To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’.
– Joey Ramone
What is punk? Punk, for me, is the spirit of embracing that which is new and different. A different that is often regarded as strange, bad, and frightening. Punk is not primarily about rejection, but about acceptance of the unfamiliar. Punk finds what it likes and enjoys it regardless of what the rest of the world likes or deems appropriate. Punk looks for the new and exciting and embraces it with everything its got. Punk doesn’t care if it’s accepted by the mainstream. Science fiction has always been punk.
Why is science fiction punk? The modern usage of punk references the musical genre and the people to play and listen to it. Punk is seen as dangerous and rebellious. What is more dangerous and rebellious than ideas and situations where the world is significantly altered in some fashion? Punk is about change. Change is often shocking. The best science fiction will shock a reader in some way.
For a long time, science fiction was regarded as something less than mainstream fiction. Its authors were not well respected by the world at large except by the fans of science fiction. The fans of science fiction, however, were and are, very passionate about it. That passion in turned created things like satellite communications, computers, rockets to the moon, mobile phones and tablets, and so many other things we take for granted on an hourly basis.
The early punks of science fiction included people like Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, C.M. Kornbluth, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, John Campbell Jr., and Harry Harrison. These authors and editors took what they loved and regardless of what the rest of the world thought, created, published, and worked to get their ideas heard. The stories they wrote created a foundation upon which all modern science fiction is based.
And while the term ‘punk’ was not part of their vocabulary at that time, the fact that they went against established literary norms to write about their world, makes them as punk as if they went around wearing chains through their noses and their hair coloured and spiked. These past giants might not thank me for considering their work punk, but they had a contrary and rebellious streak a mile wide.
The next punk movement in science fiction started in the 1960’s. Authors like Samuel Delany, M. John Harrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffery, Brian Aldiss, and J. G. Ballard took a look at the world and the science fiction that had been written before and guided their stories in an entirely new direction. The new futures created by these authors didn’t have the clean and gleaming veneers science fiction until then had embodied. Now the futures were worn and dirty, both physically and emotionally. The new futures were less black and white and more varying shades of grey.
These New Wave science fiction punks ushered in a more psychologically and socially oriented kind of science fiction. The focus was removed the scientific and engineering marvels of the future and shifted to the people that created and used them. The central ideas became less on the how and more on the why of the story. That isn’t to say that the science fiction of the time wasn’t brimming full of new gadgets and technologies; it’s just that those were not the main purpose of the story in the first place.
New Wave punks once more railed against what the norm was and rather than conforming, made science fiction their own, breathing new life in the genre. And although they were younger than the old guard, the past punks could see what was happening and rather than turning their noses up at it, they embraced and incorporated the new into their own works instead. The first science fiction punks were still punk as hell.
Then in the 1970s, with the end of the moon landings, the world stopped looking forward to the future and started looking groundward instead. By the early 1980s things started becoming pretty grim with an oil crisis, coal strikes, recession, Thatcherism, Reaganism, and a myriad of other world problems appearing, a new movement began in science fiction.
The core of this new movement was comprised of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Bethke, and Greg Bear. Bruce Bethke’s short story Cyberpunk was published in 1983 in Amazing Stories giving rise to the name of this new science fiction movement.
Cyberpunk is often considered the first punk movement in science fiction, but as we’ve already seen, this just isn’t the case. It’s the first punk movement of science fiction that has garnered attention from the world at large. Cyberpunk, when it first appeared, explored the themes of overpopulation, hyper-commercialism, and instant communication in a way that was completely revolutionary at the time.
Cyberpunk stories were fuelled by the anger and hard driving music of punk-rock but incorporated a technological violence that hadn’t even been considered by the researchers at DARPA or CERN. The ideas written in those stories have become the lingo and jargon of our daily lives, but the authors of those stories were writing about what they saw at the time and telling their stories in a new way that took what had come before and giving it a dirty new edge.
Once more, the old punks could have turned their backs on cyberpunk or said it was worthless, but the opposite happened. People like Gardner Dozois and Isaac Asimov extolled cyberpunk and helped to bring it to the forefront of science fiction at the time. Showing they were punk all over again.
Cyberpunk, as a science fiction movement, burned brightly but lasted less than a decade. Since then there hasn’t been a ‘punk’ movement within science fiction that I can recognize. Things are either post-cyberpunk, or post-space opera, or post-dystopian. Post, meaning after, has taken on an especially negative connotation for me. Post implies that we are stuck looking backwards. That all the new has been used up and we’re just maintaining the status quo. Post-anything in literature is not where we should be headed.
Have we come too far too quickly for new authors to look at the world and say ‘Hey, this isn’t what I want. This is what I want.’? The new authors I’ve read are for the most part competent, but there isn’t anything in them that makes me excited and leap out of my chair to extoll the newness of what it’s saying. It makes me very worried about the future of science fiction, and indeed of the worl, when new ideas are not coming forward at a regular rate.
We are certainly improving what we’ve already done, but without a steady influx of the new, we are simply treading old ground over and over. We need to be on the lookout for that spark, that je ne sais quoi that will reveal itself to be the next punk movement in science fiction. That thing that will leap forward and scream ‘Here I am! I don’t care if you like me!’ and with that change things, hopefully, for the better.
I’ve said science fiction is punk. Like all things punk it accepts far more than it rejects, it makes no apologies for existing, and it pushes our ideas into interesting and unexpected places, shining a light into the unknown. The light in the dark places can reveal more about who we want to be than who we are at the moment.