Ever since cyberpunk took off, people have loved adding the word punk to genres. I’m planning to write a post on the why, and should we? of this phenomenon. But first, for the confused layman, I’m going to lay out the different types of punk genre you can find around!
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What are punk genres?
Punk genres are really defined by taking the technology of a given time period, and stretching it to fantastical levels. There is contention on this point, because many believe punk genres should also be about rebellion, social alientation and sticking it to the big government. But the fact is, a lot of work in these genres doesn’t do that anymore.
I personally think the very best punk works come from taking this technology, and working with how it would impact society. From cyberpunk robotics, to the green tech of solarpunk, we’re given a lot of opportunities to break away from real-world, right now, social norms in these genres.
Aetherpunk or Magicpunk (it also has a few other names) is probably one of the most diverse punkpunk genres. High fantasy magic creates technology more befitting of a sci-fi world, from magical skyships to aetherpowered guns, with a lot of gold and gilded things for some reason. The Eberron and Kaladesh settings by Wizards of the Coast take Aetherpunk in two different directions, darker in Eberron’s case, and more art nouveau for Kaladesh, while TERA‘s gunner class puts on distinctively Asian spin on the aesthetic.
Subgenre: Dungeon punk
Dungeon punk takes the idea of magical technology, makes it grittier, and mixes in heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery tropes. Imagine wizards in trenchcoats, and magical cocaine being peddled on the streetcorners of cities. Dungeon punk might be considered cynical Aetherpunk. Consider the Dwemer of Skyrim, and Adventure Time. Ravnica, another Wizards of the Coast Setting, is an often cited Dungeonpunk example, and Shadowrun mixes dungeon punk with cyberpunk.
Apunkalypse is a TVTropes name for the idea of several connected punkpunk genres, which all share the idea of taking place in a post-civilization apocalyptic setting.
Desertpunk is not always an apunkalypse setting, but its most famous example definitely is. It’s mostly about the adaption of technology to super harsh desert environments. The punk elements can be seen in the social struggles an apocalypse brings on. Desertpunk may often see a political landscape dominated by warlords or gangs, with the average civilian an outsider who scavenges for a living.
Mad Max is the most famous Desertpunk movie around. The aesthetic of desertpunk is a bit grungy, with cobbled together technology taken from whatever came before the apocalypse.
Oceanpunk / Piratepunk
Whereas Desertpunk imagines the apocalypse as a desert, Oceanpunk imagines everything flooded. It’s a pretty decent prediction, given the present day concerns about global warming.
Oceanpunk is similar in its themes to Desertpunk, but with an aesthetic that has to adapt to all that water. Some Oceanpunk works adopt a lot of Pacific Islander imagery in their imagination of the apocalypse. Others keep the cobbled together, industrial look of Desertpunk.
Oceanpunk might include floating cities, people who live on nomadic ship settlements, and even underwater settlements. When it leans more into the pirate side of its aesthetic, it might be termed Piratepunk instead.
Waterworld and the anime Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet are good oceanpunk examples.
Yep, there is one of these for basically every decade of the 20th century.
Atompunk takes Mid Century Modern style, the nuclear revolution, and the Sputnik space age and mixes them all together to create something quite sleek and shiny. The Fallout series, Futurama and The Incredibles movies really sum up Atompunk really well.
Atompunk has its own punk elements, taking place in the context of post-Mccarthyism, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Technology was advancing rapidly and society was struggling to keep up. The genre has fertile soil for re-imagining those social struggles.
There is debate about whether Atompunk is a synonym for Raypunk and Teslapunk. I generally lean to agreeing that they’re all the same thing. The main difference is that Teslapunk/Raypunk generally don’t include nuclear power, but have the same aesthetic.
It’s a great aesthetic, so its really no surprise that it has been popular in recent years. There is also a real-world revival of Mid Century Modern inspired architecture and design, so maybe we’ll see Atompunk come to be yet?
Biopunk is the biological cousin of Cyberpunk.
They often take place in a very similar time period, or Biopunk is the successor of cyberpunk. Metal and technology is replaced by biological hacking, genetic modification and organic enhancement. Biopunk perhaps even pushes the invasion of personal privacy deeper than cyberpunk, with technologies like genetic tracking, designer babies and cloning widespread in this genre.
Cyberpunk often looks at man vs machine, but biopunk takes on the themes of man vs post-human. The big question biopunk asks is where does one stop being human? When neither genre is taken to an extreme, you may find biopunk and cyberpunk elements in the same setting. But many authors imagine cyberpunk’s cybernetic technology as the more primitive cousin of biopunk’s bioengineering.
Jurassic Park and Activision’s Prototype both embrace the bio-engineering implications of biopunk, but not its aesthetic. The Sonnie’s Edge short from Love Death & Robots is a recent example that embraces both the technology and aesthetic.
