Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk: an Argument by Author Jason Sheehan

Today I’d like to welcome author Jason Sheehan to the A Bag of Good Writing blog stage.  Jason has just completed a wild and wooly sci-fi serial called Tales from the Radiation Age but his prior novel was A Private Little War, where grim-jawed mercenaries pilot biplanes on unearthly battlefields of the future.  A Private Little War runs on diesel, and below he compares that to a world run on steam.  Jason doesn’t see steampunks and dieselpunks as enemies but, like oil and water, he thinks they probably shouldn’t mix. Go to it, Jason!

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Steam vs. Diesel: Choose Your Fuel

by Jason Sheehan

           Let me begin by saying that I love all you Steampunks. I truly do. I love your airships and your fancy goggles, your aether and your flywheels. I’m not just saying this because I’m writing here, in one of the bastions of steampunkery, but because I really am a fan. Corsets and cogs, pipeworks and pistols—I get the attraction to both the physical details of the setting and the joyously weird, post-modern frisson of plunking an evolved and of-the-moment characters down into a place where their very modernity drives the style and conflict.

But mostly I love you cats for your victory. Among all the various and scattered blank-punk sects out there, it is the steampunks who have moved the cultural needle the furthest. And I know this because, in the course of putting together my most recent book, the Kindle serial, Tales From The Radiation Age, I had no less than three people (one publishing professional, one working writer and one of my early readers) come to me and ask, “Hey, uh, you gonna put any of that steampunk in this book? Because people really seem to be into that these days.”

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Any of that steampunk… As though I was fixing a round of hipster cocktails and had forgotten the bitters. As though any story, from a caveman romance to a far-flung space opera, might be instantly improved and rendered more palatable with the addition of a few brass fixtures and maybe a zeppelin.

The benefit of being the biggest dog in this particular fight is that the steampunks get more stuff—more books, more movies, more costume options for Halloween and Comic-Con. By being the current Alpha-punks, the steampunk pop culture DNA is spreading the furthest, multiplying the fastest and having the largest cumulative effect on the modern conception of the fantastic.

But the downside (as evidenced by the above question) is the potential for a loss of purity. Of focus. There’s real danger in the co-opting of the physical accoutrements of the style by hacks and dimwits who don’t get what made steampunk so cool in the first place, and if you don’t buy that, go pick up a copy of Billy Idol’s 1993 album Cyberpunk and tell me how well the spawn of William Gibson fared when their cultural cachet hit critical mass.

I would love to say that I made a conscious, anti-steam choice when I sat down to write Tales, but I didn’t. It was, from the moment of its conception, a kind of gooey, anarchic look at a near-future America broken by technology and the discovery of parallel universes. Also, it has giant robots in it. And dinosaurs. And sea monsters and dragons and nanotechnology and mad scientists and, frankly, the closest I was ever going to get to anything steam-driven was a scene in which a train was attacked by a bunch of weirdoes riding triceratopses (triceratopsi?). But even that train was a bullet train, so no matter how many times I was asked, the answer was going to be the same: No, sorry. No steampunk in this one. But maybe next time…

Except that I was asked the same question several times during the initial push for my last book, too—which, owing to the speed with which I write books and the continued generosity and good taste of the editors who buy them off me, was only a few short months ago and therefore well within the corona of steampunk’s rise to cultural significance.

That book, called A Private Little War, is about mercenary pilots fighting an illegal war on a distant planet against said planet’s technologically inferior natives. A simple, classic and straightforward military scifi book, right? And if that was the entirety of its elevator pitch, it might’ve been. Except that, for the most part, I hate military scifi, so wrote a book in which the devil-may-care mercenaries are all insane and losing badly for complicated reasons. What’s more, in the course of their losing, they fly souped-up WWI-style biplanes against the natives (who are armed primarily with pointed sticks and body odor) and, as a result, got one of the coolest review-blurbs I will likely ever get, from someone who called the dark, vicious and completely anachronistic style I worked in “Sopwith Steampunk.”

I loved that. I used it in interviews and stuck it all over twitter and facebook. I thought about getting it tattooed on my arm—bannered under a picture of one of my planes in a suicide dive, guns chattering and engine howling—but stopped short of that rather permanent enshrinement because  the more I thought about it, the more the phrase bothered me.

I mean, A Private Little War was not a steampunk book. It was, in fact, the exact opposite of steampunk—which is to say an accidental (but no less valid) example of one of the lesser-known and lesser-loved splinter-punk genres. It was a dieselpunk book.

