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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I've been thinking that there is a larger meta-discussion of which Steampunk is only a tiny part. The hugeness of Steampunk right now is proof to me that we've already hit the Singularity that the Transhumanists talk about. We can do nothing anymore except look to the past... more and more movies are remakes, more and more fashions and art movements are rehashings of the past.

There's nothing new left. We're struggling to find our cultural footing.

In multiculturalist circles, there is a great argument about cultural appropriation, with those accused complaining that they have no culture of their own. There is much truth to this, unfortunately, but the break with the past that the hippie generation attempted, unfortunately cut away the cultural foundations that many of us *do* have.

Instead of appropriate other cultures, some choose instead to appropriate parts of their own culture of the past (which is fine with me - I am not quite a Steampunk anymore, but I am one of these people... given my identity with the elder generation that is still living).
I am brand new to the genre. However, I have a few thoughts. To a certain extent I am attracted to steam and diesel punk purely for the aesthetics and escape. So the more airships and goggles the better. However, I agree with you that it is limited to this the genre will wither on the vine. There is actually a potentially serious role that both can play in our culture and that is to resurrect the best aspects of those past eras and associated past imaginings of the future to help create a truly hopeful vision of the future again.

In writing and creating, if you keep this in mind it should help keep the story,artwork etc. on message. We sorely need a new vision that is not distopian. We sorely need a vision that, while at first glance may seem utopian, but in actuality would lead to distopia. The last few centurys were full of those.
I would like to add that a good story with well developed characters can be told with any setting in mind by changing the particulars. A good science fiction writer is simply a good writer, and good stories in every genre use the same conventions and techniques.
I've been thinking about this.

I've been pondering whether Victorian science fiction and steampunk are really at all the same thing. I'm of the opinion that though the former inspired the latter, they're really not at all the same.

One of the things I notice about how the steampunk genre has evolved, is that in many cases it seems to feed on itself rather than on its Victorian source material. There gets to be a point where Victorian futurism (and literature in general) and even modern pastiche/alternate history (such as "The Difference Engine") breaks with steampunk (such as "Boneshaker" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"), especially when you break from the "thinly veiled social commentary" aspect of Victorian s/f and start getting into something that seems to strictly revolve around the aesthetic.

In the latter, the emphasis is starting to seem like it's all style and aesthetic and how many instances of the steampunk trope one can cram into one story/outfit/objet d'art. I suppose whether one loves or hates this depends upon the individual.
It's all in fun and it's brand new beast. I believe it was sparked by Victorian Science Fiction and then the amazing visuals of movies like the Time MAchine and 20,000 Leagues under the seas. Throw in the internet to allow people to communicate with each other and share ideas, and you've got Steampunk. I think it needs to be looked at as something completely new that can't really be compared to what has come before. The things to use to analyze Steampunk are Star Wars costuming groups and the Pirate costuming groups.
Steampunk, as its own genre of fiction, has been around for 25+ years. I would hardly say it's "new" compared to other genres.

However, Dreia is right. The recent glut of steampunk fiction is very self-referencing, as opposed to being a continuation of the Victorian's Scientific Romance. Whether that's because the modern authors haven't read the originals, or if it's because post-modern tendencies are inescapable in today's world is up for discussion.

So, is it an aesthetic or a genre?

Virgil Briggs (Samuel Crowe) said:
It's all in fun and it's brand new beast. I believe it was sparked by Victorian Science Fiction and then the amazing visuals of movies like the Time MAchine and 20,000 Leagues under the seas. Throw in the internet to allow people to communicate with each other and share ideas, and you've got Steampunk. I think it needs to be looked at as something completely new that can't really be compared to what has come before. The things to use to analyze Steampunk are Star Wars costuming groups and the Pirate costuming groups.


Tome Wilson said:
Steampunk, as its own genre of fiction, has been around for 25+ years. I would hardly say it's "new" compared to other genres.

However, Dreia is right. The recent glut of steampunk fiction is very self-referencing, as opposed to being a continuation of the Victorian's Scientific Romance. Whether that's because the modern authors haven't read the originals, or if it's because post-modern tendencies are inescapable in today's world is up for discussion.

So, is it an aesthetic or a genre?


Self-referentialism (it's a word because I say it is, LOL!) is a function of popular commercial fiction. What you see rolling out on bookshelves today is a capitalization on something people are eager for more of, yet not quite too discerning about yet.

Dreia brings up a good point--there are more and more movies, fashions, and art that are rehashes of the past or remakes of some earlier hits. This is largely due to the commercial consumption of culture we've been steadily moving towards since the post-war era. We don't create culture, we consume it. Culture is manufactured by branding. Look up the words "cool hunter" and you'll see there's a focus, by the people who sell things and ideas, on finding something that naturally inspires or attracts people, and taking that thing on an unnaturally speedy and infective vector. Whole segments of the advertising and marketing industries are devoted to figuring out why some stupid cat video goes viral on the internet, and how to control it, or at least manipulate the virality of something in order to monetize it.

Real culture is about ideas and worldview, and those two things are hard to make money off in their natural state.

At the same time, real cultural movements still spark all the time, but the successful ones do so in a vast morass of their failed brethren.

The other reason we see so many remakes is because nostalgia is a culture in itself, and currently, at least in the US, we're seeing a cultural shift--as a large part of the population ages (some say it's the biggest demographic currently in the US) at the same time there's an economic depression (encouraging ideas that lean towards security rather than risk), along with the change-up of social mores that comes when a significant enough portion of other demographics begins to come of age as decision makers and cultural gatekeepers.

Nostalgia is a guaranteed dollar in your pocket. Remake "The Honeymooners" and you get everybody who still longs for the days of Ralph Kramden, and a whole bunch of other people who are either insomniacs or who want to see what all the fuss is, coming from the old folks. And, the added bonus of the comparison shoppers who are firmly convinced the movie will be the best thing evar/a travesty of justice compared to the original (but still can't not watch).

Anywhoo...there's still a week left to get in some of your thoughts for the Exhibition for October. Write me an essay, draw me a picture, make a vid. Let's see something!
The term Steampunk was coined years ago about a book, but I don't think it was until the internet communities were established to grow it that it became what it is. It was named and given potential. But there wasn't much done with it, or at least not advertised due to lack of internet communities. Once you had a place to share the ideas of Steampunk is when Steampunk became it's own "thing" based of of Victorian science fiction along with earlier and later periods thrown in for fun.




Tome Wilson said:
Steampunk, as its own genre of fiction, has been around for 25+ years. I would hardly say it's "new" compared to other genres.

However, Dreia is right. The recent glut of steampunk fiction is very self-referencing, as opposed to being a continuation of the Victorian's Scientific Romance. Whether that's because the modern authors haven't read the originals, or if it's because post-modern tendencies are inescapable in today's world is up for discussion.

So, is it an aesthetic or a genre?

Virgil Briggs (Samuel Crowe) said:
It's all in fun and it's brand new beast. I believe it was sparked by Victorian Science Fiction and then the amazing visuals of movies like the Time MAchine and 20,000 Leagues under the seas. Throw in the internet to allow people to communicate with each other and share ideas, and you've got Steampunk. I think it needs to be looked at as something completely new that can't really be compared to what has come before. The things to use to analyze Steampunk are Star Wars costuming groups and the Pirate costuming groups.

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