East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A world of popular mechanics


GSPinup002A few nights back I was talking about dieselpunk with a friend.
Now, I’m getting rather tired of the -punk subgenres – which are certainly effective commercially, but often are just new names for well-established fare.
And dieselpunk is in this sense a heavy offender, as basically an awful lot (if not all) dieselpunk is just pulp adventure with the number plates changed.

Anyway, we were discussing dieselpunk, and one thing led to another, and talk turned to baroque esthetics, brass fittings, engines as objecct d’art, 1940s style pinups, black scary uniforms and Soviet architechture, and a lot of other stuff, all of which, to me, is not indispensable in defining dieselpunk as literature – it might define dieselpunk as an aesthetics, but not as a narrative genre.

So, what does?
Even better, what, in the dieselpunk subgenre, allows me to write stories I could not write in any other subgenre?

coverAnd I think I found an answer – one that works for me, at least.

To me, a dieselpunk setting is one in which there is a book, or even better, a monthly magazine, which is called, say, Modern Mechanics*.
Cheap stuff – a dime a month, less for subscribers.
Very popular.
And anyone reading that magazine regularly can acquire the necessary know-how to do technology.
From fixing sewing-machines and alarm clocks to synchronizing the engines of a Zeppelin, the know-how is the same, the tech is the same.
So, yes, a world where mechanics is really popular.

I imagine a world where mechanical technology is commonplace and it is an hands-on pursuit for a vast number of individuals.
A world where engineering is a basic set of skills one acquires as a kid reading the pulps and listening to radio shows.
Where manual labor on mechanical, low tech contraptions is empowering.
Where the guy fixing pick-up trucks somewhere in the country could – should the need arise – set straight the gearbox of an underground mole machine or the drive of a rocketship.
That would be a gateway for adventure!

And I’d love to write something set in a world like that.

*Actually, there was a mag called Modern Mechanix, and you can find an archive online of scanned issues. Great stuff.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “A world of popular mechanics

  1. Your answer is really fascinating and I would like very very much to read a story set in the world you described.
    My answer is a little different.
    The aspect I like very much in Steampunk and Dieselpunk is so much technology but not so unfailing and accurate, things are amazing (you can fly easily, you can have automata quite similar to men…) but they are not perfect, they can easily break, they are artisan productions,
    you can’t find two identical artifacts, there is something personal, something very tied to the creativity of the craftsman. Something unique in each thing.
    Amazing technology that affect very much everyday life but not perfect and impersonal, it is as if each object has a story and life of its own but without the magic (I’m so tired about magic!)
    I feel there can be a lot of adventures and unexpected events interacting with object so different from ours, objects so well developed but behaving so unpredictably .
    And I didn’t realize it but I think your answer, I mean a world where everybody can build something and can manage technology, is another aspect of this subgenre that I love very much.
    And now I wait for your story! 😉


    • I see your point – the idea of technology as something personal and made to measure, like clothing, or food.
      That’s another very good angle.
      And basically, in what we call “steampuk” the makers are members of an élite, while in “dieselpunk” everybody has access to a certain basic level of technical skills.
      Which explains, by the way, the classic pinup image of the grease-smeared beauty fixing an engine – anyone can do some mechanical work, even the town’s beauty queen.


  2. I had never quite understood why various groups of the 80s, such as The Cure and Bauhaus, bristled at the label “Goth.” After all, wasn’t that what everyone called them? Didn’t their music fit in to an accepted set of expectations about their style of music. Then one of my stories was labeled “Elfpunk.” I was quite proud of how I’d developed a world where Dwarfs developed an industrial world of gears and brass and airships in order to get a leg up on the magic-using Elves, only to find my whole concept distiller into a single word that, I think, didn’t properly describe what my stories were about. I completely agree with you about being over the whole “-punk” categories, though I do still read stories that can be categorized as such.


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