Dieselpunk!

20 Apr

There were a few comments on Saturday’s post that mentioned steampunk in relation to the use of leather–which actually triggered some other thoughts that I feel I should cover today.

Though I’m not currently writing a steampunk novel, that style is something that very much appeals to me.  For a while I was on a Cherie Priest run, reading anything and everything that she wrote (and waiting eagerly for the next).  I must say I’m a big fan of her Clockwork Century series (first three in that link); it’s a whole lot of fun and features something that greatly interests me: airships!

Typically, though, steampunk is going to be set in Victorian England or some other place around that era.  I admire Priest in that she brought her steampunk story to America, making for a refreshing change of scenery.  Though, when it came to deciding what route I wanted to take for my first novel, I wanted a setting that was further along, historically, than steampunk but yet not so advance as to be modern-day–somewhere between the 1920s and the 1930s.

I knew what kinds of things I was inspired by in this era, though I had no idea, until the past year or so, that there was even a subgenre which lined up with what I was looking for.  Turned out it’s called dieselpunk.  And even though I know about it now, it’s been difficult for me to identify with and emulate it because there’s so little dieselpunk out there in the literary world!

I’m hoping that will change–and soon. (I know I’m working on doing my part!)

What is Dieselpunk?

Dieselpunk isn’t something I hear a lot about, to be honest, when it comes to popular media.  I guess that’s why I’m drawn to it because I love seeking out the unique, unconventional things in life.  (What is everyone else doing?  I tend to want to do the exact opposite.) 

Logically, one would assume that it simply combines the “punk” element of steampunk with the supplanted “diesel” instead of “steam”–and I suppose that’s pretty much what it does.  However, the entire aesthetic of dieselpunk is completely different from that of steampunk.  (If the two were metals and I had to compare them, I’d say copper and brass are to steampunk as steel and chrome are to dieselpunk.)

Dieselpunk covers a good span of time, so think back first to what you learned about the world’s state during the 1920s and 30s.  What kind of stuff was happening back then?

Well, in America you had swing and jazz music, Prohibition as a major issue, skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building popping up, those fabulous flappers and swanky sheiks all about, the rise of noir films (which actually came later, though I mention it because it’s an influence of dieselpunk), and the publishing and rapid consumption of pulp magazines.  Literary classics such as The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath were written during this time, as well.  Also, Zeppelins were roaming the skies for a while and there were archaeological discoveries such as King Tut’s tomb, followed closely by the phenomenon of Art Deco…oh, and don’t forget the Great Depression.  Then later WWII came, and finally the advent of the mid-century modern era.

Initially, it was the best of times, followed by the worst of times–from glitz and glam to shacks and shambles (or Hoovervilles) for many.  Thankfully, however, it didn’t stay that way!

Of course, any time you try to summarize an era you run into generalizations and clichés, but this is basically the essence from whence dieselpunk was derived.  (There also seems to be a more bizarre, esoteric side to dieselpunk, as well–if not in the form of weird technology then the unearthing of unusual artifacts with divine, magical or supernatural powers.  Think of all the superstition that has been associated with grave robbing the mummies!)

Some Key Elements: Change, Progress & Technology

One of the things that sticks out the most to me when it comes to dieselpunk is that between those years considered canon (1920-1945, according to Wikipedia, and up until the 50s, according to TV Tropes and this site) there were periods of both great celebration and great suffering.  As such, dieselpunk works can reflect heavily on either one of these things, or both.  Overall, it can be optimistic and forward-looking like in the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or it can be fairly grim (or noir) like in the video game BioShock.  Strangely enough, though, dieselpunk mostly seems to have happily dismissed the Great Depression altogether and looks to other events for its grimness–like WWII, for example, or the abuse of some advanced, unusual form of technology or an artifact.

Speaking of technology, new or experimental technology is typically going to be a key element in dieselpunk stories.  You’ll see a lot of streamlined vehicles of transportation and even weaponry–vehicles which run off, you guessed it, diesel fuel.  Whether the technology is ultimately used for good or evil, though, is up to the storyteller.

Examples of Dieselpunk Works

This would best be done in a list.  I’ll keep mine brief:

Fiction

Movies & TV Shows

  • Batman (you can’t say Gotham City wasn’t Art Deco-inspired)
  • Hellboy (movies and comics)
  • Indiana Jones (though the last one may be classified as Atompunk)
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
  • The Mummy series
  • The Rocketeer (lots of fun!)
  • Captain America (2011)

Video Games

  • Bioshock
  • Crimson Skies
  • LA Noire (maybe; it’s kinda pulp-ish)

Further Readings

If you weren’t familiar with dieselpunk and all that it entails or have become further interested in it after reading my take on the matter (yay!), then you might be interested in browsing some of the links below.  I think they are some of the best dieselpunk sites available on the web.  I will also put them under my “Links” page for future reference. 🙂

  • The Gatehouse takes a pretty detailed look into the subgenre of dieselpunk; very interesting.
  • TV Tropes makes a run through dieselpunk, listing all sorts of works which fall into this category and even breaking them down into sub-categories.
  • io9 has an article originally from dieselpunks.org (the hub for all things dieselpunk, as I see it) that details what is entitled “the tenets of dieselpunk culture” (though, funnily enough, the photo they use is totally steampunk, not diesel, imo).

