What is Dieselpunk?
Drawing heavily from the aesthetics of the roaring 20's and the years leading up to (and including) World War II, Dieselpunk creates a sort of fantasy and sci-fi what-if world of mob bosses, flappers, big cars and the emergence of elegant, yet powerful diesel-powered war machines. As a whole, it is a sub-genre steeped in everything from film noir and pulp serials to the aesthetics and crime world of the swing era, prohibition and the years leading up to America's involvement in the second world war.
What is not Dieselpunk:
Dieselpunk is, by its very nature, a fundamentally unique sub-genre wholly different from even its closest relatives, Steampunk and pulp. Though it takes a similar approach to the aesthetics of a particular period in history and pushes them to the edge of the envelope of possibility in the same way that Steampunk does, the era from which Dieselpunk draws is much later and driven by a wholly different level of technology (diesel power instead of steam power.)
Pulp on the other hand, is typically composed of the kinds of fantastic serials and dramatized war stories of the early twentieth century that are filled with romance and adventure but that also stick within the bounds of possibility and never really stray into the realms of what would otherwise be considered Science Fiction. Though elements of twenties, thirties and early forties pulp most definitely influence the aesthetics and presentation of Dieselpunk as a sub-genre, Dieselpunk is capable of flying beyond the bounds which constrain pulp to burn its way into all the frontiers originally relegated to sci-fi and fantasy.
Dieselpunk in Popular Culture:
Perhaps the most well known example of Dieselpunk’s appearance in the eye of the mainstream media is the film “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” Many elements of this film, from the use of classic-looking footage to the fantastic flying aircraft carrier and the giant war machine robots are characteristic of Dieselpunk,
Another fundamentally Dieselpunk contribution to the mainstream is the video game Bioshock. Brimming with interbellum elements (most notably those of a visual or artistic nature) Bioshock allows players to experience a Dieselpunk world firsthand through the eyes of a plane crash survivor named Jack.
The Rocketeer and the Fallout series also feature a significant number of Dieselpunk elements as well, though the retro-fifties aesthetic of Fallout rests more at the edge of the subgenre, flirting with other similar (and later-themed) aesthetics (pulp, etc.)
H.P. Lovecraft’s horror is often also seen as being an inspirational element of Dieselpunk, though as a whole it falls firmly into the sci-fi horror or “Supernatural Horror” genre. Other contributions or inspirational Dieselpunk elements include various film noir detective stories, a handful of RPGs (like Children of the Sun) and re-imaginings of art deco or wartime pinups produced in the modern day (especially those featuring technology identifiable as being diesel-era in aesthetic but more fantastic than anything which was in fact invented or used.)
Another relevant point to consider is that the first three films of the Indiana Jones series all take place during the period typically associated with Dieselpunk as well, effectively making them excellent resources for stylistic aesthetics as well.
Bridging the gap between the roaring twenties and the early years of the second world war, Dieselpunk is the sub-genre which encapsulates an entire early twentieth century American aesthetic and brings it both into and through a future of shining steel, elegant machinery, and the black smoke of the beginning of the petroleum age. To define it even beyond this is to limit it, to bind it and tie it down in a way that it should never be. Dieselpunk is a young sub-genre, but one closer to home than Steampunk and the Weird Westerns set in the old American west, one with more potential, I think, than any of its originators might ever have imagined it would have.
Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on December 15, 2010:
"what if someone takes the aesthetics of the eras you talk about but applies them with an entirely different type of technology?"
You should read "The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer," By Neal Stephenson. It's a novel set in the future, with future tech, but one of the major societies in the future world is big into the Victorian-era aesthetic. Plus it's a ripping good tale, by Jove.
Lord K on December 13, 2010:
@ Earl: thanks a lot!
@ Jeff: IMHO, the dirigible belongs to both genres, Steampunk and Dieselpunk. It's a pinnacle of the Steam Age technology, a protagonist of new era (being driven by internal combustion engine) and a Diesel Era icon.
Earl S. Wynn (author) from California on December 12, 2010:
Then it's slipsteam. :)
Rachel on December 11, 2010:
I have to ask though, what if someone takes the aesthetics of the eras you talk about but applies them with an entirely different type of technology? IE: The fashion of the 20's or 50's in a society that is still steam driven?
Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on December 02, 2010:
Good article (as usual). I admit to confounding Steampunk and Dieselpunk. I blame the dirigible. In some ways, it seems to me that the dirigible is a prerequisite for anything steamy. But that's a bit of a paradox; I know of no dirigible that used an external combustion engine (that is, a steam engine). All the ones I've ever heard of use gasoline, diesel, or some other volatile liquid fuel in an /internal/ combustion engine to drive the propellers.
Disney's _Atlantis_ would fall firmly into the dieselpunk subgenre of speculative fiction (especially since its lighter-than-air craft is more of a balloon than a dirigible).