Thursday, January 12, 2012

Whatever you prefix to the -punk

My good friend Dan Fawcett has started up his own blog, kicking things off with a conversation about the various subgenres in SF/F that get called (prefix)punk.  Dan, being much more of an academic scholar that me, notes several of them.  The big boys, cyber- and steam-, of course, and then the lesser entries to the canon: clock-, diesel-, sandal-, atom-, tesla-, and the somewhat bewildering "nowpunk".

What, exactly, is "nowpunk"?  I'm not entirely sure, beyond the fact that Bruce Sterling, my dear close personal friend*, describes one of his recent works as that.  I'm not entirely sure what it might mean.

The various (prefix)punk subgenres are often about style.  Not entirely, of course, but style is a big part.  They're alt-histories, but specifically ones where culture and technology branch off in a different direction, rather than the usual "What if X was different?' sort of alt-histories.  To "punk" something, in this usage, is to alter history in terms of technological and social changes.  Give the past something more advanced than they had, or as advanced but in a different way.  And the "punk" suffix has become a really useful shorthand.  If I tell you I'm doing, say, a "clockpunk" story (and I might argue that the various Maradaine books, especially Holver Alley Crew, have clockpunky elements to them), then you'll probably be able to conjure up a solid idea of the look and feel of the story.  (The other edge of that sword is if a writer relies on that trope lazily, figuring just the subgenre name will do the work for them.)

But back to "nowpunk", which kind of fascinates me.  What does it mean?  Tweaking tech and history of current times?  I can't help but think that 24 might be a fine example of it.  On one level, it has a recognizable setting of "now" (or the "now" of when it was airing).  But it actually presents a very different America than the one we live in.  We see eight single-day glimpses from the year 2000 to 2014.  In those fourteen years, there are seven US Presidents, three of which are vice-presidents who assume the office after the death or removal of the sitting president.  The series centers around CTU, a federal agency that exists to investigate terrorist activity on US soil, and has a fair amount of latitude in terms of violating civil rights to achieve its mandate.  It's an America that never had 9/11, but accepted even more trade-offs of liberty for the sake of security than we did after 9/11.  It is also an America that fell prey to several more homeland attacks, including two nuclear explosions over those 14 years.  Not to mention the technology-- cyber and surveillance tech are slightly more advanced, though to the degree that is typical in any modern technothriller.  (Of course any grainy picture can be "enhanced" to perfect clarity.)  Would this be "nowpunk"?  Possibly.

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that cyberpunk has, in a way, become as much of a past-offshoot as steampunk, where tech and culture branches off in a different direction in the 1980s.  Consider this: Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is set in 1998. (This isn't made explicitly clear, but Hiro Protagonist is about 25 years old, and was born in 1973-- same year as me!  And the fact that his father served in WWII is a major plot point.) Though I'm sure there are more current cyberpunk books that are based on branching off today's tech. 

So, that all said, anyone have any good (prefix)punk recommendations?


*- Or, in reality, the sci-fi superstar I sat next to in a panel that one time.


danielfawcett said...

I think that one of the major issues here is the question "What is SF supposed to do?" For some people, SF is all about the technology. For some people, SF is about exploring the NOW, but doing so at an intellectual distance: what can I say about the modern world in the symbolic language of SF?"

The best SF (I would argue) does both: it explores the relationship between humanity and our technology. Nowpunk, I think, is a style that embraces both but privileges the human relationship. Nowpunk is about understanding how we, as individuals, relate to a civilization undergoing the permanent revolution of technological advancement.

I know you aren't a huge Gibson fan, but read his three books I mentioned in my blog. Also, read Sterling's _The Zenith Angle_. I think those are great examples of what I am exploring in relation to Nowpunk. I can't remark on _24_, as I've never actually seen it.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

"a civilization undergoing the permanent revolution of technological advancement"

That's a pretty accurate assessment of our lives today.

I haven't read Stephensen's REAMDE yet, but from what I understand, it might be described as "nowpunk" as well. Or, perhaps, it's really just a technothriller.