Dieselpunk is the antithesis of steampunk. Not its enemy, but the counterweight on the other end of the scale. In terms of style, it’s not merely a question of the fuel that drives the machines (steam over gas), but of the way the machines are viewed.

Steampunk exists to glorify the tinkerer, the DIY mechano with his big wrench and pockets full of replacement gears. It fetishizes the inner workings of things and the way that they function (or don’t) in a world where all technology is new, strange, bespoke and infinitely fallible. Dieslepunk, on the other hand, fetishizes the machines themselves—the fast car, the impossible airplane, the smooth perfection of a body panel or radiator coil when it is doing exactly what it is meant to do.

Steampunk heroes are engineers and tinkerers. Dieselpunk heroes are drivers and pilots. Both make good use of their –punk suffix by offering up characters who exist on the margins of whatever passes for society and give a constant middle finger to whatever passes for authority, but they diverge from each other again in setting. The pipeworks gives way to the bodyshop, the gaslit streets to the highways, the public house to the neon-lit diner and backroom speakeasy. If steampunk is loud, dieselpunk is louder. Where steam is chunky, diesel is sleek. Where steam is single-shot, diesel is full-auto rock-and-roll.

In A Private Little War, my pilots stink of aviation fuel, cordite and ‘shine. They love their machines not for their quirky individuality but for their mass-produced sameness, dependability and high-tuned power. When faced, toward the inevitable end of things, with a violent reintroduction to the world of modern technology (in the form of dropships, artillery and armored Colonial Marines), they stare in wide-eyed gogglement at these wonders in the same way that the Iron-Age natives once did at their Aircos and Sopwith Camels. All whatever-punks exist in fragile bubbles of technological supremacy and must, at a certain point, face the loss of their advantage. No matter how powerful your engine or cool your leather jacket, there will come a day when someone shows up with something better, faster, stranger and more dangerous. That’s the life-cycle of the genre—what a character signs on for when he chooses his fuel.

But in the end, Dieselpunks are the grandchildren of Steampunks—third-generation outlaws who maybe still pull on pappy’s goggles once in awhile and keep a boots-and-braces daguerreotype of him on the bridge of his airship tucked behind the visor of their chopped and channeled Sixty Specials.

So can I put any of that steampunk in my stories? No. But I don’t really have to. It’s already there in the genes of what I do, and my only regret is that “Sopwith dieselpunk” doesn’t sound nearly as cool as the alternative.

 ***

What a great guest post.  I loved it!  Thanks Jason!  (And, I kinda like “Sopwith dieselpunk”)!

More on Jason Sheehan:

Jason Sheehan

In addition to being a James Beard Award-winning food journalist, author Jason Sheehan is also a former dishwasher, fry cook, saucier, chef, restaurant critic, food editor, and porn store employee. He was born and raised in Rochester, New York, and though he has since fled the Rust Belt repeatedly, he still harbors an intense fondness for brutal winters, Friday fish fries, Irish bars, and urban decay. As a young nerd, he fell hard for Star Wars, Doctor Who, William Gibson, Roger Zelazny, and the spaceship-and-raygun novels his father would leave on his bedside table. He dreamed of someday befriending a robot, stealing a spaceship, and wandering off across the stars in search of alien ladies and high adventure. Since that hasn’t happened (yet…), he now writes about it instead—which is almost as good. And yet despite all this, his mother still kinda thinks he should’ve been an orthodontist.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Jason_Sheehan

12 thoughts on “Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk: an Argument by Author Jason Sheehan

  1. Very interesting website and guest post, Richard. A pilot and an engineer are major characters in my WIP, but my young protagonist is neither by training. He does manage to land a plane at one stage, not very well, but any landing you can walk away from…Or swim away actually, since it’s a seaplane and an ‘oceaning’ rather than a landing. The pilot flies an 80,000 steamship later, using alien technology (i. e. magic in thin disguise!).

    Said steamship burns a heavy form of bio-diesel, as do my airships. My planes burn a form of bio-gasoline. But my characters are not as ecologically-minded as that might suggest.

    Maybe a zeppelin WOULD improve many stories. Think what Hercules or King Arthur or Beowulf or Hamlet could have done with an airship. I see a story! A trilogy! Okay, maybe not.

    As for Jason Sheehan’s mercenary pilots , biplanes, giant robots, dinosaurs, sea monsters and dragons, what’s not to love? Much better than orthodontics!

