Fri
Nov 6 2009 1:03pm
Spy-fi is just around the corner

With Tor.com’s steampunk month now behind us, I would like to ponder what may come next. Certainly, steampunk as a genre and as a subculture is here to stay, there’s no doubting that; in all ways, steampunk is still heating up and will probably continue to grow for years. However, trends naturally evolve and new ones come into being, and I have pondered what the next aesthetic of interest will be. There is no doubt in my mind that the whole neo-vintage trend is still going strong, so the next big genre will be another subset of retro-futurism.

Simple chronology would suggest that the next trend will be pulp, which is a genre of sci-fi and adventure fiction drawn from the 1920s through the 1950s. As a style of story, a pulp adventure can be found in just about any setting, but in terms of an aesthetic pulp is inspired by the interwar period and the Second World War. Pulp sci-fi enjoys ray guns, rocket packs, fighter planes and over-the-top adventure heroes. Examples of the genre include many well-known films, like Indiana Jones and Sky Captain. However, as many fans of steampunk will note, there is already a great deal of interest in pulp (in some cases, it is even mistaken for steampunk, although the two are distinct genres). One might say that pulp is already enjoying a burst of interest alongside steampunk. So what then can the next trend be?

I would like to take this opportunity to officially predict that the next big trend to follow steampunk will be mod-era spy-fi. Now, I hear you asking, what is “mod” and what is “spy-fi”?

Mod is an aesthetic style and subculture that came into being around the turn of the 1960s. Historically, the mods were young people in urban Britain who put a great emphasis on appearance and fashion trends, and who stayed at the cutting edge of 60s fashion. “Mod” as an aesthetic style can be expanded back to cover the beatniks of the 1950s (among whom the mods may well have had their origins) and forward into the cutting-edge trends 1970s (though at this point it culturally runs into other non-mod subcultures, like the hippies and the punks). In all, the characteristic sharp aesthetics and fashions of the atomic age blend together to encompass a truly unique look that is mod.

Spy-fi is a genre of fiction that combines espionage themes with science fiction, often in the form of gadgets and spy devices. It is perhaps best known for its associations with the Cold War, which was the heyday of the genre. In spy-fi, characters (often but not always spies) become embroiled in a world of adventure and espionage, where they struggle against the agents of an opposing power, which may be something as realistic as a foreign government or as fanciful as a diabolical mastermind. Technology is ultra-modern for the time and place of the setting, and it is often disguised as innocuous objects. While the most famous examples of the genre reach incredible heights of fanciful science fiction (Moonraker and many other Bond films), the genre can also include the realistic and serious (I Spy and Danger Man), the humorous (Get Smart) and even the philosophical (The Prisoner). The British television series The Avengers covers a wide range of spy-fi’s themes depending on the season and corresponding female protagonist, ranging from the gritty (1962-1964 with Cathy Gale), to the witty (1965-1968 with Emma Peel), to the semi-absurd (1968-1969 with Tara King). Other major examples of the spy-fi genre include The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Charlie’s Angels, and even Austin Powers (which is a parody of certain more ludicrous aspects of the spy-fi genre).

So, there you have it. I predict that when the next trend surfaces it will be spy-fi with fashions inspired by the 1950s-1970s. I can already see a mod fashion influence surfacing in the form of the television program Mad Men, and numerous modern spy-fi stories are already in public view (consider the current incarnation of Bond films or the TV show Chuck). It is only a matter of time before the two are rejoined.

Or perhaps this is merely wishful thinking, because I desperately desire people to understand what I’m talking about when I make an Avengers or Prisoner reference. Either way, I intend to enjoy the continued growth of steampunk and the parallel development of pulp (though when people start tossing around the combined word of “steampulp” I may well head for the hills).


G. D. Falksen enjoys reading, watching and writing all of these genres. He is firmly convinced that John Steed could take James Bond armed with nothing but an umbrella and a bowler hat. More information can be found at his website (www.gdfalksen.com) and his Twitter (twitter.com/gdfalksen).

