Every writer wants that distinctive voice which brings their prose to life in a unique way. Something which makes their work stand out in the enormous pile of manuscripts that agents and publishers receive. When I think about individualism, standing out and not being bland, I think about punk. The music of The New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols seems to have little to teach the aspiring sci-fi or fantasy writer, but many authors have adopted the punk aesthetic to bring flair to their writing.
Punk has its origins in the sense of alienation and social breakdown caused by deindustrialisation in the 1970s, themes explored by sci-fi writers such as J.G. Ballard. Punk also attempts to fight back against conformist mainstream culture and overbearing culturally-conservativepowers, which authors have also explored – such as China Mieville in his book, The Iron Council. For a novel to have the punk suffix (steampunk, cyberpunk, etc) it should contain an element of rebellion in the story and an individualistic style, this is the connection between literary punk subgenres and the musical form of punk.
Mieville is an interesting case study as an author who has adopted the punk aesthetic and applied it his writing to create an original and distinctive style. In order to explore this fully, I will compare Mieville's writing to my personal favourite punk band, the Dropkick Murphys.
The first thing these two have in common is that they are not typical of their genre. Mieville describes himself as a ‘wired fiction writer’, however his ‘Bas Lag’ trilogy of novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council) have elements of the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres. Set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag, most of the action of the loose trilogy occurs in the city of New Crobuzon, a steampunk vision of Victorian London, where magic (or thaumaturgy, as Mieville calls it) sits alongside smoke stacks and workhouses, where steam-powered robots known as constructs perform heavy tasks, illegal newspapers sow dissent and a seditious killer preys on the vulnerable.
The Dropkick Murphys blend the hard and fast Oi style of punk to traditional Irish folk music. Fiddles, bodhráns, bagpipes, tin whistles, accordions and mandolins are frequently used in their music, alongside drums, bass and guitars. The raw, coarse energy of the traditional punk power trio enthused is fused with Massachusetts Irish culture, which has come to be known as Celtic Punk.
Both China Mieville and the Dropkick Murphys mix different genres and styles to create something distinctive. They have a wide variety of influences which makes their work individual and original – something all authors seek to be.
Another thing the two have in common is that their output is an aggressive statement of individualism. Punk is about not conforming to established ideas of taste or beauty but expressing your own view on what is beautiful. The Dropkick Murphys aggressive Oi style makes no attempts to conform to what could be considered pleasant or easy to listen to, and their music is fast, hard and aggressive. They also express their individualism through the influence of their Massachusetts Irish background; everything from the Red Shocks to the AFL-CIO trade union are brought into their songs, which makes them unique has a punk band.
All of China Mieville's novels contain scenes that are written with the intention of making the reader's stomach turn. Mieville is a visceral writer, whose creations have distorted anatomies and behave in grotesque or violent ways. His writing makes no allowance for what the reader might find tasteful and in fact deliberately seeks to shock and offend. Mieville's also draws on his interest in Marxist politics, role-playing games and the writing of H.P. Lovecraft to express his individuals.
China Mieville and the Dropkick Murphys refuse to conform to accepted standards of taste, as well as drawing on their background to find what makes them unique as an artist. This is the key to what makes these two unique, interesting and individual, and it is essential to what punk can teach us about being a distinctive writer. Both seek to be provocative, or even offensive. Punk is an aggressive display of nonconformity which can be found in both the Dropkick Murphys’ music and China Mieville's writing, and they both adopt this disregard of established tastes to create original work.
As a writer, there is no sense in being timid or second-guessing what you want to say because you feel it might conflict with the established sense of what is acceptable. Writers who do this tend to be comfortist and boring, their prose is filled with unnecessary restraints and is dull and unimaginative. If you want to be a success as writer then it is necessary to make your writing unique, memorable and individual, and not to spend too much timing worrying if this confirms to someone else’s view of what is acceptable. This is the lesson that punk can teach writers.
Neither China Mieville nor the Dropkick Murphys are typical of their genre, but punk is about being atypical. By being atypically punk, the Dropkick Murphys are being punk. China Mieville is punk in the way he writes provocatively, confrontationally and by making an aggressive statement of individualism. Punk is about not being shy or conforming to how the establishment thinks you should behave. What punk can teach writers is to be bold, be yourself and not give a damb about what others think you of.