Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Great War: Steampunk or Dieselpunk?

The year 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. I’ve long held the view that World War 1 serves as a transition zone in genre-punk. Genre-punk marched into the Great War as Steampunk and marches out as Dieselpunk. In addition, either Steampunk or Dieselpunk can lay claim to the First World War.

I would like to provide an excerpt from When This Bloody War is Over: Soldiers’ Songs of the First World War by Max Arthur. Lyn Macdonald, a British military historian who specializes in the Great War, wrote the following for the book’s introduction: 

The Victorian era did not die with the demise of the old Queen-Empress in 1901 at the birth of a new century. It began to skid to a halt in 1914 at the start of the Great War. By the time it ended, a new era and a new world had been born and music of the First World War can be a pungent reminder that this was a society in transition.

The generation that fought it were Victorians to a man. Men of the Regular Army were even mid-Victorians, those legendary “Soldiers of the Queen’ who had served her in the farthest reaches of her Empire or fought at Omdurman or Spion Kop. Even the youngest of the adventurous youths who joined Kitchener’s Army by the hundred thousand had been born while the Queen still occupied the throne and were nurtured and moulded by the long-accepted mores and disciplines of what was generally accepted as an age of enlightenment.
It certainly was an inventive age. In the lifetime of lads who joined the Army in 1914 at the age of 19 (or not infrequently younger) they had seen Bleriot fly across the English Channel, the birth of film as a popular entertainment, the development of the pneumatic tyre and the explosion of cycling as an everyday means of transport. A fortunate few even owned motor-bikes. People had become accustomed to the sight of motor-vehicles in the streets and aeroplanes in the sky. Wireless was emerging from its experimental infancy, telephones were no longer new-fangled devices, gramophones were commonplace for those who could afford them. Pianos could be purchased ‘on the never never’ for as little as a shilling a week, and every respectable household which aspired to an aspidistra in the window wanted a piano in the parlour. There was an upright piano in every church hall, every boys’ club and in almost every saloon bar where the popular Saturday night sing-song could be enjoyed, even by the poorest, for the price of a ginger ale, sipped slowly to last the evening. There were thousands of accomplished pianists and many who could play by ear so, one way or another, in any gathering there was always someone who could strum out a tune on the piano.

Ms. Macdonald’s introduction lends support for my position. The first paragraph supports that the source era for Steampunk didn’t end in 1901 but died gradually during World War 1 and that the conflict serves as a transition. The second and third paragraphs supports that the Great War could be claimed by either genre-punk.

So, which genre-punk can claim the First World War? The answer is that both can.


modernesia said...

Great essay Larry. I agree with that WWI definitely started with Steampunk; however the technology of the conflict became more Dieselpunk in the latter years.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mark.

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Both steampunk and dieselpunk can lay claim to World War I. The concept of steampunk, especially in fiction, certainly doesn't end with Queen Victoria's death in 1901. We have the floating city in 'Bioshock Infinite', where most of the story takes place in 1912. In World War I, the mostly primitive and fancy airships common in steampunk fiction give way to the far more advanced and more rigid airships we come to know as part of dieselpunk. You want an excellent example of dieselpunk? Watch 'Things to Come' (1936), where yesterday's idea of tomorrow is put on full display as the people of 1970 use their technology to build an underground city which is in full use in 2036. Their answer to the moon landing, of course, was a giant space gun sending 2 people in a giant bullet into space.