last post about working with the kind folks on AbsoluteWrite to improve my blurb, I thought I might take another crack at defining, or at least discussing, dieselpunk. After all, a frightening number of people on AW--these are generally avid readers in addition to being writers, you understand--had no idea what dieselpunk was and several objected to my combining robots with an art deco style city. Some also found it hard to grasp how robots and modern tech could have any place in fantasy (as opposed to sci fi, I presume). It was clearly a counter-intuitive combination of elements for them.
I googled dieselpunk and what popped up in the first results were a lot of good links to sites I've visited over the years as my love affair with the genre and aesthetic has developed. I did notice, however, that one of the definitions the Urban Dictionary gives for dieselpunk says, "Dieselpunk is an art style and subculture that blends the aesthetics / pop culture of the 1920s - 1950s with today." No. At least, not the way I see it. Dieselpunk, like many of the other -punks, is a retro-futuristic genre and aesthetic. It sort of skips today, other than having today's values (or at least, the values of some people today) imbedded in it. So there are women who are mechanics, unlike what you'd come across in most movies or literature from the era. There are people of color in lead roles. Hell, you might even get a main character who is both a woman and nonwhite (I know that's crazy talk, but wouldn't it be nice?). Contemporary (liberal) values are an important aspect, and some would argue this aspect is the "punk" ingredient. However, when it comes to how dieselpunk looks, today doesn't figure in. It's a combination of the culture of some part of the interwar through WWII era (that's another thing about the Urban Dictionary definition--I know others have extended dieselpunk into the 50s, but I really feel it ends in 1945, with the atom bomb... then you get atompunk). Then, you take some of the ideas people had at the time about how the future would look, and you stir those into the mix. Hence my art deco city can have robots.
I think if you look at steampunk, you have additional elements of imagined technology that come from the authors themselves, though these grow out of a love of the same aspects as I've already noted. So in the steampunk movie, Wild Wild West (which, okay, was pretty bad, but go with me here), there can be a huge clockwork spider weapon thing. The operative quality is clockwork. I don't think anyone in the steam era ever envisioned big spider weapons, but the clockwork aspect is part of the aesthetic of steampunk. It's also its own subgenre, but I expect that's even more obscure than dieselpunk. Anyway, the same can be said about dieselpunk; namely that authors can take the imagined technologies of science fiction from the era (be it the 1920s, the 1930s, or the 1940s) and run with it, inventing something that the people of that era would not have thought of. People did think of robots in the 1920s, even if everyone may not have called them robots back then (the term was coined in 1920 though), so even within the confines of the imaginations of people in the 1920s, robots and art deco cities can and do exist.
Anyway, I think that I've beaten that into the ground now. Can you tell I was a little ruffled by the reactions of those who balked at my robots? Let's move on.
Dieselpunk is obscure, and really, that's a shame. A lot of people are missing out. And I'm not just saying this because if dieselpunk suddenly became the new steampunk my book would be a best-seller. No, in fact, I think that those who are really missing out are all the WWII-heads. My book is based in a 1920s aesthetic, so I have nothing to gain by pointing this out, unless I can hope for some glory by association. There are a lot of people out there who love WWII stories. They are fascinated with the real history. They'll also go see fictional stories set in the period. Just look at the line up on The History Channel sometime. Okay, so it's dominated by Pawn Stars (how did that happen, again?) but if you look at the two or three shows that aren't Pawn Stars, I guarantee you that half or more will be about WWII. Most of the people watching those shows and subscribing to World War II History Magazine would love WWII era dieselpunk, ya know?
So why hasn't dieselpunk caught on?
Well, giving it a little more thought, I wonder if the punk element, if you agree that it does encompass the postmodern and post-colonial aspects of today's values, may be the sticking point. For some people, anyway. I assume (and you know how that goes) that the demographic targeted by WWII magazines and shows and such is generally going to look a lot like my father-in-law, who is, himself, a fan of those things. And my father-in-law is a white male baby-boomer who feels really threatened by empowered women, LGBTQA people and people of color. So as much as dieselpunk stories draw on aspects of the WWII era that people like my FiL really like, the punk aspects, namely female mechanics and such, are going to turn them off. "What is this politically correct garbage?" they'll cry. "In the WWII era the men were men, the women were loyal housewives--except when they were factory workers but they only did that to support the men and then they went back into the kitchen when the men came home and--oh yeah! The men were all white. Let's not get our undies in a bunch about the Tuskegee Airmen again, okay? It was one group. Okay, okay, there were Navaho code-talkers, too, are we going to have to throw them a parade? Let's just forget about them because the men who were men were all white men and we don't want to even think about the Japanese Americans who fought in the American military despite the hundreds of thousands Roosevelt interned--after all, Roosevelt was a bit of a commie anyway, and aren't we all lucky Truman came along and nuked the Japs? That sure showed those Russians! Anyway it was just a matter of time before the Japs at home turned on us all, you know..."
I could go on.
As a history nerd (and teacher), this sort of thing is, to deliberately understate it, icky. But it's there. The people who love the period are usually not going to love the postmodern spin on the period.
Okay, so that raises another question for me. Why aren't people who are hip to stuff like post-colonialism getting excited about dieselpunk?
Wait. Wait. I think I have an idea.
It's because it's diesel.
If you're into diesel, you're celebrating an era of anti-environmentalism. I mean, you're basically waving a flag that says, "Yay Fossil Fuels!" So people who like gender equality and see all people as being valuable and celebrate difference and all that good stuff aren't generally going to get excited about diesel. Diesel is dirty, bad for the environment...
Wow, I think I just realized why dieselpunk isn't going to be the next steampunk in terms of popularity. Of course, dystopias are popular at the moment, so I suppose as a possible dystopian landscape, the combination of diesel with the punk value system could be appealing.
What do you think? Is dieselpunk doomed to remain an obscure genre and aesthetic?