(5/29/18 edit: check out my YouTube video for a more up-to-date take on “What is Dieselpunk?“.)
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:
- Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
- Blightcross by C. A. Lang
- Empire State by Adam Christopher
- Fistful of Reefer by David Mark Brown
- Hard Magic and Spellbound (Grimnoir Chronicles) by Larry Correia
- Part of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan qualifies, imo (the Clankers)
- The Troubleshooter: New Haven Blues by Bard Constantine
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)
- Crimson Skies
- LA Noire (maybe; it’s kinda pulp-ish)
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).
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!