For Steampunk, Solarpunk, and Cyberpunk, aesthetic and meaning go hand in hand. In an age of extinction and resurgent fascism, -punk has a choice: hack that meaning, or become a passive monument for others to fight over.
God forbid, of course, we treat the contents of -punk as though they matter.
This seems to be the dogma I run into any time I criticize a Cyberpunk or Steampunk or Solarpunk work for not being particularly punk or -punk. If Steampunk is culturally understood as nothing more than gears hot glued to a top hat, well, that's just how it is. Anyway, isn't demanding language stay consistent over time elitist and prescriptivist?
The hell with that.
I don't think it's that unreasonable, in the face of an age of extinction and fascism, to criticize works with the word "-punk" in their genre for caring less about sticking it to The Man than being The Man.
In the context, in particular, of escalating white nationalist violence surrounding the many Confederate statues erected in the United States as a rebuttal to Civil Rights, in the context of the era of cogwheels and steam becoming a site of semiotic and all-too-literal war, that comes off as a pretty cowardly response to critique. Do you really mean to say that after all the energy poured into crafting an aesthetic, selecting symbols from a particular era, manipulating and rewriting them, after all of this work, it was all done for no fucking reason whatsoever, and the end result says nothing of importance?
I never realized that -punk was just a big absurdist performance piece, after all!
Let me grant, though, this: I'm allergic to prescriptivism myself, too genderfucked and neurodivergent and suspicious of authority to be too comfortable with hidebound rules. Listing off a series of "-punk works must contain x, y, and z qualities to be definitionally valid" doesn't seem all that -punk to me. Hell, I'd even put up some resistance to the idea that -punk should be particularly Punk Rock, if only because Neuromancer, the progenitor text, so clearly is using "punk" in a more abstract way. Case isn't walking around with band patches held onto his clothes with safety pins.
This is ok, though, because what's important to me isn't whether there's gears on your hat but what those gears actually do. Not in the sense of what they do mechanically, though I'd appreciate a practical -punk, but what work they do as symbols. Do those gears make up The Machine or do they express the rage against it? Do those gears move or are they inert?
Bluntly: when the lines are drawn up between the Nazis rallying around a Confederate monument, and the antifascists who would tear down the symbol of hate...
Are you and your gears on the right side of that line?
Or are you and your gears on the left side of that line?
Or do all your costumes and gadgets turn you into the passive monument in the middle?
There's an incredible narrative jump early in Dreadnought, Cherie Priest's volume in her Clockwork Century project, her attempt at creating a defining series for Steampunk. We jump from the nurse protagonist Mercy Lynch trying to decide whether or not to travel across the country to meet her estranged, dying father... to Mercy already on the titular Dreadnought, a Union train, as it desperately tries to outrun the Confederate train the Shenandoah. It was an incredible moment for me because it highlighted the way that narratives can be filled in by the reader, even across massive leaps. Neal Stephenson, himself critical to -punk narrative developments, employs such tricks, jumping from interesting idea to interesting idea and trusting that the reader will keep up. It's exhilarating.
It was also not at all how the book is actually constructed. No, it turned out that my idiot music player on my phone stuck parts 10-12 of the audio book directly after part 1. That massive leap in time and space wasn't an avant garde technique, it was just a technological cockup.
I'm glad it happened, though, because it highlighted for me the fact that a large part of Mercy's journey could be plucked out without really altering the plot of the story. That's not that surprising--this is something Roland Barthes identifies as a function of storytelling rhetoric in his narratological theory. The basic form of a story is the series of essential plot points that cannot be added or subtracted without altering the narrative. The rest is just window dressing.
Or, not just window dressing. Window dressing is never just window dressing. A shop window display can carry a ton of potent meaning, and a statue is more than mere representation. A story might be defined by its overall contours, but a lot of the interest to stories, according to Barthes, comes from what other information is included or excluded, what other side-moments and non-essential descriptions enter into the text. For speculative fiction, all this side detail is, in fact, the main show. Even narratives that might follow the same contours regardless of setting (does it matter that clipping.'s Splendor and Misery is set not on a slave ship but a slave spaceship?) fundamentally transform when given new aesthetics, new worldbuilding mechanics, and new contexts (yes, it's crucial that Splendor and Misery is set on a slave spaceship because that reveals the glorious future of hard sci fi is still colonized territory!).
And the main show for Dreadnought--the main show, in fact, for the whole of the Clockwork Century series--is the variety of people caught up and trying to stay afloat within a war-torn world of disastrous politics and rampant technology. This material is what makes the Clockwork Century books truly -punk.
