Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk, 2 fantasy worlds colliding
An utopian vs. dystopian view of tech
by Jonathan Clark
Steampunk vs. dieselpunk, two perspectives of the future which are similar, but colliding. Imagine Zeppelins hovering over London as a factory belches billowing white clouds up into the air. Down in the cobblestone streets, an inventor is connecting clocks and gears to a steam-powered engine to create a new device called a computer. Men in tophats and monocles wait for a train to arrive in the station as they read newspapers, the headlines full of Nikolai Tesla and his new transportation device.
Now imagine a different landscape, one torn apart by the tracks of tanks. It’s a city on the edges of a European town. A new factory is being built, mechanically chugging itself awake. It’s building hover cars that run on gasoline. The women of the village step out to see this new behemoth come to life, and then they return to their work of putting back together their home that is ravaged by war.
These are scenes from steampunk and dieselpunk, respectively — worlds built out of the logic of a single mode of production taken to new, far-flung possibilities. In the first, the Victorian era of brass machinery dominates the steampunk world. The second has the greasy industry of fossil fuels and wrought iron that marks out dieselpunk.
How to Tell the Difference
When you are trying to tell the two genres apart, the first giveaway between steampunk vs. dieselpunk are the technologies that are being played with. Whether it is a film, a novel, a sculpture, or a video game, the imagined technologies will feature certain elements, and that can quickly key you into what you are looking at.
But those technological differences also give rise to thematic differences. And these thematic differences give us a more substantial way to understand the feel and importance of both genres.
Steampunk: The Victorian Dilemma
In the Victorian era, the rise of scientific materialism was radically transforming the world.
Monarchies were falling to national revolutions. The industrial revolution was both creating never-before-seen wealth for the rising bourgeoisie while brutally immiserating the new working class. The modern city was being born, and inside of it new social forms were coming into being.
Steampunk taps into this swirl of social upheaval and philosophical changes, creating a world that is entirely locked into these historical currents. It was a time of immense optimism, but discontent brewed in the shadows. As Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Dieselpunk: The Bomb is About to Drop
From the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II, the world seemed to be ripping itself apart. The brutality of industrial production gave rise to socialist movements across Europe. The failures of democracies to manage economic chaos led to the darkness of fascism.
And the world was now beginning to drink heavily from the chalice of oil. But the behemoth of industrialism that followed was both powerful and befouling.
Dieselpunk is gripping because it takes us back to this time when the trajectory of humanity in the 20th century was decided.
Visually, it often brings together film noir, war machinery design, art deco, and totalitarian propaganda.
The Setting is Everything
In the comparison of steampunk vs. dieselpunk the setting is fundamental. Steampunk settings are connected to those moments after the beginning of industrialization but before widespread electricity. The genre is mostly dominated by Victorian England, or some fantasy avatar of it, but can also include other locales like the American Wild West.
For dieselpunk, the setting is usually centered on theaters of combat during the two World Wars. Because dieselpunk is often more skeptical of the inherent progress in technological innovation, it tends to focus on the creation of war machines or the rise of mid-century heavy industry.
Many people working in these genres can find ways to say new things. There are no strict rules with either term.
There is a growing collection of dieselpunk art that focuses less on the bleakness of war and more on nostalgia for the time — romanticizing mobsters in zoot suits or the nobility of the war effort. This is also the case of Yute and Tocuyo’s Imachinarium wich is the art showcased by artist Rafael Lanfranco in this site. Similarly, there are some steampunk artists that allow their work to get much darker than is common in the genre. And many steampunk enthusiasts take it to be disruptive to the common narratives from the Victorian era.
When is the Cut Off Between the Two?
Some works of art blur the line between steampunk vs. steampunk. The general cut off focuses around the time period being depicted or the dominant technology in use. The beginning of World War I is by far the most popular dividing line for the time period.
As for technology, steampunk will generally be filled with steam engines, gears, and other devices available during the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Dieselpunk will have diesel and electricity, though not much (if any) in the way of computers.
The examples below are not exhaustive in any way, but they give you an idea of what these genres mean. They also show just how diverse the stories in these genres can be.
Many early forms of science fiction by the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are retroactively considered steampunk. Some more contemporary examples include:
- Treasure Planet, (film directed by Ron Clements and John Musker)
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (comic book written by Alan Moore and art by Kevin O’Neill)
- Howl’s Moving Castle (film directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
When we use the definition in a very loose sense, dieselpunk has been said to include everything from the Indiana Jones films to Mad Max: Fury Road. But some examples that are much closer to the mark include:
- Batman: The Animated Series (television series)
- The Rocketeer (film directed by Joe Johnston)
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (film directed by Kerry Conran)
Other Artists Working in Steampunk and Dieselpunk
The industrial design work of Art Donovan borrows a lot from steampunk, and his pieces occasionally hint at dieselpunk, too.
Thomas Willeford is renowned in the steampunk community for his creations, even including a working typewriter arm band.
Visual artists like Stefan Prohaczka often combine multiple motifs from the interwar period to create interesting dieselpunk fantasies.
