Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Genre-Punk Linguistic Family Tree

Dieselpunk belongs to a larger cultural phenomenon referred to as genre-punk. While over time, the number of proposed genre-punks has multiplied faster than wildflowers after a spring rain shower, three genre-punks dominate this phenomenon: Dieselpunk, Steampunk and Cyberpunk. The purpose of this post is to explore the origins of the names of each of these.

The origin of the names of each follow a similar pattern. In each case, they originated from individuals who were promoting their own projects. It was only later that the terms became representative of genres with unique identities.

While Bruce Bethke doesn’t take credit for the creation of Cyberpunk genre, he correctly states that it originated with William Gibson who wrote the novel Neuromancer in 1984; he did create the term Cyberpunk, which was solely for bringing attention to the short story he had written. According to Bethke, "The invention of the c-word was a conscious and deliberate act of creation on my part. I wrote the story in the early spring of 1980, and from the very first draft, it was titled 'Cyberpunk.' In calling it that, I was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology. My reasons for doing so were purely selfish and market-driven: I wanted to give my story a snappy, one-word title that editors would remember.”

The name Steampunk originated in the same manner as Cyberpunk. The credit for coining the term ironically goes to one of the great Cyberpunk authors, K.W. Jeter. According to Cory Gross in an article published in Issue 2 of Steampunk Magazine titled, A History of Misapplied Technology, K.W. Jeter had written the following letter to Locus Magazine in 1987:

Dear Locus,
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps...

In his article, Gross quoted Michael Berry who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987:

Jeter, along with fellow novelists Tim Powers and James Blaylock, seems to be carving out a new sub-genre of science fiction with his new book. Whereas such authors as William Gibson, Michael Swanwick and Walter Jon Williams have explored the futuristic commingling of human being and computer in their 'cyberpunk' novels and stories, Jeter and his compatriots, whom he half-jokingly has dubbed 'steampunks,' are having a grand time creating wacko historical fantasies.

This brings us to the origin of the term Dieselpunk. Lewis Pollak coined the term Dieselpunk for his role-playing game Children of the Sun. In a 2001 interview with he stated, "Dieselpunk is the darker, dirtier side of steampunk. Think of a continuum between steampunk and cyberpunk. In terms of magic level, technological level, and grit/mood/tone, dieselpunk falls in between the two."

While it might be possible to argue that the Transhumanism Movement has the potential for being a Cyberpunk lifestyle, the term Cyberpunk never really went beyond being simply a descriptive term for a form of literary or cinematic science fiction. Only Steampunk and Dieselpunk have gone on to create unique sub-cultures with their own distinctive fashion, music, art as well as other features.


Nebris said...

Steampunk and Dieselpunk are 'sub-cultures' for the simply reason that they are created from whole cloth out of our past. I love them both of course, though I tend toward the latter, hence my presence here.

Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is not a 'sub-culture' simply because it is THE Culture, the one we are living in and it is growing and evolving around at this very moment. Think Gaga, Dubstep and “Person of Interest”. Gaga is almost traditional at this point. lol

Mim said...

Nice post. I would, respectfully, argue with your comments on cyberpunk as there were certainly signs of a cyberpunk community evolving in the 1990s as part of the subculture surrounding Industrial music, although not being very involved with it I don't know if it came to much.

J.W. Horton said...

Are you aware of any punk subgenre
specifically focused on politics?

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thank you everyone for your feedback.

@Mim, I read that Timothy Leary had once tried to create a Cyberpunk sub-culture. I'm not sure if this is true but it might be what you're thinking of.

@Nebris, that's an interesting point about Cyberpunk being THE culture, which is why there isn't a sub-culture. I have doubts however it is an interesting thought and may have some truth to it.

@J.W., I don't know of any exclusively political genre-punks though some say genre-punk by its very nature is political.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Larry!
Very well said, indeed!

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thank you chronicles of harriet. Coming from someone who has one of the best Steampunk blogs that's high praise. I'm honored.