Silkpunk, as a subgenre label, has floated around the science fiction and fantasy community over the past few years. But I first encountered the term a decade ago during a panel at a convention. While the concept sounded intriguing, the specifics were vague. What I drew from that conversation is that silkpunk referred to works featuring an Asian setting and a punk aesthetic, by which I mean themes of resistance, rebellion, and revolution. You might have encountered these ideas in the much more well-known subgenre of steampunk.
Silkpunk really coalesced in 2015 when Ken Liu applied the term to his then-forthcoming novel, The Grace of Kings. Unlike the vague definitions used in that con panel, Liu laid out more specific criteria. First and foremost, silkpunk shouldn’t be used to refer generally to any work of science fiction and fantasy influenced by Asian culture and storytelling. Not only is that imprecise, it’s also simply too broad an application.
Instead, silkpunk as invented by Ken Liu is something else entirely. While works that fall into this category do draw inspiration from Asian culture and history, what sets them apart are their use of technology, engineering, poetry, and language. In silkpunk, form is as important as function. Unlike steampunk, silkpunk boasts more organic technology. Think devices made of bamboo, silk, and shells that look more natural even as they fulfill their constructed purpose.
Perhaps most crucial of all to readers, silkpunk draws upon different literary traditions to create something new. Anyone who’s read Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series knows that it blends Western epic fantasy with East Asian romances—and by romances, we mean the storytelling tradition that romanticizes drama and historical figures as seen in works like Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Since silkpunk is a relatively new subgenre—less than a decade old if we go by Ken Liu’s official definition—there aren’t many examples yet. But for now, here are a few novels to get you started. It’s always exciting to get in on the ground floor of something new!
The Grace of Kings
Any list of silkpunk novels wouldn’t be complete without the book and author that inspired its widespread usage. The first installment of Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty introduces us to two men who became best friends while working together to overthrow an emperor. But once the rebellion was won and the tyrant deposed, the two men find themselves on opposing sides as their respective ideas of justice and honor come into direct conflict. Fans of Asian historical epics will recognize the structure here.
More Silkpunk Books Worth Reading
While Celestial Matters was first published almost 20 years before Ken Liu coined the term silkpunk, Liu held it up as an example when he described the subgenre. As a result, it retroactively gets the label. The novel hinges on the antiquated idea that Earth is the center of the universe and the Greek empire never fell and in fact, spread across the world. In this alternate history, the empire has developed space travel technology and seeks a weapon to end their eternal conflict with the Middle Kingdom—as East Asia is known in this setting—to complete their quest for world domination.
The Black Tides of Heaven
Neon Yang kicked off their Tensorate series with a pair of novellas about a pair of twins with extraordinary powers. Mokoya and Akeya are the twin children of an oppressive ruler. Mokoya was born with the gift of prophecy while Akeya could see possibility. But as the twins grow older, they see the grim truth of their mother’s tyranny and Akeya’s choice to join the rebellion may tear the siblings apart.
Inspired by early 20th-century Asia, this critically acclaimed graphic novel series portrays an ongoing war between magical creatures known as Arcanics and the Federation of Man. In the present timeline, Arcanics are subjugated, sold as slaves, and even have their bodies mined for power by an organization of sorceresses. Against this backdrop is the journey of Maika Halfwolf, a traumatized teenaged Arcanic able to pass for human who has a mysterious link to a powerful monster.
The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia
While this anthology declares itself a collection of tales from steampunk Southeast Asia, some of its stories are more in line with Ken Liu’s definition of silkpunk than Asian-flavored steampunk. They blend technology and tradition, and often use organic material versus the modern engineering typically featured in silkpunk’s sister subgenre.
The first of a trilogy, Rebel Skies tells the story of Kurara, a girl who’s never known anything beyond being a servant aboard a flying ship. But when she learns her ability to bring paper to life is actually a sought-after skill, her life changes forever. Kurara joins a crew and learns how to hunt wild paper spirits known as shikigami.
Her mission soon raises some moral dilemmas, however. The imperial princess desires these magical beings, but is Kurara actually consigning free creatures to a life of slavery?
This alternate history perhaps leans more toward the steampunk side of the spectrum, but it’s included here because it’s less steampunk with Asian flavoring and more steampunk built upon Chinese technology that could have existed in the mid-19th century. Gunpowder was first invented in China, after all. Set after the first Opium War, Gunpowder Alchemy opens with Jin Soling, the daughter of an executed imperial engineer.
Soling has not had it easy. Her family’s reputation is in ruins after China’s loss to Britain. Her mother is addicted to opium and they are nearly financially destitute. When she attracts the attention of the same imperial court responsible for her father’s death, she learns of a secret plot. They want to rebuild the Ministry of Science and more to the point, they need her help to do it.