Dieselpunks

Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Added by Alexandra Victoria Hollingshead


Hello. New to the site, but a long time steampunk and enthusiast of dieselpunk. In order to set myself up here on your lovely site, I thought I would add something I have been working on for a bit in regards to the *punk aesthetics in media (literature or film) and the problems with it.


Steampunk is defined, in the most general of ways, as the use of steam technology in a manner never accomplished by those who used it as the dominant form of technology. In short, it is the anachronistic application of era technology. It is in this sense that steampunk is not unlike fantasy in its application to a media: it is less of a genre than it is an aesthetic. It is the difference between an adventure in medieval England without a dragon, and that same adventure with one. Yes, it may create a secondary conflict, but in general, these conflicts are arbitrary. The story centers around the adventure, the romance, the drama - first and foremost, that is the genre. The same can be said of steampunk. It is, first and foremost, a romance or adventure in the Victorian era, with anachronistic technology applied for additional aesthetic. This lends itself to a similar fallacy as the fantasy genre, and that is this focus on appearance and escapism.


Fantasy is, in the eyes of many critics, a discredited genre because the greater majority of the genre focuses on flowery languages describing gorgeous elves with flowing blonde locks, magnificent landscapes which stretch across all that one can see without a city in sight, and the glistening of a vampire's graciously sculpted chest. I read a great deal of *punk fiction and I find that this is becoming true of the genre. We have exceptions, of course, from authors who are not exclusively oriented towards steampunk; there are one or two authors who do this magnificently well, although the reasons will be expanded upon soon. But, for the most part, steampunk fiction is the same generic handful of stories mixed in with equally flowery and elegant descriptions of glorious airships soaring through the smoggy skies and gratuitous detail on a character's deliciously steamy outfits.


Certainly, though, one can focus on description without sacrificing story. China Miéville oftentimes spends pages describing a scene in gross detail, but I do believe that adjective is where the difference lies. He doesn't spend his time describing things that the readers understand and accept; he doesn't write odes on the curvaceousness of a well-rounded cog because a great deal of his readership knows what a cog looks like. No, he spends his time amassing details of horrific sights we could not imagine, of scenes impossible to describe in less words, of things never seen on Earth. Once again likening the genre to fantasy, a good fantasy writer may spend a page describing the innards of a foul dragon who has swallowed our hero, burning his flesh and detailing the pain. A bad one will spend her time describing the cave it lived in.


This often leads to a sacrifice in quality. If your story has a Wild Wild West-esque mechanical spider, it will be enjoyed by a great deal of the community in spite of any issues it has in regards to writing, acting, etc. Indeed, Wild Wild West (1999) itself is an excellent example of this. Great machines, strong aesthetic, lots of stuff to enjoy... but the story was weak, the acting was terrible, and the dialogue deserves a second post of analyzing just to encompass how awful it really was. It had no real substance, it was just nice to look at. If that had been a fantasy film, it would have already faded into obscurity, never to be dredged up again. Instead, it is considered on of the staples of an entire genre.


It is for this reason that I believe steampunk cannot achieve true success as a genre. It is rare to find a book that is reacting to steampunk consciously that doesn't have an airship, a man wearing goggles, and/or a gratuitous number of cogs on the cover. Aside from that one blue color frequently seen in Twilight, few other colors even grace the covers aside from the typical sepia tones. I might go so far as to say that if, when you look at the cover of a book, you can tell it is going to be steampunk, it is almost guaranteed to be mediocre. I mean no offense to any author in particular, but it is true. Most of the novels which succeed within the genre are the earliest examples, written before the idea of steampunk was truly solidified, or are clearly written by those unaware of the genre in its fullest form. They are not reacting to steampunk as it exists now, they are instead reacting to the same aesthetics that Moorcock and Blaylock reacted to when they paved the way for the genre.


Will this inevitably fix itself? It may, depending on how long steampunk lasts. Certainly, as a genre, it will have difficulty lasting that long if the works turned out are typically sub par. Nonetheless, for any prospective authors in the group, I do have a few suggestions as to writing a story which will really work and resonate with those who may not simply enjoy reading about thrusting pistons and turning gears.


