If you don’t know what Dieselpunk is, don’t worry. Lots of people don’t.
Besides, not even all dieselpunks (enthusiasts of Dieselpunk) agree on a definition, so don’t feel too bad about it.
Some of us define it as Steampunk, only with internal combustion (where Steampunk has vapour-working machines). I’ve never been happy with this definition. To me, Dieselpunk is about a lot more than that. Where Steampunk is set in a Victorian (or Victorian-like) world, Dieselpunk is set in a world that is – or looks a lot like – the late 1910s up to the early 1950s, with the WWII years being preferred by many. It is a noirish genre, gritty and dark and often disillusioned. Yes, like film noir tend to be.
I can’t say that we are a lot. Steampunks outnumber us in high numbers, but we are a tight community, and in 2013 some of us proposed to set aside a day to celebrate our preferred genre.
In the end, 12 November was chosen, the day after Armistice Day.
This choice says a lot about what Dieselpunk is, or may be.
Let’s have a look at it.
WWI was the end of a world and the beginning of another…
Most dieselpunks consider the Diesel Era to extend from the end of WWI to the beginning of the Cold War. Personally, I like to include WWI too, not only because many stories are indeed set during the Great War, but also because historically, WWI is a crucial watershed moment between what was before and what was afterwards.
The Western World – and Europe particularly so – had enjoyed a century of peace that was unprecedented in history. That peace was based on an agreement between nations, the Concert of Europe, a diplomatic and political agreement of non-belligerence between most of the European nations.
This might have been a good idea in the beginning, but as the decades passed, the agreement increasingly ceased to express a pan-European feeling and began to stifle the natural movement of society. To keep that peace, conditions needed to remain the same, which meant that nothing should change. Immobility was desirable.
But society can never be forced to be immobile for long. People will change. Attitude and behaviour will evolve. After a century, Europe – and Europeans – were very different from who had agreed on the Concert at the beginning of the 1800s.
Young people were particularly restless. They wanted a change that they felt was already on the cards.
Thinking to WWI today, knowing what we know after 100 years, it may be difficult to understand the youthful enthusiasm that saluted the outbreaking of the war. This ill-suffered immobilisation was one of those reasons.
But desirable as it was, the change came all at once and with the force of something that had been under pressure for one hundred years. What the industrial revolution had caused in terms of advancement in machines, what science had discovered and started experimenting, what a changing society had brought about, exploded on the battlefields so dramatically that nobody knew how to handle it.
It was inevitable that the world that emerged from WWI would be a very different world from the one that saluted its outbreaking.
So the day after Armistice Day marks this new world. It’s a beginning after such an important ending, and Dieselpunk often captures that feeling of anxiety and fear in front of something new and unknown. The retrofuturistic character of much of Dieselpunk is particularly telling. Retrofuturism places advanced technologies (I almost want to say sciencefiction-like, unknown technology) into a retro setting, and this creates a displacement that is really very much what people felt back then. There’s a lot of advancement and positive things happening in the Diesel Era (particularly the 1920s and 1930s), but innovation was happening so fast that anxiety often lived beside excitement.12 November: International Dieselpunk Day 2019 – If you don’t know what Dieselpunk is, don’t worry. Lots of people don’t #dieselpunk #historicalfantasy #writing Click To Tweet
… Or was it?
But was the end of WWI really the beginning of something unforeseen?
Well, this is a tricky question, if you ask me. The world that emerged from WWI was indeed new and surprising, and still, it was also a world that wasn’t destined to last. After only twenty years, Europe and the entire world was at war again. Another horrible, world-shattering war.
WWI and WWII are such seminal moment in history that some historians consider the time between them its own event. They consider the outbreaking of WWI to be the beginning of a historical period that would only end with WWII.
It’s the time of the Lost Generation. A time of unfulfilled adjustment. A time of great excitement and greater fears, dominated by the ominous feeling that what they were living would soon end.
Dieselpunk expresses this in much the same way film noir does. On the surface, there are strong characters, tough warriors and clever manipulators. But there is always an undercurrent of uncertainty. There’s the feeling that nothing will last, that everything is destined to crumble and so there is no certainty ahead of us.
I won’t deny that in spite of a few ‘happy’ story, Dieselpunk tends to have a grim outlook on life.
November, the Dark One
Any surprise that in the end a date in November was chosen?
November is probably the gloomiest month of the year. It’s the beginning of darkness. Many months separate it from spring. And even if spring will come, in November there is a sense that it’s too far away to give any comfort.
This is very much the feeling of Diselpunk. Many stories feature dark, oppressive cities. Rain. Fog. Anything suggesting cold and barriers to a clear view.
Even when the setting is more cheerful and positive (some of us like to define this kind of stories Decopunk, rather than Dieselpunk) there is always a sense that something dark lurks under the surface.
Oppression and Rebellion
It is historically true that the interwar years were marked by an alarming rise of totalitarianism. Many authors seem to prefer this time of the Diesel Era. They depict our world as it was during the rise and dominance of totalitarianism, or a made-up one that looks a lot like it. Just like film noir, a lot of dieselpunk stories tell about oppression. Especially about the oppression of a great organisation (being it a political party or an economic entity) that can – and will – smash individual freedom.
This has given rise to criticism toward the genre, especially in the cosplay area (Diesepunk live in its cosplay incarnation even more than Steampunk does). The use of military attires and even totalitarian attitudes and insignias, especially by cosplayers, and the depiction of oppressive regimes in stories, has often been interpreted as a support to oppressive behaviour.
I’ll admit that it surprised me the first time I heard about it. Of course, I understand the concern, but really Dieselpunk isn’t about oppression. It is about rebellion. All stories tell of how individuals rebel to oppressive regimes. It is always about overcoming. About looking for a different way. Not all stories end happily (nourish, remember that?), but the feeling is that no one should accept oppression, no matter how limited their possibilities to oppose it are.
So I hope you’ll check this genre out.
There aren’t many novels out there at the moment, but quite a few indie-authors are doing a great job.
It is a young genre, slowly growing. International Dieselpunk Day is maybe the right moment to give it a chance.