Genre Hell Part II - Dieselpunk

After last week’s post I realized that some people may only be passingly familiar with what I’m talking about when I refer to Steampunk/Dieselpunk/Arcanopunk/Solarpunk, and the dizzying array of other genres out there.  I thought I’d talk about what defines some of these genres to me.

My definition of several genres is based on an overarching technology of the given worlds - Steampunk = Steam power, Dieselpunk = Diesel power, etc.  Those two are pretty straight forward, but it gets fuzzier when we start talking about things like Tesla/Electropunk.  Electricity is clearly the core of these ideas, but what generates the power to drive it?  Then we look at things like Solarpunk and definitions pretty much go out the window. 

Ready?  Great!   I’m not sure I am.

In my last post, I gave a quick definition of what I think Steampunk is.  This week, I thought I’d dive into Dieselpunk.  Again, these are -my- thoughts.  There is plenty of creative space for a wide array of different outlooks about genres.

What are elements that make something Dieselpunk?  I’ll lay out some themes that jump to the forefront of my mind when I think about Dieselpunk.

The Internal Combustion Engine - This is the single largest factor that separates Dieselpunk from other genres for me.  It draws a sharp line between it and Steampunk.  There can be similar elements in both genres, submarines and dirigibles for example, but with the internal combustion engine, automobiles, aircraft and tanks suddenly roar onto the stage.

World War I and World War II - Sci Fi/Fantasy that uses either of the World Wars as a backdrop falls into the big bucket labeled Dieselpunk to me.  In keeping with what I said above, the internal combustion engine is a central factor in what enabled the mechanized warfare that defines WWI and WWII.

A subcategory of this are “Weird War” stories.  Usually set against the backdrop of the world wars, this is where we see werewolves in Nazi uniforms, trench lines filled with the undead, Thul mages trying to summon the power of the elder gods, and so on.

Machine Guns - This is going to be a sticky wicket for some people, but the modern concept of a machinegun is something I associate with Dieselpunk.  If we’re talking about hand-cranked Gatling guns (or even steam driven ones), I see Steampunk.  But as soon as we shift over to weapons that don’t require being cranked, it jumps across the line to Dieselpunk for me.

Fixed Wing Aircraft - Again, some people are going to disagree with this and that’s fine.  Fixed wing aircraft are iconic to the world wars and the eras around them.  Here, I see both a feeling of a particular “time” associated with Dieselpunk, ‘20s through ‘40s, but there is also a specific technology involved - aircraft. 

Noir - Sci/Fi Fantasy set in a world with the feeling tone of fedoras, trench coats, tommy guns, gin joints and self-narrating detectives.  The term “Noir” is in and of itself a Pandora’s box of what it is/means. For my purposes, if we have a spell-slinging Humphrey Bogart-esque character or a smooth dame lounge singer who happens to be a cyborg, we’re talking about Dieselpunk.  Now, there are HUGE, muddy swamps of crossover between genres in what I’ve just described.  Our spell-slinging detective could also be Arcanopunk, and our lounge singing cyborg could be Cyberpunk, but those are different conversations.

Other - There are some things that for a variety of reasons/elements listed above, I always classify as having a Dieselpunk aesthetic.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and The Last Exile really exemplify this “other” category.  In Nausicaa, you have a giant city killing robot, tanks and big aircraft.   The vanships of the Last Exile clearly draw some of their design inspiration from aircraft of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

These are all super broad strokes, but they break Dieselpunk out relatively neatly (at least in my head) when trying to define it against other genres.  And just to be clear, many things don’t fit neatly into any single genre and that’s okay. SciFi/Fantasy is a big, messy pool of really cool ideas.  Genres just help make some kind of sense of all that craziness.

Below are some things I always reference when I try and show someone elements of what I think of as Dieselpunk.

Jakub Rozalski 


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow 

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

The Last Exile