1) Remember the first rule of writing: everything must be relevant to and further the story. If you would like to write a *punk story, come up with a story that makes this a necessity or otherwise has an appeal. Give the readers a reason to absorb the setting, make the setting a character, if you will, that we are invested in. Spare us what doesn't matter and build up a world where your factories mean something. It can be anything, really. It can reflect on the state of the world, it can reflect on the state of the character, it can be the scene of a battle - the villain drills a rusty rivet into the hero's skull. You can include the aesthetic, but make it count for something, don't just drift off into scenery porn. Story always comes first; no exceptions.


2) You get to use the following words three times per novel: bronze (synonyms count: chocolate, chestnut, brown, sepia, etc.), gear(/cog), and goggles. Airship may only be used once if the story does not take place on an airship at any point. If you ever use any brown!synonym, even one, you are required to use at least two words describing another color of your choice (excluding black/white/gray). Blood red and Twilight blue may or may not count, depending on how many times you used a brown.


3) Goggles which serve no function; gratuitous gears; top hats and monocles worn with street clothes. It might be acceptable in the subculture, but if you are writing a book, please consider realism. Nobody wears goggles unless they need to protect their eyes from something; unless you make gears an honest fashion in your world, nobody will be wearing them (and if it IS a fashion, one would think only the wealthy do so). Again, aesthetics come second to story (and practicality).


4) Please use a different story line. Steampunk is burdened with a limited range of stories, and most of the characters fit into one of maybe six types. An adventurer (usually a submariner or airship pirate), an orphan (either through parentage, or by society), the aristocrat (often the villain, or just snobbish), a mad scientist, a mechanic or engineer, and perhaps a scholarly sort. If you want to include these guys, at least vary them up a little; ideally, though, consider a few different character types to center your story around. The stories, too, are limited - perhaps because so few types of characters get the spot light. Just something to consider.


5) Read Verne. Read Wells. Read Lovecraft, Dickens, Austen, Poe. Read the classics of the genre instead of the reactions to them, because really, there is no adequate reason not to.

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Thank you, I think you just articulated the things that have been bothering me in general. Steampunk, to me, seems to have become more of an elaborate fashion trend (WITH GADGETS!). And while this is all find and dandy,cause I like fashion, I also like GOOD ART AND LITERATURE.
I am glad to see that someone agrees. I like the fashion, as well. I don't get quite as elaborate as some people, and indeed, I mostly just mix and match the Victorian influences with modern clothing (jeans and a pocket watch are an excellent combination, regardless of what anyone says about that), but still, I like seeing some of the excellent outfits people make. I just like having fashion separate from the literature it is tied to. The same thing happened to the (second wave; not the original 19th century) gothic literature of the 90s and early 2000s. It started out as reminiscent of the original Victorian gothics, with foreboding language and dark imagery, and it has basically evolved into the so-called Supernatural Romances (like Twilight) that are everywhere, or these urban fantasies which are in the same league as most steampunk literature, focusing on the blacks and reds and glistening fangs instead of the story. Wouldn't want to see that happen to these *punk genres, which I consider very rich in creative potential.

Lady Katza said:
Thank you, I think you just articulated the things that have been bothering me in general. Steampunk, to me, seems to have become more of an elaborate fashion trend (WITH GADGETS!). And while this is all find and dandy,cause I like fashion, I also like GOOD ART AND LITERATURE.
The problem is steampunk is becoming such a huge fad that the media has taken notice, and that is alwyas a bad sign. The media has a tendancy to repackage any genre and turn it into a pretty plastic pill for the mainstream to consume. Look at what they did with the beat movement in the 50s, they made it about lazy espresso drinking "commie sympathizers" and called them beatniks. It became less about disenfranchised artists and more about sitting around wearing black, writing bad poetry and beating bongo drums. Maynard G. Krebs has as much in common with Jack Kerouac as Pee Wee Herman does with Marlon Brando. They did the same thing with hippies and pretty much every other "movement". Sadly people will jump on the latest bandwagon to try and suck as much money from it as they can, and in the process they all but kill it.

Is steampunk still a viable genre? Yes of course it is. The problem isn't with people dressing up, and cosplaying. The problem comes from people who can't write and who put out crap dressed up as the literary flavor of the month. Luckily these fads usually don't last long and the hacks and flakes will move on to another fad.
On a sort-of-but-not-really related note, I was jaded with the whole thing before I even really got into it. Since I work in Corporate World the retro-diesel look is easier to pull off. Feels more like "a style" than something I just do on weekends for the heck of it. But that's not the point of this thread. /hijack
These Opinions are valid to be sure. As someone who's been on all three sides of the coin since about 1993, (cyberpunk, steampunk, and now diesel) I can certainly see where in the community these opinions are formed. But I have to say that the problems described here come from the transfer of culture. Subsequent people traveling through the culture, trying to not only digest what drew them in but also find a way to contribute may wind up diluting the culture as a whole due to the burning desire to put content forth without effort.