The Origins of ‘Punk’ Genres
Where do these aesthetics come from? They all originate from cyberpunk. When the first cyberpunk visions began emerging from the realm of science fiction, they immediately captivated an audience that were ready for a darker glimpse into the future.
Cyberpunk is Born
Cyberpunk originated in sci-fi classics like the novels of William Gibson and the film Blade Runner (based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). These works showed us cities full of neon and crime, all interwoven by digital communication.
These stories were typically dark and cynical about technological progress. They often followed denizens of mega-metropolises, addicted to futuristic drugs and merging their mind with the internet.
The Children of Cyberpunk
Audiences instantly connected to these cyberpunk worlds. And soon, authors, filmmakers, and other artists began to take a similar approach to their work, but instead of focusing on information technology like in cyberpunk, they began to pick up on other forms.
What is Retrofuturism?
Derivatives of cyberpunk all took on the same ethos: creating a sci-fi setting dominated by a single mode of production and completely fused with the cultural aesthetic of a period. In these new imaginings, previous eras were now capable of creating anachronistic technology using the mechanisms of a particular time period.
For instance, in a steampunk world, one might see a coal powered train that can sprout hot air balloons and fly off the tracks to avoid danger. It’s a futuristic technology accomplished using only the machinery available to the Victorian era. That retrofuturism is key in all of the cyberpunk derivative genres.
Retrofuturism can also refer to creating a science fiction world that looks and feels like the visions of a future that were popular in a previous time. The way that science fiction of the 1960’s depicts our current decade makes up a retrofuture. Because they never came to be, those depictions are like lost futures. Retrofuturism is a way to reconnect to those lost futures.
Related cyberpunk derivatives show even further fine grained worlds. The following list will always be incomplete, as new genres keep breaking off to form their own coherent worlds:
- Stonepunk: stone-age tools set to accomplish new and more complex tasks, not unlike The Flintstones
- Clockpunk: embracing the Renaissance era
- Rococopunk: much like steampunk but pulled back a bit earlier, with all the ornamentation of rococo
- Decopunk: the shinier and wealthier sibling of dieselpunk
- Atompunk: pre-digital, mid-century modern technology powered by nuclear energy
- Raypunk: like atompunk, but recreating the visions of the future from the 50’s and 60’s, think Star Trek but amplified
- Steelpunk: late 20th century, but a world that emphasizes rivet and beam construction over computerization
- Islandpunk: like Robinson Crusoe or Gilligan’s Island
- Nowpunk: an intensification of the current technological situation
- Solarpunk: a more chipper version of cyberpunk, where renewable energy allows humanity to live in an eco-paradise
- Biopunk: a focus on biotechnology, often with body horror elements
Where Do All These ‘Punks’ Come From?
When we see the long list of cyberpunk derivatives, we get a sense for how eager we are to create and dream in worlds defined by anachronistic technology and the elevated visual cues of an era. But why?
One of the most important aspects is the fantasy at the heart of these genres. It’s charming to see sci-fi inventions take place in a previous time, to see history unfold in a different way.
The Coherent is Comforting
All of these genres benefit from the coherent look and feel of their worlds.
In reality, we don’t live in one era. Today, much of our lives is made up of relics from the 20th century, and many of the things we experience now will go on to be key features of a future time that grew out of the seeds of our current experience.
These genres flatten that complexity and allow us to see the past, present, and future living together with a single, unified look and feel.
What if we were able to create enormous robot fighting machines in World War II? What would Nazi mechs look like? What would the Allies create to stop them?
By bringing in anachronistic leaps in technology, these genres give us a visual and storytelling playground. The questions are instantly recognizable, something that you grasp as soon as you see it, and a whole lot of fun.
Connecting With Different Eras
Because these ‘punk’ genres are retrofuturistic, we get to see the future they might have imagined for themselves. When we look back on predictions of the future from the past, they say more about the time period they are coming from than the time period they are looking toward.
And these predictions often seem quaint to us now. The pedal-powered personal flying machines that Victorian era futurists claimed would be available by the year 2000 aren’t here (yet). But it’s a wonderful thought.
And when we can imagine the technology we deal with now arriving in a previous era, we feel somehow more connected to that time, or maybe that time now feels more connected to us. For instance, with dieselpunk, we can start to imagine ourselves in the middle of our own film noir inspired thriller or a last ditch effort to escape from behind enemy lines in occupied France.
Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk: The cool Factor
There is, also, the all-important cool factor of steampunk and dieselpunk. Both genres contain a forceful aesthetic, an undeniable fingerprint. Both are striking and manage to keep a strong internal logic.
The Value of the ‘Punk’ Genres
Steampunk vs. dieselpunk, and all the cyberpunk derivatives give artists and storytellers fascinating worlds to create in. The basic rules immediately allow thoughts to blossom into interesting, speculative ideas. But these genres also leave plenty of room for creators to explore on their own.
That blend of clear boundaries and free play is crucial in the creative process. That’s why people keep returning to these genres to produce art, and the quality of that art continues to draw in more interest.