If science fiction revolves around the question of “what if,” and fantasy revolves around the question of “what was,” then the question of “what is, but not so recently is, and more like what was, but less boring than that and not quite as nerdy as ‘what was’ like ‘what was middle earth like,’ so basically, what is and isn’t and how can I fit corsets into it” is clearly answered by one word.
It is true that history is a pretty fun thing to write about: it’s rife with inquisitions, disease, murder, religious persecution and war. It’s a time when men were men and women were women and both of them had several venereal diseases that couldn’t be cured, but whatever, we’re going to be killed by a rampaging horde or my penis will be cursed by a witch and/or saint any moment now, so whaddaya say, baby?
It’s also true that historical writers are the nerds of literature. With their extensive research, airy speeches and sage-like noddings, it is a safe bet that anyone who writes historical fiction has been stuffed into a locker before and probably will be again at their next book signing (usually by some buff epic fantasy author and his urban fantasy girlfriend—they think they’re so cool).
Punk, again, is the answer. It is basically a suffix that you will use if you are too lazy to research something and/or if you feel that history simply needs some sexing up (preferably with vampires or werewolves). Punk is the way of having your way with history.
Now, maybe this is just the lunatic ranting of a man embittered because his genre is not as popular and is more mired in the past than historical fiction, but it seems to me that “punk” is an untapped vein of gold stretching deep into the craggy backside of genre fiction. “Steampunk” and “mythpunk” have been around for about half a year now, which means they are entirely too old and played out to continue for much longer.
Fortunately, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together the most promising historical periods for punking. Look for these in the very near future.
Colonialpunk: If, indeed, all punk genres are driven by fashion, then the colonial era is a ripe and juicy peach, plucked by the tender hands of a doctor-turned-laborer and delivered to the waiting craw of a moustachioed, well-dressed businessman.
Characterized chiefly by steam-powered elephants, phallic-shaped pith helmets and monocles upon monocles, one could forgive confusion of this genre with the zeppelin-driven, high-hat fashion of the Victorian-era steampunk. However, one most look to subtle differences: the exotic locales, the spirit of adventure and the fact that the primary source of advancement is no longer the mystical white gas, but the crushed dreams and shattered spirits of a people whose culture has been savaged and whose economy has been enslaved in the name of progress.
Target Market: Wealthy white landowners, people with moustaches.
Suggested plot: Forbidden love story in which boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy leaves girl behind to return to England with a severe case of cirrhosis of the liver, girl dies miserable death after state-sponsored tyranny collapses due to failing economy, and girl’s child is left alone to face the resurgence of class warfare in the wake of a destabilized nation.
Inquisitionpunk: Various stodgy authors, permanently affixed to their creaking wooden chairs by a fine layer of cobwebs have, with breath that simply refuses to be their last, often criticized steampunk for its inability or unwillingness to look at the various racial and religious tensions that plagued much of history. While often rejected with a haughty upward turn of the nose, the criticism bears merit. Merit that is no longer worth discussing with the advent of Inquisitionpunk.
It is well-known that religious persecution has often yielded disaster, suffering, and fantastic headgear. And, indeed, the various miters, habits, and skullcaps are what make Inquisitionpunk a sure celebrity. Vampire clerics, Werewolf rabbis, and the Almighty Laser-Pope will make this genre one sure to stand the test of time (until Reformpunk comes out, at least).
Target Market: Conquistadores, anyone who makes it out from under the pendulum.
Suggested Plot: One woman, desperate for meaning in a world that doesn’t understand her, searches for love in the streets of Madrid, the slums of Barcelona, and the fire-scarred rectums of the men she tortures.
Plaguepunk: The issue with most reports of disease is that they tend to be so utterly drab. You will find pages upon pages of descriptions describing the thick and glistening boils erupting with custard-like pus, the skin and gums peeling back as the human form shrinks in on itself, the mothers screaming over the children snatched from their cribs by the cold hands of the reaper, and the diarrhea. Oh, the diarrhea.
Now, that might have been fine for the Dark Ages. But this is 2010, baby! Time to modernize this bitch!
The new Plaguepunk is defined by its stories of forbidden love and medically-unadvisable lust in a time when simply looking at another person causes eruptions from one or more orifices. And let’s not forget the fashion: smashing beaked doctor masks, its glistening, glittery pustules that burst with pus all the colors of the rainbow, its mothers in prim and pretty dresses collapsing on carpets as they vomit out their entrails into polished brass bins, and the diarrhea. Oh, the diarrhea!
Take heed, fashionistas! Black is out. Black Death is in.
Target Market: Orphans, widows, pox-scarred men with wagons full of corpses.
Suggested Plots: High with the spirit of adventure, one man seeks to become the first person to touch the face of God by vomiting, urinating, and erupting out the anus with such explosive force as to become airborne.
Stalinpunk: For many, the post-WWII world was punctuated by political strife, new-age empire building, paranoia, and the ever-looming threat of nuclear war. Those people, now safe in their bunkers, are probably missing out on possibly the greatest kind of punk possible.
Stalinpunk (or Punkastroika) is a world in which HUAC-sponsored witch hunts and the endless terror that your neighbor might be watching you are just part of the everyday life for those of us looking for love and/or people who won’t rat us out to the secret police and send us to die in Siberia. Full of supernatural elements (most of them stuck in the bread line), this difficult genre promises to be a true throwback.
Target Markets: Political prisoners, people still waiting on their sugar rations, Alan Moore.
Suggested Plot: Lenin/Kim Jong Il Slash Fiction. The rest will take care of itself.
- originally published 2/11/2011
Sam Sykes is the author of the acclaimed Tome of the Undergates, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage. He lives with two hounds in a small, drab apartment and has eaten at least one of every animal on earth.