Leave your top hats and airships behind. We’re heading to the future. A future that has seen the rise of the power machine--the diesel engine. It’s darker, grittier, and less elegant than seen before.
Welcome to Dieselpunk.
Dieselpunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction that’s relegated specifically to Jazz Era and pre and post-World Wars--essentially between the 1920s and 1940s. It’s similar to its cousin subgenre Steampunk in that it focuses on a very niche scene. However, there are many differences.
This article will serve as the ultimate beginner’s guide to Dieselpunk 101. And through this reading, you will learn:
- The Origin and Development of Dieselpunk
- What are the different variations of the subgenre
- Common tropes you’ll find within Dieselpunk
- The unique aesthetics of Dieselpunk
- Differences between Dieselpunk and Steampunk
- How Dieselpunk has infiltrated various media such as TV, Movies, and Games
And with that, let’s get our engines start, and drive head first into the world of Dieselpunk!
What is a Punk Genre and What Does that Mean for Dieselpunk?
Dieselpunk occupies a very unique part of literature and media. It’s not really just a subgenre of science fiction. It’s a full blown lifestyle. This fact is conceded through the use of the term “punk” within its name.
-Punk What exactly does that mean?
So what exactly is a Punk genre or generation? You’ll see it everywhere throughout science fiction. Other than Dieselpunk, examples include:
But to be considered punk, you have to break against societal norms when representing the genre. For instance, with dieselpunk, dressing in 1940s greaser fashion or incorporating militaristic 1940s elements in your life can consider you dieselpunk.
It’s the whole lifestyle incorporation that sets it apart from standard speculative fiction or alternative history and makes it punk.
It’s a Cyberpunk Derivative
As far as science fiction is concerned, Dieselpunk is a relative newcomer to the field. The term “Dieselpunk” itself wasn’t actually coined until 2001. The subgenre is generally considered to be a derivative of one of the first official “Punk” cultures--Cyberpunk.
However, do not let that fool you. Cyberpunk and Dieselpunk, while similar in structure, are very unique in their own respects.
A major culture point for Cyberpunk is a dystopian setting. And while Dieselpunk is greasy and gritty, dystopian ideals are normally far from the case. The grit and grime come from the production and machine environment--one that is usually thriving due to war or post-war efforts.
Dieselpunk is often split into two separate, yet extreme divisions.
- Naturalist Dieselpunks:
These are dieselpunks that try to stay faithful to the actual time period in which the Dieselpunk era occurs.
- Retro-futurist Dieselpunks:
Retro-futurists take the more science fiction approach. They portray the visions of the Dieselpunk Era’s perception of the future.
Nazis in Dieselpunk
Dieselpunk and war are essentially synonymous with one another. And this only makes sense due to the time period that the genre encompasses. Dieselpunk takes place between post-WWI and post-WWII when machines and industry were at a historic level of production and growth.
But that does lead to a strangely unique problem. Nazi fetishization. While Nazis in Dieselpunk are most certainly the enemies, the genre still presents them as larger-than-life foes. And it’s not that Nazi principles are growing in popularity. But more so the aesthetics from Nazi Germany.
SS-styled uniforms, banners, and other art are deeply ingrained within the genre. And being a -punk genre, Dieselpunk’s involvement with Nazi and fascist styles is near inevitable.
However, proponents of the lifestyle are adamant at distancing themselves from Nazi and fascist movements. They combat that the Nazi symbolism just like was done back in 1940s by using real anti-fascist propaganda and demonstrations. They fight the Nazis and fascism as if it still held the power it did back then.
Whitewashing in Dieselpunk
Another issue that’s risen in Dieselpunk is the lack of minority depiction. In mainstream Dieselpunk, the focus is almost always centered around white European or American characters and countries. This probably has to do with the fact that minorities weren’t treated well during that real life time period.
In order to counteract that negativity, some authors and Punks have branched out into an even deeper sub genre known as Diesel Funk. It attempts to bridge the gap between dieselpunk and actual black culture and genre appropriate aesthetics. However, just like every rehashing of alternative history, extra care must be taken to prevent Blaxploitation and negative connotations to other races.