Final Thoughts

All I can say is that though dieselpunk may exist (marginally, it seems), it isn’t really getting noticed.

I don’t know about you people, but I’ve been craving more and more movies, games, TV shows, and novels which take us back in time–not so far as to be ancient or obsolete but far enough that a modern sensibility may be brought to it to reflect on the possibility of the future as we don’tknow it.  A tasteful intertwining of the past and the future.  Like in Sky Captain, where there is a focus on “the world of tomorrow”.  I think that is, essentially, the heart of the dieselpunk aesthetic.

I think it’s certainly an area which speculative fiction might potentially thrive in, if only some were willing to go there.

Have you ever heard of dieselpunk before?  Is it something that interests you?  Also, do you think it has a future in the literary world, or is it obscure for a reason?

And if you know of other works that might qualify as dieselpunk, feel free to share!

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25 Responses to “Dieselpunk!”

  1. Mark Andrew Edwards April 20, 2011 at 10:08 AM #

    Well, this is a new one to me.

    How is dieselpunk different from pulp science fiction? How is it different from the other pulp genres? It sounds more like weird science or maybe just ‘science’.

    I have seen a few books that were steam-powered 1920, most were Batman pastiches and none have been very good. (Thought I’m open to being proved wrong)

    I think the reason dieselpunk isn’t recognised is because the line between wonder and reality is too thin. A tank, battleship or aircraft carrier would be dieselpunk (or avgas punk) but it’s too normal, too recognisable. What’s so wonderous about a diesel powered car?

    Second the ‘punk’ ethos really doesn’t fit with the 20’s and 30’s. The 20’s and 30’s were the raving power of the nation state, not a lot of punk ethos there. Maybe someone could write it but I haven’t see it so far. Who would the punks and rebels be? The communists? The anarchists? Private eyes? Circus carnies? Gangsters and bank robbers don’t work, they’re all about getting rich.

    What is dieselpunk saying that wasn’t said better in Weird Tales and Amazing stories in the 20’s and 30’s?

    I’ll be interested in any response folk may have, this is new territory to me.

    Like

    • J. P. Cabit April 20, 2011 at 2:10 PM #

      Okay, I’ll bite. 🙂

      You point out that a tank, a battleship, or aircraft carrier are too commonplace. Well, in the 1800’s, a steam engine was probably commonplace too…it’s how far you go with the device that makes it interesting/wonderful.

      For instance, what if we took that diesel tank/battleship/carrier, and spiked them up a bit? Made the tanks go longer on less fuel? Increase the size of battleships to massive proportions? Put hydrogen balloons on aircraft for high-altitude browsing, or make them easily convert into submarines?

      With genres/subgenres like this, rather than historical fiction, we’re basically taking the technology to new heights, rather than dwelling on just old stuff.

      That help?…

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      • Tiyana April 20, 2011 at 5:00 PM #

        Haha, that’s basically what I was gonna say.

        An example in Sky Captain would be the ginormous aerial carriers kept aloft with rotor blades, assumably driven by very powerful engines. This is something that hasn’t been accomplished even today (at least I’ve never seen anything like that before). There was also Sky Captain’s amphibious airplane, which could transform smoothly and function under water.

        So in that sense it is very much science fiction, but the focus is on developing technology which has its roots in the dieselpunk timeframe (1920s to the 1950s) in an outlandish way. That’s how I see it, anyway, and I’m kind of doing this now in my WIP with experimental aircraft of various types.

        As for gangsters not being punk because they make a little dough…well, they were still operating in opposition to the powers that be (the government), so I’d still consider them to be punk. You also had bootleggers and flappers, who were very much rebelling against society and laws in their own various ways.

        I have to admit, though, Mark, that dieselpunk seems to very much be in a stage of infancy and probably isn’t even substantial enough yet to be called a subgenre. Still, I’d love to see more fiction along these lines. The strongest proponent, imo, for this aesthetic would definitely be Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, so if you’ve seen that then you’ll have a good idea of what it’s all about. (I’d consider it to be the epitome of dieselpunk, actually.) Though, it has it’s origins in a game called Children of the Sun, apparently. (Never played it, though, so can’t tell you much about it.)

