Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Steampunk and Dieselpunk: A Comparison – Part 2

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves …” the play "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare

As I mentioned in my last post, I realized that there was a major flaw in my theory about why Dieselpunks have interest in both the dark as well as the light side of the Diesel Era while Steampunks seemed only interested in the positive aspects of the Victorian era. My theory was that the difference was because the Diesel Era was by nature polarized. One might say that the Diesel Era resembled the legendary villain Two-Face from Batman with good and evil on opposite sides of the same face.

This schizophrenic source material, I theorized, resulted in an essentially schizophrenic genre-punk.

Shortly after I had posted my theory at, it hit me that I had it all wrong. My flaw was in assuming that the Diesel Era was unique in this schizophrenia. In reality, this same pattern of greatness existing next to the worse of humanity was just as true during the Victorian era as it was in the Diesel Era.

A brief note is necessary about the period at issue for those who aren’t Steampunks. Oxford English Dictionary defines Steampunk as a, "genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advance technology." However, if you ask most Steampunks, the sound bite definition is usually “Victorian Era Science Fiction.” In this case, the term “Victorian” is used differently than the history books. Queen Victoria reigned from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901. While there are some disagreements among Steampunks as to when the era for their source material ends, the consensus among the members of the community for the purpose of the genre-punk the term “Victorian” generally continues beyond 1901 and ends roughly at the start of World War I.

Age of Progress

One might say that the Victorian era saw some of the greatest progress in human history when it comes to inventions, discovery, and exploration. It was also a time when some of the greatest writers produced amazing classics of literature while passionate activists fought for civil liberties that today we take for granted. Here’s a short list to illustrate my point.

Great Inventions: Transatlantic cable, sewing machine, telephone, light bulb, internal combustion engine and the automobile, radio, movies, airplane, radar, refrigerator, and the rigid airship.

Great explorers: John Charles Fremont, David Livingstone, William John Wills, Robert O'Hara Burke, Robert Peary (who was the first to reach the North Pole) and Robert Scott (who was the first to reach the South Pole),

Great Inventers/ Scientists: Marie Curie, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, Write Brothers, Albert Einstein and Max Planck.

Great Activists: Karl Marx, Helen Keller, Frederick Douglass, Mother Jones, Norris Wright Cuney, Sojourner Truth, Edward Carpenter, Emma Goldman, Robert Fox, Emmaline Pankkurst, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Susan B Anthony.

Great Writers: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet, Mark Twain, Eliza Frances Andrews, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Louisa May Alcott, and Bram Stoker.

Age of Horror

However, while the Victorian era was an age of amazing achievements it was also one of oppression, racism, imperialism and extreme class warfare. It was a vulgar and violent age dominated by people who, as any Freudian psychologist would tell you, were screwed up. The average Victorian person was like a Victorian-style house. Bright and cheerful on the outside while dark and depressing on the inside.

Since so much of Steampunk is centered in the UK (some Steampunks won’t consider any cultures other than British as Steampunk), it deserves attention that I didn’t give in part one.

Life for an average child in Victorian England was extraordinary hard. In 1860, only half of children between 5 and 15 were in school. Armies of children were forced to work in the great industrial factories of that time. Children as young as 5 years old began work in the coalmines. The majority of prostitutes were between the ages of 15 -22.

Poverty was rampant across all ages. London was filled with slums of families living in crushing poverty According to Kellow Chesney, "Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the metropolis... In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room."

With the encouragement of Prime Minister Disraeli, Britannia’s imperial power continued to grow during the Victorian Era. Using racist, such as Kipling’s “white man’s burden”, along with religious and cultural bigotry the British expanded their empire to cover large sections of the Middle East, Africa and China.

However, before Americans begin gloating, the United States was far from innocent during the Victorian Era. The list of atrocities in American history during the Victorian Era would be far too long to list here but let me give just a few.

