Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What is Dieselpunk?

After my recent blog post on Captain America: The First Avenger, I got a couple of questions about the terms "dieselpunk" and "decopunk." There's a pretty nice description of dieselpunk here, but I thought I'd talk a little about what it means to me.

I've come across a forum post where someone described dieselpunk as a scene rather than a genre, mainly, if I understand correctly, because of the dirth of actual dieselpunk fiction out there. I'll grant you that there aren't as many movies and TV shows with the elements that make up dieselpunk than there are capitalizing on the popularity of steampunk, but I think it's incorrect to say there aren't very many. In the last few months I've watched eight movies and two anime tv shows (notably Last Exile, which perhaps due to the fact that I watch it at 3am when I'm giving the baby his bottle and I have the sound turned almost all the way down, has come to a point where it is incomprehensible to me, unfortunately. I still really enjoy the soundtrack, though)--and of those eight movies, none were in the Indiana Jones series. There are also quite a few books that qualify, at least according to my definition.

So I should probably get to that.

To me, dieselpunk is fiction genre (or, more broadly, a scene) that draws on sci fi from the 1920s-1940s. Dieselpunk differs from steampunk in that its machines have internal combustion engines. You don't see airplanes in steampunk--at least, not unless they are some sort of steam-powered clockwork. You do see airplanes in dieselpunk--prominently so. But you also see other, weirder vehicles like the vanships in Last Exile. Also, very often you see robots. The idea with dieselpunk is that the tech is retro-futuristic (a combination that I find delightful). Lots of dials, knobs, gauges, levers, and grease, but I could see a story where these old-fashioned machines allow for (minor) space travel or teleportation--much like Telsa's inventions in The Prestige are steampunk yet futuristic.

The time period encompasses the decades of history I find most interesting to study--the 1920s, especially in the U.S. due to Prohibition, are fascinating because they represent the moment when westerners entered the modern age. Probably because of that, much of the pulp fiction of the time involved exploration of nonwestern parts of the world--the exotic, mysterious places most threatened by extinction in the modern age. More on that in a moment, as it raises a rather thorny problem.

The 1930s provides the concept of noir--film noir, detective stories, and the rise of fascism in several locations around the world.

And the 1940s gave us World War II--a terrible time, of course, but also a time people remember as a golden age of victory gardens, radio programs, and shared purpose. In our memories, everyone was in agreement in the 1940s--the Allies were working together to oppose the evils of the Axis Powers, who in turn were working together to destroy everything good in the world. Through a simple lens, World War II is the most ethically accessible war, because there are such clear bad guys, especially in Europe. (Please understand, I'm saying this as a writer, not as a historian. As a historian, this sort of thing does not fly.)

So dieselpunk has a rich playground to run around in. Add to that all of the bright optimism and faith in science that preceded the dropping of the atomic bombs and the discovery of the death camps. Think of the excitement of the World's Fairs. And to top it off, dieselpunk has its own artistic style: art deco. In fact, a subgenre of dieselpunk (itself a subgenre of steampunk, of course) is decopunk--basically everything dieselpunk is without such an interest in the machines.

But back to the exotic lands, for a moment, and the problem they pose.

I may eventually devote an entire post to this minefield, because it's a doozy, and it's one I'm particularly concerned with because I'm liable to get caught in the middle of it one of these days. Orientalism.

What, you ask, is orientalism, and what does it have to do with dieselpunk?

In a nutshell, orientalism is the representation of nonwestern cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it's just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc. It's a form of racism with a long history in fiction. Probably one of the best examples of a movie that is both dieselpunk and orientalist: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One of the big problems with orientalism is that writers who fall prey to it often misrepresent cultures or conflate two or more cultures. In the case of Temple, for instance, the goddess Kali is depicted as evil and ruling the underworld, which is inaccurate. Much of the cuisine is probably closer to Chinese than Hindu, as well. The attitude in days gone by among writers and fans of orientalist fiction was to shrug and say something along the lines of, "It's all the same anyway." (In case that's your attitude, try turning it around and imagining what it would be like for a Hindu or Chinese film to depict your culture as the same or at least jumbled with some other culture--usually belonging to a historical enemy. Now imagine that happening over and over in every book and movie that depicts your culture for hundreds of years.) For more on Temple's issues specifically, go here.

Nowadays I see a deep uneasiness in movies like Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow--they so desperately want to be able to depict grand adventures like those of Allan Quatermain (a character who was originally more steampunk than dieselpunk) but they don't want to come under fire for racism. It's a pickle. I love stories of treasure hunts, dungeon crawls, scary jungles and survival in ice storms. But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there? How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical? What's a white writer in love with the retro-futuristic fiction of the1920s-1940s to do?

