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Science Fiction/Fantasy

Diving into the Sub-Genre of Oceanpunk

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Katie Moench

Contributor

Katie Moench is a librarian, runner, and lover of baked goods. A school librarian in the Upper Midwest, Katie lives with her husband and dog and spends her free time drinking coffee, trying new recipes, and adding to her TBR.

From steampunk to dieselpunk to clockpunk and more, there is a proliferation of sub-genres and mashups that fall under the punk literature umbrella. Defined by their embrace of retro, yet futuristic technologies and specific elements and settings, these books transport readers to an imaginative world in which characters move through an altered landscape from our own. Punk sub-genre books often play with timelines and settings in ways that both echo our own world and change it up. For example, steampunk writers craft fictional worlds that are both futuristic and have echoes of Victorian fashion and steam powered-technology, while cyberpunk authors focus on what happens when a high-technology society meets humanity. Oceanpunk writers take us under or onto the high seas, to explore what it would be like to live in a water-dominated world.

Also called seapunk or, depending on the characters involved, pirate punk, the oceanpunk sub-genre is all about stories set on the water. In this sub-genre, the technological focus is on technologies used to explore the world’s oceans, both above and below the surface. Oceanpunk books might take place in a fantasy world with the same history as our own, or they might be set in a near-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic world, where waters have risen and covered what used to be land. Oceanpunk often shares some similarities with steampunk in both its use of wooden ships and vintage innovations and the Victorian aesthetic of its characters. However, oceanpunk books can also take on more futuristic tones, with advanced undersea technologies and even stories that play around with the idea of outer space as an ocean of sorts.

The popularity and common tropes of oceanpunk come from both the literature and film worlds. Starting with Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which set a science fiction story not up above the Earth, but instead underneath the sea, the term itself came into common conscience with movies such as Waterworld and Deep Blue Sea in the 1990s. Oceanpunk books and movies often incorporate environmental themes and concerns; they might have technological systems that incorporate natural aspects of a water-covered world, or they might address what would happen if sea levels continue to rise and how humanity would adapt. Common story elements include sea monsters and sea creatures, submarines, underwater cities, and lost treasures, all wrapped in themes of a world dominated by water. Oceanpunk might also play with the impact of humans on the world’s oceans by including settings like deep sea drilling platforms or characters such as militant environmentalists or industrialists intent on accessing the ocean’s resources.

Readers wanting to explore the oceanpunk world can choose from a wide range of titles. From submarine voyages using Victorian technology to futuristic looks at a post-climate apocalypse world, oceanpunk books have a watery world of titles to dive into and you can check out some starter suggestions below!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  book cover

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

As noted above, this 1872 book is seen today as the genesis of oceanpunk literature. Centered around the daring Captain Nemo that story follows his journeys in the Nautilus, a submarine whose features were futuristic for the time. Captain Nemo and his crew travel more than 50,000 miles (AKA 20,000 leagues) underneath the surface of the world’s oceans, documenting the creatures they see along the way.

The Kraken Wakes  book cover

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

This 1955 book was prescient in the way it portrayed anxieties about melting icecaps and rising oceans. When a series of red dots appear above Britain and then crash into the ocean, the humans assume their alien visitors are only interested in what lies below the ocean’s surface. But soon, the polar ice caps begin to melt at an astonishing rate and humanity must contend with the attempts of the undersea invaders to wipe them off the face of the Earth.

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty book cover

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

If you’re looking to dabble in fantasy pirate punk, definitely try this book. After a life as a well-known pirate on the Indian Ocean, Amina al-Sirafi is looking forward to settling down into motherhood and a peaceful retirement. However, when the mother of a former crewman shows up and offers Amina a king’s ransom for finding her crewmate’s kidnapped daughter, Amina is unable to resist one last job. This book is full of sea monsters, sailing ships, and scandalous adventures.

The Beast of Cretacea by Todd Strasserbook cover

The Beast of Cretacea by Todd Strasser

While Moby Dick isn’t technically an oceanpunk book, its themes of struggle and pride on the high seas are echoed in many stories of the subgenre. Here, 17-year-old Ishmael is aboard the Pequod, a ship that has left a dying Earth for the vibrant planet of Cretaceato. Ishmael and his crew have been brought to the new planet for a dangerous task: to capture and harvest the fearsome sea beasts of Cretaceato and send their resources back to a depleted Earth. But as Ishmael and his captain Ahab chase down their elusive prey, secrets are revealed that complicate their mission.

A Door Into Ocean book cover

A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Joan Slonczewski’s book was seen as both a new, feminist take on oceanpunk sci-fi and a classic example of worldbuilding when it was published. The book takes place in an ocean world where the Sharers of Shora have developed an all-female society that lives in harmony and harnesses natural technologies from their water environment. Conflict strikes when a neighboring civilization invades with the aim of colonizing the planet and taking its resources for itself.

Cover of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

When aliens land in the waters outside the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Internet mobs are formed and ready to attack, religious leaders hail it as a sign of the end of times, and the government is debating a nuclear strike. In all of this confusion, it is up to a biologist, a rapper, and a rogue soldier to take on the new arrivals and find out what they really want.


Looking to explore more punk sub-genres in books? check out our steampunk and cyberpunk round-ups!