The Biopunk Reader


The Punk Suffix; An Etymology And Beyond

It's a word that has been tossed around a lot in the past several years, tacked onto the end of innumerable subgenres and their derivatives; cyberpunk, steampunk, biopunk, clockpunk, atompunk, splatterpunk, elfpunk.  The 'p' word is everywhere, that much is indisputable, but what exactly does it mean? The most literal answer to that question can be easily located in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

punk Look up punk at"worthless person" (especially a young hoodlum), 1917, probably from punk kid "criminal's apprentice," underworld slang first attested 1904 (with overtones of "catamite"). Ultimately from punk "prostitute, harlot, strumpet," first recorded 1590s, of unknown origin. For sense shift from "harlot" to "homosexual," cf. gay. By 1923 used generally for "young boy, inexperienced person" (originally in show business, e.g. punk day, circus slang from 1930, "day when children are admitted free")...The "young criminal" sense is no doubt the inspiration in punk rock first attested 1971 (in a Dave Marsh article in "Creem"), popularized 1976."

From the above information we take some of the most widely accepted attributes of punk; it invariably involves civil dissent or criminal behavior, often amongst the youth population. It may also refer to individuals who live on the barriers of society, or who champion unpopular causes. Punk is a lifestyle choice. Yes, you say, that's all well and good, but what in Gandalf's gray pajama bottoms does any of this have to do with science fiction literature? How can bio-androids and mohawked hooligans hold hands? Why not simply call this blog The Biotech Reader, or something of the sort?

I pondered on this myself when I first published a short story with Steampunk Magazine, and the debate regarding the punk attachment continues to pop up quite regularly in forums across the net. Of late I have been thinking on it again ever since Mr. Di Phillipo mentioned the use of the suffix in the statement he kindly wrote for our blog. Since then I've  basically embarked on a quest for the true meaning of punk, and found it to be elusive at best. Like any widespread dogma, it means something different to each individual.

However, the eventual conclusion I personally came to was that when you remove any associations with The Cure, ripped jeans, and teenagers sporting cheap hair dye, punk is about backbone. It's about finding the strength to stand against what you believe is unethical, even if the whole world is against you. My favorite amongst all the explanations I found online was, "An old granny Not mowing her front lawn when the council told her to is punk" ( George Orwell's 1984 was as punk as it gets. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was punk. If science fiction isn't about examining what's wrong with mainstream society, then I don't know what is.

But this is by no means a closed topic. There is no solid answer, and this post is meant to inspire debate. Please, by all means, submit your own ideas on the subject in the comments box below. Let us know what you think!


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  1. I’m with you. To me, punk is about challenging the dominant paradigm. It’s about looking at where we are now and considering how we might change things for the better–even if those changes are not, at present, socially acceptable. My favourite -punk literature plays around with social (or scientific) conventions and genre tropes in such a way that it encourages the reader to consider how things currently work in the real world, and how they might work better if we tweaked a few things.

  2. A certain sense of defiance, independence, do it yourself and the rest of the world be damned – kind of attitude, yes.

    And liked we talked about in the #cyberpunkchat, a certain amount of social difference, the contrast between high and low, rich and poor, and grit – technological or emotional or otherwise, with a dash of dystopia.

    Maybe biopunk can even go further with some environmental or ecological issues, than cyberpunk did?

    It will be very interesting to see what kind of biopunk stories appear in the future and how the various authors interpret and expand the genre. :)

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