A Writer’s Master List of Fantasy Punk Genres From Magicpunk to Steampunk to Piratepunk
Punk Genres: From Magicpunk to Steampunk to Piratepunk ...and Everypunk in between
I recently started world-building for a new story idea (I know— bad when I'm supposed to be in the middle of revising my current project) but in trying to figure out the level of technology and feeling of my new world I got lost in google searches about the different punk genres.
So I decided to make a master list. Mostly for me, but also because I needed a subject for my (very very late) monthly blog post. (Seriously, it’s becoming a bi-yearly blog post at the rate I’m going).
So punk genres.
According to Wikipedia (a highly reputable source by all accounts) a punk genre can be described as “a world built on one particular technology that is extrapolated to a highly sophisticated level (this may even be a fantastical or anachronistic technology, akin to retro-futurism) a gritty transreal urban style, or a particular approach to social themes.”
There are so many (so so many) and some people roll their eyes at every new addition but I think the names and distinctions are interesting and fun (I mean, Magicpunk may just be regular fantasy, but it sounds so much cooler). I love the idea of scientific fantasy, and of blurry the lines between the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Who’s to stop you from mixing the culture of the Japanese samurai with an epic space opera among the stars? This is an incomplete list. I've organized it by time period (loosely, because some overlap or can go anywhere). I've also provided an example of a published work (for those that have them).
Let's punk it up.
Established Fantasy Punk Genres: An Incomplete List
Magicpunk/Dungeonpunk: Fantasy punk genre where the “one particular technology” that the world is built on is magic. You have trains running on lines of sorcerer-fueled energy and ships powered by wind magic and computers running on sub-dimensional energy from the demon realm. Popular examples include The Sleeping Dragon by Jonny Nexus and The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams.
Aetherpunk: Subgenre mix of Magicpunk/Dungeonpunk where the magic source of the technology is specifically the element of Aether. Often, if not always, also has Steampunk elements. The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher is the only example that comes to mind.
Mythpunk: A punk genre that is inspired by or incorporates myths and legends. These aren’t usually a retelling of a popular myth, but rather one that includes elements of the myth, or twists and changes the story around to it’s own ends. Popular examples would be American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Deathless by Catherynne Valente.
Stonepunk: Set in the stone age, this genre is characterized by the use of non-technology as technology, creating pseudo-tech and modern inventions with natural, basic resources like stone, wood, water, fire, clay, and rope. Examples include The Flintstones and 10,000 BC.
Sandalpunk: Sandalpunk is on thin ice as a punk genre. Rather than being inspired or defined by a technology, it instead focuses on the period of time of the ancient world before the Middle Ages, often set in Greece or Rome. There aren’t many examples of it. But the name is cool.
Steampunk: Arguably the most popular punk genre (after Cyberpunk) featuring science fantasy stories set in Victorian era, with advanced technology powered by steam engines and clockwork mechanics. Doctor Who perhaps described it best, “The Victorian Age accelerated. Starships and missiles fueled by coal and driven by steam.” There are many examples, both in literature and film, including His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeves and The Parosol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.
Clockpunk: Close-cousin subgenre of Steampunk, characterized by a lot of clocks and inspired by the pre-steam energy period of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Pasquale’s Angel by Paul J. McAuley is more Clockpunk than Steampunk.
Silkpunk: Silkpunk is another subgenre of Steampunk, one generation removed. While steampunk is defined by it’s Victorian era brass and steam aesthetic, Silkpunk is inspired by East Asian culture during the period of the Silk Road. Examples include The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu and The Tea Master and The Detective by Aliette de Bodard.
Cattlepunk: Yet another subgenre of Steampunk, Cattlepunk is the across-the-ocean-bastard-cousin set in the wild west of early America. Cowboys, bank robberies, and train heists meet robots, warmechs, magic, and super-weapons. The Wild Wild West and Firefly verse are classic movie examples. Book examples would be the Mistborn Era II series by Brandon Sanderson and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. (And I didn’t realize until I just did all this research but based on examples this is like my favorite punk.)
Dieselpunk: This genre is set in the aesthetic of the 1920s-1950s era and is characterized by the use of diesel-powered technology. Commonly incorporates alternate history elements, as well as themes surrounding the Great Depression and World War II. It’s been called the darker and dirtier version of Steampunk with an emphasis on air travel and combat, dirigibles, and air pirates. Examples include The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad, Dreadnough by Cherie Priest, and Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling.
Atompunk: A retro-futuristic punk genre set during the Cold War and characterized by atomic nuclear technology, ray guns, robots, hover cars, and interdimensional travel. Atompunk often deals with the themes of nuclear power gone wrong and alternate versions of the Cold War. The most popular example of this would be the Fallout games by Bethesda.
