What is Dieselpunk?
In my last post, ‘What is Punk Fiction?’ I talked about retrofuturism and the punk aesthetic. To me, retrofuturism is at the heart of differentiating a work of punk fiction from its associated genre. In other words, what makes a work of science fiction = dieselpunk? What makes a fantasy = steampunk? What makes any story not simply a type of genre but a type of whatever-punk? I think the answer is the presence of retrofuturism.
Charles A Cornell’s Definition of Dieselpunk:
The retro-futuristic themes and aesthetics reflecting the politics, society, culture and technology from the 1920s to 1940s, expressed in creative form in order to project to others the future as those in this past era might have seen it, or to convey to others how this era’s vibe would look like in a future imaginary world.
So what themes from the 1920s to 1940s can authors explore in dieselpunk fiction?
The rise of fascism, militarism & communism; totalitarian societies, dictators
The decline of monarchies & their global empires; battles between New and Old Orders
The use of propaganda as a tool of politics & war; the pseudo-science of eugenics; the rise of anti-semitism, racial purity laws & the idea of a master race; detentions without trial; executions without the need of verdicts
World War Two & the Holocaust
The Great Depression & the Stock Market Crash on Wall Street
Prohibition, gangsters, bootleggers & speakeasies; the hard-boiled detective and private eye; G-men
Fedoras and trenchcoats; jackboots and armbands; massive rallies, political riots, anarchy and revolution; the fascist salute
Women get the vote; their contributions to political life increase as does their aspirations beyond the home
Blackouts and the Blitz, rationing, Victory gardens, war bonds; Rosie the Riveter and women in the factories and the military
Art Deco styles in architecture, sculpture & design; Futurism in art
The rising dehumanization of the city
The Roaring Twenties, flappers, the charleston & the Jazz Age; cocktails, gin & whiskey
The ‘big band’ sound, ‘swing’ music, the ‘blues’ and ragtime
Technology as ‘art’ as seen in automobile &, motorcycle design, in the style of radios & clocks; in the industrial aesthetics of chrome & steel, Bakelite and concrete;
The increasing influence of radio, film stars and business celebrities
The femme fatale; nylon stockings, WW2 pin-up girls & aircraft nose art
Mass production & the rise of consumerism
Massive buildings, skyscrapers
The ‘tommy-gun’, the machine-gun becomes portable and deadly
Automobiles, bigger, better, flashier
Airplanes, bigger, better, faster
Machines, bigger, stronger, more ominous
Zeppelins for leisure travel
Mechanized armies, tanks, Blitzkrieg, the ‘lightning war’, strategic bombing
The invention of radar and rockets; turboprops and early jet engines
The invention of the cathode-ray tube; the dawn of TV & electronics
Let’s look at some recent works of outstanding dieselpunk fiction. Look at their book covers, read their blurbs and see how the authors have incorporated these themes:
Theme: The Rough Outcast in a Retro-Future Gangster World
The Troubleshooter: New Haven Blues by Bard Constantine
30’s noir meets science fiction in this action packed tale of a man whose job description is shooting trouble. Mick Trubble has two major problems: a past that he can’t remember, and a price on his head. So when a mysterious dame shows up with a proposition to recover some stolen goods, it’s all in a day’s work for a man with nothing to lose. But this is New Haven, where nothing is as it seems. In this dystopian melting pot of desperate citizens, the rich dwell above in flying vehicles and bright lights, while the disadvantaged fight over the remains in the gritty streets. There are secrets buried behind sealed doors and the minds of men and women who won’t hesitate to kill in order to protect them. So when Mick’s case uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the entire populace, he has to rely on his connection, allies, and sarcastic wit in order to put the pieces together. He’ll need every bit of it to keep from catching a case of the New Haven Blues.