18 comments
DemetriosX
1. DemetriosX
Actually, there is already a term and a bit of a movement for reflecting the early pulp years (say up to the war): Dieselpunk. All the Flash Gordon influenced stuff with Art Deco aesthetics.

Spy-fi does have a chance, though. There are plenty of forerunners showing up all the time. Aside from the things you already mentioned, there are books like Tim Powers' Declare (although that's on the fantasy side, really) and the up-coming remake of The Prisoner (which I am dreading). Are there really people who don't get Prisoner references?
Mike Conley
2. NomadUK
DemetriosX@1: The upcoming remake of The Prisoner is going to well and truly suck more than anything could possibly ever have sucked. I simply cannot imagine that there will be anyone involved in that abomination, either in front of or behind the camera, that will be in any way worthy to clean with their tongues between the treads of Patrick McGoohan's wellies after he'd taken a long walk across a well-populated English pasture.
Bill Spangler
3. Bspangler
My friend Chris Mills has been writing about Spy-Fi at his blog, www.spy-fichannel.blogspot.com. And he's part of a group called C.O.B.R.A.S. (Coalition of Bloggers wRiting About Spies). You might want to check them out.
Dan Sparks
4. RedHanded
Sad to say I have never seen the original version of The Prisoner, so I plan on watching the remake coming up. Everything I've read about it says that the original was awesome. I really hope the remake is..

Oh and yes that means I would not get references.
DemetriosX
5. Mary Arrr
I love the 50s-70s spy movies, and have the complete Emma Peel boxset, but don't think spy-fi will grow into a steampunk-style fandom. Why? Hip, cool, and with-it are by definition exclusionary. It's not a big tent. The charm, passion and DIY mentality that has sustained steampunk wouldn't survive in the arid perfection of the spy-fi world. There is a much wider range of possible characters in steampunk.

Not to say that you won't see a good deal of it produced on the pro/semi-pro level, because it is fun to watch.

And you left out the biggest recent spy-fi - the French OSS 117 films - OSS 117:Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117:Lost in Rio. And they showed the problem of reproducing the genre - the period and style were amazing - but it ended up taking me almost a week to watch the first one because I could only take it in small doses. I kept hoping the pace would pick up. Haven't watched the second one.
GD Falksen
6. gdfalksen
@DemetriosX: What people are calling "dieselpunk" is in fact pulp, which is named for the pulp magazines that originally printed pulp stories. I'm not certain where the term dieselpunk originated or why the creator didn't know about the pulp genre, but I think it's rather unfortunate given that it tends to cause confusion like this. Pulp came first, dieselpunk is just another name for pulp.

@NomadUK and DemetriosX: The remake of the Prisoner is going to make me weep, that's all I have to say. Even if it turns out to be "good" it'll be a case of "why didn't you just make your own bloody setting instead of butchering this one?"

@Mary Arrr: I think that there's enough diversity of material in spy-fi and in the mod era to appeal to a wide range of people (enthusiasts will probably end up blending in the detective stories of the 70s, like "Shaft" and "Starsky and Hutch" as well). Steampunk's big subculture appeal is that is offers something for everyone, whether it's literature, fashion, technology, etc.; and mod-era spy-fi has the potential to offer all of these just as easily.
DemetriosX
7. DemetriosX
I disagree that there is a full equivalence between pulp and dieselpunk. I would say at most that dieselpunk is a subset of pulp. If the essence of steampunk is rosewood and brass, then for dieselpunk it is gleaming chrome and elegant curves, which cannot be said to apply uniformly to pulp. Indy is definitely pulp, I question whether he is dieselpunk.

I would say that the era reflected by dieselpunk came to an end somewhere between John Campbell taking full control over Astounding (1938) and the US entry into WWII. Pulp continued on into the 50s or even early 60s.

