The Flying Fortress

The dark side of dieselpunk

Posted in themes, Uncategorized by flyingfortress on June 4, 2008

Art by Sellers

On reading the first post, you might have thought that dieselpunk is all about progress, a brighter future, and cooperation for everyone’s benefit. There are two sides to every coin, however, and now is the time to see what happens when it comes up “tails.”

The occult and the supernatural

Sometimes, when the war isn’t going so well, generals or government officials start to get desperate. They need something to turn the tide: a deal with the devil, an ancient warrior, or a powerful artifact from a fallen civilization. Dieselpunk plotlines are full of minions frantically searching through the ruins of an ancient civilization and the allied spies and commandos who must stop them. In the comic Hellboy, the Nazis bring a demon to earth in the hope of using him to lead a hellborne army against the Allies and for world domination. In Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a PC game, the Nazis are at it again, trying to bring an ancient germanic warrior back to life to use against the Allies. And hey, whaddaya know? Those crazy Nazis are back in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc, trying to find the Arc of the Covenant and use it as a superweapon. They never learn, do they? We finally get a break from them with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft*, where there is a panoply of “elder gods,” a cult that worships one and tries to wake it up, and lots more among his body of work. Lovecraft died in 1933, so he’s a mix of steampunk and dieselpunk, but he’s still worth a look.

This theme is lots of fun, since it doesn’t force you to take on a heavy, serious tone if you incorporate it into a piece of artwork or a story, though it’s still possible. Protagonists like Dr. Jones and Hellboy are gruff and full of wisecracks; villains like Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (Hellboy) are maniacal and obsessive; and creatures like Cthulthu (Lovecraft) are grandiose and apocalyptic. The occult theme in Dieselpunk is one of my favorite parts of the dark side.


Hellboy has an online community with downloadable comics, a movie (and another coming out soon), an animated series, and an upcoming console game.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein has an excellent, free, multiplayer-only sequel called Enemy Territory (no occult here, though).

*H.P. Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-semite and it showed up from time to time in his work. If you can’t just filter it out, you might want to skip him. I know that link goes to wikipedia, but there are citations you can check.


Sometimes we become too enamored of our vision of the future. Sometimes we get so lost in it that we’ll do anything to make it happen. We stop allowing dissenters to have their say, we decide to set up surveillance systems to track perceived threats to the society we have built, we stoop to propaganda to make people think everything is as it should be, and we create a secret police to keep the populace in line. Gradually, our vision of progress and hope has been swallowed up by the draconian measures we’ve implemented to protect it. Our people live in fear and our leaders are corrupted by their power. George Orwell‘s 1984 is one of the most famous pieces of literature that deals with a dystopian theme. Published in 1949, the novel is a frightening work of retro-futurism. Orwell’s vision of what 1984 will be like is best described with the three slogans that the book’s government hammers into its citizens: “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” and “Ignorance is strength.” In film, we have Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), in which the middle class is forced to keep the city running for the callous and condescending rich minority.

This is for the firebrands and the political dissidents. The dystopia is a depressing place and one of it’s main literary uses has been as a warning to society. That said, this theme can offer a ray of hope through the protagonist or a catharsis through the destruction of the oppressive society. Sometimes, showing people the nightmare is the best way to inspire them. Your protagonist will likely be disaffected, virtually alone, and hunted, while the government will try to come as close to omniscience as possible (1984).


Fahrenheit 451 is another famous work of distopic fiction. It was published in 1953, but is still informed by the 1930s and 1940s.

Metropolis was remade/adapted as an anime movie in 2002.

Post-apocalyptic society

I’ve seen two flavors of Dieselpunk emerge on the internet. The first is pre-nuclear (or proto-nuclear at most) while the other is post-nuclear. These are very different societies and I personally identify more with the former (or, if I may, the Ottensian) dieselpunks than the latter (Piecraftian, if you will)*. The Ottens view of nuclear weapons places them in the category of experimental weapons that both sides were researching and that only just began to appear at the very end of the war. Piecraft embraces them wholeheartedly, but even he lists them under the heading “Dieselpunk andAtomicpunk (Post WW2/Cold War),” so it’s hard to tell exactly where he draws the line.

