So I sat down to write this post, thinking that, aside from a few scattered references found in the darker corners of the Internet (such as somebody’s reading list on Goodreads), I had pretty much invented the term “Swordpunk.” Or at least, was the first writer to consciously and self-proclaimedly apply it to any of my work. I was wrong. Fantasy author G. Derek Adams, author of Spell/Sword, beat me to the punch almost two years ago. His inaugural post on the topic is funny, and it rambles a bit, but I think the core point he makes is this:
I think the fear that fantasy writers have is that if they don’t reinvent the wheel, they won’t be taken seriously. Like Tad Williams is going to roll up and revoke their Fantasy License. [I’m imagining him in a lime green golf cart and wearing a jaunty scarf. Are you imagining it that way? Just me? Okay.]
When I have a hero step forth and raise his sword, I don’t want to try to sell you on how he’s different than the inumerable sword-slingers in the genre. I want you to think of them. I want you to think of Sturm Bright-blade, Simon Mooncalf, Logen the Bloody-Nine, Brienne of Tarth, Lancelot, Garet Jax, Neville Longbottom, Reepicheep, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter and Conan the Barbarian, himself. I want you to think of them all. I want to connect to that resonance, that legacy of character.
I recently finished the first draft of the YA post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel I’ve been working on, and during the break between finishing the draft and doing my first edit, I went back to an earlier project I had started a few years ago. The story started out as nothing more than an entertaining diversion for myself. I was working on my epic fantasy at the time (which is still in progress), which is my attempt to do just what Adams is rebelling against in the article: to reinvent the wheel a bit, to write something that’s different from everything else. It’s a project that’s close to my heart and which I take as seriously as anything I’ve written. Sometimes too seriously. That being said, after getting around 30,000 words into the first book, I needed a break. So I sat down, opened up a new Word document, and started writing.
It was a freewriting exercise, essentially, and I did it according to two arbitrarily imposed rules: (1) I would write a fantasy story that was entirely self-indulgent, i.e., was about what I found cool and nothing else and wasn’t trying to be original; and (2), I would consciously try to avoid editing myself in any way as I wrote. The result was The Akkian Mass, the first chapter of which is available for free on this site.
It was probably the most straight up fun writing I’ve ever done. It taught me a lesson about writing in general, too, one that others had tried to impress upon me but that I only fully learned on my own: you can’t censor yourself, at least on your first draft. You need to put what’s in your head on the page without thinking about how anyone else will respond to it. So I sat there and geeked out, and enjoyed the hell out of it.
Coming back to it recently, I immediately got excited about it again, for similar reasons. Why shouldn’t I just finish this, I asked myself? Turn it into a stand alone sword and sorcery novel and just publish it and see if anyone shares my sick, nerdy glee in the masturbatory quality of it? So that’s my plan, as of now. Since I wrote it, and more so lately, the question of how to market it has been percolating in the back of my mind. The word that kept reappearing was “Swordpunk.”
The tradition of adding “-punk” to the end of a word to create a new subgenre of SFF started, obviously, with cyberpunk. Wikipedia has a great summary of the subgenres or “derivatives” that sprang from it here.
It’s hard to define cyberpunk and its subgenres explicitly, particularly since they don’t all have a lot in common. To synthesize as best I can, however, in my experience cyberpunk, steampunk, clockpunk, etc., all share two primary things: (1) a focus on some form of technology or magic; and (2), a generally contrarian, “punk” point of view.
Lawrence Person noted this in a now-famous quote: “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”
So what, then, is swordpunk? Here’s my definition:
A subgenre of fantasy that combines established tropes of the traditional Sword & Sorcery subgenre and the newly established “grimdark” movement with a self-aware focus on indulging the existing passions of established fantasy fans, particularly in regard to character, action, magic, weaponry, and setting.
In other words, swordpunk is meta as fuck. It’s writing that is going to appeal to readers in two different, but complementary ways: first, to new readers, as indulgent, light story-telling that focuses more on entertaining the reader than on literary merit, and (2), for established fans of the genre, as self-aware quasi-satire that deliberately has fun with the fact that it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Swordpunk is about badass adventurers, powerful wizards, scantily clad people, sick fantasy swords and armor, quippy sidekicks, scary, evil enemies, and profitable dungeon-crawling.
Which is definitively not to say that it should be in any way backwards in terms of gender roles, sexual orientation, etc. The swordpunk I want to write and to read will have as many badass women as men, and the characters won’t care who they’re fucking as long as they’re fucking somebody.
Above all, however, swordpunk should be fun.
What do you think? What would you include in your definition of swordpunk? What does the term mean to you, if anything?