I noticed the question of “where is the PUNK in Steampunk?” come up in a thread on United we Steampunk, Divided we Fall on Facebook this week. I’ve seen this question come up before, but somehow never got around to weighing in on the question in an article. The views expressed herein belong to yours truly, Phoebe Darqueling. I hope you will carry on the discussion in the comments here and on Facebook no matter whether you agree with me or not. But let’s keep things nice and splendid as we all talk about this together, shall we? We can be punks without being jerks.
The Philosophical Roots of Punk
I was born in 1984, so I spent a large portion of the late punk era watching Saturday morning cartoons. This is around the same time the word Steampunk came into being. So, it seems like the right moment in time being the discussion of the word “punk” and how it has changed since then. I am not going to pretend to be an expert in punk through experience, but there is a lot to learn through research.
When the punk movement began in the 1970s, there were a few important pieces at its heart. One was an anti-establishment ethos. You don’t have to be an anarchist, but good punks call “Foul!” when “the system” works against the people rather than for them. They push against those systems and the people who propagate them by acting and dressing in a way that disturbs people. There’s an undeniable element of theatricality as these limits (and the accompanying mohawks) got pushed bigger and wider.
This dovetails with the belief that no one should be able to tell you how to act, and by extension, interact with the things you love. Punk musicians didn’t play music because they were trained musicians. They did it because they wanted to express themselves. Punk clothing was a direct and conscious breaking with the mainstream fashions. Individual expression became paramount. (Though of course, even this became codified to some degree, much to the chagrin of the “true” punks. Sound familiar…?)
Though I do not draw a direct line of cause and effect between the punk movement and the various literature-punk genres, I see all the anachropunks as having these same values at their core. And it’s why I keep coming back for more. Maybe I’m odd because I love them all, maybe I’m not. Make no mistake; I am not drawing a direct, causal line between mohawks and tea-dueling. Instead, the goal of this article is to highlight where I see the overlap between the principles and co-evolution of the words punk and Steampunk.
What do I Mean by Anachropunk?
Some people prefer “Metapunk,” “Retropunk,” or other terms to mean the same thing I do with Anachropunk. I just like the sound it, and it carries slightly different connotations than the others. Plus, it feels like a word with enough room to include a lot of works by different people in different fandoms.
The beginning of the word – “anachro” – means roughly “without regard to time.” You have probably seen the word “anachronism” before, meaning a phrase or object in the wrong time period. This could be something annoying like slang from the 1920’s being used in film set in 1890. On the other hand, anachronisms can be downright hilarious. The thing that matters is the juxtaposition. By putting two things together that don’t belong, it calls attention to both. This is why we love mash-ups so much!
The term “Cyberpunk” came first, but since then many different “punk” genres have emerged. Sometimes, these people are sequestering themselves by strict time guidelines, others are only interested in the technology. There’s Dieselpunk (roughly World War eras), Atompunk (roughly early days of space travel), Silkpunk (various part of Asian history punked), Afropunk (the experience of Africans and their diaspora) — just to name a few. These are all direct off-shoots of the notion of the punk ethos of questioning authority, just set in different times and places.
Schisms and Common Ground
This in-group, out-group gnashing of teeth plays out all over the internet, and the various Anachropunk communities are no different. I tend to be a “lumper” rather than a “divider,” so I wanted a word that would cover all of these amazing punks regardless of which time period inspires them. (I’ve talked about defining Steampunk as an act of identity-building in another post.) Personally, I see no merit in splitting hairs between “Steampunk” and “Clockpunk.” But I know many people care about this distinction, and some very deeply. That’s fine, too. We can both enjoy the things we love in our own way. It’s part of what makes us punks.
When “anachro” is combined with “punk,” you get a word that means “giving the finger to ‘the man’ without regards to time period.” For writers, ‘the man’ could be the mainstream publishing house that won’t buy your amazing crossover fiction because they don’t think it would sell. “The man” could be your employer who won’t let you dress in your fancy duds whenever you want. Or it could be the game show network that’s bringing you down. We are all faced with people and institutions that thrive on telling us “no.” Punks don’t take no for an answer. Instead, they keep on asking, “What if?”
Punk Becomes a Verb
Oftentimes, this dissatisfaction over the status quo showed through the actions, music, and other creations of the punks. It led to action (as well as many, many mosh pits), and even in the early days, “punk” was synonymous with “doing.” These might not have always been actions the mainstream liked, which tweaked the meaning. During the 1990s, the noun got verbed and came to mean something like “taking action in order to cause mischief.” Pretty soon, farmers everywhere were shaking their sawed-offs at passersby yelling, “Stay off my lawn, you punks!”
Later, if a person had mischief done onto them, you could say they “had been punked.” This made them a punk, but confusingly, the person who did the mischief could also be considered a punk. By 2003, this shift in was so popular, MTV named its celebrity prank program “Punk’d.” He made a variety of famous people the butt of a joke, both humanizing our idols (the status quo) and cementing the meaning as a verb. Plus, dropping the “e” is punking the very spelling of the word punk. Nice one, MTV.