A Fistful of Nothing by Dan Glaser
The Great Depression never ate the country alive. WWII refuses to put out its raging fires. Every major city across fifty states has been blown sky-high by blitzing. This is 1952, America. The only choice the denizens of a war-torn Los Angeles have left is to plunge into the deep dark of the metro tunnels and make a new life in the ruins of the subway rails below—with elbow grease, neon, and blood. In the crumbling catacombs beneath Hollywood, an ex-private eye named Jim “Jimbo” Maynard scours the dead, dark underworld for payoff on a gamble gone wrong, but stumbles instead on a subterranean metropolis divided by vice, vendettas, mysteries, and murder plots. In order to hunt down the butchers of two seemingly unrelated corpses, Jim will come up against warring mob bosses, backstabbing bookies, mad inventors, tin titans, bootleg rum-running, corrupted coppers, and electromagnetic revolvers. Welcome to The Hollywoodholes. Welcome to your chrome coffin.
Theme: The Rise of Fascism
Silent Empire by Bard Constantine
Franklin is a man haunted by visions of a family he can’t remember and the growing awareness that his world is a fabrication by oppressors who control every aspect of his existence. After being contacted by the mysterious Coalition, Franklin is reluctantly persuaded to find the answers that elude him. His pursuit of truth puts him in a duel of wills against the Sovereign, the oppressive empire that uses the machine of propaganda combined with the brutal terror of their Dogmen to smother any spark of rebellion. The Coalition reveals the Sovereign’s technological prowess that has trapped its inhabitants in a lethargic state to prevent rebellion of any sort. Franklin is the only person on the inside whose mind is active enough to resist and take action. With time running out and his life at risk, Franklin must choose between defiance or submission; a decision that will either further imprison him… or shatter an Empire forever. In the vein of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Bard Constantine presents a dystopian preview of a world that is not, but very well could be our own.
So many titles; so little time!
We’re going to explore more dieselpunk fiction in future posts. We’ll discover even more authors writing in this genre. We’ll find dieselpunk artists and musicians. And then explore how dieselpunk and steampunk creativity has created new followings that bring these themes to life.
I have to give a shameless plug for my own novel, DragonFly in the final thematic review for today:
Theme: World War Two
Ack-ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell
In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain’s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque.’ The trouble is, Ack-Ack Macaque is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything, including his own existence. A century later, in a world where France and Great Britain merged in the late 1950s and nuclear-powered Zeppelins circle the globe, ex-journalist Victoria Valois finds herself drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the man who butchered her husband and stole her electronic soul. Meanwhile, in Paris, after taking part in an illegal break-in at a research laboratory, the heir to the British throne goes on the run. And all the while, the doomsday clock ticks towards Armageddon.
DragonFly by Charles A Cornell
A young woman with the fate of a nation in her hands. An aircraft designed by science, fueled by magic and flown with passion. A World War re-imagined like never before.
In 1942, an unlikely heroine changes the course of history. On the eve of invasion by the Nazis, twenty-two year old RAF pilot Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Somerset is fighting another battle – winning respect within the stuffy, male-dominated British military. She’s feisty and brash and determined to overcome every obstacle to become Britain’s first female combat pilot. When Ronnie is re-assigned to Enysfarne, a mysterious Royal Navy base off the coast of Cornwall, fate places her inside the cockpit of the most revolutionary aircraft ever invented. Brilliant engineer, Dr. Nigel Pennbridge has discovered quadra-hydrogen, an element that powers the DragonFly, a remarkable fighter-bomber that carries the hopes of Britain on its blue and silver wings. Across the English Channel, Nazi Germany is busy planning its next conquest. Reichsführer Bernhardt Morax, Hitler’s personal sorcerer and leader of the Third Reich’s Zauber Korps is preparing his Blutskriegers for the invasion; bio-mechanical warriors created by a depraved occult science whose dark secrets cross the boundaries of evil.
The Nazi invasion fleet is gathering off the shores of England. Morax, with help from his spies, is determined to seize the DragonFly and unlock the secrets of Enysfarne’s Druid past. Will the Druid wizard, Affodill – whose ancestral home of Enysfarne has been expropriated by the Royal Navy – join forces with the British, or will he make a pact with the evil Morax? Can Princess Victoria and Ronnie Somerset convince Affodill to place his magic in the service of a nation that has betrayed his Druid ancestors for centuries?