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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Genre Talk: Letting Off Some Steampunk

We've covered the "steam" half of the equation, so let's move onto the second half...

NUMBER TWO: What's the "-Punk"?

The "-punk" suffix is a lot more widely used than the "steam" prefix.  Last time I mentioned things like cyberpunk, splatterpunk, and others.  The "-punk" suffix connects them all.  But what does it mean?  Well, what's a punk?  What do you think of when somebody says that word?  I think of somebody in a NiN shirt with the sleeves ripped off, sporting a spiky hairdo dyed some outrageous neon color(s) with a nose-stud, one of those metal hopes inserted into the earlobe that stretches it out, with a thin silver chain connecting the two.  I also think of this fine, upstanding citizen saying something like "Fuck the pigs," or flipping off a member of the student council.

Some of you might think of Bart Simpson, or a guy on a motorcycle, or a tomboyish woman in a bar playing pool, or who knows what.  But whatever your image, it's likely to have at least one thing in common: someone who defies societal norms.  That's a fancy way of saying "Somebody who doesn't give a shit what you think."

The "-punk" suffix indicates some form of rebellion (whether literal, cultural, sexual, etc).  Somebody is unhappy with the status quo and they are going to actively change it, or just live their life in defiance of it.  Punk characters exist on the fringes of society, away from polite, "normal" people.  They are the ones who rock the boat just by showing up.

And like the punky characters in a -punk book, the story itself will be something of a punk (is "punk" starting to sound funny yet?  Like if you say "spoon" over and over again and it stops sounding like a real word?  Bear with me).  A -punk story should be about these outlier characters engaged in some form of outlier behavior.  Are they inciting a revolution against the government?  Are they starting a new fashion trend that most people find totally unacceptable?  Are they merely trying to find a place for themselves in a society that is unwelcoming or even hostile?  All those are good -punk stories.  

Last time I talked about Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, and now I'm gonna do it again!  Remember that scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin, and how he was pursuing a new type of energy source?  That was the "steam"; here's the "punk": the rest of Isaac's colleagues, and indeed, the whole academic world, think Isaac's new energy source is a pipe dream, and they don't really like associating with him.  Isaac's a rebel scientist doing things his own way.  He turned his back on proper academia years ago and now does things the way he wants to do them, and screw those stuffy profs at the university.

Pretty much every major character in PSS is like that: a bohemian artist ostracized from the rest of her species, rogue treasure hunters, a reporter for an underground and anti-government newspaper, and so on. What so many would-be steampunk books miss out on is the -punk aspect.  Plenty of steam, but not so much punk.  You gotta have both!  It's not all about the technology and whatnot, it's about the characters and the world and the story too.  

Next time, I'll have a surprise for you.


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