Capepunk: Capepunk is just superhero fiction set in the modern-era world where people have powers. Example would be any superhero story ever. I just think the name’s cool.
Gothicpunk: Gothicpunk is also usually set in the modern-era, but incorporates The Goth. Generally characterized by an underworld of supernatural creatures lying in wait and secretly controlling the workings of our world where humans are but cattle. This is basically dark Urban Fantasy, but it’s popular enough to get a distinction. Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire is an okay example. The movies Priest and Daybreakers are much better ones.
Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk, the grandfather of all of the punk genres. Characterized by a dystopian and cynical future world in which technology has brought about cultural nihilism and a crap society. Often combined with Film Noir or detective fiction. (Fantastic Noir is a fantasy version of Cyberpunk). Heroes are most prone to be some form of hacker, rebel, or antihero fighting against a totalitarian police state or corporate empire oppressing the people. Examples are Neuromancer by William Gibson and the movie Blade Runner.
Post-Cyberpunk: This is Cyberpunk's chipper, more optimistic sibling. It has the same vision of a scientifically advanced cyber-culture without the gritty, dark, and edgy world elements. It also shares the Cyberpunk themes of analyzing how technology interacts and impacts with society, just without such a grimdark view of humanity. Examples would be Agent G by C.T. Phipps and The Peace War by Vernor Vinge.
Biopunk: Biopunk is Cyberpunks genetically engineered half-sibling. This punk centers around organic technology with a healthy smattering of bio-augmentation and biotechnology. Examples include In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling, West of Eden by Harry Harrison, and Wolfish Nature by Vladimir Vasilyev.
Nanopunk: Also a subgenre of Cyberpunk characterized by the use of nanites and nanotechnology as the predominate form of technology. Examples are Tech Heaven by Linda Nagata and Micro by Michael Crichton.
Solarpunk: Solarpunk is a genre characterized by it’s environmentally friendly technology with African and Asian aesthetics and an emphasis in culture, community, art, and a bright solar future where humanity has found a balance between technology and nature. Can also include many elements of Biopunk, but with a much more optomistic, for-the-future-of-species-and-environment outlook. Example works include Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor, Maurai by Poul Anderson, and Songs from the Stars by Norman Spinrad.
Apunkalypse: This genre is defined by the collapse of civilization where society is replaced by lawless bands of roving scavenger gangs and cities crumble into decay after the rise of punks overthrows the rules of the past. Examples include Mad Max and Mortal Engines by Philip Reeves (which is also Steampunk, so it’s a good example of book incorporating more than one punk genre).
Desertpunk: Punk genre characterized by sand. Who doesn't love a good desert planet? Often features roaming tribes, wandering heroes, desert bandits, and sand storms. Can be combined with Cattlepunk, for a Western desert, or Apunkalypse, for an-after-the-end-of-the-world setting. Examples include Dune by Frank Herbert and Railsea by China Mieville.
Oceanpunk: This punk is set on the high seas. Often features floating cities of wood and iron lashed together and mighty nations fighting for dominion of the watery world. May include civilizations and cultures below the waves in underwater cities. Sometimes called Pirate Punk, because nothing breeds pirate stories like ocean cities and sailing ships. Examples include The Scar by China Mieville, Tranquilium by Andrey Lazarchuk, and Dark Life by Kat Falls.
I Can Punk Too
Just for fun I created a couple punk genres of my own. They may be a bit out there, but certainly not any crazier than some of the established ones.
Edopunk: This genre is defined by the aesthetic and culture of the Edo period of Japan. Probably could be a subgenre of Steampunk, with the Victorian influences of the West mixed with samurai, trickster yokai, and spirits housed in mountain shrines. Basically what I’m going for here is a Studio Ghibli movie.
Arcticpunk: A genre defined by its setting in the extreme North Pole and the indigenous cultures that inhabit the icy corners of the globe, relying on thermal heat and technology powered by the Aurora Borealis. (So I made this up for fun for this post, but now I may have to write a story with technology run by magic from the Northern Lights…that has potential).
Starpunk/Galaxypunk: Punk genre set in space, where ships use starlight to travel between planets and solar systems. (This one is basically just Space Opera with magic, but whatever. Though the movie Treasure Planet kind has this feel, now that I think about it. Cool.)
Did I Miss a Punk?
Can you guys think of any other punks to add? Either ones you've thought up, or any you've heard of that I don't have listed. I'd love to keep this list updated. I find it's useful to look through when creating a new world to get the overall feeling of what I'm going for with the story and world-building.
What punk are you writing in for your current WIP?
About the Author
Megann is an editor, writer, and artist specializing in fantasy, science fiction, and basically anything with magic. Or dragons. Or starlight and spaceflight and gods that walk the worlds. She has a children's book published (co-authored with her sister) titled Bellow of the Beast, and she is in the middle of writing her first full-length fantasy/sci-fi novel.