Categories
On Writing

The forgotten punk

The ranks of the steampunk genre continue to swell. Tor.com is wrapping up it’s third annual Steampunk recognition (Steampunk Week, as compared to 2010’s Steampunk Fortnight and 2009’s Steampunk Month), so I thought I’d take some time to pick on a “steampunk” nit. Actually it’s more of a nit that I have with the use of “punk.”

I grew up during the ’80s, when “punk” actually meant something. So it doesn’t surprise me that I find myself amongst the group of people a bit irritated by the over usage of the -punk suffix in SF/F genres. Don’t get me wrong. I love steampunk, but the meaning of punk seems to have been forgotten and diluted.

  • 1896 (Algonquian): inferior, worthless, wood used as tinder
  • 1904: a worthless person
  • 1920: a young hoodlum

It was the “young hoodlum” usage that was copied by the Punk movement in music circa 1974, and by Bruce Bethke in his genre-defining short story “Cyberpunk” in 1980. Bruce Bethke was focused on the criminal element: hoodlums, vandals, troublemakers, delinquents, misguided, disenfranchised youths; in other words: young street punks. In his terms, cyberpunk denoted “the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology.” This was followed by the other canon cyberpunk works (Neuromancer, et al.) which also focused on the same elements.

Based on Bethke’s initial usage, for a work to be truly “punk” the central conflict should revolve around clashing with the status quo. You can see this in Sterling & Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine, in which they set out to write what they call a true steampunk work, rather than a work like Jeter’s Morlock Nights, which I think would be more appropriately classed as gonzo-historical.

Jules Verne’s adventure fiction was the antithesis of the garden party, the Victorian Romance, the popular parlor fiction of the Victorian-era (the fiction of the status quo). People of the Victorian-era “punk” analog would also be people from the bohemian lifestyles: the travelers, artists, poets, and wanderers, such as Michel Ardan in “From the Earth to the Moon.” What’s striking is that this is often the element that modern steampunkers look back to. Look back at the anti-hero Captian Nemo — a wanderer and man without a country — and we see the epitome of the juxtaposition of anti-establishment attitudes and high technology. Verne’s fiction had with much more in common with the youth centered fiction of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and even the frontier fiction of Fenimore Cooper and Owen Wister.

I’ve seen suggestions for various other “punks” offered up for use: biopunk, bitpunk, dungeonpunk, etc. If a cyberpunk story centers around a world in which computers are accessible to such a degree that kids are using them for acts of low level vandalism, then similarly a biopunk story would be about a world where the biological sciences have reached such a saturation point that even young hoodlums have access to gene altering technology. I wish this were the way that “-punk” was being used and it’s the core of my irritation: “-punk” shouldn’t be synonymous with “genre” (and neither should “opera” for that matter). Unfortunately that has become the common usage of it, in much the same way that the press overuses “gate” when describing scandals (note to future historians: Watergate was a hotel, it wasn’t a scandal about water).

For the record I much prefer the more descriptive term “gonzo-historical” (also coined by Jeter).

Categories
On Writing

Twitter fiction is a joke

I published over 400 stories last year. The punchline is that they all averaged 22 words or less. These stories were published on Thaumatrope, the first twitter fiction magazine, and became part of the microfiction revolution and the recent trend of twitter fiction. Yes, they were all stories that were written in 140 characters or less.

In my comings and goings, introducing people to the twitter fiction concept, I’ve often heard it asked: “How is it possible to write a story that short? If a story must contain an entire plot then how can you compress all that into just a few sentences?” My answer: “Can you tell a joke?”

But seriously folks, try writing your twitter fiction in the form of a joke. Not that it needs to be funny, but that it should have a set-up (exposition, in literary terms) and a punchline (a climax and/or resolution). Consider the work of famous short-form comedian Henny Youngman:

A doctor has a stethoscope up to a man’s chest. The man asks, “Doc, how do I stand?” The doctor says, “That’s what puzzles me!”

In under 140 characters you have a complete story—the set-up: A doctor has a stethoscope up to a man’s chest. The man asks, “Doc, how do I stand?” and the punchline: The doctor says, “That’s what puzzles me!”

Even Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story contains the same elements: the exposition: For sale: Baby’s shoes, and the climax/resolution: Never worn.

Here are some examples of twitter fiction stories originally appearing on Thaumatrope that follow the same pattern:

“The truth,” I said, “is out there.” In a bus station locker in Trenton, NJ, seething, breathing, waiting, explosive. “I have the key.”

“Your first edition of Twilight gave me a paper cut!”

“Yeah, it does that to everyone sooner or later.”

If a Chronodoc says not to let paradox worry you because the math is all right this time, punch him. Punch him while you still have fists.

But the set-up/punchline format isn’t the only one that you could use. You can be even more direct. Henny Youngman was famous for his one-liners:

My doctor grabbed me by the wallet and said, “Cough!”

The one-liner concept, a story that can be told without pause all in one breath, is a bit more difficult to write. It requires that the exposition, climax, and resolution be all in one sentence. Here are some twitter fiction stories using the one-liner concept:

Lying in drag, waiting for the little girl, the wolf wonders what his own grandmother would say about how his life has turned out.

Sadly, Lillie realized the full scope of her powers the day she wished her math teacher would be hit by an asteroid the size of the moon.

The joke is just one of many forms that twitter fiction could take. Take a moment to browse the Thaumatrope archives, and see if you can recognize the format in the stories there. Hopefully this serves as an starting point for writers who want to write stories in the twitter fiction and the other microfiction forms.