My view of the pre-nuclear dieselpunk spirit was explained in the first post, but post-nuclear dieselpunk seems to be further subdivided into two eras. The first is that of the Cold War. Paranoia, impending nuclear annihilation, and political tension come to the fore, here. By this time, we’ve entered the 1950s and the world is a completely different place: Instead of a number of medium powers, there are two superpowers. Nuclear powerplants have begun to spring up. Spy games, arms races, and proxy wars are the way conflicts are fought.  “Progress through technology” still exists, but the world has seen the evils it can bring as well after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, the “let’s work together” attitude is gone: victory gardens and home cooking are replaced by frozen and canned food. While this is a wonderful setting for a *punk subculture, I think this is the realm of atomicpunk rather than dieselpunk.

The second era deals with society after all the bombs have dropped. Think Mad Max, Fallout, or Tank Girl. Those are post-apocalyptic, barbarian, lawless places. Post-apocalyptic is it’s own genre and the necessity of survival and fending for oneself is completely different from the nationalism and cooperation of the 1930s and 1940s. There is hardly any government at all. Life has taken on a neo-tribal character. There is no hope, no cooperation, and no future… you just try to survive and do the best you can for yourself or your small tribe.

Again, it’s your fantasy and you can include whatever you want. I certainly don’t enjoy excluding people, nor do I want to divide the community into Ottensians and Piecraftians, but there must be some limit to dieselpunk. What do you think of all this? Should the Cold War and post-apocalyptic societies be included? How do we resolve three very different worlds like these? I think one of the strengths of the steampunk community is that it’s set solely in the Victorian era, but still has a lot of variety to offer people.

*I’ve coined “Ottensian” and “Piecraftian” because they are the most formal and/or most thorough proponents of each view, not because they were the first to come up with them. I don’t know who the originators are.

Artwork at the top of this post by Sellers.

16 Responses

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  1. Jack said, on June 5, 2008 at 1:25 am

    I’ve actually seen a number of people who go for the Victorian-styled post-apocalyptic settings – check out “Unhallowed Metropolis” for something along that line. Post-apocalyptic settings generally have the same feel as the era they share the name with even if they don’t share the same numbers on the calendar.

    I do think your timeline distinction is a valuable one. Atomicpunk feels as different from dieselpunk as steampunk does, so if we think one distinction is valuable, we should make both.

  2. Ottens said, on June 5, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Great post! I’d never really considered the two different flavors of dieselpunk, though I’m honored indeed that I might name one of them! 😉 I’m quite sure Mr Piecraft was one of the first people to define the characteristics of dieselpunk, or at least those characteristics he saw defining of the genre. I’m not entirely sure whether Piecraft saw, or sees, pulp as great importance to the genre’s origins, but either way, he was one of the first people who attempted to get dieselpunk accepted on wikipedia–a struggle we maintain to wage!

    In the meantime, I think especially the latter, Piecraftian, dieselpunk required further scrutiny, for it rather lacks works of fiction which adhere to this category. Mad Max and Fallout in particular are fine installments, but other than there don’t appear to be many high-profile works of fiction in this field. Not that this ought to discredit the Piecraftian dieselpunk at all! Indeed, I wish there were many more dieselpunk works of fiction set in a post-WW2 world with somewhat more darker, dystopian overtones, but it would seem that the retro-futuristic and pulp-like pre-WW2 dieselpunk in the vein of Sky Captain and Indiana Jones, is more popular.

  3. flyingfortress said, on June 5, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Well, I’d be careful to note the difference between dark, dystopian postwar and post-apocalyptic scenarios. I think dystopias fit into a dieselpunk setting easily (and cyberpunk and [other]punk just as well), but post-apocalyptic scenarios should be given their full credit as a universe unto themselves, rather than shoehorned into dieselpunk.

    And yes, we definitely owe a thankyou to Piecraft for one of the first and largest contributions to online dieselpunk. I am, however, more of an Ottensian 😉 .

