Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk: Choose Your Fuel


Editor’s Note: I did this post a while back for Richard Ellis Preston’s excellent blog, A Bag Of Good Writing. He asked me to lay out the differences between steampunk and dieselpunk because I had (rather accidentally) written a dieselpunk book with A Private Little War and he’s well known for turning out fine steampunk tales. What began as a small conversation ballooned into a bit of a manifesto, and since I like a good manifesto now and again (because they mean you care about something, and caring is a fine tonic against snark and cynicism), I figured I’d reprint it here. Please to enjoy…

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…”

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.

This post originally appeared on “A Bag Of Good Writing”. Check it out there if you’re of a mind to.

Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk: An Argument By Author Jason Sheehan [A Bag Of Good Writing]


3 thoughts on “Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk: Choose Your Fuel

  1. Hello Jason,

    Enjoyed this explanation. I was asked to explain the difference between steam and diesel in a recent interview, so I came across your article while making sure I knew what I was talking about. I also wrote a dieselpunk novel unknowingly, calling it ‘dystopian noir’ at the time. The dieselpunk connections were pointed out after publishing, allowing me to discover the culture and many of the fans of it. I’m now proud to bear the dieselpunk banner as well.

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