PUNK 101: Steampunk, Dieselpunk and a Three Year Old Genius!
“A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s Punk!’ So he kicks over a garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say ‘No that’s trendy!”
- Billie Joe Armstrong
Now that’s Steampunk!
On Sunday, my youngest daughter, ‘Yemi, who is three years old, was watching an episode of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. with me and whenever Lord Bowler – one of the main characters on the show, played by the late Julius Carry (“Sho’ ‘Nuff, of The Last Dragon fame) – would do something exciting, she would shout: “Now that’s Steampunk right there!”
Curious, I asked her “What’s Steampunk, baby?”
She waited until Lord Bowler punched a guy and then she pointed at the screen and said “That!”
I put The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. on pause and then showed her the fight scene between Count Dooku and Yoda from Star Wars, Episode II. I asked her was it Steampunk and she said “No; Steampunk people don’t look like that.”
Even more curious, I showed her a scene from the Sherlock Holmes movie (the one starring Robert Downey, Jr., not Basil Rathbone – which I actually like the most) and said “This isn’t Steampunk, is it?”
‘Yemi stared at me in disbelief, placed her tiny fists on her hips and said “Now Daddy, you know that’s Steampunk”
Somehow, she gets it. Through listening to my conversations with my wife and students about Steampunk and through observing me as I research hundreds of photographs and newspaper clippings in doing research for my novel, Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, she has internalized the aesthetics of Steampunk and has come up with actions that – to her, at least – are representative of the genre.
I have thus decided to formalize her study of Steampunk, Steamfunk and all the other “offspring” of that rather fertile mother / father – Cyberpunk. I now share with you her syllabus. Perhaps you too will gain something from it or can add to it, as I am sure many of you have much more knowledge than I.
What is Cyberpunk?
The name was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story Cyberpunk, published in 1983.
Cyberpunk fiction is a meeting of advanced science – information technology, Artificial Intelligence and cybernetics – with a breakdown of – or radical change in – society.
Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict amongst hackers, artificial intelligences, and mega-corporations, and tend to be set in a near-future, post-industrial dystopian Earth.
Classic Cyberpunk characters are marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of a society in which daily life is powerfully – and often negatively – impacted by rapid technological change and invasive modification of the human body.
Noted authors in the Cyberpunk genre include William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley.
Blade Runner and The Matrix are quintessential examples of Cyberpunk.
The style and theme are also featured prominently in the anime films Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
Cyberpunk has “given birth” to several “babies” that have become recognized as distinct subgenres in speculative fiction.
Some of these subgenres have grown into movements, with distinct characteristics and have birthed some children of their own – yes, Punk is a fertile lot.
These children, though they do not share the computer-focused setting of their mother / father, may display qualities drawn from – or analogous to – Cyberpunk, such as a world built on one particular technology that is extrapolated to a highly sophisticated level; a gritty, urban style; or a particular approach to social themes.
Many of Cyberpunk’s children gravitated toward Retrofuturism, a style based either on the futuristic visions of past eras, or extrapolations of the actual technology of those eras.
Steampunk has grown into adulthood and seems to have outshined its mother / father.
Steampunk is a literary genre – a marriage of science fiction and fantasy – that features the technological and social aspects of an Age of Steam. In the world of Steampunk, steam is the “nuclear power” of an industrial era – whether that era takes place during the Victorian Period of the 1800s, in ancient Egypt, or in a future in which steam takes the place of fusion power.
Steampunk is also a philosophy that embraces a fantastical past while incorporating a spirit of progress, exploration and do-it-yourself ingenuity.
The word “Steampunk” was coined by Cyberpunk author K.W. Jeter, who wrote the following letter to Locus in 1987:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it to Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps…
Examples of Steampunk in film and television include The Three Musketeers (2011), Hugo, The Golden Compass, Van Helsing, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Time Machine, Steamboy, The Last Exile and Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq.
“Western Steampunk” places the story in the same time periods, but set in America’s Old West. These stories have also been referred to as “Weird West” and “Cattlepunk.” They may also be called “Desertpunk” when referring to a post-apocalyptic Western Steampunk, where water is mostly absent from the world. Examples of Western Steampunk are The Wild, Wild West television series, the Wild, Wild, West movie and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. television series.
