What Is Dieselpunk?


Good morning, folks!  Long time no see!  I just got home from a wonderful weekend at Contemporal, a steampunk fantasy con in Raleigh NC.  If you’ve never been, you really should make a trip there next year.  My husband and I had a marvelous time.  (Not to mention that on our way, we stopped at the nearby Tesla showroom to test drive the most awesome car in existence, and I think we were both still buzzing about it this morning.  But I digress…)

I served on a panel called “What is Dieselpunk?”, an exploration of the dieselpunk subgenre.  For those who aren’t familiar, dieselpunk generally covers the period between (and including) the two world wars.  It’s usually defined by either a military or urban noir aesthetic, and is rapidly gaining in popularity.  During the panel, I displayed an assortment of books, movies and video games to illustrate the point, and many of the attendees asked for a list of the items I had brought along.  I posted that list to A Hazardous Occupation (my own blog) last night, but I thought folks here might also enjoy seeing it.  And since today was open, here we go!

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.  (This is considered a classic of dieselpunk even though it takes place in the early 60′s, because of the direct relation to WWII.)
Declare by Tim Powers
As a young double agent infiltrating the Soviet spy network in Nazi-occupied Paris, Andrew Hale finds himself caught up in a secret, even more ruthless war.  Hale’s desperate quest draws him into international politics and gritty espionage tradecraft and inexorably drives Hale to a deadly confrontation on the high glaciers of Mount Ararat, in the very shadow of the fabulous and perilous Ark.
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
In the Spanish Civil War, British secret agent Raybould Marsh thinks he saw a German woman with wires growing out of her head. Once WWII erupts, he learns that his eyes weren’t fooling him. The Germans have developed various kinds of real live supermen, such as the wired-up lady, with the ability to foretell and influence the future.
Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz
The year is 1940. Hitler’s Germany is about to employ the secret arts of evil witchcraft to destroy England. What can stop them?  It is the mission of John Graham, colonel in British Intelligence, to stop the onslaught of evil with an extraordinary strategy that defies all the rules of twentieth-century warfare: Unite the different witches’ covens throughout England, drawing upon powers that reach back through dark centuries, in a ritual of awesome sacrifice on the first night of August, the magical Lammas Night.

Video games
When your plane crashes, you discover Rapture – an underwater Utopia torn apart by civil war. Caught between powerful forces and hunted down by genetically modified “splicers” and deadly security systems, you have to come to grips with a deadly, mysterious world filled with powerful technology and fascinating characters as little girls loot the dead, and biologically mutated citizens ambush you at every turn. Now you’re trapped, caught in the middle of a genetic war that will challenge both your capacity to survive and your moral allegiance to your own humanity. Make meaningful and mature decisions that culminate in the grand question – do you exploit the innocent survivors of Rapture to save yourself – or risk all to become their savior?

Bioshock II
Along the Atlantic coastline, a monster — somehow familiar, yet still quite different from anything ever seen — has been snatching little girls and bringing them back to the undersea city. It is a Big Sister, new denizens of Rapture who were once one of the forgotten little girls known as Little Sisters, known to inhabit the city’s dank halls. No longer a pawn used to harvest ADAM, the dangerously powerful gene-altering lifeblood of Rapture, from the bodies of others and in turn run the risk of being harvested herself, the Big Sister is now the fastest and most powerful thing in Rapture. You, on the other hand are the very first Big Daddy, in fact the prototype, that for some reason has reactivated.  The question is, as you travel through the decrepit and beautiful fallen city beneath the waves, hunting for answers and the solution to your own survival, are you really the hunter, or the hunted?

Bioshock Infinite
Indebted to the wrong people, and with his life on the line, hired gun Booker DeWitt has only one opportunity to wipe his slate clean. He must rescue Elizabeth, a mysterious girl imprisoned since childhood and locked up in the flying city of Columbia. Forced to trust one another, Booker and Elizabeth form a powerful bond during their daring escape. Together, they learn to harness an expanding arsenal of weapons and abilities, as they fight on zeppelins in the clouds, along high-speed Sky-Lines, and down in the streets of Columbia, all while surviving the threats of the air-city and uncovering its dark secret.

You are the once-trusted bodyguard of the beloved Empress. Framed for her murder, you become an infamous assassin, known only by the disturbing mask that has become your calling card. The truth behind your betrayal is as murky as the waters surrounding the city, and the life you once had is gone forever.  (Also referred to as “whalepunk”, since the main fuel source in the world of the game is whale oil.  There aren’t many other examples of this subsubgenre, so placing it under the dieselpunk umbrella is perfectly acceptable.)

L A Noire
Amid the post-war boom of Hollywood’s Golden Age, newly minted detective Cole Phelps is thrown headfirst into a city drowning in violence and corruption.