Howard Zinn noted that in 1865 New York 100,000 people lived in slums; 12,000 women worked as prostitutes and garbage laid 2 feet deep in the streets. In 1911, 146 people (mostly women) burned to death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire because the escape doors were locked to insure that no worker might sneak out with a needle or some other company property. Michael Bellesiles pointed out in his book “1877: America’s Year of Living Violently” that the lack of safety regulations for American railroad workers was so poor that it shocked even the British.

It was an age of robber barons that got the best government money could buy. For example, Edison guaranteed politicians $1,000 each for their support for legislation to his benefit. Daniel Drew and Jay Gould bribed the New York legislature $1 million dollars to legalize their stock in the Erie Railroad.

There was the American Holocaust of the Native Americans as represented by the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Jim Crow laws replaced slavery of African-Americans and thereby creating an American-style apartheid backed up by domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed shortly after the end of the Civil War. American imperialism was just as racist in its Manifest Destiny such as in the Philippians in which one American soldier wrote, “Our fighting blood was up and we all wanted to kill ‘niggers’… This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces.”

The Real Difference Between Steampunk and Dieselpunk

Therefore, if we can't say that the Diesel Era was any different than the Victorian then the difference between the genres couldn't be due to the eras we focus on.

It’s my opinion that the difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk isn't so much the source material as the viewpoints of the genre-punks themselves. It may be appropriate to compare Steampunk to the Society for Creative Anachronism in that it intentionally takes only the positive from its era of interest. I don’t mean that Steampunk exists in some form of denial but more in the sense of smelting silver from ore. In doing so, beyond the entertainment aspect, the Steampunk genre attempts to identify and rediscover what was good about the era and leave the bad to the historians.

Dieselpunk is different in that it embraces what Steampunk would discard. There are several ways of looking at this attribute of Dieselpunk. One explanation might be that Dieselpunk has a Taoist aspect in which reality is a combination of light and dark without saying that one is necessarily good or bad. Humans are neither angels nor demons and we must accept our full humanity. As the Roman playwright Terence wrote, "I am a human being; I consider nothing that is human alien to me." Instead, rather than this Yin/ Yang aspect, one possible explanation would be that Dieselpunk embraces the concept that eternal conflict rests at the core of existence. One variation of this viewpoint is that there is an eternal war between the forces of Good against the forces of Evil. Even if we don’t go so far as to use absolutes, in this view reality is at a minimum a conflict of interests. Using classical thought, we could say that Dieselpunk is in the philosophical school of Realism.

Inherit Dangers

There are risks in both the Steampunk and the Dieselpunk views.

By focusing only on the good of the Victorian era Steampunks run the risk of forgetting the horrors. Such forgetfulness is dangerous for if we do so then we may also forget George Santayana famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Dieselpunks, by accepting the darkness of humanity, run the risk of not striving for social justice and being complacent with the way things are. In doing so we are in danger of forgetting the warning of one of the greatest men of the Diesel Era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."


In conclusion, in my opinion the difference between the two genre-punks is that Steampunk, while acknowledging the reality of the past, intentionally focuses on the positive in contrast to Dieselpunk, which intentionally celebrates and embraces both the positive as well as the darkness. The difference between the genre's is nothing more than being purely the choices that the individual Steampunks and Dieselpunks choose make.

To put it another way, Steampunks respectfully bury their dead while Dieselpunks gleefully open up the closet to let our skeletons come out to dance.


Anonymous said...

You have to bear in mind that to Victorians, most of the things which we look back at as being wrong, were acceptable, or part of the natural order of things.

The 'White Man's Burden' to take one example, wasn't meant to be a one way thing... White men had a responsibility towards 'lesser races' as they would term it, while they ruled over them. While we see it as patronising and exploitive, they saw it as helping. Regardless though, Kipling was making a call to action, which largely went unheard.

To me the Victorian era was a battle between 'new science' and religion (or superstition). You also had the spirit of philanthropy, where people saw the bad and wanted to change things for the better.

