East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Dieselpunk is Pulp Misspelled


12195894_1047804378566091_7030728815196741204_nSo, today is the International Dieselpunk Day.
Now, I love most of what’s been produced under the label of dieselpunk – possibly more than the catalog of the genre’s older brothers, cyberpunk and steampunk.
The reason is, to me, dieselpunk is just pulp misspelled… I even built a Pinboard on Pinterest, on the subject…

Also, because being less codified and clean-cut than standard steampunk, dieselpunk is, at the moment, freer and more open to creative approaches.
So, what am I going to do for the International Dieselpunk Day?
Well, I think I’m going to ramble a bit, taking a stroll through what I think about when I think dieselpunk

a59f5b10aea9fff117090e488686c417One of the things I find more limiting, where Dieselpunk is concerned, is the obsession with uniforms.
Granted, if Dieselpunk is that genre set in a time between the end of the Great War and the launch of the Sputnik, then a lot of those years were war years.
And a world at war certainly makes for an exciting setting for a novel, a movie or a game.
And as Tatiana Tolstoii (I think it was) once observed, a uniform is… well, uniform, and therefore it does not add or subtract anything from the individual, and therefore helps good looks to stand out.
And we’re all partial to good-looking people.

But there’s a few other elements of the dieselpunk decades that make it appealing – and would work.

ec6af77605e040e58d6341180a342fa2A direct consequence of the war years was the increasing empowerment of women – while the men were away fighting, women had to keep society going.
They worked in factories, drove taxies, and did a lot of things that were the domain of the Y chromosome in the past.
This is something that makes dieselpunk very interesting to me – as I like strong female characters working on an equal basis with their male counterparts.

And empowered females greeting wounded veterans back home is of course one of the main engines of the noir genre.
Noir is good.

6658afc52806ef7789ff13937ec4c1a7Also, the dieselpunk years were the last years of exploration – adventure and exoticism became extremely close.
A well-to-do family could go on vacation on the Mexican coast, and a few miles inland adventurers might be plundering an ancient, cursed Mayan temple.
Hong Kong and Shanghai became international playgrounds, but a few hours on a plane would land you in an uncharted territory.
Archaeology is still a muscular enterprise, doing anthropology requires a life insurance, explorer is still a legit profession – and so is big game hunter.

75128a26c1d9959759e65cedcf1609c1At the same time, the city becomes the default landscape of adventure – private investigators, urban vigilantes and gangsters become the new heroes and villains in popular imagination.
Once again, noir-ish stories seem to hint at the idea that there are two cities, one in the light of day and the other – stranger, more dangerous – by night.

On the political front, the dieselpunk years saw the rise of the great dictatorships that would plunge the world in World War 2; but these were also the years in which marginalized populations and second class colonial citizens took their pride and identity back – sometimes peacefully, most often violently.

The political arena was boiling.
Which of course means there’s ample opportunity for espionage, gun running, peril and adventure.
And for feeding Nazis to the dinosaurs – which is always a great source of fun.


This was also the era in which pseudoscience gave its last hurrah1.
It was still possible to speak of Atlantis, of the canals of Mars or of the Hollow Earth with a straight face – from explorers seeking unlikely lost cities to paranormal investigations, to strange “scientific” theories, a battle was fought between enlightenment and ignorance. 8f05fdf5ee03a7fb73219a937b224285

And then there’s the future – the dieselpunk years are marked by exhibitions like the Futurama, and a general, widely shared idea that the future has already begun, and nothing will be the same, but better.
Indeed, the dieselpunk decade saw the rise of the idea of popular science – and magazines catered to a vast audience of amateur mechanics, engineering enthusiasts and assorted tinkerers.
Much more than in a steampunk setting, in a dieselpunk universe technology should be hands-on, accessible, easily fixed or “improved”.
This is the age of the DIY and of the ACME boxes with all the pieces you need to assemble.

And this optimism nicely offsets the darker intuitions of noir.

And those were the decades of style – art deco and modernism, fashion, elegance.
There’s so much more than black shiny boots and uniforms.

And then, of course, speed.
Trains, planes, automobiles – this is the age of the PanAm China Clipper, of airships and fast cars.
But also speed in communication – radio, television.
The world is suddenly smaller, but it retains some of its secrets.


There is so much to explore, in those four decades between 1918 and 1957…
Can you tell my fingers itch for a keyboard and some free time to write something?

  1. until, that is, the advent of Facebook 

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.

2 thoughts on “Dieselpunk is Pulp Misspelled

  1. I absolutely love this. I am, it turns out, really a kind of Dieselpunk guy. However, I think Dieselpunk should date to 1910. To my mind, the Mexican Revolution and the Great War are absolutely Diesel.
    You might enjoy this post: http://frontierpartisans.com/3896/a-treatise-on-fashion/.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to agree on both counts – the Mexican Revolution is something we Europeans tend to forget, and the Great War was both the testing ground and the primer of the dieselpunk years.
      I’ll have to revise my chronology 🙂
      And now, I’ll go and read your post…


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