A. Article: Discovering Dieselpunk

Written By Nick Ottens and Mr. Piecraft, Originally published in The Gatehouse Gazette, July 2008

The term ‘dieselpunk’ was invented by Children of the Sun-game designer Lewis Pollak in 2001, to describe the steampunkesque character of his video game. Dieselpunk, however, according to Pollak, is “darker [and] dirtier” than steampunk; a world “of grit and oil, dust and mud […] in which magic and technology are combined.” Since, the genre has evolved considerably, dismissing, often, some of the elements of Pollak’s dieselpunk while augmenting it with further influences, notably retro futurism and Adventure Pulp. In this article two gentlemen significant to the development of the genre discuss and define dieselpunk, its history, its characteristics and its significance, in the form of a discourse, they being Mr ‘Piecraft’, who was the first to propound dieselpunk to wikipedia, as well as Mr Nick Ottens, who maintains the website, The Gatehouse dedicated to dieselpunk. Seeking to define the genre, Mr Ottens provides the following interpretation:

Ottens: Dieselpunk is a literary genre derived from both cyber- and well as steampunk. Like steampunk, it is set in an anachronized past, specifically characterized by the rise of petroleum power and technocratic perception, incorporating, like cyberpunk, neo-noir elements, and sharing themes with Adventure Pulp.

Piecraft: Basically dieselpunk from my understanding is exactly as you described, now as for its origins we could attribute it to two different sources; I feel the true origins of dieselpunk from my own indiscriminate research presented me with two camps from which the term originated from and eventually became definitive. On one side we have it being coined to describe the ‘world’ Pollak has created his role-playing game Children of the Sun and in order to justify science fiction genres. On the other hand, it emanated from those aficionados of the lite within science fiction who felt caught between cyberpunk overtones and the idealization of steampunk—connoting a distinct appreciation of the era that existed between the World Wars and their affects upon which an alternative world was invented during this time-setting.

At first it was accepted as a later adaptation of steampunk, set in the years following the Roaring Twenties. However many users and individuals pointed out the discrepancy of the distinct ‘feel’ of the environment being more relevant to the technology prevalent of those times; and thus the term followed adopting a new sub-genre to define a sub-category post-steampunk and pre-cyberpunk.

Many different names were given at first in the cacophony of trying to bring about a definitive understanding (this was with Lewis Pollak’s already recognized term in RPG circles); atomicpunk, decopunk, aeropunk, and nazipunk were the few that were usually attributed Pollak’s definition related fantasy-based world with diesel and also with the influence and ambience of the 1930s and 40s.

Ottens: There are certainly differences between the two: where Pollak’s dieselpunk combines technology with magic in an obviously dystopian though rather fantastic setting, the dieselpunk that emerged as a true continuum between steam- and cyberpunk leans more toward the former in terms of sensibilities and aesthetic, adopting characteristics of the time in which it is set—the Interbellum—more than Pollak’s dieselpunk.

Piecraft: Yet I feel that at the same time the fans of steampunk and cyberpunk who felt an affection to alternate-historical pulp literature and games and movies felt a need to define this realm that was caught in a static limbo between both genres, one of perpetual transition between the continued publications of alternate World War II literature in which the Nazis won the war, and others in which the war had already started.

Between the fans of the steampunk genre adopting Pollak’s term definitively to structure and give substance to the genre existing within that Interbellum period that had prior to this not been officially recognized as a genre but more so a spinoff or off-shoot of steampunk in later years or as simply alternate-history fiction. And the purpose for this was that most of the themes observed in dieselpunk literature were World War II-related and the process leading up to it as well as the consequences that followed it—including the Cold War and potential nuclear holocaust.

I think the first clear distinction that put dieselpunk on the conscious map of pop culture was the release of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. However, it is humorous to notice how many other films and literature as well as games share the same retro-futuristic themes found therein prior to this film having become popular and released. But this film seems to have made its mark as the first definitively accepted dieselpunk movie

Ottens: In regard to retro-futurism, I feel only the ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk—that is, dieselpunk set before World War II—adopts retro-futurist elements in terms of design and technology. Dieselpunk set during the war or thereafter is obviously much less shiny and optimistic than fiction reminiscent of 1930s pulp adventures.