  4. Piechur said, on July 9, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Steam- and dieselpunk are very specific genres of science fiction – more “visual” than others, identified through their aesthetics rather than by theme.
    The difference between pre- and post-WWI aesthetics (respectively reflected in steampunk and dieselpunk) mostly comes from the influence of war industry and its economy. During the Great War the equipment had to be cheap, efficient and mass-produced. The elegance of belle-epoque was definitely set aside.
    I have to agree with flyingfortress on not mixing up dieselpunk and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which is completely different animal. There’s no post-apocalyptic aesthetics at all – well, nothing comparable to dieselpunk, nothing that would imitate 1920-40s style. There are exceptions of course like “Kerberos” saga or “Fallout”, but calling “Mad Max” and “Waterworld” dieselpunk is an abuse or funny misunderstanding.

  5. Atari said, on January 26, 2009 at 7:08 am

    As a pilot, I like to make the Steam-, Diesel-, Atomic- punk designations by looking at aeronautical technology especially in addition to other cultural aesthetics.

    For example, steampunk is fairly simple in its portrayal of aeronautical tech: mainly by aerostatic devices (balloons, simple airships, steam-driven “zeppelins”, gliders, etc.)

    For me, aerotech is the main divide between dieselpunk and atomic punk. Dieselpunk incorporates the early, fledgling powered flight technologies. I make the timeline distinction sometime around 1917 when biplanes have all-but been perfected as war machines, vertical flight (prototype helicopters) has been achieved, and the technology drive is to reach the edge of the power envelope for the piston engine. Howard Hughes would be the championing hero of the scene through his pervasive influence on the air races and materials development.

    This is the era of what we know as Zeppelins–with their potential as luxury liners, EXTREMELY efficient cargo ships, and Airborne aircraft carriers–light sport aircraft, DIY kit aircraft, autogyros, and “crewed” aircraft (large bombers, Zeps, and even the airborne platforms of “Sky Captain”). I love this aesthetic because it gives rise to one of my favourite plot devices: air piracy (think Microsoft/FASA’s “Crimson Skies” or, one of my favourite shows as a kid, Disney’s “Tale Spin”)

    The transition to atomicpunk begins sometime around 1944-1945, when jet engines begin to make their appearance in the skies. Rudimentary jets could be used as “experimental tech” plot devices, but the “Jet Age” really belongs to atomicpunk. Also, decisively, the use of nuclear weapons on Japan effectively ends the “gilded age” of art deco and jazz–ushering in the jet set, rock and roll, nukes, and–most notably for me–real helicopters.

    To me, there’s a transition period from 1945-1950ish, but dieselpunk effectively ENDS when jets and nukes enter the scene full-scale (about the time the Korean conflict would start)

  6. Steve Weintz said, on February 26, 2009 at 12:55 am

    Superior discussion!

    There’s also the whole question of “Mid-Century Modern,” a term coined at least about, if not in Palm Springs, CA, where atomic- jet- space- retropunk hit some stylistic heights. If anyone remembers the wonderful old Disneyland attraction, the “Carousel of Progress”, it’s as if the boxed set of “*-punks” capture the eras of the 20th Century as they might have been.

  7. Dark Void. « The Flying Fortress said, on January 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm

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  8. Mark said, on June 12, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Actually, if it doesn’t contain social criticism, it isn’t “punk” of any stripe. Steampunk is only “punk” because it knows that the suffocating class order, racism and sexism of the Victorian era was **wrong**. Otherwise, it’s just fantasy play-acting, as if the Victorian era was somehow “good”, when anyone who has ever read Dickens knows that it was anything but. If you weren’t born English, white, male and upper-class, you were screwed, period. Look at the steampunk literature: it is anything but complimentary of the Victorian social order.

    Dieselpunk asks similarly pointed questions about the rise of petroleum-based technology in the 20th century. It’s not about an imagined future at all, but rather, an alternative past that could theoretically have led to an alternate future. Prop-planes, airships, vacuum tubes, heavy geartrains, locomotives, Tesla and streamlined design aren’t about the future at all: they’re about the past of 60-100 years ago.

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