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Today we wrap up the 2021 A to Z Challenge with a guest post with author Sarah ZAMA on dieselpunk. What is Dieselpunk?
It’s the true heart of Dieselpunk, as well as of all the punk genres, to me. Using the past as a filter to look at our own time, our own society, our own fears and hopes. – Sarah Zama
I’m Sarah Zama, and I’m a writer of historical fantasy set in the 1920s.
I could be more concise and say, I’m a dieselpunk author, but I’ve noticed that most readers are unsure what that means. I understand. Dieselpunk is a very niche-y genre. But let me tell you a bit about it, and maybe you’ll discover that’s exactly what you were looking for.
Steampunk OR Dieselpunk
You’re probably more familiar with the Steampunk genre. Steampunk is a reinvention of the Victorian world, assuming that science and technology are more advanced than they actually were. But the advancement is based on the technology available at the time or on some form of magic.
It is the only punk genre familiar to the mainstream public, but actually, there are many punk genres created in the same way. Atompunk, for example, is set in the cold war years, roughly between the end of the 1950s and the very beginning of the 1970s.
Dieselpunk is one of these other punk genres.
Most dieselpunk stories are set in the world of the two world wars. The ‘diesel era’ is generally considered to start with WWI and end at the very beginning of the 1950s. It could also be a fantasy version of that time.
But here’s the thing: the setting may be very similar to the historical setting – some punk stories (like mine) employ the real historical setting – but it is never the actual thing. There is always something different. Something ‘off’. Something punk.
Dieselpunk is such a young genre that even we dieselpunks are unsure about how to best define it.
You may hear that while Steampunk presents technology based on steam, Dieselpunk presents technology based on internal combustion.
I’ve never liked this definition because I find it so limiting. It places all the personality of the genre in the technology, leaning heavily on science fiction. While it’s certainly true that Dieselpunk does have a very prevalent retrofuturistic element, I don’t think that’s what characterises it. Agent Carter is a good example of Dieselpunk in its retrofuturistic manifestation, but many of us consider Indiana Jones just as dieselpunk.
Larry Amyet (who’s been a diesepunk since before Dieselpunk existed) defines Dieselpunk as ‘set in the diesel era and with a punk element.’ I’ve always loved this definition because it makes the genre so much richer and allows for far more diversity.
What does Larry mean by this?
The diesel era
As I mentioned above, the diesel era is normally considered as starting with WWI and ending in the very first years of the 1950s.
It’s basically the time of the world wars. Both wars are actually very popular in the genre. Most of the dieselpunk stories I’ve read were linked in some way to one of the two world wars. But I should add that some readers and writers consider WWI as still part of Steampunk, and so they make the diesel era start with the end of WWI.
Anyway, most dieselpunk stories are set in the last part of the diesel era, that is, during WWII or in the immediate post-WWII years.
Some stories are set in a historical fiction setting. Some are more alternate history. And some others only take up the aesthetics of the diesel era and create a new fantastical world.
By ‘punk element’, Larry means something ‘off’. Something strange or different. Something that doesn’t belong to the historical time.
Most often than not, that’s a retrofuturistic element. Retrofuturism is how people from the past would imagine the future based on their reality and the science and technology they knew. Take, for example, Metropolis. That’s how people in the 1920s imagined the future. But Metropolis isn’t dieselpunk because that’s a real 1920s author imagining the future. Dieselpunk authors are authors of today who put themselves in the shoes of an author of the diesel era and try to imagine the future from that standpoint.
This is the main characteristic of punk: the different perspective. The perspective of Retrofuturism is never the real perspective of the time the story is set in. It’s the perspective of a modern author, who goes back in time and from there looks ahead to the time they originally came from, perfectly knowing what the ‘future’ turned out to be.
It’s the true heart of Dieselpunk, as well as of all the punk genres, to me. Using the past as a filter to look at our own time, our own society, our own fears and hopes.
But Retrofuturism isn’t the only way to go. There’s the modern author, there’s the look at our society and time, there’s the filter – but this can be anything other than Retrofuturism. It can be magic, for example. Now, it’s true that diesekpunk stories with magical elements are far less common than Steampunk stories with magical elements, but they do exist. The saga of The Mick Oberon Jobs is one such story and seriously among the best Dieselpunk I’ve ever read.
But the punk element may be anything, to the point that Larry doesn’t limit it to stories. To him, electro swing is also Dieselpunk, for example, because it gives a modern twist to the actual swing music of the 1940s.
Apart from these two essential characteristics, other things characterise Dieselpunk.
Dieselpunk stories tend to be dark and gritty, just like film noir used to be, which is probably why the 1940s and early 1950s are the most frequented years in the genre. That is exactly the time of classic film noir. In fact, Dieselpunk makes use of many of the characteristic elements of noir.
Dieselpunk stories tend to deal with a form or another of oppression. It may be some form of dictatorship (like it happens in Indiana Jones, for example), or it may be an economic superpower, but there’s always an element of oppression, whether it’s in the forefront or hidden under the surface.
Which, of course, comes directly from oppression. Where there is oppression, there will be rebellion. In fact, rebellion is at the heart of all dieselpunk stories, whether it is a real political rebellion or a more personal one.
So, this is what Dieselpunk means for me.
May it be something that’s up your alley?
Who is Sarah Zama?
Sarah Zama was born, raised and still lives near Verona (Italy), though she worked for a time in Dublin. She started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today she’s a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into her own dieselpunk stories.
A big thank you to Sarah Zama for writing this guest post as part of my 2021 A to Z Challenge (Authors and Artists). Hope you enjoyed her post and take some time to learn more about her on her website – https://sarahzama.theoldshelter.com.
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