Yesterday, I read a piece on Slate asking the question, “Why can’t we move past Cyberpunk?” It was an interesting read, primarily for the rabbit hole the author goes down in exploring (or, at least mentioning) the dozens of sub-, sub-, genres adopting names with the -punk appellation. Some of them were known to me, some were new.
For my own part, I think the author of that piece did themselves a disservice by acknowledging the continuing appeal of cyberpunk but then overlooking that appeal in their interrogation of these other something-punks out there. I feel this way because the connection the author attempts to draw between them is tenuous and extremely high-level. It doesn’t bother to get into the weeds of the question and doesn’t really ask why those other genres bother with the -punk label at all. Which, for my money, is the question that stuck out when looking at the list of new-punk genres.
The article does explore the origins of the word ‘cyberpunk’ a little. It’s not that riveting really, just happened to be the best-sounding of many possible names for the sub-genre and it took hold. The originator of the term cyberpunk does make an interesting statement though. He mentions that he chose the word punk as one out of many possible words meaning, “socially misdirected youth.” And sure, there is a colloquial usage of punk that is commonly understood to be that simple. But the idea of punk is bigger than that.
Leave aside that the original definition of punk is, “stuff used to start fires.” Look at the more modern definitions, especially in the context of “punk music” and you get something like this,
A style or movement characterized by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc., and the defiance of social norms of behavior…
That sounds more like our punks in cyberpunk stories. Hence the trenchcoats and mirrorshades, the drug use, replacing limbs with mechanical prosthetic arms and legs. It was also about rebellion and revolution. Fighting back against the corporate hegemony that replaced governments as the controlling factor in our lives.
You want to ask why we can’t quit cyberpunk? It’s because we live in it.
But let’s back up a bit. Cyberpunk – for all its uniqueness still owes a lot to what came before it. Many cyberpunk stories have a powerful noir influence. There’s a lot Sam Spade in the protagonists of many cyberpunk stories. Not to mention the drab, often downtrodden locales that contrast with the high-living corp types. And corruption for days. Hell, if you want to stretch a little, you can even feel the nihilism of Lovecraft hiding in the cracks – with his belief that the little guy might think he’s slain the giant but the giant is always sleeping there and the little guy means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
These ideas aren’t new. Cyberpunk has been written about as a “thing” since it appeared and you can find plenty of discussions of its influences and influence. But the author bemoans the fact these new -punks are just like the old punks; telling the story of the little guy vs. the giant. This too should come as little surprise. Person vs. take-your-pick is the most common story of all time. That cyberpunk – and its followers – should choose to adopt this vision of storytelling is also important to the story being told. Sure, history is made by movements, and groups (and most likely violence, which the author leaves out) but the cyberpunk ethos is more than just “Do it yourself.” It’s also that we’re lonely. It’s not just the idea that the hero will rise on their own… but that they feel that have to do it that way… because they have no one else. Cyberpunk is often – inherently – a fiction of otherness involving characters who are alone, whether through their own actions or as a result of the actions of others.
Now… the other part… decrying all the other -punks out there and their inability to achieve the market value or imaginary traction of cyberpunk. I’d say, of course not, but that seems a little mean-spirited. For one, when you continue to slice your genres ever thinner, you are also slicing your audience ever thinner. Second, when you piggy-back on the success of another movement, you will often fail to capture its appeal. Look at how movies get made for an example of trying to jump on a trend and fail to find the mark.
But all those other punks. I agree with the author on this one… they shouldn’t bother being punk. They don’t need to be. They can be their own thing. Why be “hope-punk” when you can just be hopeful fantasy? It’s not like that hasn’t been done before.
And just ask Jonathan Lethem about labels. He writes unabashed science fiction – some of which would fit quite comfortably under the cyberpunk umbrella – but you won’t find him in the sci-fi section of your local bookstore because he rejects that label.
Anyway. Just my two cents in response to a question.