Tropes of Dieselpunk
When reading through or experiencing Dieselpunk, you’re going to run across some pretty distinct commonalities. And it's these similarities that truly makes Dieselpunk unique. Here are some of the most observed:
The Beginning of the Future and Rise of the Diesel Engine
By the 1920s, the diesel engine had all but killed off the use of its steam-powered counterparts. And it was quickly spreading throughout the world. Both personal and commercial applications were using the diesel engine such as:
- Boats and Ships
But it wasn’t just the diesel engine that rose. Production and manufacturing took a huge leap forward as well. So much so, that the movement is known as the Second Industrial Revolution.
This is the backdrop of a true Dieselpunk novel. And since the genre is sci-fi, you’ll see these industrial elements rolled up into some standard sci-fi fare. It’s not uncommon to find diesel-powered robots or machines patrolling the streets or in the home.
You may also see the early stages of computing within Dieselpunk. Now, I’m not talking about full blown computers...but early stages. There may be implications of a grander, more elegant device that will help win the war, replace diesel, or upend civilization as they know it.
Jazz Age Culture
The Dieselpunk Era coincided with the popularity and rise of Jazz and the culture that came along with it. This is primarily found within the aesthetics of the characters. How a character dresses and moves--when not encumbered by diesel fuel, smog, and oil belch--will be somewhat reminiscent of the clothing worn in the 1930s and 1940s.
You’ll also be able to feel and experience the Jazz Age through the way a character communicates and the language that is used. In order to stay true to the time period, Dieselpunk authors often incorporate era-appropriate verbiage and phrases.
And if you’re watching a Dieselpunk movie or playing a game, it’s guaranteed that the background music’s going to be swanky.
Pulp magazines are an extremely unique style of magazine. And they’re very indicative of the time period. Their unique visual art design lends heavily to Dieselpunk propaganda and settings.
But there’s more to it than that.
Real pulp magazines often had some of the most interesting science fiction stories available during the time. And many Dieselpunk stories draw upon these pulp stories and elements to craft their own stories.
This is a huge deal when it comes to Dieselpunk, and it’s directly related to the political atmosphere of the time period. Both good and evil.
After the Great Depression of the 1920s, the United States was left in economic and societal turmoil. Capitalism and liberalism had failed, and there wasn’t much that could be done. Except until Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped in. Now mind you, he did not steer the country away from democracy. But with his New Deal, he adopted and generated more socialist policies that ultimately helped to pull the United States out of the depression.
The second major event to help pull the US out of the Great Depression was the United States entering World War II. During WWII, the Axis powers all had clear examples of totalitarian powers.
- Germany: Adolf Hitler
- Italy: Benito Mussolini
- Japan: Emperor Hirohito
And so, in order to stay relatively faithful to the time period, authoritarianism and totalitarianism are very prevalent in Dieselpunk culture.
I know we’ve said it before, but war and Dieselpunk walk hand-in-hand. The Diesel Era was rife with conflict. It encompassed both World War I and WWII.
The war climate of the time period makes for an excellent background or major conflict for Dieselpunk stories. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a dieselpunk story without it. As a matter of fact, war in Dieselpunk is often broken down into 3 different categories.
- Alternate War
This is when the outcome of the real war is changed almost nearly to a singular event. Imagine what would have happened if Winston Churchill had choked on a biscuit and died prior to the end of WWII. This could have seriously reshaped history. Stories that are alternative war often see the Axis Powers winning WWII--or at least partially.
- Weird War
Weird War incorporates some of your more traditional sci-fi elements. Robots, aliens, or monsters, and super high-tech weaponry come into play in these stories.
- Prototype War
This situation is somewhat of a combination of the above two. But instead of focusing on social or political aspects of the war, it relies heavily on the tech. However, it doesn’t take it as far as Weird War. The proposed tech is often similar to what’s available during the time period--just upgraded.
Different Variations of Diesel Punk
Dieselpunk is a rather involved genre with several subgenres coming out of it. These subgenres differ in many ways but still hold true to general dieselpunk standards.
Diesel Deco can be characterized as the brighter side of Dieselpunk. Instead of grimy, oil soaked settings, Diesel Deco embraces bright and shiny machinery. You’ll often see a bunch of polished steel and chrome throughout. It strives to achieve a perfect balance between beauty, machine, and efficiency.
They’re centered around the same time period in which standard Dieselpunk is, but it places a much heavier importance on the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne stylings of the late 1930s and 1940s.
This is also known as Ottensian Decopunk named after Nick Ottensian who coined the term. These stories can often be Utopian in nature.
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Diesel Noir is extremely similar to Diesel Deco. Like Deco, it tends to recognize more of the edgier art styles of the time. However, it is much, much darker and grittier. It’s essentially the other side of the Decopunk coin.