The dark side of the Victorian era was bad men doing evil with good things... Frankenstein trying to create life, Captain Nemo attempting to end war by the use of violence. The ultimate example of the duality was expressed by Doctor Jekyll's experiments.

For the Diesel Age, it's somewhat different. You have two opposite political philosophy's at work; socialism (not communism) and liberalism and between the two fascism. Each of these considers the others to be 'evil' and each attempts to control 'industry' to their own ends.

It's an ongoing battle between ordinary men and societies which are dominated by either; individuals who want to exploit them for personal gain, or individuals who want to harness them to the needs of the state.

From the gutter there is little apparent difference, yet men dream of personal freedom, whether it's the freedom to fly a plane across the Pacific in search of adventure, or the freedom to do honest work for honest pay and regard.

The diesel age is David versus Goliath, whichever way you turn and is perhaps a retrograde step from the Victorian Age's optimism and hope, however misplaced.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

I very much appreciate your comments and taking the time to provide such detail.

This is exactly the type of discussion that I hope to inspire with my blog.

Nebris said...

I agree that the dividing line between Steampunk and Dieselpunk is more one of World View than Technology per se, though obviously the latter is The Key Element.

The first decade or so of the 20th Century is really an overlap of the two. Steampunk slowing fading out and Dieselpunk rapidly moving in. But I would go so far as to submit there is a dividing line that is very clear.

Geographically it can be placed at The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo. Temporally it can be placed at around 11am local time on June 28th, 1914. That is of course the time and location of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip, the event that sparked the First World War.

In some ways we of the present cannot understand how WWI totally changed the psycho-emotional landscape of Europe. We have grown up in a world where Technological Total War is a 'fact of life', where Area Bombing and Death Camps are simply What Men Do In War. Our collective awareness is steeped in these things.

But WWI created such a profound change as to reach Metaphysical dimensions. Note that Carl Jung thought he was going mad in 1913/14 because he was being tormented by 'apocalyptic nightmares' that suddenly made sense when the war broke out.

The Great War utterly destroyed the somewhat naïve Victorian/Edwardian belief in the unalloyed benefits of Progress and in its aftermath Europeans – and to a lesser extent Americans – split up into the Cynical, the Opportunistic and the Fanatic, all marching on the road toward the greatest Dieselpunk Event in history; the Second World War.

And that War, in which all sides behaved monstrously out of the sheer necessity of survival, is the one shaped our modern world view and therefore created a psycho-cultural distance from the Pre-WWI mindset that is almost unbridgeable.

It does however, as I proposed above, give us a very clear dividing line between the two genres. I firmly believe that in any discussion of the relative outlooks of Steampunk and Dieselpunk one must, at the very least, pay attention to which side of the Latin Bridge ones outlook actually originates.

Anonymous said...

I'm more than happy to do that, discussion is good!

I do find the whole concept interesting, as I do most alternate reality concepts. I also like to understand what prompts people's immersion or acceptance of them too though.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks for the feedback, Nebris.

Anonymous said...

I think Nebris is quite correct. The Great War provides a very real dividing line between the two genres. The effects of the Great War were profound and very understated, it shaped, in various ways, the thought processes and vision of a whole generation - depending on where you were.

France's and Belgium's experience of the War were different to England's and Germany's, and America's was different to all of them, and this was to effect each's vision of what was to come.

While the twenties began with an attempt to return to the 'good times' (for some), it was a depressing time. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Japan subjugating the Far East, crackdowns on labour in the US - partnered with rampant capitalism and a new form of serfdom, the 'wage slave'.

Wherever you look ordinary people are suffering oppression and are exploited in one way or another. The 'fortunate sons' of the age lived on top of the pile, while the fortunate few were able to prosper within it, or escape from it.

It's little wonder then that Dieselpunk lacks the general positive outlook of Steampunk, yet is a direct result of it.