In any case, I think dieselpunk makes a logical successor as a paeleofuture subculture. There's lots of room for costuming (tight-fitting jumpsuits, fancy headgear, etc.) and elaborate equipment (ray guns, control panels). Flash Gordon, Doc Smith, it's a different vibe from the post-war era. I see the appeal of mod-era spy-fi, but it may not stand out well enough visually.
Jess Nevins
8. jessnevins
"Pulp, which is a genre of sci-fi and adventure fiction drawn from the 1920s through the 1950s."

No. Sorry to be pedantic, but no.

Pulp is a medium, not a genre. (It began with the October, 1896 issue of Argosy, not "the 1920s"). I realize that playing fast and loose with terminology is part of blogging, but I would hope that those blogging on Tor could be a trifle more precise in their posts. We'd never equate comics with superheroes--let's not do that with pulps.

Pulp magazines featured all sorts of genres, including science fiction, action/adventure, fantasy, horror, westerns, mysteries, etc etc etc. But there was no pulp genre.
DemetriosX
9. Tammy T.5
Thank you for pointing out that dieselpunk is just a poorly used word for Pulp.
The word "Dieselpunk" came from a RPG game called Children of the Sun. The term was coined by game designers Lewis Pollak and Dan Ross.
This odd fetish of renaming everything and putting the word punk at the end of it is kinda silly.
GD Falksen
10. gdfalksen
@DemetriosX: This is something we're ultimately going to disagree on, which is bound to happen from time to time. Regardless, every time I have encountered someone using the term "dieselpunk" it has been in reference to something that is clearly pulp, and is being used to the exclusion of pulp.

@jessnevins: I'm sorry, but you are incorrect. You cannot argue that the pulp genre is not a genre. You can argue for subdivision between pulp adventure and pulp sci-fi, you can point out the distinction between the general use of pulp printing and the specific style of stories written during the golden age of the pulps, but you cannot simply dismiss the genre because it is inconvenient for you.
Jess Nevins
11. jessnevins
@gdfalksen: No, actually, you're wrong. "Pulp adventure" is a genre: adventure which appeared in the pulps. "Pulp sci-fi" is a genre: science fiction which appeared in the pulps. You said "pulp is a genre of sci-fi and adventure fiction," which is different from saying "pulp sci-fi."

Again, there were many genres which appeared in the pulps. But we don't say "the pulp genre" any more than we say "the comic book genre." The medium is not the genre. Never has been. You cannot simply claim that something is a genre because it is convenient for you.
GD Falksen
12. gdfalksen
@jessnevins: I'm sorry but you're wrong, and you're clearly trying to use poorly applied semantics to justify an untenable argument. To argue that pulp is not a genre and then to argue that it is in fact two genres is contradictory as well as incorrect. The pulp genre takes its name from the pulp magazines because it was the dominant story type during the heyday of the pulps. This does not allow you to arbitrarily deny its existence because, for whatever reason, you don't want to believe that it exists. You're welcome to disagree, but that won't make you right.
DemetriosX
13. Shireling
@4:

sfsignal.com is having a giveaway contest for the complete original Prisoner shows, with all kinds of extras. You must be a U.S. resident, and the contest ends Monday.

McGoohan trivia: He was offered the lead in the James Bond series, but felt it was too silly and gimmicky, so he turned it down. The studio went with their second choice == Sean Connery.
Pete Miller
14. Doc_Savage
Dictionary.com says - genre - a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like: the genre of epic poetry; the genre of symphonic music.

By strict definition, Pulp is a genre. But it is also full of sub genres. Personally, I think of pulp more as an aesthetic, than a genre because of the wide selection of sub genres - from Westerns to Romance, Science Fiction, the Hero Pulps, and Mystery.

While strictly true, I feel that calling pulp a genre is like calling paperback books a genre, or comic books a genre. Yes, they share a particular form, but the content is so different it doesn't really make sense to put them all in one box.

Being a writer of adventure pulp, I am encouraged in any increased awareness of pulp stuff.