The term ‘Dieselpunk’ was coined in 2001 by game designer Lewis Pollak, who used the term to market his role-playing game, Children of the Sun. The term has since grown to represent a distinct style and philosophy of visual art, music, motion pictures, fiction, and technology.
Dieselpunk is based on the aesthetics of the period between the end of the World War I and the Korean Conflict and combines the artistic and genre influences of that period (pulp magazines, serial films, film noir, art deco, and wartime pin-ups) with retrofuturistic technology.
Examples in film include The Rocketeer, Crimson Skies, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Dark City, Hellboy, Greed Corp, The Book of Eli, the cable series Carnivale, the Indiana Jones films, Pan’s Labyrinth, Tim Burton’s Batman and Sucker Punch.
Literature in this genre includes The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris.
Teslapunk, named after scientist and inventor, Nikola Tesla, refers to literature, philosophy and aesthetics inspired by Tesla and other pioneers of electricity and electrical devices. This subgenre imagines an alternate history wherein an Age of Electricity replaces Steampunk’s Age of Steam.
The Prestige is a Teslapunk movie. In fact, Nikola Tesla plays a prominent role in the film.
Atomicpunk / Atompunk
Atomicpunk, also called Atompunk, relates to the period beginning at the end of World War II and ending in the mid-60s. It is an Atomic Age civilization, where perhaps the Great Depression never occurred, the Nazi’s continued to exist after World War II ended, or World War II remained a prolonged cold war. Atomicpunk includes mid-century Modernism, the Atomic Age, Space Age, Communism and the Sputnik program.
Atomicpunk films employ the ‘fantastical’ element of entering into the Nuclear Age and more pessimistic views of an imperfect war-torn future in a postmodern world. Examples include the films, The Iron Giant; The War of the Worlds (the original); and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Clockpunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction which is similar to steampunk, in that it portrays advanced technology based on pre-modern designs, but the technology used is based on springs, clockwork and advances inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. Clockpunk is usually set during the Renaissance, in the vein of Jay Lake’s novel, Mainspring, and Whitechapel Gods by S M Peters, as well as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and Pasquale’s Angel by Paul J. McAuley. A wonderful puppet-play – Avanti, Da Vinci! Or The Secret Adventures of Leonardo da Vinci, created by Jon Ludwig and Jason Hines and played in 2004 at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA – is a great example of Clockpunk (yep, my city is awesome!). The term “Clockpunk” was coined by the GURPS role playing system.
Gaslamp fantasy, also known as Gaslight Fantasy or Gaslight Romance, is not to be confused with Steampunk, which usually has more of a science fiction edge and a less romantic tone.
Author and artist Kaja Foglio originally coined the term to distinguish her and husband Phil Foglio’s comic series, Girl Genius, from Steampunk.
Later on, however, Gaslamp Fantasy came to denote Holmesian Fantasy (fantasy set in the world of Sherlock Holmes) and Victorian-based Gothic tales. Gaslamp Fantasy does, however, include some pre-Victorian works, such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. More examples can be found in publications such as the Gaslight Grimoire anthologies and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.
Steamgoth is a darker version of Steampunk. It encompasses a dark vision not found in Steampunk and embraces the magical and the paranormal as well.
Where Steampunk is science fiction / science fantasy, Steamgoth is its “evil twin” – a dark fantasy / horror version.
Steamgoth is about vampires, zombies, werewolves and malevolent gods from beyond space and time. The works of Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft fall under the banner of Steamgoth, as would the movie, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
“When I think about steam i think about the lightest and most adaptable form of water, usually associated with heat. When I think about funk I think about syncopated rhythms or rhythms and music that is structured but not predictable. Steamfunk is a rhythmic form of art that is unpredictable and transcends time.” – Kevin Wake – music producer and composer for the upcoming Steamfunk short film, Rite of Passage: Initiation.
Steamfunk is narrowly defined as “a person, style of dress or subgenre of fiction that seeks to bring together elements of blaxploitation films and merge it with that of Steampunk fiction”. A broader definition is “a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction”.
Steamfunk was born when several authors of African descent who took a liking to – or, in the cases of a few, even loved – the literary and aesthetic aspects of Steampunk, noticed that there was a deficit of stories by and about Black heroes and she-roes in the movement and – as individuals – they decided they would write Steampunk stories from a Black perspective. Some were also dissatisfied that most Steampunk ignored the “darker” aspects of the Victorian Era, such as colonialism, sexism, classism, racism – and chattel slavery and wanted to write about those aspects in their expressions of Steampunk. Some of those authors include Maurice Broaddus (Pimp My Airship), Milton Davis (The Delivery), Valjeanne Jeffers (The Switch), and Balogun Ojetade (Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman).