Piecraft: It is interesting for say, Wikipedia to try to define everything correlated to the style and look of the 1930s as being retro-futuristic, yet oddly enough many of the listed forms of retro-futuristic fiction seem to bear more of a significance to a less dystopic nature; i.e.: The Jetsons, Astroboy and so forth and would thus perhaps be seen as the post-cyberpunk to dieselpunk so as an utopian view of the progression as you stated in the pre-World War II environment (‘Ottensian’). However, this leads into the domain of the potential of a further sub-genre because The Jetsons and Astroboy also possess a ‘spacepunk’ element, borrowing mostly just the look and feel of the retro-futuristic world.

Ottens: Retro-futurism, in my view, refers to the whimsical and optimistic, and nowadays obviously outdates, predictions about the future as produced throughout the 1920s and 1930s and early-Cold War years—the former in the shape of Futurism and related avant-garde movements; the latter inspired by the Space Age, dominated by nuclear enthusiasm and the conquest of outer space, when people began to look toward the future again with great hopes and dreams.

Piecraft: So would you perhaps say that retrofuturism is more so the perception of a utopian enthusiasm for the future in space and beyond, although it is still very much set in the world, as opposed to going further into space which would be my understanding of what would later lead into a spacepunk or space opera setting, like Barbarella, Flash Gordon and so on. So in other words, retrofuturism is the utopian side of dieselpunk within an Ottensian environment—being that it predates a horrible arduous World War, or perhaps leads after the war only things become much more settled and peaceful?

Ottens: Considering that World War II produced the Cold War, with its Red Scare and nuclear paranoia, I am reluctant to regard post-war retro-futurism as a symptom of peace; rather, it was a means by which people could escape the scariness of their own time by imagining the potential of technology. This however, did not require a confidence in the future similar to the optimism of the pre-war years. Where in the 1920s and 30s, belief in progress implied trust in both technology as well as human potential, in the 50s, people considered that by the year 2000, the world could either be a utopia of progress, or a postnuclear wasteland.

Piecraft: I feel it is more relative to the hope and dreams of venturing further into outer space with the onslaught of the eminent Space Age. And this is perhaps demonstrated in the design and architecture and even environment of such a world. For instance we take the Chrysler Building in New York City as a prime example of the retro-futuristic design concept. This perhaps illustrates an enthusiasm for skyscrapers to be almost spacecraft-like structures bringing about an exciting idealism of the times, that people could live in what was once conceived by some sociologists as a possibility in the near future—Arcologies; large structures that could contain entire cities, not too different from Hannah-Barbera’s own concept in their cartoon The Jetsons.

Ottens: Indeed! That something which was but a fantasy mere decades prior (skyscrapers) became a reality and a facet of daily life, strengthened the notion that the future would be a bright one.

Piecraft: Would it be acceptable to say retrofuturism is a sub-genre within dieselpunk? Being an artistic style it predates dieselpunk in regards to the namesake, and for a long time people at first started referring to dieselpunk as retro-futurist fiction. This was why I wanted to bring awareness to the juxtaposition of both.

Ottens: While retro-futurism is purely optimistic, and depicts even otherwise nasty affairs like war in almost cheerful fashion, dieselpunk, however utopian it may seem, is never ignorant to reality. Dieselpunk may adopt the aesthetic and sentiments of retrofuturism, but it never imitates it entirely. In dieselpunk, there is always the realization that the world and people and their technologies, are not perfect, and that technology alone will not bring about the utopia of retro-futurism.

Piecraft: The only comparison is the fact that both share the time-period and artistic styles of the times. I would agree too—I see retro-futurism being the alternative utopian view of the 1930s predating a possible dieselpunk future setting.

Ottens: And, with that, certain sentiments inherent to those times and styles. But mostly, it is indeed the ‘outside’ the two share, but I consider retro-futurism basically hallow, predicting not realistically what could have been, while dieselpunk has more substance and explores a world that might actually have existed.

Piecraft: So then dieselpunk is very much dystopian in nature—however this is where we reach a quagmire with the discussion because Sky Captain is often noted as being retro-futuristic, yet I still see elements of the dieselpunk attitude present in the film. Of course this leads us to further scrutinize the different aspects within dieselpunk. I share in agreement the idea that it is split into two distinct environments, one prior or during the war and the other being towards the end or set after the war or in some cases after a great cataclysm that occurs due to the outcome of the war.