I could try and define -punk and lay out a set of principles that the tradition that begins with Cyberpunk, was reapplied elsewhere in time as Steampunk, and has since splintered into wider genres like Dieselpunk, Biopunk, and Solarpunk should adhere to. We agreed, though, to blow off The Man's prescriptivism, though--even our own. Besides, I didn't go into any of Priest's novels--or William Gibson's or Neal Stephenson's for that matter--with a set test for what -punk or what specifically Cyberpunk or Steampunk are, and compare those works to the platonic ideal.
Here's what I got out of them instead: Prototypes. Methods.
Think of it like this: Dreadnought contains massive war trains, zeppelins, and steam-powered mech suits. It's awesome. It also contains drugs that turn people into zombies. That's also awesome. A prescription for Steampunk might require the trains, airships, and mechs. It might exclude zombies as off-genre. Or it might not!
But in Priest, these elements aren't a prescription, they're a method. The zombies, for example: they as a haunting reminder of the slaughter of the Civil War.
This is a useful way of making tangible the cost of this Steampunk world. Their mechanism of spreading--through the drug "sap"--is also a solid -punk example of new technology being converted into poison, analogous to Snow Crash or the drugs Gibson's protagonists must take in order to best other hackers.
It's that contemporary boogieman Worldbuilding, god help us, and it's aesthetic, and a narrative driver, and it represents a method of exploring ideas about power, technology, and social sickness. It's an onrushing apocalypse brought on by a combination of the white greed that saw the South desperately cling to a disintegrating economic order, and... well, more white greed, as drug lords erect a whole zombie-spawning industry built on numbing, temporarily, the mass trauma of the Civil War. And all this in the context of an independent Texas that wants the war to continue because it's making so much money selling its newly developed diesel technology to the Confederacy, and a Union eager to snatch up Western territories.
Who's killing the world? Priest needs no black-hatted sky pirate to twirl his waxed mustache. The aesthetics, the symbols, her methods of doing Steampunk have the answer, as bold as any monument.
You could replace practically every meeting with every side character Mercy Lynch runs into on her way from one coast to the other with something or something else and get a story that would largely follow the same contours. The plot (and Dreadnought itself) chug along regardless of whether Mercy meets up with, say, the freed black woman who owns her own restaurant, for example. That's what makes the meeting important. The meeting reveals that as the Civil War grinds on, slavery must end, because the mass military apparatus necessary to maintaining an economy built on chattel slavery is busy fighting the Union. It reveals Mercy's complex position: willing to help the woman's injured son, but also unsure how to act towards someone who previously was far below her in the social order and now is, at least economically speaking, arguably her superior. It reveals, through an encounter with a wealthy, elderly Southern couple, that all the much lauded Southern Hospitality doesn't count for much when the Hospitable Southerners discover that they're eating in the (franchise!) restaurant of a free black woman.
Oh, and it reveals that Benioff and Weiss have failed upwards, "Confederacy" is gonna be a terrible show, and sff should be handed over to the more capable hands of literally anyone other than cishet white dudes.
What encounters like this do is introduce the audience to a wide spread of the social order. The mechanisms of economics, war, prejudice, and social inertia add up to a complex machine, and through these interactions Priest is giving us a glimpse into the workings of that machine. They offer a look into the world Priest created, its politics, and its moments of potentially radical change.
The other books operate similarly: Boneshaker explores not just the ins and outs of how the Walled City of Seattle, filled with the zombie-spawning blight gas, still functions under its cloud of toxins, but also the nature of the city's secretive inhabitants. Ganymede splits its time between Texan-occupied New Orleans and the resistance fighters there (seen through the eyes of a black woman whose bordello doubles as a spy operation) and the route to New Orleans from Seattle (seen through the eyes of the enormous air pirate who has been hired by the resistance to secret the submarine prototype Ganymede out of the city). While all the books share characters, they tell separate narratives, focus on separate protagonists, and each supplement the plot with a range of encounters with side characters that flesh out the world.
Oh, and it's telling that the protagonists are a pirate, a resistance spy and sex worker, a battlefield nurse, and a middle aged mother. How many Steampunk stories focus on aristocrats in their fanciful airships? These stories focus on low class women, on people struggling to get by in the world, on people whose power extends as far as their loyal companions and the guns they hold and no further (even if those guns might be, like, sonic or steam guns).
My point isn't that -punk stories definitionally require low class protagonists, or even that they must be as sprawling as the Clockwork Century books, it's that making an aesthetic and narrative choice about who to focus on does different work, reveals or obscures truths about the setting. And it's not just the choice of protagonist but the choice to populate the world and explore it in depth, the choice to introduce a wide variety of perspectives, that strikes me as doing something radical, something -punk.
