What is Silkpunk?

This is a Book Riot post, which, sorry, is always going to make me wonder if the author of the post is going to pick Watership Down as one of the quintessential examples of Silkpunk.

I am just never going to forget that Urban Fantasy post. Never.

However, this particular post about Silkpunk starts off by declaring that not every Asia-themed fantasy is Silkpunk, which seems uncontroversial. I mean, “punk” implies a very specific … something. What does “punk” imply to you?

Because Steampunk was the first subgenre that used “punk” this way, I think of everything with “punk” in the title as having a sort of 19th Century aesthetic tone, probably a rather gritty 19th Century tone. I think of steam powered mechanisms, even if the “punk” term is transferred to a different prefix, as in Silkpunk. That is, I think of fantasy novels in any sort of —-punk as being heavy on mechanical stuff in the setting. Big, clunky mechanical stuff, with gears. I’m not surprised by guns and railroads either. That’s quite different from a medieval setting with nothing higher tech than swords and wagon wheels.

So how about Silkpunk? I think my vague feeling was: Steampunk in an Asian-flavored setting, eg, Kristoff’s Stormdancer, which, I regret to say, I personally found unreadable despite the very promising inclusion of a griffin. But it’s Silkpunk, or it’s what I think of as Silkpunk.

So what does this Book Riot post say is Silkpunk? (Let’s assume: probably not Watership Down.)

book cover the grace of kings
Book Cover of The Grace of Kings

In the long history of speculative and SFF genres, silkpunk is pretty new. It was invented by Ken Liu to describe his 2015 novel The Grace of Kings. Liu coined the term, and wrote a post on his website to delve into its definition. Liu’s post begins with: “No, [silkpunk is] not “Asian-flavored steampunk.” No, it’s not “Asian-influenced fantasy.” No, it’s not…

Oh! Okay, well, I’m willing to accept that, but then I do think “Silkpunk” is a rather unfortunate choice of descriptor. I don’t think it’s quite reasonable to call a book by that term and then expect anything other than a guess that the book is in fact Asian-flavored steampunk. Let me click over and see what Ken Liu says Silkpunk actually is …

The vocabulary of the technology language relies on materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands: bamboo, shells, coral, paper, silk, feathers, sinew, etc. The grammar of the language puts more emphasis on biomimetics–the airships regulate their lift by analogy with the swim bladders of fish, and the submarines move like whales through the water. The engineers are celebrated as great artists who transform the existing language and evolve it toward ever more beautiful forms. … the “-punk” suffix in this case is functional. The silkpunk novels are about rebellion, resistance, re-appropriation and rejuvenation of tradition, and defiance of authority, key “punk” aesthetic pillars.

Ah! I like this idea a lot. Steampunk = a strong technological aesthetic based on 19th Century Europe; Silkpunk = a strong technological aesthetic based on a different, non-European, technological heritage. I think I’m inclined to withdraw my objection and agree that this is a pretty neat definition of a sub-sub-genre called Silkpunk.

I will note, with regret, that I also found The Grace of Kings unreadable. I liked the idea of it, but, hmm, let me see. Oh, yes, I remember why this book didn’t work for me. The story starts with two characters, boys or young men: the brave, physically competent jock and the wimpy, non-physically-competent non-jock. These two protagonists are presented in such simplistic ways that I lost interest after a chapter and a half. I realize a lot of readers loved this novel. I just couldn’t get into it, and well, there are a lot of other books out there, so I didn’t keep plugging away at this one.

Let’s go back to the Book Riot post … Oh! This is very interesting:

cover image of celestial matters by richard garfinkle

Celestial Matters is a book in which Aristotelian physics and Chinese qi theory are both factual descriptions of metaphysics in their respective parts of the world. It’s not a character-centered book, but it’s really interesting and fun for the worldbuilding. I should re-read it.

A few other books are mentioned at the linked post, so click through if you’re interested. Personally, I think I probably prefer Asian-inspired fantasy that is NOT Silkpunk. For example.

Under Heaven is hard to beat. I don’t think it’s flawless — I thought it needed another hundred pages at the end rather than a long epilogue, and one plot thread disappeared, which was disappointing, as I was interested in that thread. But it’s utterly beautiful. Unlike in The Grace of Kings, I found the characters deeply engaging from the first moments; unlike Stormdancer, I found the world immersive and real.

I’ve loved a lot of Asian-set fantasy novels. It would be easy to do a top ten list of my favorites. Maybe I’ll do that shortly.

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4 thoughts on “What is Silkpunk?”

  1. I’d be interested in your list, if you put it together.
    I’ve looked at Ken Liu, he keeps crossing my horizons, and I put the book down again every time.
    Steampunk to me is anything that elaborates on Victorian era pre-electric technology and has it applied to more things. Not necessarily to the level of the Sparks in Agatha Heterodyne, just more stuff. More dirigibles, more steam powered whatevers.

  2. I felt similarly about Grace of Kings, but I’ve heard Ken Liu’s short story work is fantastic, so I picked up The Paper Menagerie to try out. Grace of Kings sounds good when trying to explain it to someone else, but it wasn’t enjoyable to read.

    If you want silkpunk that works really well, I read The Black Tides of Heaven and its three sequels this summer. They’re short novels, sometimes novellas, and there’s a literary vibe to them. I picked them up because I’d heard they use they/them pronouns for all younger characters (and included nonbinary characters, too) and I wanted to see how nonbinary writers write nonbinary characters.

    And… I liked them. Especially The Descent of Monsters, the third book.

    Cyberpunk was my first -punk, so I tend to think of it as meaning a revolution—technological, social, political, or otherwise. I suppose hopepunk is a revolution against how dark popular fantasy became during the Game of Thrones era and complaints that if fantasy is happy, it must be saccharine.

  3. Vale, I’ve always really admired Ken Liu’s short stories, including The Paper Menagerie — though often his work barely skirts the edge of fantasy, and I think that’s true of that one. Anyway, I was surprised I disliked the Grace of Kings so much when I started it because I’d really liked his stories.

    Thanks for the recommendation — I’ll check out The Black Tides.

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