But Why “Punk”?

The “dream” part of dreampunk is fairly obvious, but what’s with that “punk” bit at the end? Are all the various “-punk” subgenres somehow related to punk subculture? Well… yes, actually.

the Mexican punk band Acidez
Pictured: Acidez

The steampunk aesthetic has probably been in use the longest, but cyberpunk was the first of these punk genres to come into its own. Early “Golden Age” science fiction tended to be pretty optimistic about technology, often painting a utopian picture of a better world to come. In the the 1960s attitudes began to change, and by the next decade dystopian sci-fi was the norm.

Cyberpunk took this new cautious view of technical progress to extremes, showing the sort of world we could end up with if we weren’t careful. It often featured grungy urban settings, overcrowded and dilapidated. Technology hadn’t really done anything to fix glaring social problems like poverty, drug use, and violent crime. High-tech gadgets and streamlined production methods were great for the upper crust, but what about the rest of us struggling just to get by?

cyberpunk city
Credit: Artur Sadlos

Cyberpunk (and by extension all the other punk genres to come) shifted the focus to the plight of this growing underclass of malcontents, the punks. The enemy was typically some sort of giant, unfeeling corporate entity, which systematically deceived and exploited the hapless masses. Sound familiar? Punk fiction is extremely popular these days.

Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh
Credit: EMTYdesign

So what actually is a “punk” anyway? Someone who listens to punk rock? A kid with a mohawk or a spiky leather jacket? Not necessarily. The music and the style come from the attitude, not the other way round.

A punk is, above all, a misfit. True, this covers a lot of different people, but what makes a punk special is that they don’t apologize for not fitting in; they revel in it. The punk style—be it in music, fashion, or literature—is aggressively unconventional. It holds no reverence for societal norms and challenges the audience to reconsider their own biases and preconceptions. Punk culture is purposely bizarre—sometimes disturbing—in open mockery of the many absurdities taken for granted in ordinary society.

Punk literature breaks with convention by celebrating the less-than-heroic among us: the outlaw, the working stiff, the drunk, the coward, the hapless buffoon… anti-heroes. Punk characters operate on the fringes of societies that are far from idyllic. This may be a convoluted bureaucracy, a dystopian dictatorship, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or maybe just the world we live in right here and now. A punk’s rebellious disposition is a natural product of the setting they inhabit.

a still from The Zero Theorem
From The Zero Theorem

For whatever reason, this is the type of fiction that appeals to me. I grew up on it, and it’s easy to take its ethos for granted. Maybe someday I’ll embrace the status quo and quit worrying so much about organizational secrecy and widespread abuse of power. Maybe tomorrow holds a brighter future where we can all just relax and let our elected officials and industry leaders take good care of us from cradle to grave.

But I’m not holding my breath. And until then… stay punk, my friends.

Delirium of the Endless
From the Sandman series

Next: How About Some Examples?