The idea of defining -punk not just by aesthetic signifiers but by what those signifiers do isn't unique to me, of course. That's kind of core to Solarpunk's whole deal, at least in theory. Some of its chosen aesthetics carry cool potential. Take Art Nouveau, for example, beloved by Steampunks and Solarpunks alike. I can't speak to all Art Nouveau artists, but Alphonse Mucha, famed poster-maker, had leftist leanings and was interested in an elevation of daily life through the beauty of nature. That's a damn good start! The somewhat related Arts and Crafts movement proposed a return to craft as a response to the cheap factory goods and miserable factory conditions of industrialization.
The history of these aesthetics, though, is a problem for Steam and Solarpunk. See, the cost of these hand crafted goods was just by necessity more than the more easily and cheaply produced factory goods. Mucha himself became something of a pet for the elite of Paris and gradually found that his ability to create works of deeper significance was hampered by his constant production of commercial work and commissions from the bourgeoisie. An enrichment of daily life, to be sure... but for whom? If using the aesthetics is to do more work than just Looking Nice, and to avoid standing passively as a prize to be won between the line between fascism and resistance, we need a better model for integrating them into -punk.
"What Is Solarpunk?
" is, despite the title, less an explanation of Solarpunk as it stands than a design document for what Solarpunk might be. I'd call it a manifesto but design document really feels a bit more fitting to me--the aim of passages where it lays out stylistic roots while asserting that Solarpunk "engenders a celebration of hybridity while still being sensitive to the problems of cultural appropriation" seems to be to set out a kind of creative best practices list, a methodology. It's kind of telling that Solarpunk is so distant from reality that even the description of its speculative fiction is, itself, speculative, a utopian vision of a utopian vision. And yet, this document more grounded
than a lot of -punk.
For author Connor Owens, punk and -punk are political projects, a kind of orientation against the powers that be--against The Man--and towards the oppressed. This might not jive perfectly well with a history of punk (after all, this could just as easily describe hippies as punks!) but that's kind of beside the point when we're talking about something that is so many mutations removed from The Clash. What's really important here is that Owens is setting out an aesthetic and narrative standard here that privileges the unprivileged. This is a pretty far remove from the strands of steampunk that slap clockwork onto Victorian aristocrats and call it a day!
This is critical for a speculative fiction movement. Aesthetics, narrative, and politics are all deeply interwoven here, because who in the imagined world you focus on radically alters all three simultaneously. Moreover, divorcing once strand of these things (aesthetics, typically, but I could also point to the adoption of many-times-removed "pulp" narrative tropes) from the others, and from politics in particular, leaves things kind of hollow. That's what amr al-aaser argues occurs in cyberpunk works
that stray too far from the movement's political roots. For al-aaser, the aesthetic choices of cyberpunk are visual signs, they signify certain political concerns, and using them without understanding the politics behind them results in an incoherent and empty set of utterances.
These design documents vie against a constant conversational drift that voids the visual language of -punk of its meaning and significance. For al-aaser in particular, Cyberpunk's imagery does particular things, expresses ideas and about technology and the way it overtakes humanity. Phil Sandifer pointed out to me after my first article that Steampunk might best be seen as doing the work of Cyberpunk with Victorian technology. That certainly fits the Clockwork Century books. The first advanced technology Mercy encounters is one of the otherworldly Walkers, off in the distance, a steam powered mech suit crashing through the trees, seemingly unstoppable. Oh, and, of course, there are the men she encounters in an advanced stage of sap addiction, their bodies beginning to rot, nearly insensible and increasingly driven to bite at anything living that comes near. Technology, in the context of war, becoming a force unto itself, egged on by characters like the doctor seeking to transform the blight gas into a mass chemical weapon, all for the sake of his own professional advancement and profit.
For the characters in these books, the power of technology, like postmodernism and the apocalypse, is something inflicted on them... but it's not really the main show. The giant drilling engine Boneshaker, for example, doesn't do a damn thing in its book. It's only important to the extent that its joyride through Seattle tore open the hole in the earth that unleashed the blight gas, more than a decade before the story begins! These books each draw their title from some sort of machine, but in the same way that the outline of the plot isn't really the main show, Priest doesn't seem all that interested in doing a Jules Verne breakdown of her devices.
What matters is exploring the way ordinary people deal with the sudden imposition of technology into their lives, and the way that technology, economics, and politics constrain them... and the way they fight back.
Here's what we've learned about monocultures: they get blights. They're vulnerable. They're easy to co-opt.
My big beef with superheroes for a while now has been the way they tend to cause narratives to bend and warp around them, the whole world transformed to facilitate the singular protagonist. In our fascist hour, though, a narrative ecology based on monocultures is unsustainable. No single savior is coming to defeat the singular villain, The Man is much too big and diffuse for just one hero, one story, one perspective to take down. If there's one thing the media age defined by the Marvel Cinematic Universe can give to us, it's the idea of telling many stories, with many heroes, not all of whom will always get along.
