Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Flavors of Dieselpunk: Part III

No Sadder Sight: Dystopian Piecraftian Dieselpunk

"There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist." ~ Mark Twain

History is full of turning points. With a wrong military decision or simple bad luck a democratic nation might lose a war that in reality it had won or a democracy might fail where one had flourished. Such possibilities have intrigued writers and historians for years. The Dystopian Piecraftian sub-class of dieselpunk takes such possibilities seriously. This sub-class of dieselpunk could best be defined as a contemporary mixture of decodence with either an alternate history or future that’s often centered on, to quote Mr. Piecraft, "a world in which the enemy or ruling authoritarian state are a controlling force, unveiling a truly hopeless dystopian future." (Source: The Gatehouse Gazette, issue 1, page 6) Though in that same article Mr. Piecraft admits that this sub-class isn’t always hopeless it certainly portrays a darker and bleaker vision than the Dark Ottensian of my previous post.

Diesel Era Roots

"Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone." A draft speech written by General Dwight D. Eisenhower just before Operation Overlord in case it failed. (Source:

Thankfully, the Allies invasion of Normandy in World War II was a success. Yet, some writers have postulated on the "What if?" scenario of a possible failure of the Allies in World War II. For example, in 2002 Peter G. Tsouras edited "Third Reich Victorious" in which various historians wrote short stories presenting scenarios in which Germany could have won World War II.

Cover from "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

There are other possible diesel era nightmare scenarios. In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote the classic novel "It Can’t Happen Here" in which a character named Buzz Windrip is elected President of the United States and turns America into a dictatorship. Windrip wasn’t purely fictional but was loosely based on the real life Huey Long, who challenged FDR for the Democratic nomination and who was assassinated before possibly being nominated. Nor can we forget the most famous of diesel era dystopia novel of all time: 1984 by George Orwell.

These diesel era nightmare visions form the basis Dystopian Piecraftian Dieselpunk.

Dystopian Piecraftian Dieselpunk

In keeping with Ottens and Piecrafts recommendations I believe that Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil is a great example of Dystopian Piecraftian dieselpunk.

At the beginning it’s immediately obvious that the movie is going to be unique. The style of dress is distinctly diesel era with 1940's style of clothing full of fedoras and suits. While the society has computers and robotics the technology is a bizarre mix of 1940's technology that seems patched together with unrelated parts that (barely) function along with some wonderfully odd machines and vehicles all of which seemed to have come straight from the diesel era magazine Modern Mechanics. Small bizarre television screens with magnifying lens are everywhere, which the people obsess over. Computer monitors are equally small with the same bizarre magnifying lens.

The politics of the country, which is never identified, is a strange Orwellian-style totalitarian society in which, while apparently Capitalistic, the State bureaucracy monopolizes everything with "Central Services" and controls all knowledge with the Ministry of Information. Part of the Ministry of Records is the division of "Information Retrieval", which is a Gestapo style organization that uses repeated terrorist attacks as an excuse to torture and oppress the people.

In the opening scene we see where the bureaucracy mistakenly arrests the wrong man by the name of Buttle because of a bug, literally, in the system. From there on we follow the lead character, Sam Lowery (Jonathan Pryce), who at night dreams of flying free as a bird. He’s happy in his job until he gets promoted, against his will, to the Ministry of Records by his influential mother (Katherine Helmond). Lowery accepts the promotion in the hopes of locating a woman that he had fallen in love with by the name of Jill Layton (Kim Greist), who he doesn’t know, but learned about while investigating the Buttle debacle. What followed for Lowery was adventure, hope, and ultimately horror.

The Triumph of the Human Spirit

When it comes to the dystopian sub-class of dieselpunk it’s important to consider the words of Terry Gilliam in a bonus feature to the DVD for Brazil, "If it shows anything profound, which I’m not sure it does, it is that people carry on. The architecture may be oppressive but the people are not. The human spirit is not that easily extinguishable." This faith in the power of the human spirit to survive and to overcome oppression is the message and the hope of Dystopian Piecraftian dieselpunk.


Lord K said...

Special thanks for mentioning It Can’t Happen Here, a brilliant book.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks, Lord_K!