Ottens: I like to consider World War II the breaking point too. With the war begun, we have abandoned the ‘Ottensian’ and its characteristics—futuristic optimism and deco design and perhaps pulp influence also?


From "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1984) directed by Michael Radford

Piecraft: I think the pulp influence still exists in a post-war torn world but it is more of a semblance of the pulp ideology: a mere reflection, similar to the nostalgia one latches on to throughout time, especially given in a setting where there is no clear remains of civilization after a nuclear holocaust. There are still many elements of the retro-futuristic, however, they have become distorted and warped into a negative outlook. I think the ‘Piecraftian’ world of dieselpunk is concerned mostly with the effects the war has had or has with the world and the time it is set in. There clearly is a distinction because it presents the outcome as being more so bleak and gloomy, and in some cases even within a postapocalyptic scenario. So unlike an ‘Ottensian’ setting, even though we are in a dystopian environment there is still hope. Whereas in the ‘Piecraftian’ world there is no hope, and it is more of a continual dystopian view presented in such a case as Orwell’s 1984 for instance. I would not say that the ‘Ottensian’ is particularly optimistic; it is still within a dystopian environment only it is more hopeful, because the war has not really presented the great downfall that is existing in the ‘Piecraftian’model.

Ottens: Is the ‘Piecraftian’ about showing then how the war affected the ‘Ottensian,’ that is, obliterating the optimism of the latter, or about depicting rather how a, presumably prolonged and more violent, war affected the real world?

Piecraft: I think I would say how it affected the world and society rather than the ‘Ottensian’ world because both are two different times. Of course we could assume that it also could be how it affected the world since the time of the ‘Ottensian,’ because one would assume the ‘Piecraftian’ model follows suit.

Ottens: If both are exaggerations of reality, the ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk being much more sophisticated and ambitious than the Interbellum really was, and the early-‘Piecraftian’ much more hopeless than World War II and the immediate postwar years truly were, on what real-world time or place then is the late-‘Piecraftian’ based, in which apocalypse seems imminent or has already occurred? If, of course, it is based upon any real-world time or place at all. Might it else be more similar to Pollak’s original dieselpunk, a more fantastic world in which sometimes magic and technology are combined?

Piecraft: Pollak’s view embodied elements of the fantastic that in my view may not be present in such a world. Unless we take into account the more ambitious view of for instance the Nazis having the capability of occult powers and alien technology which could be reinforced in such a world that would later on be either completely overthrown by the enemy or by a nuclear holocaust. I think the ‘Piecraftian’ has two outcomes; either a world in which the enemy or ruling authoritarian state are a controlling force, unveiling a truly hopeless dystopian future reminiscent of 1984 or Brazil, or the post-apocalyptic outcome seen in such movies as Six-String Samurai and Mad Max. However, the former is not always entirely horrible. Consider, for instance, Fatherland, in which the Nazis won the war and the world is albeit still in an authoritarian realm but things are not so bad.

Mad Max is perhaps the definitive work of fiction in a ‘Piecraftian’ world of dieselpunk, because the story takes place in a world that has suffered the changes of a near-cataclysmic event which was sparked by the end of World War II.

Ottens: While I definitely consider Mad Max dieselpunk—how could a world on the verge of collapse, surviving solely by petroleum-based technology, not be?—are novels like 1984 and Fatherland not alternate history rather? What, besides that they depict a world shaped, presumably, by a different outcome to World War II, is really ‘dieselpunk’ about them?

Piecraft: Take Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle, that is set in a 1960s in which the Nazis won the war, and Dick describes the Nazis as “bustling robotic factories across the solar system.” It is further suggested that, “Nazi Germany continued their rocketry programs so that by 1962, they had a working system of commercial rockets used for intercontinental travel and also pursued space exploration, by sending rockets to the Moon, Mars and Venus.” The technology is still prevalent, only a slight progression has occurred with a referential ‘projection’ of the technology from the result of the war.