The best I've come up with is to take the story off of planet Earth altogether, and set the dungeon crawls, barroom brawls, and mystical encounters on other planets entirely (Firefly, anyone?). And don't even think about basing the alien cultures on specific (stereotyped and misrepresented) Earth cultures. Lucas did that and it's painful to watch. Of course, the real problem with that solution is that you've pretty much left dieselpunk behind once you leave Earth or at least an Earth-like setting. Yes, it's sci fi, but it's limited sci fi. Dieselpunk is not atomicpunk, and I can't see diesel engines powering even the most fun retro-futuristic space ships farther than a trip to the moon, maybe.

What do you think about dieselpunk? Do you like stories set in the 1920s-1940s?
How would you handle the orientalism problem?


  1. What a great post. As you state, Orientalism/racism is definitely a problem in dieselpunk. But it also provides an opportunity. One of the main reasons I began writing within the time period was to be able to poke fun at and toy around with the historical viewpoints (interpreting them through post modern lenses).

    My universe has been so far contained to Texas and Mexico around the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1921). While not dealing with the Middle East or Asia I've poked around race relationship surrounding the Texas Mexico border. I've spent considerable time flipping character expectations around by having a Texas Ranger play the bad guy and a Mexican marihuana farmer play the good guy, etc.

    I have key native characters as well as Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, etc. Some of my characters are racist, but their views are never glossed over or passed off as innate or correct. I've had one person comment (and stop reading) due to my use of the word "greaser." But it seemed fairly obvious that he failed to recognize that the greaser at stake was my protagonist/hero in the midst of combating oppressive forces.

    Anywho, I'd love for more people to take on the challenge of re-interpretive anachronistic dieselpunk. Having a character defy the standard racism of the time is an easy way to set him/her apart, or even allude to current issues we are still dealing with (like the Texas border).

  2. Hi David (I know your name from your comment on my FB page--thanks for that!),

    What a great way to approach this sticky problem! I think I'll have to give some more thought to my choices when it comes to main characters. My current mc is a white female, although she has issues that set her in an oppressed class within her culture. In the current WiP, I'm mostly avoiding the whole orientalism thing by restricting the setting to one city in a northern country--there's only one character who is nonwhite, and he's a good guy. I'm aware of the dangers of tokenism, though. I want to be sincere in my portrayals of people's diversity and this is not the first time I'm struggled with how to approach that. I'll have to write another blog post and go into this in more detail, as I think it's a deeply important aspect of fiction to consider.

    Anyway, I really appreciate your comment! Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Indeed. (this is David again) The settings I have depicted so far have just happened to be in an mixing pot area during a rough and tumble time. Tons of Anglo immigrants, Mexicans, natives and other white immigrants.mining towns and the like we're even able to get past some of the segregation of the day. A funny note, but the town in my last novel had segregated train to the mines in the morning but not in the evenings. Locals said that after working the mines every man was black.

      But I can see how every setting would have its own challanges. I want a sort of era feel in my works, yet definately retooled with a modern take. I think that is what makes all these little punk genres so fun!

    2. Wow, what a wild fact re: the train. And I agree about the fun of punk genres!

  3. I'd say your WiP is pretty clean of Orientalism.

    1. Thanks, oh favorite beta-reader! But it is that way because I avoid the issue, keeping the story set in Helesey. If I were to pursue a plot where the character(s) traveled to an "exotic" location, I'd have to wrestle with the demon. That's where I'm not sure how I'd handle it.

    2. I guess by trying really hard to steer clear of stereotypes. Which is easier said than done, and if I were stereotype-checking my draft constantly, I'd imagine it would usurp the authenticity of the story and make it into this obviously clean, government cheese type thing.

      Even before going over the first draft, once you say you can't write about something, you're potentially blocking off something the story has to say. Because the writer's doing the equivalent of saying, "he who must not be named." Voldemort! Say he's Voldemort already!

      I see your dilemma.

    3. I'm not excluding the possibility of exotic locations. I'll probably give it a shot in the next story (maybe--I've also been toying with some romance plot bunnies). I like David's strategy of casting main characters with an eye to reversing the usual expectations, and I'll probably run with that if I do decide to write a dieselpunk story that capitalizes on the adventure aspect of the genre. But I'm also not done wrangling the orientalism problem, and I'm pondering how to further poke it with sticks in another blog post.

  4. Wow—I saw this post and really had to think about your questions! Lots of food for thought here. :)

    I ended up writing a pretty long response, lol, much to my surprise…so instead of posting practically an entire blog post here I’ll just link you to it, if you’re interested. :D


  5. I don't really have exotic locations in mine, yet. It's in a city in Brazil about an expat gunrunner forced to make a stand for something that isn't money or survival.

    So there's not a whole lot of exoticness to it, being moer of a cynical story.

  6. Hi Varon,
    I like cynical stories! What's your time period?

  7. It's an alternate 1960s that feels like the 30s and 40s at the moment, but I just started working on the whole setting a few weeks ago, so that may change since I've found out there's a book with a very similar setting, except that one doesn't have aliens.