is atomic powered. The Fallout series is a great example, running on Science!
- Cassette Futurism, aka Formicapunk: (mid-late 1970s/1980s - 2000's) Features a heavy dose of late 20th century analog technology, such as VHS and audiotapes. Digital technology may exist, but it generally still looks distinctly primitive, with 8-bit aesthetics (16-bits in some cases) being rather typical of the genre. Cell phones and the Internet are either absent or not as prominent as they would be in Real Life, and the lack of focus on digital technology is the main difference from Cyber Punk of the same era. Chronologically, it is centered on the 1980's, but can cover anything from the late 1960's (when it departs sufficiently from standard Raygun Gothic) to the early 2000's (for some works that already look dated, although sometimes justifiably as a result of an Alternate History cataclysm or war that pushed some technologies far ahead at the expense of others).
- Gothic Punk: (Urban Fantasy late 1980s - 2000s) The punks are also goths. Based on the romanticized angst and cityscapes of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Features slickly dark Film Noir cities dressed up with overblown, Tim Burton set pieces and neo-classical architecture. Gray Rain of Depression and always night time. The world is secretly controlled by various supernatural creatures such as vampires or shinigami to whom humans are merely pawns.
- Cyberpunk: (20 Minutes into the Future) The original Punk Punk setting, see the first paragraphs on this page. A strong emphasis on information technology and cybernetics. For specific tropes, see Cyberpunk Tropes.
- The Apunkalypse: Punk meets After the End, as disaster reduces civilization to tribes of marauding scavengers.
- Bio Punk: (20 Minutes into the Future) An alternative to Cyberpunk with genetic engineering and/or Organic Technology instead of computing. Gattaca might be the most recognizable example of Bio Punk, although The Island of Doctor Moreau is a notable precursor, and Frankenstein is perhaps the Ur-Example. eXistenZ and BioShock also comes to mind. Farscape was a Space Opera with a lot of this going on in various episodes, as Organic Technology was common to its setting.
- Capepunk: Mostly prose Deconstruction stories of superheroes in a modern setting.
- Cattle Punk: (The Western/Space Western) A typical John Ford film setting, only with things like robots, super-weapons, and wacky gadgets tossed in.
- Desert Punk: Punk + survival in a super-harsh environment. The desert may be Desert Planet or Burned-out Earth. Not to be confused with Desert Punk, though it is one of the best examples.
- Fantastic Noir: (Urban—usually) a mixture of the Film Noir detective story with the more colorful aspects of fantasy and Science Fiction.
- Feudal Future: Set in the Standard Fantasy Setting or Medieval European Fantasy, only with beyond-modern technology designed to resemble objects and concepts associated with the European Middle Ages. Rarely does magic exist in this setting; whatever looks like magic is actually extremely advanced science.
- Gaslamp Fantasy: Steampunk with supernatural elements.
- Mythpunk: (Mythology + Postmodernism) Fairy tales get hyperpoetic postmodern makeovers.
- Ocean Punk: (Pirate) Punk in a mostly (or wholly) oceanic setting. See One Piece and Water World as your most famous examples.
- Post-Cyberpunk: (20 Minutes into the Future) a much less dystopian successor to Cyber Punk. Appears in this list for completeness, but one of its defining elements is the absence of the more fatalistic and nihilistic 'punk' elementsnote and in some cases even manages to almost completely dump the 'cyber' as well. It is now extremely popular to combine this with The Great Politics Mess-Up or The War on Terror. Examples: Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell note , Mirror's Edgenote .
- Solar Punk: (20 Minutes into the Future + Green Aesop) An even more optimistic counterpart to Post-Cyberpunk but with a down-to-earth ecological approach. Imagines a bright and optimistic future where technology has been reconciled with ecology, everything is powered by renewable energy (especially solar, hence the name) and people live in a free and egalitarian society with an anarchistic sensibility. Aesthetically it blends elements of art nouveau, African and Asian art, with (eco-conscious) high technology. Much like Post-Cyberpunk, there is the absence of fatalism and nihilism associated with the "-punk" part; the "punk" here refers to subverting the power systems that keep this future from happening.
- The Sky Is an Ocean (Sky Punk): Punk that mostly takes place in the sky, aerial view, via planes, blimps, floating island... anything involving being in above grounds. See Sky Pirate and Castle in the Sky for this example.
- Phlebotinum-Induced Steampunk: Steampunk with an Applied Phlebotinum catalyst, often (but not always) with elements of Gaslight Fantasy.