Ottens: I consider The Man in the High Castle dieselpunk too. The novel is the perfect antithesis to the retro-futurism of ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk. Novel like 1984 and Fatherland and V for Vendetta, however, do not change the world as it was at the time in which they are set, in terms of technology and culture. They change their histories, thus making them alternate history, yet I am reluctant to label them ‘dieselpunk’.

Piecraft: I think when we bring into account the term ‘punk’ within the technological prowess of the world, so in this case diesel-fuel or combustible engines and so on, we have to agree it relies heavily on the dystopian view of the world due to the  circumstances that have arisen for that period in time, and in most cases a direct reflection in the attitude of society from that technological prowess and advancement.

Therefore, ‘Piecraftian’ dieselpunk encompasses two outcomes from the dieselpunk environment that takes place after the Second World War or towards the end of it which leads to a predominantly dystopian and hopeless future that is either controlled by the ruling power of the war or completely in disarray within a post-apocalyptic landscape caused by a near-fatal cataclysm. So what do you think would define the ‘Ottensian’ form of dieselpunk?

Ottens: We have already mentioned Sky Captain, which is probably the quintessential installment of ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk. The Indiana Jones films, possibly with the exception of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as well as The Mummy, ought to be considered ‘Ottensian’ also, displaying an obvious pulp influence.

Piecraft: What about the darker side of the ‘Ottensian’? Because as a ‘Piecraftian’ I believe the ‘Ottensian’ also shares two outcomes.

Ottens: The darker side of the ‘Ottensian’? I did not realize there was one!

Metropolis (1927) still

From "Metropolis" (1927) directed by Fritz Lang

Piecraft: Where the ‘Ottensian’ goes wrong, yet there is still hope. I think within the ‘Ottensian’ there is the optimistic—or, as I prefer to call it, hopeful side—as well as a darker side. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would be a prime example of dieselpunk simply because of the style and technology as well as the visualization of the factory and cityscape.

Ottens: Yet at the time Metropolis was made, it was considered science fiction; dieselpunk did not yet exist. We do not normally consider the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells ‘steampunk’ either.

Piecraft: Although set in a distant future—beyond the typical time period within dieselpunk—it is perhaps much more of an influence upon the style and technology prevalent in such a future dystopian society, large factories and big pumping machinery and other forms of radical technology and science that at the time of this film’s making were purely fantasy. Also the design and setting of the cityscape presents a very Futurist artistic style which is coherent with the dieselpunk setting.

Ottens: ‘Proto-dieselpunk’ perhaps?

Piecraft: Yes, why not. I think it is necessary to still reference it as a good indication towards the understanding of the dieselpunk mentality even if it was made before the genre was formed. Further darker ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk could include anime such as Last Exile, Casshern, or even films as Perfect Creature, and to a degree Tim Burton’s Batman series. I know many are liable to not acknowledge them as such but they do possess a darker dieselpunk world.

Ottens: Tim Burton’s Batman has a definite deco influence; Burton himself even cited Metropolis as an inspiration for his films.

The Batmobile from the Tim Burton directed Batman movie from 1989

The Batmobile from the Tim Burton directed Batman movie (1989)

Piecraft: Bearing in mind Batman was very gothic which defined it as much darker in its outlook. Another quirky film that could be presented as dark ‘Ottensian’ is the obscure Eraserhead which has very dark overtones, and yet still sustains itself within the similar time period and attributes themes and elements found within dieselpunk—the industry setting and mechanisms and styles of the time-period.

What we can come to understand then, is that dieselpunk is an upcoming new genre of the literary punk movement which has inherently been (albeit without having been defined) developed and employed into multiple areas of media. Its birth owes a lot to the alternative history fiction as well as the enthusiasm that was brought about with the sudden interest in anachronistic ideas such as demonstrated with the current sweeping movement found in steampunk. I think dieselpunk is still very young in its days but with further interest and encouragement we will find that along the way a more refined version of it will perhaps be borne from what is now a still large-scale genre, encompassing elements that over-lap with others such as retro-futurism, atomicpunk, space opera (or some times spacepunk), steampunk and even basic alternative history narratives.