This is seen throughout the many cultures that form what people today call "sub-culture". Please allow the following example. Many times growing up my cousin shared his love of Gothic culture and would try to explain it to me. I used to see examples in magazines and he would sigh and in an almost teacher like voice he would tell me (remember this is a 23 year old talking to an 11 year old) "Remember, just because they have black boots and wear all black, that doesn't mean that they're goth." He would say it with such an exasperated tone.

I actually found myself mentally translating that statement to steampunk 2 years ago while maintaining my community I used to run. I told my admin, "A waistcoat and goggles do not a steampunk make!" I admit the statement came from frustration. I remember being overjoyed at the work of artists, craftsmen, and people who poured their heart into something they made themselves, be it philosophy, a work of art, or better yet, a work of function and design. Only to feel it was somehow degraded by people who attempted to "fake it" sometimes by taking a pre-made thing and simply spray painting it a bronze metallic color and gluing a few cogs to it. It made my blood boil knowing they had spent 15 minutes and expected to be lauded equally as those who poured their being into a work.

I was at the time and still am an administrator for Brass Goggles, a prominent steampunk blog and forum. I would participate in massive debates. I would provide long worded opinions (such as this one) and suggestions and rules like the original post contains. In the end, I may have swayed a few people, but it did not prevent what I saw as the cheapening of something great.

So here I am about 3 years from my acquaintance to steampunk and I have to say that if I've learned anything it's that we can do our best to teach newcomers to a culture how we perceive the world, but in the end, it's up to them to uphold it, or change it.

If you've read this far, I thank you for your time, and your patience to sort through this wall of text.
Shaunathan, you make a good point and may well explain the 'feeling' I had. I just didn't feel like I could do it any justice. NO more posting in this thread for me.
Always the risk we run doing something special...my advise is that it's up to us as Dieselpunks to keep it real and lead by example as long as possible, then try to ride out any wave of wannabe.
Not only is *-punk a culture, but it's a made-up one at that. It's being consciously-constructed "on the fly" so to speak. Cultural gatekeepers are somewhat premature when the most common questions still arising are, "Is this?" And really not that effective anyway--the Chinese were out-Chinesed by the Mongols with thousands of years of culture behind them, and at the same time Mongol culture seeped into Chinese. Thus the borders between "what is" and "what is not" are blurred.
Ah, but art and literature take time. Good art and literature take even more time. :) Clothing, style, and decorative elements are far quicker to construct than a full-length novel or piece of carefully-constructed artwork.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but none of us are sole proprietors of the term 'steampunk.' (or dieselpunk or any of the attendant -punks). We can participate, critique, articulate what we like, don't like, wish to see, hope to never see, with the label, but we are none of us the sole or absolute authority of what is or is not, and none of us will be able to hold much influence over whether the marketing department of a major commercial publisher or clothing manufacturer decides to label something 'steampunk' and market it as such. We can buy or not buy according to our tastes, but there's no one checking pedigree, because there's no one who can, with any authority.

There's authority, but it comes from involvement and observation, not direction. I'd even submit that the instant it does begin to come from direction--some one or group deliberately directing the organic growth of the subculture and somehow managing to enforce inclusion or exclusion, then it becomes a brand with little difference from Nike or American Apparel or [insert BNF name here]'s fandom. And I don't doubt that there are many people looking for that authority, because with the authority comes sanction and endorsement, and then legitimacy and there are thousands of people who'd be happy to promote their "licensed Steampunk product," possibly endorsed by Sir or Lady Bigname-In-The-Biz.

The flat truth is that no one gets to define a subgenre of style, lit, art, or whatnot. It just happens. When it doesn't, it's manufactured and comes with a different set of attendant issues all its own. Ultimately, the public decides, and that includes the great unwashed masses.