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  2. T. S. Bazelli April 20, 2011 at 12:01 PM #

    I think Stephen is the one that mentioned it to me first. I’ve seen most of those movies though! I think of it more like a different flavor of steampunk (no steam, but gasoline). Hehe and ahh, I don’t know what else to say. I haven’t read it 😉

    Like

    • Tiyana April 20, 2011 at 6:00 PM #

      I’m glad some folks have heard of it! lol. And it is similar to steampunk in many respects, but its source of influence and inspiration is quite different.

      I guess that’s why I want to see (and write) more current speculative fiction (particularly fantasy) that’s not steampunk, cyberpunk, or typical sf/f and paranormal because most stories’ settings are based off super ancient times, the Victorian period, the modern day, or the future, it seems. Dieselpunk is a little-filled niche, I think, somewhere between Victorian and modern-day.

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  3. Stephen A. Watkins April 20, 2011 at 12:35 PM #

    Actually, Bazelli’s comment, I think, is pretty close to the mark. Part of the reason you don’t hear as much about Dieselpunk, yet, is because people are still trying to suss out whether Dieselpunk is really just a sub-sub-genre of Steampunk, or flavor variation of Steampunk, or if it’s its own genre, on equal level with Steampunk. It’s still new enough that no one really knows.

    For instance, you mention Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series – and yet if you search Westerfeld’s site you won’t find any mentions of “Dieselpunk” but plenty of mentions of “Steampunk”.

    When I first got into this subgenre – back around the time “Sky Captain” came out (I thought I was the only one who loved that movie…) and for many years before, this whole genre, steampunk and dieselpunk and other flavors all, weren’t even universally called “Steampunk” yet (although the word “Steampunk” dates back to 1987) – I believe it was still sometimes called “retro-futurism” in those days.

    In some ways, Steampunk, Dieselpunk and the more recent development of Atompunk (the only example of which I am familiar with is a comic called “Atomic Robo”, if you don’t count the movies, literature and pop culture of the late 40s and 50s) are all iterations of the “Retro-futurism” movement. Of these, Steampunk is the only one of which I am aware of having been encroached on and adopted into the Fantasy genres – the others at least pretend to be flavors of Sci-Fi.

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    • Stephen A. Watkins April 20, 2011 at 12:36 PM #

      P.S., let me add to your list of wonderful “dieselpunk” worlds: Disney’s cartoon “Tail Spin”, which I loved as a kid.

      Like

      • Tiyana April 20, 2011 at 5:32 PM #

        Tail Spin! I vaguely remember that, but it seems like a good fit.

        About Leviathan, that one is iffy to me because in the book I remember them talking about fuel cans and having to get fuel for the Clanker walker. To me, that seems to imply it’s not really steam-powered. I get the aesthetic aspect being more steampunk, but the machines themeselves don’t really seem to follow suit functionally.

        It’d be interesting to ask Westerfeld and see what he says about that, though the book aesthetically will always be seen as steampunk. (It’s set earlier than the dieselpunk timeframe anyway.)

        Like

        • Stephen A. Watkins April 21, 2011 at 12:46 PM #

          See, I think the issue of the variation in the aesthetic is still an open question. No doubt Steampunk derives its flavor primarily from the Victorian era (though I don’t think that means, necessarily, Victorian England, per se, but anything from that era anywhere in the world). And Dieselpunk is definitely drawing inspiration from a different time period.

          But aesthetically, the two are coming about to the same conclusion: what did the future look like through the lense of [insert past, bygone era here]?

          That’s why for the longest time I was very comfortable with the term “retro-futurism” because it easily encompassed answering this question from the perspective of any historical period. “Steampunk” has become the dominant term, though.

          That said, I’m not “opposed” to the idea of delineating Dieselpunk from Steampunk. Ultimately, however, I’m a fan of the meta-genre… I can’t help loving all the different parts of the greater speculative fiction universe, so all the questions about sub-genres and sub-sub-genres are only academic to me – I’m not emotionally tied to them in the particulars so much as in what is general and common to all of them.

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          • Tiyana April 21, 2011 at 1:19 PM #

            That’s true. They do both fit nicely under “retro-futurism.”

            Of course, in the end it’s all speculative fiction, as you say. I guess it’s just a matter of specific taste.