On the website, www.blacksciencefictionsociety.com, a discussion of Steampunk came up and the aforementioned authors agreed that we should put together an anthology. Author and publisher Milton Davis, who had published the definitive Sword & Soul anthology, Griots: A Sword & Soul Anthology, decided to bring thought into action and put out the call for submissions to the Steamfunk Anthology. Author and Steampunk, Balogun Ojetade (yours truly) was brought in to work with Milton Davis as co-editor and the campaign of raising the awareness of the Black expression of Steampunk, which we call Steamfunk, began.
In June, 2012 the first Steamfunk film – Rite of Passage: Initiation – will go into production and will release in late July. This short film will serve as a promotion to raise funds to shoot Rite of Passage, the feature film. Produced by MVmedia and Roaring Lions Production and written by Milton J. Davis and Balogun Ojetade – who also serves as director and fight choreographer – Rite of Passage is the exciting tale of Dorothy – Teacher, Freedom Fighter and pupil of the iron-fisted Harriet Tubman – who meets a man with extraordinary abilities and her life is forever transformed.
For more on Steamfunk and the Steamfunk movement, check out
Many of Cyberpunk’s children are not as recognized by name as their elder siblings, but they do have strong followings of their own.
Biopunk emerged during the 1990s and focuses on the near-future, unintended consequences of the biotechnology revolution following the discovery of recombinant DNA.
Biopunk fiction typically describes the struggles of individuals or groups – often the product of human experimentation – against totalitarian governments or mega-corporations that use biotechnology as a means of social control and / or profiteering.
Unlike cyberpunk, which builds on information technology, Biopunk’s chief concern is synthetic biology. Individuals are modified and enhanced through genetic manipulation, not through the cyberware found in Cyberpunk.
Stonepunk refers to a world existing roughly during the Stone Age in which the characters utilize an “advanced” technology constructed from materials more or less consistent with the time period, such as rock, fire, clay, rope, wood and water, yet possessing anachronistic complexity and function.
The Flintstones and their various spin offs, including the films The Flintstones and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas would fall under this category, as would Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 BC and The People That Time Forgot. Literary examples include Boroughs’ Back to the Stone Age and Jean Marie Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear.
Elfpunk was proposed as a subgenre of urban fantasy in which faeries and elves are transplanted from rural folklore into modern urban settings. Elfpunk differs from Urban Fantasy in that the story does not have Werewolves and Vampires in it. Dragons and Orcs might make cameos, though.
Although Elfpunk only uses Faerie creatures, those creatures do not have to be of the Celtic persuasion; they can be Japanese Youseitachi, Yoruba Iwin, or any from any other culture.
Author Catherynne M. Valente uses the term “Mythpunk” to define a subgenre of speculative fiction that is a mashup of folklore and myth with urban fantasy.
Writers whose works would fall under the mythpunk label are Catherynne M. Valente, Ekaterina Sedia, Theodora Goss, and Sonya Taaffe.
A term coined by David J. Schow in the mid-1980s that refers to a subgenre of horror fiction distinguished by its graphic, gory depiction of violence.
Though it gained some prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, and attracted a cult following, the term “splatterpunk” is currently used less often than other synonymous terms for the genre.
Notable authors in this genre include Clive Barker, Robert McCammon, and Craig Spector.
Spacepunk, features an ancient civilization with advanced, Space Age technology. The Star Wars films, books and video games are the quintessential examples of this genre (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, remember?).
If ‘Yemi excels in Punk 101 perhaps she will continue her studies, moving on to Steamfunk-ology, or maybe even Advanced Placement Punk. Maybe I will teach my nieces and nephews, my granddaughter and ‘Yemi’s friends. Perhaps my seven other children – all knowledgeable of Steampunk at varying levels – will want to delve deeper into their studies and I’ll open up the first Punk Academy, which will become the University of Punk.
Perhaps one day, ‘Yemi will sit in her rocking chair on her porch somewhere in Africa and – while observing her great grandchildren at play around the sixty-foot tall brass statue erected in my honor – point and say… “Now that’s Steampunk!”