Okay, let’s start off by saying that “steampunk” and “dieselpunk” are variations of science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, detective and historical genre fiction. They are offshoots of a category known as “cyberpunk”. If you’re familiar with the works of William Gibson (Mona Lisa Overdrive and Neuromancer, among others) then you know what cyberpunk is.
Cyberpunk stories predate the Internet we all know, love, hate and generally waste our time on. Before the advent of the web browser or the smartphone, cyberpunk’s digital cowboys traveled the wilds of the Net by jacking their decks directly into the virtual world through bio interfaces in their heads (think The Matrix). Mainframe computers were targets for scamming and BLACK ICE was not only dangerous, but lethal. Cyberpunk presents a dark, clouded world of the future where political states rule alongside corporations, surgical implantation is common, and information is freedom.
Steampunk is a term originally used to describe works like The Difference Engine and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman graphic comics and the horrible movie that followed. Steampunk can be described as a mash-up of historical figures, the stories of Sherlock Holmes, the works of H.G. Welles, the inventions of George Tesla, airships, steam engines, vampires, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories, and a helping of British imperialism. It’s a culture all to itself, a form of Neo-Victorianism, where participants develop costumes, accessories and cultivate entire worlds.
So what then is “dieselpunk”? Arguably, the steampunk era ends around the beginning of World War I. Historically, World War I brings about sweeping changes from the polite, almost gentle-heeled Western societies of the mid to late 1800s (Cheryl Priests’ Clockwork Century series) to the brutality of modern warfare. During World War I and its conclusion, the monarchies of Europe fall into ruin: most notably Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and the last Russian Tsar Nicholas.
Following World War I, further changes are brought about by technology. Telephones, radio, automobiles, airplanes, railroads — these connect whole continents and populations.The 1920s brings about a new aesthetic, affecting the design of everything from locomotives to aircraft to radios to skyscrapers. It suddenly becomes feasible to not only drive across the United States, but to fly across it as well. There is a new class system, providing great wealth for some, poverty and hard labor for others. Unions proliferate and clash with capitalists. The criminal underworld profits from Prohibition, delving into bootleg liquor, gambling, prostitution and narcotics. Europe reels from the economic failures and racial bigotry brought about by World War I. Fascism rises to power. Science is acclaimed as both savior and strange endeavor. The mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb is not far off in the horizon.
Dieselpunk covers the period from World War I to the 1950s rooted in these motifs. It is not “steampunk with Nazis”, a common misconception among people who are not familiar with either genre. Steampunk stories often feature technology limited by the science (or even the breakthrough science) of its time. It’s a blend of characterization and history where gender roles are tested and broken, relaxing in a parlor adorned with wood and brass amenities and maybe even a time machine or two. The number of dieselpunk stories are growing and cover topics from noir-like crime stories and urban thrillers to alternative histories of the Second World War or the Cold War that followed. They are both stories of past futures.
All are great stories and I encourage readers to seek out these works and their creators.