Sandalpunk and Bronzepunk are competing terms for the same thing. Taking the technology of the ancient classic world (the time of Plato and Aristole) and building a retrofuturistic civilisation with it.
The aesthetic in Bronzepunk is columns, sandals (hence the alternative name) and Spartans. There is plenty of inspirational material, from the architectural genius of the Athenians to the Antikythera mechanism, which has provided a strong base for the genre. Did you know the Romans invented steam engines, but had no clue what to do with them, and so never pursued the technology?
Bronzepunk imagines a situation where the ancient world worked out what to do with those technologies, and advanced – without losing their ancient aesthetic, and even society. Bronzepunk is pretty often tied with Aetherpunk, with magic providing the advancement, but you don’t have to do this when writing your own.
Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a notable example, and one of my favourites. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas also gives us glimpses at a Bronzepunk world, while Gods of Egypt with its quasi-robotic Egyptian gods and fantastical technology is a great place to see a different segment of the classic world reimagined in Bronzepunk.
In a sentence, Clockpunk is Steampunk, but slightly more antique.
Clockpunk imagines Clockwork mechanisms taken to a pretty interesting level. The most fun part of clockpunk is that some parts of it are theoretically possible, just very inefficient. Clockwork mechanisms can get very complex and impressive, but require a lot of maintenance and effort.
It often has a 18th century aesthetic, inspired by the French court of Versailles and the Georgians, and in many ways Clockpunk is the technological side of the Rococopunk genre. Rococopunk is a very niche idea, and I cannot find any examples beyond one cosplay troupe, so I think it will probably stay under clockpunk for now.
The Girl in the Fireplace episode of Doctor Who’s second series is one of my favourite examples of clockpunk, with far future clockwork androids.
The granddaddy of punk genres, Cyberpunk is about the nearish future, focusing on rapid technological change. It often include dystopian governments who use technology to invade lives, and the alienation of the main characters from this society. Its often gritty, dark and kind of industrial in its aesthetic. Examples include Blade Runner, Altered Carbon and The Matrix.
The genre has its roots in the work of authors like Phillip K. Dick. A lot of cyberpunk deals in social revolution and the consequences of technologies interference in human life. Omni-present surveillance, horrifying weaponry, and the ease with which human bodyparts can be replaced with metal are some big keystones of cyberpunk technology.
Dieselpunk is a pretty notable example, and maybe the best known after Steampunk. Dieselpunk imagines the World War I, World War II and inter-war period, and takes that technology and industrial aesthetic to an extreme level. It’s start period is generally the beginning of World War I.
Dieselpunk was coined for the RPG Children of the Sun. And whereas Steampunk is generally optimistic about technology and the way advances can help humanity, dieselpunk is reflective of its period. Technology now turned primarily to the concern of war and efficiency.
The film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a great example of Dieselpunk.
Decopunk is a subcategory of the better known Dieselpunk. Really, all the difference is that while its gritter cousin has a tendency to be industrial and militaristic in aesthetic. In contrast, Decopunk adopts the gaudy style of Art Deco to its technology. Bioshock 1 is perhaps the best known example. I’ve written more about it here.
Formicapunk / Cassette Futurism / Modem Punk
Formicapunk is a shoutout to the 70s and 80s. A lot of Cassette Futurism is really a product of the producers of the 80s sci-fi having no clue how the future really would look, and going with what they had already. Bright colours, blocky computer screens and postmodern architecture. Many examples are actually sci-fi films and tv shows of the time period, who had to work with CRT screens and similar technology for their ‘futuristic’ sets. The anime Cowboy Bebop takes place in the 2070s, and pulls heavily from the 1970s style.
If Gothic Rock had a literary genre, this would be it. If you’re trying to identify Gothic Punk, you should keep an eye out for early 2000s architecture, big metropolis, and dark, brooding supernatural elements.
The White Wolf RPG Vampire: The Masquerade named this genre, and is the most prolific example yet. Other examples that leap to mind include Hellboy and Underworld.
Nanopunk, Cyberpunk and Biopunk really all have a lot in common. They just imagine the way that humans embrace technology differently. Nanopunk is about extreme nanotechnology.
Instead of cybernetics or genetic engineering, in Nanopunk tiny robots do the bidding of humanity and are used to enhance, or as weapons.
In contrast to its cousins, nanopunk is often shinier. Lots of chrome, stark colours and smooth surfaces. But the aesthetic of the genre hasn’t really been nailed down yet, as it still emerging. Crysis is a famous example, as well as the kids series Generator Rex. Big Hero 6 has some elements of nanopunk technology, without the aesthetic.