Instead of bright, shiny cities full of Utopian bliss, Noir cities run rampant with crime and corruption. Just imagine Batman’s Gotham City but with a lot more diesel.
However, this doesn’t mean that these are dystopian novels. They just show the darker side of production and manufacturing. Whereas a Decopunk book would focus on improvements to society, Noir will readjust that aim to weapon production and harder working conditions.
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Just because most Dieselpunk isn’t dystopian doesn’t mean that there aren’t some out there.
Diesel Dystopian--also known as Piecraftian--is the take on dieselpunk where the Axis powers have won WWII or the world has otherwise begun its descent into madness. It’s a thin line between a full post-apocalyptic situation and Piecraftion literature.
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And this is the darkest side of dieselpunk. The world has essentially come to an end with the survivors struggling to make it. It’s post-apocalyptic fiction done up in diesel.
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Like all other Punk genres, Dieselpunk has its very own unique look and feel. Here’s just a few of the components that make it different:
Machines and Automobiles
When it comes to Dieselpunk machines, you’ll find more of that art deco styling even when not in specific Ottensian literature. Often the machines are bright and well-cared for even if there surroundings are not.
Art and Propaganda
As stated earlier, the art and propaganda of Dieselpunk is directly influenced by 1930s and 1940s modern art and pulp. These designs are actually the most prevalent within Dieselpunk video games such as Fallout and the Bioshock series.
Clothing and Dress
The clothing and stylings of Dieselpunk can best be related to two different groups of fashion: militaristic and mechanic. This is due to the common themes found within Dieselpunk. Siff collars and sharp cuffs--akin to Nazi Germany’s uniform--are more along the lines of Dieselpunk military uniforms than today’s rugged and loose camo. And as far as mechanic wear goes, it’s pretty similar to modern day wear. Coveralls stained in oil fit in just fine. But this is just basic clothing. Cosplayers take these ideas to extremes and incorporate more science fiction elements and stylings.
It’s amazing to think that the genre can inspire its own type of music. Drawing heavily from the Diesel Era, genres such as bluegrass, jazz, blues, swing, and big band are major influences for the base of Dieselpunk music.
However, these elements alone aren’t necessarily Dieselpunk. However, combine them with musical stylings of Neo Swing or Electro Swing...Then you’ve got yourself some real music for the Dieselpunk culture.
Differences between Steampunk and Dieselpunk
Often Dieselpunk and Steampunk get confused. And it’s understandable to see why. There are many commonalities between the two. But if you get down these key differences, you should be able to determine which is which.
Diesel vs Steam
Like the name implies, Diesel is used to power just about everything. This includes cars, machines, weaponry, robots, etc.
Steampunk relies heavily on steam. The diesel engine hasn’t been invented and shouldn’t really make an appearance at all.
Dieselpunk normally ranges between the 1920s and 1940s.
Steampunk is set in Victorian Era England.
Development vs Destruction
In Dieselpunk, there’s always the overhanging threat of destruction often originally stemming from the invention of the diesel engine.
While there may be war in some Steampunk stories, it’s not a necessary component to the genre. Instead, Steampunk usually celebrates more innovation and development.
Dieselpunk clothing is fashioned from the related time period or is occupational. This means fedoras, pin-striped zoot suits, pilot or mechanic coveralls, etc.
Steampunk fashion includes top hats, waistcoats, bowler hats, corsets, etc.
All mechanized travel based on diesel engines whether it be plane, train, or automobile.
You’ll find steam-powered locomotion with Steampunk stories. Horse drawn carriages or hansom cabs are also common.
Dieselpunk in TV and Movies
Dieselpunk does well outside of written text as well. Film and TV are great outlets for the brand. While they aren’t creating mega blockbusters and winning major awards, Dieselpunk films often do very well due to its solid core of fans and their interesting adventure concepts.
Some of the best examples of Dieselpunk movies are:
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
- Mad Max
- The Rocketeer
- Iron Sky
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
- Howl’s Moving Castle
Dieselpunk in Games
Perhaps the biggest platform for Dieselpunk right now is videogames. A Dieselpunk atmosphere truly makes for a perfect setting and story for an interactive video game. Franchises such as Fallout and Bioshock have done well to capitalize on the genre.
The success of Dieselpunk in video games is inspiring other genres to come forth and do the same--Cyberpunk in particular.
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