Dieselpunk: Steampunk’s Greasier and Jazzier Cousin

Art Deco, Blues, and that Jazz

Dieselpunk biker image from Goodfon.ru

If cyberpunk is about low life, high tech and steampunk is about a retro-futuristic vision of the Victorian era, what is dieselpunk?

Unlike splatterpunk, which is about over the top horror, or biopunk, which is about a seedy vision of biotech, dieselpunk tells alternate stories taking place between both World Wars. Indeed, the roaring 20’s all the way to the booming ’50s are the backdrop for this particular ‘punk’.

This was the era of art deco, blues music, prohibition, industrialization, chrome and metal buildings, machinery, modernism, and jazz music. Also, it was the time of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and communism, global wars, the mob, and all-around anxiety.

Wasteland traveler, dieselpunk car concept art by Darkki1, Tumblr

Then again, why we look back to that time period with fondness?

Part of the appeal of dieselpunk, as well as all the other ‘punks’, is their rebellious nature. They take our socio-cultural expectations and turn them over their heads. They take the symbols and tropes of a particular historical period and remake them into something cooler and transgressive.

Hence the reason they transcend the literary pages and become a fashion, art, and cultural movement. In other words, a subculture.

Age of Diesel, Age of Speed

Dieselpunk wallpaper by Alpha Coders

Technically, diesel is any type of liquid fuel. Whereas the Victorian era was about steam-powered technology, the following century brought us the petrol engine. This invention made possible the invention of the car, the airplane, the speedboat, and the tank.

A diesel engine is more powerful and faster. Speed records were broken.

Unfortunately, the newer, faster technology was used for war. Battles were fought now on air, land, and the seas on an unprecedented scale.

Dieselpunk, steampunk, and other ‘punks’, like atompunk and clockpunk, are nothing else but alternative history. Alternative visions of the past injecting today’s technology as if it was invented back then.

However, unlike steampunk, dieselpunk can be more controversial and problematic. These were not happy times, as stated above.

dieselpunk image by OrlaRose, DeviantArt

As a matter of fact, this was a world on the verge of global destruction, exacerbated by the invention of the nuclear bomb. And although the Axis was eventually defeated, over forty million people perished.

This was the time of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust, the London Blitz, and, something most people forget, half the casualties of WWII were Russians. Yes, they were our allies, and over twenty million of them were killed by Nazis.

Nevertheless, dieselpunk is not only faster engine/tech steampunk. The increased speed and power of the diesel engine brought destruction that was not possible under the old steam engines.

Greaser and dirtier times indeed.

Characteristics of Dieselpunk

Red Barron artwork by Adjin Durakovic

Besides all the negative and depressive facts stated above, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were the days of jazz and blues music, cabarets, speakeasies, glitz, and skyscrapers. There was also the pulp era, the first Hollywood films, and the advent of television and mass communications. Therefore, it is easy to see why this particular era has captured the public imagination.

Dieselpunk fashion tends to be grittier and darker than steampunk.

Soldier era uniforms (Navy and Army mostly, but also Air Force). You get your bomber jackets with sunglasses, an industrialized look where metal and chrome dominate. And don’t forget your Tommy guns and robots.

Dieselpunk Tommy Gun by Alvaro Arnanz

Those were war times and it seemed everyone carried a weapon (or a gas mask).

Another characteristic of dieselpunk is its reliance on anti-heroes and settings highly influenced by film noir.

The dieselpunk era was consequently a time of high patriotism. A time where the world was black and white, unlike today. You have clearly defined villains (those Nazis and fascists, those communists) in one hand.

Moreover, we still believed science will solve all our problems. How little we knew.

Dieselpunk Visions

Dieselpunk soldier image from Pinterest

There are two alternatively competing visions of dieselpunk.

There is a utopian vision, championed by Nick Ottens and other authors. There is also a dystopian or more cynical vision of dieselpunk (also call Piecraftian).

They are both right.

As stated above, that particular time period was both, hopeless and hopeful, grim and joyful. Modernity at its best and worst.

Perhaps due to this inherent contrast, dieselpunk is not as popular as cyberpunk and steampunk.

However, when it is good, it is really good. See the Mad Max, Sucker Punch, and Rocketeer movies, or play the Bioshock and Fallout games.

Sucker Punch wallpaper

Finally, if you want to check out dieselpunk in fiction, I would recommend reading anything by Scott Westerfeld, Dan Glaser, or Grace E. Robinson. You’ll understand what all the hype is about.

Dieselpunk is more than just steampunk set in New York City between wars. In effect, dieselpunk represents a particular cultural and historical period but reimagined retrofuturistically to question war and industrialism. As such, it is a welcome form of literature.

Reader, what is your favorite dieselpunk work of fiction? Share in the comments.

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March 2023