Sci-Fi Subgenres: Breaking Down the Punks

sci fi subgenres

The practice of segmenting films, books, games, and stories into genres can get pretty tricky. Sometimes, a novel or film fits neatly into the conventions set down by a genre, other times the waters are a little muddier. But sci-fi subgenres have exploded in the past few years, and there a lot more categories with which to classify new (and old) work.

One of the large subsections of science fiction literature classification falls on the ‘punk’.  The idea of ‘punk’ literature focuses on the outcasts from society, the rebels, the vigilantes, those who go against the grain. The punks.

Genres like cyberpunk and steampunk sparked a flurry of smaller subsections that have distinct conventions, and often subvert the aesthetics of their parent genre.

In this blog post, we’ll break down some of the well-established ‘punk’ sci-fi subgenres and take a look at the rising stars.

Cyberpunk: Where It All Began

The term cyberpunk is now kind of a commonplace, kitchen-table word. It refers to science fiction literature (and by literature, I lump the written, visual, and interactive together) that takes place in a futuristic world filled with advanced tech, but riddled with socio-economic issues.

Characters in cyberpunk literature are often downtrodden, working-class loners rebelling against some kind of convention, whether that’s their corporate overlords or street gangs that control their neighborhood.

The term cyberpunk came from a short story of the same name by author Bruce Bethke in 1983, even though sci-fi writers had been exploring the themes of the genre years before there was a name to associate with them.

Authors like Roger Zelazny, Philip K. Dick, Gardner Dozois, and William Gibson pioneered the movement with their fiction and non-fiction alike.

Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson is one of the pinnacles of the cyperpunk genre, and helped bring more attention to the aesthetics of the genre as a whole. Films like Blade Runner, comics like Judge Dredd, and anthologies like Mirrorshades kept cyberpunk in the limelight.

Recently, the genre has gained some attention from the release of CD Projekt Red’s triple-A video game, Cyperpunk 2077. While the game and its release were largely a disaster, it succeeded in introducing newcomers to the genre of cyberpunk.

And with all the attention the cyperpunk genre has received, writers began to deviate from the aesthetics of cyberpunk, sparking new genres like solarpunk and biopunk.

Biopunk Aesthetics

Biopunk as a genre is closely related to cyberpunk. Both are set in dystopian futures with rampant technological advancement.

However, the distinction between the two genres comes down to body modification. In cyberpunk, people often alter their bodies with cyberware and technological implants. Eye implants, enhanced limbs, etc. etc.

But biopunk takes that convention a step further, altering bodies using biotechnology like genetic engineering.

Biopunk still keeps the dark, grungy aesthetics of cyperpunk, dystopian futures; it just focuses more on the implications of governments or corporations using bioengineering as a tool to control people.

Popular books in this genre include:

  • The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfield
  • The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler
  • Change Agent by Daniel Suarez

Solarpunk Aesthetics

Solarpunk is one of the relatively new sci-fi subgenres, really only established with a set of conventions and aesthetics in the late 2000s. Internet communities and literary icons alike were instrumental in bringing solarpunk into the public eye.

Where cyberpunk is rooted in dystopia and worlds wrought with misfortune, apocalyptic landscapes, and ever-encroaching environmental failure, solarpunk focuses on futures where we’ve overcome issues like climate change with sustainable practices and renewable energy. Hence the solar in solarpunk, in reference to solar energy.

Solarpunk literature often takes an upbeat tone, optimistic about the future and proud of overcoming the issues of the past. Works often have a heavy focus on nature as well as sustainable technology, which is what really sets the genre apart from cyberpunk, a genre that for the most part ignores nature.

Some notable solarpunk works include:

  • Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
  • Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland
  • Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Modern Steampunk and Victorian Steampunk

When I hear the word steampunk, I think of elaborate Victorian-era costumes with neat techy-bits, airships, and tall, whimsical buildings.

The steampunk genre is often described as the point of deviation in our historical timeline where steam power overtakes other forms of power, like electricity. Writers in the steampunk genre explore historical events and settings with the “what if steam powered technology was the end-all-be-all” question in mind. Alternate history narratives, cosplay, and visual art mediums are also very popular in the steampunk genres. 

The term steampunk was coined by K.W. Jeter in the 1980s, but the term applied to work published before then, as far back as Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Steampunk literature generally takes on a more optimistic tone than cyberpunk and dieselpunk (a steampunk derivative).

Settings for steampunk stories are a bit more fluid than cyberpunk’s megapolis dystopias. Steampunk can be set in alternate histories of the Victorian era, in the American Wild West, or even in post-apocalyptic settings.

Popular early voices in the genre, while they might not have considered themselves voices for the genre, include:

  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harry Harrison
  • Paul Di Filippo

Dieselpunk Aesthetics

Just like solarpunk contrasts with cyberpunk, dieselpunk contrasts with steampunk.

Where steampunk draws heavy inspiration from Victorian-era technology and fashion, dieselpunk is rooted in the period between WWI and WWII. Dieselpunk, as the term implies, idolizes diesel-powered machines, and takes on a grungy, darker outlook on the future.

But, just like steampunk, dieselpunk is filled with alternative histories, many of which build off the question “what if the Nazis won WWII?”.

Many of dieselpunk’s seminal works were published before the term was coined in 2001, including:

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris

There Are a Lot More Punks to Speak of…

Exploring these sci-fi subgenres has merely scratched the surface of all the spin-off genres present in sci-fi literature.

Coalpunk and atompunk are derivatives of dieselpunk, lunarpunk is the polar opposite of solarpunk, etc. etc.

If there’s a certain genre you’re interested in learning more about, drop a comment and we’ll explore it in a future post!