Aesthetics that mutter only to themselves trend similarly towards sterility. Oh, don't give me the "frankenfood" line, but if you want to talk about how patented genes give monopoly control to a few Cyberpunk-style megacorps, I'm listening. Alphonse Mucha said to copy nature, not to copy Mucha, and even Mucha didn't create mere clones of plants, sowing the same engineered seeds in all his work, but explored different forms for different contexts, his religious work different from his poster work different from his political work.
Can Steampunk survive an aesthetic war over Confederate monuments and over a Victorian history that is, already, all too white? If it's going to, it's got to start looking to its prototypes, adapting their methods. Can Solarpunk survive an age of extinction where we might get dress makers and Art Nouveau solar panels for the few, drought and devastation for the many? If it's going to, it's got to think beyond how fashion and design look and focus on what they do.
Because god forbid, of course, we treat the contents of -punk as though they don't matter.
Doing -punk seems to me about doing work to push back against monoculture and The Man. Doing -punk might mean writing like Priest does, multiple heroes sharing a world, the narrative about the journey through that world and the perspectives in it. Not necessarily, of course--not every -punk story needs to have a sprawling journey, just as not ever -punk story needs bomb throwing anarchists. (Though more of that sort of thing is to be encouraged in the strongest terms.)
Not every -punk story needs protagonists who are heroes, even, or people who succeed. Certainly Cyberpunk has its share of broken and detestable protagonists, and that's not a bad thing. The flip side of taking a stand against The Man is the reality that The Man--capitalism, inequality, white supremacist patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the specific institutions and organizations that those systems beget--has big fucking boots that He uses to stomp on human faces, forever. Doing -punk might demand a range of aesthetics that reveals that reality so that it can be acted upon.
I suppose all this is a way of saying that -punk's methods should be geared toward a spirit of revolution. If its aesthetics are about grappling with, visualizing, responding to, and finally taking control of various technological and inevitably political regimes, its storytelling should probably mirror that. So where's the spirit of revolution in Boneshaker, Dreadnought, and Ganymede? Well, Annie Wilkes does totally upset the social order in Seattle by way of deposing the vicious kingpin posing as her husband (who, incidentally, it turns out she ALSO shot, because he was a bastard). And of course Josephine and Andon, the dual protagonists of Ganymede, end up using their submarine to blow up a bunch of Texan ships, so that's pretty rad.
But Mercy Lynch certainly does nothing of the sort. She's just a woman on a train, for the most part, and nothing she does fundamentally alters the course of the war, though it no doubt had meaningful impact on its contours.
That's cool though. I mean I don't think that fundamentally undermines the extent to which Mercy is a -punk character, within the context of her narrative. I don't think the spirit of -punk demands she hurl bombs at the leaders of the Confederacy. That's not really an accurate perspective on what it's like to exist under the heel of hegemonic power--not everyone's going to be a hero, and not every -punk story should be a power fantasy.
What Mercy brings to the table is a growing willingness, over the course of the novel, to plant herself in the path of history and demand a new direction for the actions of people in authority over her, a willingness to discard the trappings of polite culture and the expectations placed on her, and a resistance to the technocrats leveraging violence for their own ends. It is Mercy who begins to piece together their state with the stories of a Mexican battalion gone mad and turned to cannibalism, providing the crucial information that allows the Confederates, Unionists, Texan ranger, and Mexican agents who wind up on the train to recognize the oncoming zombie crisis. It is Mercy who uncovers the purpose for the bodies contained in the Dreadnought's caboose--raw material for a plan to weaponize the blight gas--and convinces the commanding Union officer that developing such a weapon, even for the Union, would be an unconscionable atrocity.
Mercy, in a way, comes across to me as the most -punk character of all, not because she fits some prearranged definition of what a hero should look like, but because of the way she engages with her world and grows from passively having events inflicted upon her (the death of a husband in the war; the summons by an estranged father) to actively piecing together information, making alliances with the other groups on board the Dreadnought, and loudly informing men with considerably more power than her where she stands in terms of right and wrong.
Mercy's not a born hacker god or whatever the Steampunk equivalent of that would even be. She's just a nurse. But she pays attention to the world around her and, ultimately, she makes a judgment and picks her side. She is not a power fantasy, but neither is she passive, and she has a hacker's relationship to information: she compiles it, correlates it, makes connections and uses it to demand the consideration of those with more power.
Aesthetics, worldbuilding, and methods of storytelling are the main show in science fiction and fantasy. They are the information-carriers. -Punks can certainly just clothe themselves in this range of symbols without worrying too much about it, if they're that deeply committed to being showroom dummies. But I think, when you strip away all the prescriptions, what -punk at its best asks:
Are you someone else's monument, or are you an aesthetic hacker?
I’m a statue of a man who looks nothing like a man
But here I stand
Grim and solid
No scarlet secret’s mine to hold
Just a century of cold and thin and useless
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