I don’t want to make this an overly complicated or deep post. Mostly this is just set-up for this week’s discussion on “Hybrid Genres.” Below is an interesting and thought-provoking “map” of genre fiction and all of its attendant subgenres. You may be aware of more subgroups or disagree with the categorization but it does make you consider exactly what is it you are writing/reading.
There’s a funny thing about Watergate. There was no water involved. Oh, I’m sure that someone along the way drank some water, and the hotel is right on the Potomac River, but it’s not like the break-in happened in government offices under the Potomac. There weren’t get away boats. No one tried to steal or buy a pond. No water. None. How “-gate” got pulled out of the word Watergate and turned into a suffix that meant “a scandal involving” escapes me. I suppose it’s a certain amount of laziness and momentum at this point. There’s a new political or sports controversy, so lets slap “-gate” at the end and everyone will know what we’re talking about.
Thus when the New Orleans Saints were accused of offering bounties to injure opposing players, it became bountygate. When the Patriots used camera angles to steal sideline signals from the Jets, it became spygate. This isn’t a recent mangling of the English language. The first “-gate” after Watergate, at least according to Wikipedia so it must be true, was the 1976 Koreagate scandal involving influence peddling to keep troops in South Korea and Democratic senators. The intention, at the time, was to use the “-gate” suffix to make it morally equal to Watergate, say that the Democrats were just as bad. It is recent that this invented suffix has exploded, even to the point of Gategate, an incident in Great Britain that involved an actual gate.
The other day on Twitter I used the term “Whalepunk.” I was using it to describe the game Dishonored, where most of the steampunk-like tech is actually powered by a form of whale oil. A cursory Google search says I’m far from the first person to use this term, whether to describe Dishonored or other works of fiction.
The suffix -punk has become a go to in genre fiction. It started with Cyberpunk and meant a very specific thing, bringing punk sensibilities to near future fiction. It spread to Steampunk. Now there’s Dieselpunk, Decopunk, Biopunk Nanopunk, yes I’m just listing these from the Wikipedia article “Cyberpunk derivatives” where I also see the terms Splatterpunk, Stonepunk, Clockpunk, Teslapunk, Atompunk, Nowpunk (aka contemporary non-genre fiction with at least one technically proficient character), Elfpunk, and Mythpunk. And that doesn’t even include Whalepunk, stories that focus on alternate high technology run almost exclusively on whale oil.
The suffix “-punk” in genre fiction has become almost as meaningless as “-gate” in the worlds of sports and politics. I suppose by way of definition, “-punk” now means “genre computer-based fiction involving” but it arguably meant so much more. It’s become largely a clever way of creating just a slightly different alternate history than someone else’s alternate history.
I love steampunk. Please don’t think this is some rant and rave against the -punk subgenres. I’d actually be intrigued to write something that might be considered “whalepunk” by someone who insisted upon that being a new sub-subgenre. Perhaps that’s even what Mermaids of the Moon is. These various -punks are fantastic for building anthologies around. However, I can’t help but wonder if we do a disservice to genre fiction as a whole by trying to further and further pigeon hole stories by creating a new subgenre every time someone puts a computer, robot, or airship in a slightly different decade. Using a slightly different power source.
In the past, fiction books fit into six broad categories: literature, romance, mystery, western, science fiction/fantasy, and horror. This was the split because this is how books were arranged into sections at bookstores and libraries. Perhaps not even with that much granularity. However, more people are going to Amazon to do their book shopping. Or are exploring books through Goodreads. Both of these provide ways of tying books together in a more dynamic sense. Amazon can put books onto multiple shelves, as they don’t have to worry about physically organizing a book store. Goodreads encourages folks to make shelves for their books and uses those to pinpoint suggested reading. Sure, Goodreads only lists 40 options in their genre fields, covering both fiction and non-fiction, but if I click into a book I can see how others have chosen to categorize it.
While this makes it easier for people to find books similar to what they like, does it make it harder to break out of comfort zones? If I’m given a list of hundreds of Steampunk novels, rather than digging through the science fiction/fantasy section to find them, sure I’m going to get more steampunk to read, but I’ll pass fewer books that might catch my eye even if I think I want corsets and gears in my stories.
This is the direction reading is going. I don’t feel comfortable prognosticating many things, but I feel I can prognosticate this. Databases replace shelves, and entries can be cross linked in more and more subtle and drilled-down ways. It’s fantastic and overwhelming, and I don’t know how it’s going to affect how we find and consume media in the future. The sub-subgenre is probably here to stay, and may spread outside of genre fiction. Perhaps it already has, and I just don’t have enough of an outsider’s view to see this. It means as new books come out there will be a push to pigeonhole, and we’ll end up more and more going back to the old classics and figuring out which new categories they fit into, assigning words to them that their authors never knew.
In the end this might be a great good, giving people more avenues to explore, branching off as a book occupies two sub-subgenres. At the worst we’re looking at the gradual downfall of the casual browser. In that case, there’s only one word for what we’re staring down.
It’s the punkgatemageddon.