The dark side of dieselpunk
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.
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.
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.