As a genre dieselpunk possesses a lot of energy and potential. We can observe that it occurs predominantly within the spectrum of the 1930s leading up to the Second World War, however it is also worth noting that because it borrows the styles and attitude that were still prevalent towards the end of World War I, we can assume that the overlap between steampunk—which we know has often continued into the early 1900s—is perhaps interlinked with the start of dieselpunk which we can ascribe to the year of 1918. The only differentiation would be the sudden drastic change in mind-set, attitudes, environment (after a worn-torn landscape from WW1) and ideas brought about with advances in technology, science and society which is clearly the case with the end of the war. We see a greater enthusiasm for life and a change in the world which brings about the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. This is further endorsed by movies such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow found in the idealization of the hopeful ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk.

However we can also observes negative events brought about by the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of the previous decade, such as the Great Depression and the rise of Communism and Fascism and this in turn promotes a more grim and darker mood which we find in such examples of the dark Ottensian; Delicatessen and Eraserhead—the world all of a sudden does not feel so great as a looming war permeates above society and the technology once engaged in by the great purveyors of futurism and mechanics seems to have brought about a dirtier, grimier world with pollution, now presenting a threat of the mechanical against mankind.

On the other side of the timeline one can imagine that the future from a dieselpunk world would be very different from that illustrated in cyberpunk. However, this does not purport to be entirely the case; we often find conflicting themes within both genres that inter-link. The future of dieselpunk is very uncertain but more so ends up becoming the precursor of cyberpunk—illustrated with such works as Metropolis and Nineteen Eighty-Four; two examples of the dystopian ‘Piecraftian’. This is further promoted with the fact that many ascribe films such as Mad Max, Tank Girl and Dark City as examples of cyberpunk, but once again we can see that they invariably possess many dieselpunk qualities and therefore it can be assumed that whatever the bleak outcome from a ‘Piecraftian’ dieselpunk setting is, the genre would more or less end within the timeframe of the 1960s and early- 1970s—this is debatable still as everything is always left open to interpretation. But it is generally accepted that a post-apocalyptic setting occurs from the consequences of a great cataclysm, usually derived from a Third World War (as a continuation of the Cold War) or from the horrible effects of an ambiguous nuclear holocaust (usually perpetuated from the Second World War).

In conclusion there is still a lot to be said about dieselpunk, however it is firstly necessary that this amazing genre be recognized by the literary world as it has appeared out of the random mix of punk mentality formed through steampunk and cyberpunk and its dysfunctional marriage with alternative World War II history. And so, I am hopeful to see a much more distinct presence of the genre appear gradually, as it has already germinated in an abstract fashion in previous works of fiction—albeit without a solid term—that empowered the era of the 1930s through the 1950s with science fiction.

Listed below are a few examples of films and other media that relate in context to dieselpunk whether it be thematic or in terms of style or attitude.

Examples of hopeful ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk:

* Just Imagine (1930)

* The Secret of Treasure Island (1938)

* The Spider Returns (1941)

* King of the Rocket Men (1949)

* The Invisible Monster (1950)

* Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

* Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

* The Rocketeer (1991)

* The Iron Giant (1999)

* Full Metal Alchemist (2003)

* Last Exile (2003)

* Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

* Monarch of the Moon (2005)

Examples of dark ‘Ottensian’ dieselpunk:

* Eraserhead (1977)

* Biggles (1986)

* Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)

* Delicatessen (1991)

* Kafka (1991)

* The Shadow (1994)

* The Big O (1999)

* Hellsing (2001)

* Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001)

* Casshern (2004)

Examples of dystopic ‘Piecraftian’ dieselpunk:

* Things to Come (1936)

* Alphaville (1965)

* Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

* Stalker (1979)

* The Bunker of the Last Gunshots (1981)

* Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

* Brazil (1985)

* Fatherland (1994)

* La Cité des Enfants Perdus (1995)

* Metropolis (2001)

* Perfect Creature (2006)

Examples of ‘Piecraftian’ post-apocalypse dieselpunk:

* A Boy and His Dog (1975)

* Wizards (1977)

* Mad Max (1979)

* Diesel (1985)

* Radioactive Dreams (1985)

* Tetsuo (1989)

* Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989)

* Battle Angel Alita (1993)

* Six-String Samurai (1998)

* Blue Submarine No. 6 (1998)

* Dark City (1998)


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