(If you are going to stop reading here so you can rush off to comment how “But that means people are just using it wrong now! Grumble, grumble,” I will ask that you reconsider. You’re going to make me bust out my Cultural Anthropology point of view and I’ll end up post-moderning myself to death about how language is a living thing. Nobody wants that. Have mercy!)
Finding Analogs and Comparisons in the Past
Just because someone uses the trappings of the past to inform their setting, it doesn’t limit their messages to the people of the past. Steampunk stories often use an Industrial era setting to explore contemporary issues. The way humans evolve alongside the technology they create is at the heart of much of science fiction. This historical flavor of the “what if” game isn’t the soul provenance of any one anachropunk. All the same, it’s a theme that crops up time and time again.
To be any of the “anachropunks,” some element of the real or imagined past has to be made “alternative” in some way to earn the punk moniker. Even the Steampunk stories that involve the upper crust are CONSTANTLY problematizing the time and place that inspired them. Women, minorities, differently-abled people, the poor, differing sexualities — they all get a voice in Steampunk in a way they never did with writers like Jules Verne and their scientific romances. (Fiction written in the past that speculated about the future.) The books that have inspired the Steampunk genre are full of bias and ugly stereotypes. Writing a world without these stereotypes is a way of calling attention to them.
In addition, I’d argue that critics should spend as much time looking at the villains as they do the heroes. Robber barons, war-mongerers, cold-hearted scientists and pirates bent on world domination — Steampunk heroes battle them all. More often then not, if a nasty Vic-wardian tidbit is included, it is the villain who does it. Writers use them to give voice to, and so problematize, issues of the past through the mouthpiece of the “bad guy.” Bringing attention to racism isn’t racist; talking about exploitation isn’t inherently exploitative.
A Spoonful of Sugar
I shared a panel with editor Sarah Hans, editor of Steampunk World and Steampunk Universe, in July. She pointed out that Steampunk tends to be more optimistic than its punk brethren. That may make it harder for people to see the similarities. Don’t forget, adding humor is a way to “punk” the status quo and it takes the sting out reality. (Examples: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Another Period.) Jesters and stand up comedians have a long history of telling hard truths through comedy. Never underestimate the power of laughter to open people to new ideas.
It’s also important to go back to the source materials. Early science fiction problematized technology, but also dreamed big. With enough drive and resources, heroes and villains of the earlier adventures and scientific romances could accomplish anything. Many Steampunk writers look to that whimsy and optimism, and attempt to infuse their work with it. Real life is dark enough; it’s okay to be drawn to the light sometimes. Still, this could be part of the reason there is a debate at all. The other punks tends toward the dystopian, so it can be hard to see where Steampunk can fit in when the focus can seem so different.
In All It’s Glory?
Occasionally, I’ve seen criticism of Steampunk that it “glorifies” the Victorian era. The only thing I can think to say in response is, “Are you sure you’ve been reading Steampunk?”
We can all agree that Steampunk is more than just historical fiction. (Fiction written in the present about the past as it occurred.) And not just because storytellers have the freedom to set their punk stories in a fantasy world that never existed. I believe in many cases, the people who make this criticism are in fact reading outside of the genre. For me at least, by definition Steampunk that truly deserves that label can’t glorify that past simply because it is punk. That might be a little too circular to satisfy everybody, but it’s my train of thought.
This isn’t to say that people can’t have a spiffing good time enjoying some of the finer things. Some people did live lives of luxury. And let’s face it, they would have waaaaaay more free time to go on adventures than your average working class stiff. As long as anything in those pages calls attention to some sort of social or historical issue, then it’s accurate to call it Steampunk. If it glosses over all negative aspects of the steam era or setting informed by it, Steampunk isn’t the best genre to describe it.
And again, let’s not underplay the importance of the villain. The bad dudes and dudettes in Steampunk literature tend to be elite and bigoted. Or, perhaps scientist who has lost their ability to see people as human beings. The characters who revel in and glorify their stations tend to be the evil ones. This can say far more about the goals of the story than who their heroes are.
If we are going to discuss the “punk” part of the word, then we get into general matters of definition of Steampunk. Plenty of people have tackled that question, and we don’t need to cover it in detail here. Still, it’s important to recognize that if even the meaning of “punk” is open for interpretation, that the meaning of Steampunk is going to remain in flux alongside it. Punk meant (and means) different things to people in different parts of the world. It’s no surprise that Steampunk would be a the same way.
When it comes to action for today’s Steampunks, I can attest to lot of involvement with charities. Around the world, Steampunk clubs collect food for the poor, convention organizers donate ticket profits, and people do all sorts of splendid things. The Collaborative Writing Challenge is donating part of the proceeds from their Steampunk collaboration to charity. (Plus, they are currently looking for Steampunk short stories to publish!) It might not involve a mosh pit, but these are examples of people in the Steampunk community standing up for people left behind by the system, and doing their part to make a better world.
Are you a fan of lots of different “punks,” or just Steampunk? Can you think of any examples of various punks to help out others?
Share in the comments!