--Athena

Lady Katza said:
Thank you, I think you just articulated the things that have been bothering me in general. Steampunk, to me, seems to have become more of an elaborate fashion trend (WITH GADGETS!). And while this is all find and dandy,cause I like fashion, I also like GOOD ART AND LITERATURE.
I suppose here is where my personal background comes in, for I am far younger than most of you, I imagine, and I have only been with steampunk since I was 13 - which would have been... 2004 or so. My interests here are far more literary in nature than that simply related to the culture, for while I appreciate the *punk subcultures and partake in them actively, I am first and foremost always one of literary mind. I am a writer, an advocate of the literary arts, and a book collector. I'm not even nineteen yet and my personal library has four digits of books in the collection. And, to be more specific, my interests are very heavily invested in fantasy and science fiction in the Victorian era and through to about Tolkien's "Hobbit" or so - basically covering the entire steam/dieselpunk spectrum in history, though maybe a little short in regards to the second world war. I look at this as a literary genre first and the fashion as reactionary, and I am merely venting my displeasure at the apparent shift I see in the community towards the literature (and other art, music/painting/etc.) becoming reactionary to the fashion instead. I nonetheless appreciate your POV on the matters regarding the subculture and the way it has changed and thank you for your commentary. :)


Shaunathan Sprocket said:
These Opinions are valid to be sure. As someone who's been on all three sides of the coin since about 1993, (cyberpunk, steampunk, and now diesel) I can certainly see where in the community these opinions are formed. But I have to say that the problems described here come from the transfer of culture. Subsequent people traveling through the culture, trying to not only digest what drew them in but also find a way to contribute may wind up diluting the culture as a whole due to the burning desire to put content forth without effort.
--snipped for sake of brevity--
If you've read this far, I thank you for your time, and your patience to sort through this wall of text.
Athenaprime said:

. We can buy or not buy according to our tastes, but there's no one checking pedigree, because there's no one who can, with any authority.

There's authority, but it comes from involvement and observation, not direction. I'd even submit that the instant it does begin to come from direction--some one or group deliberately directing the organic growth of the subculture and somehow managing to enforce inclusion or exclusion, then it becomes a brand with little difference from Nike or American Apparel or [insert BNF name here]'s fandom. And I don't doubt that there are many people looking for that authority, because with the authority comes sanction and endorsement, and then legitimacy and there are thousands of people who'd be happy to promote their "licensed Steampunk product," possibly endorsed by Sir or Lady Bigname-In-The-Biz.


--Athena

This inclusion, or exclusion, is pretty much what I ran into and what soured me on the whole thing.
Steampunk should be more accurately termed as a "subgenre." Genre applies more to the type of story being told than the milieu in which it is told. There are steampunk romances, steampunk science fiction, steampunk fantasy, steampunk mystery, etc.

Genre itself is something of an arbitrary creation. How do you define genre? Is it by where a story is shelved in the bookstore? The library? By what it says on the spine or the inside cover flap?


"Steampunk" as a subgenre is going to feature airships and goggles for quite some time, because those are the most recognizable icons of the emergent body of works. Many stories will feature them, some more prominently than others, and some will do a better job of it than others. It will also feature tried-and-true storylines because, quite frankly, that's what people like to read. It never gets old to see the bad guys get theirs in the end, and it never gets old to see the hero and heroine end up happy. There are only about 37 plots in all of fiction, and steampunk is only one of many milieus in which to tell them.

Commercial publishing (which is where you'll see the bulk of the stories--the bulk of any trending subject matter of stories, really) exists to sell as many books to as many people as possible, which means that the most recognizable elements--the ones already considered cliche and de riguere by the early adopters--are going to be used not to preach to the choir, but to attract the converts. So while one might already find the airships and goggles tiresome, there are about twenty more who haven't yet encountered anything like it, but will be intrigued by this one book that you might find tiresome.

--Athena


Piechur said:
Alexandra Victoria Hollingshead said:
It is for this reason that I believe steampunk cannot achieve true success as a genre. It is rare to find a book that is reacting to steampunk consciously that doesn't have an airship, a man wearing goggles, and/or a gratuitous number of cogs on the cover.

It is also rare to find a fantasy book without a sword, a horse, a castle or a dragon on the cover. Does it mean that fantasy cannot achieve true success as a genre? It's funny when people use fallacy to expose a fallacy.

BTW, Thanks for the advice on writing, but I have to ask you - are you an expert: a writer, an editor, a publisher or a scholar?

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