- Pete Miller
DemetriosX
15. Lady Amelia
Spy-fi might be something I'd be interested to see come out more. It might just be because my muses are crazy like that, but I find my writing spans over many genres - my steampunk airship pirates, mostly inspired by Abney Park, Firefly and Storm Hawks; my sci-fi adventurers, mib Titan A.E., Storm Hawks, Hitchhiker's, and Treasure Planet; my circus clown novel, mib my own adventures in clowning; and even my own post-apocalyptic cyberpunk story, mib the Matrix, Biblical philosophies, Dune, and the Chronicles of Riddick; and most recently, something a little more spy-fi! (lovely word, by the way - I assume it's futuristic, sci-fi-ish technology in a spy situation of sorts?) inspired by Dr. Steel, nazi movies, and Umbrella Corp., a little closer to our own time. My own eclectic creations are a sign of my varied interests, I'm sure, but I was raised by a man who has the entirety of the James Bond collection, among other things, and it is delightful fun, and a fascinating look at commenting on not only advancing technology, but a bit of psychology and government corruption. With things like Spy kids and Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the Bourne series out there, I might have to say that that would be a very good call, friend!
Blake Ellis
16. galaxyexpressed
GDFalksen, I'm pretty confident jessnevens is right - if someone told me they were writing a "pulp sci-fi" novel, I would know exactly what they mean, but if they told me they were writing a "pulp" novel, it could mean anything that evokes the pulp era. Even pulp sci-fi is so broad you can't say that the specific set of elements "Dieselpunk" (a label which I don't particularly like, but I get it) envokes describes all of pulp sci-fi. If someone designs a new label to describe a set of books/novels that envoke a certain set of elements, just because those elements are found oftentimes in another genre doesn't mean that that genre is redundant. People who are into dieselpunk are looking for something a bit more specific than "pulp sci-fi" and especially "pulp". What you were saying seems uninformed and doesn't really make sense.
Anita Croft
17. AnitaCroft
I've always thought of pulp as a genre. When someone says "pulp" I think of everything from Lovecraft's tentacular horrors to Indiana Jones. All the sub genres - "pulp horror", "pulp sci-fi", "pulp adventure" - fall under the term "pulp".
Of course the medium is not the genre but I would not say that calling "pulp sci-fi" pulp is the same as calling all paperback books a genre.
DemetriosX
18. Igor Buttinsky
Preceding the excellent reasoning by galleryexpressed

for declining to designate pulp as a genre of writing rather than a medium comprising certain production values in paper, ink, printing technology, and writing bought at a penny a word to detail urgently florid inventions of adventure and SWM dreams in a flat feeling, brusque way was the reply to jessnevins by gdfalksen, viz, "The pulp genre…was the dominant story type…of the pulps." Whether this is true or not depends on whether the pulp genre has more to denote it than its being "dominant." Were these stories of romance, mystery, horror, science, speculation, the old West?

Yes, these generic forms of narration all fell into the maw of pulp publishing as I've described it. The quality of writing ranged from abridged work by classical masters out of copyright to modern masters like Jim Thompson writing in whatever style or publication sold the most. Along with many other hopefuls and hacks for whom the blonde being pressed back on the bed by a shirtless drunk, the 18th-century gentleman holding aloft a torch underground, and the menacing she-serpent holding her prey tightly in the moodlight became mostly about feeding the new leasure appetite of themass market, then still literate, as they passed time on trains, beaches, freighters, lunch periods, tanks, hammocks, and truck stops or when it was just too wet to plow.

"A wing is winged of a wing." Genre categorizes a subject. Each instance of that subject refines definition of the class. The term "pulp" has described a market, a style, and an aesthetic. But it encompasses many genres and therefore cannot be one, unless we create "Lurid and Disposable" as a generic metaclass of fiction. But then, in a few years it becomes "Vibrant and Collectable," and proves that it can't be any kind of class. For the wing is not winged of fashion, but of itself.

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