1934. The Dustbowl. The last great age of magic. In a time of titanic sandstorms, vile plagues, drought and pistilence – signs of God’s fury and harbingers of the Apocalypse – the final conflict between good and evil is about to begin. The battle will take place in the Heartland of an empire called America. And when it is over, man will forever trade away wonder for reason. See the conflict of good vs. evil played out against a pair of vivid and unusual backdrops: a traveling carnival working the American Dustbowl circuit, and an evangelical ministry in California.

Dark City
When John Murdoch wakes with no memory at the scene of a grisly murder, he soon finds himself hunted by the police, a woman claiming to be his wife and a mysterious group of pale men who seem to control everything and everyone in the city.

Full Metal Alchemist
In an era of war and corruption, State Alchemist Edward Elric and his brother Alphonse desperately search for the Philosopher’s Stone. The legendary artifact is their last hope to restore what was lost – or it could be their undoing. The grisly truths found in the quest for the relic will test their souls in ways unimaginable.

Born in the flames of hell and brought to Earth as an infant to perpetrate evil, Hellboy was rescued from sinister forces by the benevolent Dr. Broom, who raised him to be a hero.  In Dr. Broom’s secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Hellboy creates an unlikely family consisting of the telepathic “Mer-Man” Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, the woman he loves who can control fire. Hidden from the very society that they protect, they stand as the key line of defense against an evil madman who seeks to reclaim Hellboy to the dark side and use his powers to destroy mankind.

The Indiana Jones series
A handsome daring archaeologist travels the world searching for powerful artifacts and fighting Nazis and other ecil bad guys.  A modern retelling of the classic pulp adventure tales.

Inglourious Basterds
As war rages in Europe, a Nazi-scalping squad of American soldiers, known to their enemy as “The Basterds,” is on a daring mission to take down the leaders of the Third Reich. (Be careful of the spelling – there’s another movie called “Inglorious Bastards” which is not the same thing at all.)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Ulysses Everett McGill, a slick-tongued wise guy with a thing about hair pomade who talks his chain-gang buddies  into lighting out after some buried loot he claims to know of. En route they come up against a prophetic blind man on a railroad truck, a burly one-eyed baddie, a trio of sexy singing ladies, a blues guitarist who’s sold his soul to the devil, a brace of crooked politicos on the stump, a manic-depressive bank robber, and–well, you get the idea.

Tin Man
When a sorceress named Azkadellia scorches the once-beautiful land of OZ into a desolate wasteland, the only hope lies in an “outsider” named DG, a young Midwestern woman, whose troubling dreams have summoned her to the doomed paradise. D.G. embarks on a journey to find the great mystic man to save the O.Z.

So there you go, a nice list of media to help you explore the world of dieselpunk.  Enjoy!  And hey, if you have other titles you’d like to share with folks, feel free to tell me in the comments.


4 comments to What Is Dieselpunk?

  • Razziecat

    I never would have pegged Lammas Night as dieselpunk, since it focuses more on the esoteric than the mechanical. Still, it puts the book into an interesting new light. For myself, I still prefer steampunk and would love to attend a con. Thanks for the cool list!

  • TwilightHero

    Delurking because I was delighted to see Full Metal Alchemist mentioned here, where I would have never expected to find it. Yes, I am a fan. And as a fan, I feel compelled to point out that the name actually refers to two different stories.

    See, there are actually two anime (animated) series based on the original manga (comic). Back in 2003, the first one was made while the manga was still ongoing. (Fairly early in the story, too.) As looks set to happen with Game of Thrones, the series caught up with the original material and kept on going, taking the world and characters and coming up with its own storyline. This would be the version listed here – without giving away too much, there are indeed links to WWII.

    Fast forward to 2009, and the manga, finally finished, was so popular that a second series was made, this one faithful to the original story. This second version was titled Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. There’s something of a debate on which series is better; basically, the 2003 version has more character development – more ‘heart’. But I’d have to say that the 2009 version is hands-down the better series. It has better animation, plotting, pacing, and a more satisfying ending.

    BUT it doesn’t qualify as dieselpunk (I never knew there was a name for that). The original story – Brotherhood – is pure alternate-world military fantasy. Our world doesn’t feature in it at all.

    Having said that…it’s an amazing story.

    At the least, I’d recommend checking out both series 🙂

  • I dig dieselpunk. I also love aetherpunk. I had an aetherpunk setting in my AFMBE supplement, Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies! 😉

  • Hi TwilightHero! You’re right – Full Metal Alchemist (as well as Dishonored, Tin Man and Dark City) don’t take place in the real world. The reason they (and many other examples) still qualify as dieselpunk is because they embrace the aesthetic associated with that period of our history, even though they exist in other worlds entirely.

    And while I’m thinking of it, during the panel I mentioned a web series whose title I couldn’t recall. Now that I’m home I looked it up – it’s called Riese: Kingdom Falling. It was sold to SyFy, who promptly added an annoying narration over the action, but it’s still pretty cool.