Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Steampunk and Dieselpunk: A Comparison – Part 1

On May 3, 2012, the owner of the Steampunk blog Chronicles of Harriet wrote a fascinating post titled “Steampunk Amerikkka.” This amazing post sparked a lively conversation at the forum Dieselpunks.Org, which is open to both Dieselpunks and Steampunks, about the differences between the two genres. What sparked the discussion was this paragraph from the blog post:

"Many Steampunks choose to ignore the horrors wrought by colonialism – slavery, indentured service, sexism, classism; they create a world in which these things do not exist, or are sugar-coated so badly, the world might end up diabetic."

I’ve pointed out in previous postings, such as Flavors of Dieselpunk Part II, that there is a dark side to Dieselpunk as exhibited by productions such as The Shadow and the HBO miniseries Carnivàle.

This raises the question as to what is the source of this difference between the genre-punks. Why do Steampunks have a reputation for viewing the Victorian-era through rose-colored, brass framed glasses while Dieselpunks have a reputation for having a fetish for war and mobsters?

This is part one of my thoughts that I developed during the forum discussion.

I started, borrowing a phrase from a certain Diesel Era movie classic, by rounding up the usual suspects. The number one suspect was what appeared to be the nature of the source material. The Diesel Era was a schizophrenic one with great advances existing alongside great horrors. Let's look at each decade as they played out in the US.

The Roaring Twenties saw amazing advancement in technology and the arts. Radio stations were appearing in every part of the world resulting in the first wave of what today we would call globalization. Airplanes had advanced from overgrown kites to practical means of transport. Automobiles had largely replaced the horse and buggy while Diesel locomotives were quickly making the steam train obsolete. Civil Rights for women took a leap forward as women won the right to vote in addition to seeing a sexual liberation that few had imagined. African-Americans saw the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. The fine arts were undergoing a renaissance with Art Deco and Modernism. Financial wealth and industrial production skyrocketed.

The 1920s though wasn’t all chocolates and roses. While there was great progress, the decade was largely an era of culture war between Modernists and Cultural Conservatives. The Modernists were mostly in the cities while the Cultural Conservatives were largely rural. During the 1920s the Conservatives attempted to hold back Modernity largely through legislation (rural conservatives still had a slight majority in the political sphere) such the first Red Scare (as exhibited by the Palmer Raids) and Prohibition. The famous images associated with the 20s (flappers, speakeasy's, Jazz Age, gangsters, etc.) were largely the product of this culture war with the majority responding to being caught between the two warring extremes. In addition, the wealth we associate with that decade was unevenly distributed with crushing poverty existing beside extreme wealth.  

Though we normally don’t think of the 1930s as an era of progress, there really were some amazing advances in culture, society and technology. It saw the construction of the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. There was medical advancement such as the invention of the Pacemaker and the Incubator. The Indian Reorganization Act gave more control back to the Native American tribes allowing them to write their own constitutions and increased control over their internal affairs. There was recognition of the increased need of government action such as Social Security Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, WPA, CCC and other government programs.

That being said, it was the Great Depression and the growing threat of another World War that dominated the 1930s. It was as though the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had arrived as conquest, war, famine and death seemed to flourish. Millions of Americans were unemployed and the American heartland became a desert as the Dust Bowl rolled across the country. Political upheaval wasn’t limited to European and Asian countries. Even at home, Americans had reasons to fear revolution with failed Right-wing coups such as the Business Plot. In addition, FDR saw that steps had to be taken to ease the economic pain inflicted on the masses form the Depression otherwise there was risk that the people would demand a socialist replacement of capitalism. Some economists say that the New Deal saved capitalism in America.  

The 1940s also saw great progress. The Electron microscope was invented along with the Kidney Dialysis machine. To the great pleasure of men, the 1940s saw the creation of both nylon as well as the Bikini swimsuit. The 1940s saw the invention of the microwave oven, which many today would consider an essential kitchen appliance. On the social scene, FDR desegregated the factories and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball by signing on with the Dodgers.

Yet when it comes to the 1940s one cannot avoid the elephant in the room: World War II. Millions of lives were lost and cities across the world were reduced to rubble. Evil incarnate rounded up millions of innocent men, women and children, tortured, and murdered them in ghettos and Concentration Camps. The world teetered on the edge of a new global Dark Age of tyranny of the likes that had never been seen before. Only through the sacrifice of the appropriately named Greatest Generation was the world saved from this nightmare. Unfortunately, their victory was bitter sweet for it also saw the creation and use of a weapon that has the ability to obliterate all life on earth: the nuclear device.

All of the above had at first led me to the conclusion that, since the source material is by nature one of tension between light and dark, good and evil, progress and stagnation then so is the nature of Dieselpunk. With the Diesel Era being divided, then it seemed that the logical conclusion was that was the cause of Dieselpunks fascination with both the positive and the good.

However, with some more thought I realized an important detail and my whole theory came crashing down like a house of cards.

The real reason I think there’s a difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk will be reveled next time in part 2 of this series.


Tome Wilson said...

This is a good write-up, Larry.

Thanks for posting it!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Larry!

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thank you both!