    Thanks to you both.
    JTS

    • Thanks for the support, JTS! A zeppelin can ALWAYS improve a story (there really should have been one in The Godfather ;)) and a Kraken works well too. Best of luck on your WIP!
      Best, Richard.

    • JTS…

      In this case, I think the specifics of the fuel don’t matter quite so much as their intended usage. Whether bio-whatever or alien magic, it’s what moves the pistons that counts.

      And as for the inclusion of a zeppelin improving anything? I just witnessed a horrific example of this mentality a couple nights back, when I made the mistake of checking out the newest (read: couple years old) movie version of the Three Musketeers. There was a very deliberate addition of first one, then two, then dozens of airships and they did nothing to make that pathetic excuse for a movie any better.

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. Good luck with your stories. And yeah, I’m much happier making up stories than straightening teeth…

      ~Jason

  2. Great article and exactly right. As the producer and host of The Diesel Powered Podcast I am always looking for different ways to describe the era/genre I love so much! Thanks Jason! And if you want to promote your work to our listeners on iTunes, give me a shout and we’ll get you on the show!

    • Johnny,

      Glad you liked it. And since I love talking about this stuff, I’d totally be down to chat with you and yours.

      Hit me up on Twitter (@Jason_Sheehan) and we’ll set something up.

  3. Great website, Richard, and I’d agree that Jason penned a thoughtful guest post. As an author of some steampunk short stories who’d like to dabble in dieselpunk, I agree with much of what Jason said. I’m not so sure, however, about identifying steampunk with the tinkerers and dieselpunk with the machines. They’re definitely different, but I think both subgenres glorify machines, inventors, and drivers/pilots. To me the difference lies in the attitude toward the technology. In the steampunk age, technology was unalloyed wonder, man bending nature to his will. After WW I, in the Diesel Age, I think people started to have second thoughts about the mass-produced carnage of the Great War. It was a transition time when people started to question whether technology solved all problems, or also created some. (They’d have their answer, of course, in the Atomic Age.)

    Just my two cents. But a tip of my stovepipe hat to both of you! I wish you many sales and much success!
    – Steve

    • Hi Steven,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and your support! I actually agree with both you and Jason on the subject of the similarities and differences on the emphasis on the machines, depending on which angle you choose to approach the question (how is that for straddling the fence on my part?). But I do very much concur with the altered perception of technology and machines from each genre age to the other. The Victorian age, with all of its leaps forward in science, medicine and technology (industrial revolution) hoped that mankind might finally realize its potential. The shattering disillusionment caused by the Great War definitely changed the way men viewed themselves and their machines. I actually have a guest post on SF Signal (I’ll link to it from my website here when it posts on Nov. 21) called “What is Steampunk?” in which I address this topic and others. Check it out if you can.

      Thanks again for taking the time to post your thoughts!

      (and please feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you’d be interested in that)

      Best, Richard

    • Steve,

      Let me reiterate what Richard said–appreciate the thoughtful comments. And while yes, I agree that Dieselpunk can be about the tinkerers (there’s a mechanic in Private Little War who plays a supporting role) and Steampunk about the machines (the reason airships are so ubiquitous is that they are awesome, and let’s not forget that the Empire State Building was built with a zeppelin dock), I’m not sure that diesel deals with having second thoughts about mass-production. I think it’s about the fanatical love of the mass-produced and the gleaming-new. Where EVERYTHING in a steampunk world is custom, I believe that one of the hallmarks of a dieselpunk culture is seeing the cleverness of customization living around the bones of something mass-produced

      There is, though, that sense of steam being about wonderment and diesel being about utilization–of steam being the cutting edge of a new and amazing (and, occasionally, magical) world and diesel being that same world all grown up and cynical and a bit…grimier. That’s what I like about it–diesel is just steam with all of its innocence lost.

      Anyway, thanks for reading. Glad you found something interesting in my weird scribblings.

      ~Jason

  4. Interesting point of view. However, I see another core difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk. Steampunk is a quite new thing. It ermerged maybe 10 years ago inspired by some books and movies and is in some way related with the Goth scene (some Steampunks would protest on this statement, but just go to a big Goth event and you see the issue). Even the music preferred by most steampunks is rather Goth stuff like dark wave but no music from the Victorian era.

    On the other side, during the last 50 years, there have always been people loving swing music of the 1930s/40s, film noir, art deco style, fashion from that time and integrating all this more or less in their daily life style. Just nobody called them dieselpunks. The only thing really new in Dieselpunk is the label.

    Regards,
    Joern

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