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  4. J. P. Cabit April 20, 2011 at 2:05 PM #

    Sorry, I probably won’t write a comment quite as long as those above… 😀

    I am a fan of a sort of “Radiopunk,” which is like deiselpunk basically. So let’s say, you take the 40’s-50’s, (mainly 50’s, I’d say) and take technology from there. That’s MY happy place! 😀

    I am wary of usage of modern tools in my novels. For instance, will it become dated soon if I integrate emails/text messaging/social networks into my novel? Will it seem juvenile/flash-in-the-pan? How about cell-phones? Or even the internet? I suppose a large, grander version of the internet might fit, and I have used it. But I am just wary of using new technology…perhaps it’s because telephones, television, radio and newspaper seem kind of timeless, whereas we haven’t really seen just how far text messageing and social networks can go.

    But yes! I’m on board to make the old but not obsolete no longer old-fashioned or obsolete! (Did ya follow that?…)

    Like

    • Tiyana April 20, 2011 at 5:47 PM #

      Yeah, I followed. 😛

      The thing about dieselpunk, though, is that it’s not just about new technology but new technology based off that which already existed during the era it is inspired by. You can take a candlestick phone, for example, and turn it into something capable of literally transporting people to the other end of the line or something (sorry if that’s a lame example; had to make something up).

      I think you can go crazy with all the “punk” variants, but then they all sort of just become immitators. I guess the challenege for dieselpunk proponets will be to really start producing stuff that is clearly set apart from its similar categories, truly bringing dieselpunk into its own.

      Like

      • J. P. Cabit April 21, 2011 at 5:49 AM #

        Challenge can be a good thing.

        I ❤ Candlestick phones. 😀

        Like

  5. E.J. Apostrophe April 20, 2011 at 5:40 PM #

    Okay, this is totally new to my radar screen. Dieselpunk? The anime g33k part of me wants to wrap this genre around large fighting Japanese robots and other mechanical mayhem. I hope we as writers can breathe life into this genre and this genre will become commonplace!

    Like

  6. Jay Noel April 25, 2011 at 5:06 PM #

    I’m a big steampunk fan. My current WIP uses the technology of steampunk.

    The easiest difference between steampunk and dieselpunk is probably the whole feel of the setting. Dieselpunk is dystopian for sure, whereas steampunk is less so. Technology is cut and dry here too. Steam vs fuel/gasoline. With steampunk, it seems the more outlandish the better.

    Like

    • Tiyana April 25, 2011 at 7:15 PM #

      Dystopia definitely seems to be another characteristic of dieselpunk. Good term. Thanks for mentioning it!

      Like

  7. Larry July 18, 2011 at 6:25 PM #

    Excellent blog! Very well done.

    Like

    • Tiyana July 18, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

      Hi, Larry, and thank you! 🙂

      Like

  8. Ian Rodgers March 5, 2012 at 4:39 PM #

    Here are severle stories based in the Crimson Sky universe.
    http://www.montanaraiders.com/mirror/story/index.html

    Like

    • Tiyana March 5, 2012 at 6:58 PM #

      Oh, neat! I’ll have to check this out in more detail.

      Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Like

      • bardconstantine November 22, 2012 at 9:40 PM #

        Hello Tiyana. I really enjoyed this article, and not just because my book gets a mention. It’s funny because I hadn’t heard the term dieselpunk while I was writing it. It was during the edits and my partnering with cover designer Stefan, who is considered a pioneer in dieselpunk art. I coined the term ‘dystopian noir’ for the style of writing that I incorporated into The Troubleshooter novel, but gladly slapped the dieselpunk label onto it as well once I became aware of the culture. I think that the awareness is growing and enthusiasts are learning the differences between diesel and steampunk. From what I’ve learned, dieselpunk is more wartime oriented, with many variations of war history, gadgets and fashion. Neo-noir fits in well with that era also.

        Like

        • Tiyana November 22, 2012 at 10:21 PM #

          Oh, wow! I didn’t know Stefan did the cover for Troubleshooter. 😀

          I like that, “dystopian noir.” It’s really neat to see how many different takes on dieselpunk have come out of the woodwork since I first wrote this post. I keep having to come back to add to the list! But that’s definitely a good thing.

          My own WIP certainly has some war (and espionage!) themes with a bit of outlandish tech worked in, though it also has a similar spirit to something like the adventures of O’Connell and Evelyn from The Mummy. Hopefully it appeals to enough folks to sell when it’s ready!

          Anyhow, I’m really glad you enjoyed this article, Bard. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

          Like

          • bardconstantine November 23, 2012 at 4:06 PM #

            I definitely look forward to your finished work, Tiyana. It sounds like a lot of fun. Definitely keep me posted.

            Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Versatile Blogger Award! « lalala of rowan nhaima rhys - January 19, 2012

    […] Maps), but I’m glad I did. A fellow speculative-fiction writer, Tiyana is a steampunk (edit: dieselpunk!) enthusiast to the millionth power, IMO, hehe. Her posts on this subgenre and on elements of […]

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