If you’ve been on the internet at all recently, you’ve probably witnessed the wave of discussion on the game Cyberpunk 2077 (if you haven’t been, tread carefully while Googling, it’s a minefield). Crucially, there’s been a lot of very hot takes on the humanity/machinery dichotomy in cyberpunk, and the game creator’s, let us say, interesting opinion on the sacred/profane dichotomy. I’m not getting into that here. What I’ve started thinking about as a result is the state of -punk in fiction podcasts: what do the popular -punk genres look like right now? Podcasting is already a pretty anti-capitalist, punk rock medium, at its roots; where punk bands started in their parent’s garage, indie podcasts got started under a blanket in the bedroom closet. Some initial caveats that I’ve held to in order to keep this essay less than book-sized:
- I will only be mentioning podcasts that have chosen to label themselves in a -punk way, in any part of their marketing or online material. Additionally, they won’t be an exhaustive list.
- The description of each genre is going to be very superficial and brief; there’s of course a lot more to them than I describe here.
- I’m only going to be looking at scripted fiction podcasts here, but there is a lot more proliferation of different kinds of -punk in actual play (including, for instance, dieselpunk in Serendipity City). (I think this would make an interesting separate essay, on improvising in a punked-out environment and staying true to that punk ethos. Someone find me more time to write all the things I want to write.)
The origin point most historians trace the concept of punking literature back to is cyberpunk, back to this short story by Bruce Sterling and popularized by William Gibson (Neuromancer, Burning Chrome). Cyberpunk’s ethos is rooted in strong anti-capitalist fears about the future, and the advent of machinery that could be used to control humanity, as well as the natural state of the world where the underprivileged will find a use for everything in order to survive. You can see cyberpunk work in podcasts like Cybernautica, Splintered Caravan, and Under the Electric Stars. These podcasts, in particular, all touch on the concept of “street will find its own use for things” (a line from Burning Chrome) which talks about unexpected uses for technology, and in particular perhaps, using it to fill in spaces where something had to go, but nothing else had been designed for it. For instance, in Under the Electric Stars, the lead creates a friend and companion from a jettisoned bot.
Steampunk was a tongue-in-cheek reference to cyberpunk by sci-fi author K.W. Jeter; in fact, you can read the letter in which he coins it here. It described these stories inspired by environments like those in H.G. Wells and Jules Verne’s works’, a neo-Victorian place where everything relies on anachronistic versions of clockwork, steam, and other 1800s-era technologies. Steampunk’s thematic focus is still firmly rooted in these notions about humanity, agency, and technology. It tends to deal with governmental and class oppression styles of capitalism, rather than that brought on by tech corporations. As Gibson and Sterling state in The Difference Engine: “Love the machine, hate the factory”. Again, in fiction podcasting, three primary examples leap out to me: Victoriocity, BRASS, and The Tales of Sage and Savant. They are all three of them comedic or purposefully light-hearted or farcical in some way, holding true to steampunk’s roots. There is a streak of mystery throughout all of them, some more overt than others, but key to all of them is their ironic approach to current events and ways of thinking. Early on in BRASS, one character complains, “it’s not privilege if you’re actually nobility”; Dr. Sage objects snarkily with “I’m not a lady, I’m a scientist!” when Savant is hindered by his own sexist mannerisms from participating in her experiment; Victoriocity exaggerates governmental architectural design problems in the design of Even Greater London, like the Thames being used to power the Tower and no longer actually being a river.
Finally, let’s touch briefly on hopepunk. Hopepunk was initially coined by Alexandra Rowland as a response to grimdark. The rebellion is the whole point; there must be justice, even if it is a single seed planted. That seed is worth defending. You can find Wil Williams’ list of hopepunk podcasts over at Polygon, from which I saw a huge influx of both spoken desires for more podcasts like this and of developing podcasts for this style (whether already produced or in production). Shows like Flyest Fables and Standard Docking Procedure have embraced this world, promising things like “no bummers” and positive, empowering stories for marginalized peoples. Even the BBC announced earlier this month they’d be creating a hopepunk podcast aimed at younger listeners.
We’ve started a new, fascinating era of fiction podcasts, one that embodies the issue punk tackles to its core in real life: independent artists have made fiction podcasts popular and desired, so corporations and companies have elected to step into the space and cause the kind of capitalist disruption that is so common to the indie-vs-company issue in entertainment. There is somewhat of a surprising gap, in my eyes, in every realm of -punk. Maybe it’s just a matter of time. Maybe it’s also a matter of how genre labels function for different creators, and the distinct minefields you could be stepping into.
Cyberpunk has this untapped potential in fiction podcasting (as well fiction mediums at large) for the intersections of trans and disabled identities to take center stage. We already live in a society where technology has been integrated into the human body, where surgery and medicine change both shape and function, for the better. I’d love to see that explored, without fear and without defaulting to the tired idea that changing your body through surgery and machinery means you become less human. (Whether that means this is still cyberpunk or not is, again, not something I’m getting into here). Steampunk’s potential to discuss colonialism and racism and its intersections with class divisions seems particularly useful at this point in time as well, for the colonized and the poor to take over stories in which they have been a muted background point for too long in all mediums. I think we need to lean into punk more, with intent and with clarity that if it doesn’t include the marginalized, the forgotten, the silenced, the vulnerable–it’s not punk.
For me, it boils down to this: bring me your punk as fuck story and rebellion, whether it is weary or fierce, comedic or stern, triumphant or desperate. I want to join you in burning down the oppressive state and subverting those who have wronged you, in whatever skin you want to use.
This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #31, June 24, 2019.