Silkpunk is steampunk moved to Japan, Korea and China. Whereas the Victorians had steamships and ironsides, Silkpunk is full of ideas like battle kites, weaponised fireworks, futuristic Chinese Junks, and terracotta automatons. Mixed with Asian herbal law, bickering Chinese gods and immortal Emperors, and the architectural styles of these diverse East Asian civilisations. The genre was named by author Ken Liu for the novel The Grace of Kings (affiliate link).
Solarpunk arose out of a Tumblr thread in 2014. It is much like Ecopunk, but with a more radically different image of the future in many ways. It combines environmentally friendly messages with art nouveau and African inspired architecture, creating a neo-classical, whimsical future. But I don’t want to downplay the fact that solarpunk retains the radical, punk roots of the genre, by insisting on radical societal change. Solarpunk has taken off, and is now contributing to environmental political movements vision of the future.
Lunarpunk is simply Solarpunk without the art nouveau aesthetic. Lunarpunk is dark and gothic, and often includes pagan, Satanic or Wiccan inspired imagery. It retains the environmental messages of solarpunk, just puts them in different trappings.
If Solarpunk and Oceanpunk had a child, it would be Tidalpunk. Tidalpunk is about solarpunk at sea, rebuilding after climate change, and the harnessing of tidal power.
Steampunk came next! The term was coined by author K.W Jeter in the late 1980s to describe to his and his contemporary author’s Victorian fantasy novels. The Difference Engine (1990) would also go on to do much for popularising the genre.
It’s all about the Victorian era, and technology based on cogs, gears and steam power. It is really, more specifically, about the 19th century British Empire. Steampunk rarely breaks free of its very British background, and other genres have popped up to cover the rest of the world.
Contrary to some opinions, steampunk can embrace the punk part of its name quite easily, if the author wants to. The Victorian era was, like the imagined future of cyberpunk, a time of great social and technological change. When technology started to push into lives, employment and government in a way it had never done before.
Add in zany scientists and imagined advancements that the Victorians proposed but never could achieve, and the conflict of society and technology becomes quite extreme. Just take a look at the history of the Luddite riots. There is plenty of room there to look at social inequality, racism and the rejection of sexuality the Victorians are famous for.
Cattlepunk is basically steampunk in the American West. The genres take place in relatively similar time periods real-world, so the main variation is the aesthetic and setting. Cowboys & Aliens, and the episode of Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy are some good examples.
Stonepunk is simple enough. Imagine the Flintstones. You got it.
Stonepunk is fundamentally using stone age technology in an extremely advanced way. It is perhaps the most extreme case of taking a technology past its natural stopping point. Often, the genre is simply played for laughs, and a lot of people don’t like including it among the punkpunk genres.
Flowerpunk: Punk based around the consumption of living beings. Imagery such as harvesting fairies for their glowing blood to make lightbulbs or soul-powered electricity is the core of flowerpunk.
Mannerspunk: Mannerspunk is the Regency period gone -punk. It often overlaps with steampunk, and basically is Fantasy of Manners made technological.
Afropunk: Not to be confused with the music genre of the same name, Afropunk is about a future that reimagines traditional African culture, architecture and technology in a sci-fi context. Proposed by the Swordsfall project.
Anthropunk / Furpunk : A proposed subgenre of biopunk where the future is occupied by anthromorphic animals (furries) created with genetic engineering.
Yurtpunk / Punkistan / Steppepunk : Futuristic punk genre that takes Mongolian and Near-East inspired architecture and culture to the stars.
Ecopunk / Greenpunk : The genre imagines environmental, grown solutions to humanities problems. Previously more popular, much of its previously distinct aesthetic features have been absorbed into Solarpunk
Elf Punk: Elf Punk is essentially Fae-focused urban fantasy, or in its more extreme forms fae-focused Aetherpunk. Bright and Onward are two recent films who try to explore this genre but it struggles to become more than just urban fantasy with elves.
Mythpunk: Mythpunk, despite following the traditional naming format, does not focus on technology. It is a literary genre focusing on retelling mythology and folklore from the point of view of queer people, people of colour and women.
Castlepunk / Middlepunk / Candlepunk: Middlepunk (from Middle ages) is retro science fiction using middle age technology. Plaguepunk specifically refers to the period between the Black Death and the Renaissance. Warhammer 40k is perhaps the closest to a popular media that explores this genre, but only in passing.
Dreadpunk: Dreadpunk focuses focus on pre-20th century horror aesthetics. Bloodborne, sections of the Dark Souls games, Sweeney Todd and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter fulfill some of the genres requirements. Rather than technology, it focuses on a supernaturally re-imagined 19th century. It is unclear how it differs from Gothic horror.
Mesopunk: Meso-american aesthetics taken to a sci-fi extreme.