How can dieselpunk and fantasy mix?

edited April 2009 in Diesel
This is a bit of an odd question I’ve been pondering to myself recently. While the exact definition of “dieselpunk” (or the exact definition of “fantasy,” for that matter) is still up for considerable debate, it seems that enough of a general outline of the subgenre has been sketched to allow for some basis analysis and argument.

The basis for my question ties back to the nature of steampunk, the prototypical genre for dieselpunk, clockpunk, and many others. In many ways, steampunk as we’ve come to understand it is a very historical genre, primarily making use of the images, tropes, and artifacts of Victorian England, with a few elements of the American and colonial frontier thrown in for good measure. However, steampunk has shown itself time and again to not be exclusively constrained to historically-centered narratives. In many ways, steampunk provides a sort of vocabulary that writers can use to depict periods of initial industrialization, either in realms not bound to the history of humanity on Earth or in the literature of the fantastic. I don’t want to go off into a bibliography here, so I will limit myself to suggesting the works of China Miéville and Ian R. MacLeod as excellent examples of this combination of fantasy with the effects of industrialization. Doubtless there are many more examples out there to be suggested.

However, it sometimes seems to me that “dieselpunk,” as we’ve come to describe it, is perhaps less flexible than its father genre. Perhaps given the somewhat cynical nature of the subgenre, as noted by Mr. Piecraft, the current use of “-punk” tropes of the early and mid-20th century has been as a bludgeon, a tool to subordinate anything “frivolous” that comes too close, rather than maintaining the sort of give-and-take that steampunk offers with the fantastic. My favorite example of this would be Michael Swanwick’s two Faerie novels, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babylon. In these two books, a realm of the fantastic is depicted as possessing a level of industrial development approximating that of the 1950s-1970s, though plenty of anachronisms abound. While magic still exists, it is a rather deglamorized affair, with uses ranging from the utilitarian to the sadistic. The life of the people who inhabit this realm is, as Hobbes said so well, nasty, brutish and short. The typical escapism traditionally offered by fantasy is found to be an illusion, one that masks just more exploitation and pain.

Oddly enough, dieselpunk and the fantastic have a rather strange tendency to come together in stories that, at the risk of starting a sub-subgenre, could be described as “Sovietpunk.” Liz William’s Nine Layers of Sky, Sal Abbinathi’s Atomika, and Christian Gossett’s The Red Star all depict fanciful versions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, fuelled by a combination of magic (natural or manufactured) and heavy industry, providing a backdrop of any number of stories of authority, freedom, power, and lost dreams of utopia. Both Atomika and The Red Star allow a greater place for magic, but in both cases they are Piecraftican worlds of oil, steel, grime, and blood.

Certainly, dieselpunk as a genre is just starting to emerge into the light of day, so it’s always possible that this whole post will turn into a giant anachronism. Still, I feel that dieselpunk, despite its initial limitations, is being unfairly limited in its current, tentative interactions with the fantastic, as merely a symbol of mechanized brutalism. The age of diesel is far wider that that, and with time and plenty of thought, there is no reason that dieselpunk cannot be as versatile set of symbols as steampunk is today.

Of course, who yet can say what dieselpunk should symbolize?

Thoughts?

Comments

  • I would answer this question in two part:

    1) The rpg who have invented the genre (children of the sun) his actually all about fantasy element. The elfs in here have a past of crime against humanity, so i can hardly say than his vision of magic his cynismless, but still a good example of dieselpunk fantasy.

    2) Lovecraft has actually lived in the dieselpunk timeframe, so his work would be a good source of fantasy element, but yet again the vision of magic would tremendously cinical

    Conclusion: I can find a lot of catch for fantasy dieselpunk setting, but not for cynicless magic perception.sorry
  • Well, what about the possibility of fantasy in a Weird War setting? The British discover that the Nazis have used black magic to create werewolves/ demons/ undead vikings/ a doorway into a hollow earth etc, and so the SOE visits a certain cave in Wales, where they find Arthur and Merlin waiting to join up. Meanwhile, the Americans have enlisted Comanche shamen to drive off the plague of dragons attacking their Pacific fleet...

    Or something like that.
  • That's not too different to some Hellboy ideas, which seem to stand out (along with the Wolfentstein plot of resurecting a long dead germanic hero) as good examples were magic/sorcery combine very neatly with 'dieslepunk'. Then one considers the cornerstone of pulp adventure; dark arts, shamen, long lost magical idols and treasures, which are used now once more in the dieselpunk genre. Most notably Indiana Jones of course.
  • edited September 2008
    The Weird War genre is totally open. WW1, WW2 and the Cold War are very easy to mod up as both dieselpunk and fantasy. Aside from the classic "meddle with forces beyond their control" where occultism is unleashed on a world (or where an occult conflict rages in the shadows) there is the possibility of taking dieselpunk tropes and bolting them onto others. One of my favorites was the idea of a world combining Arthurian myth/feudalism with dieselpunk. The idea was that Hitler (or Stalin) develops the Atomic bomb early and uses many of them all over the UK. The last few soldiers use their power to make themselves feudal masters. Swap the horses for atomic-powered battlesuits and watch them fight radiation addled mutants who can breathe fire. With the radiation rendering most people impotent suddenly damsels who can reproduce are at a premium and need saving. Not to mention those unlucky few in whom the radiation seems to have created new, magical, powers...

    Similarly the old classic "space/time portal" lets your daring American expedition blunder into a fantasy world. Watch in horror as magic fuses with machinery. Marvel as pulp magazines give them dangerous ideas for new sorceries. Gasp as our plucky All-American Mom's apple pie munching heroes slaughter helpless natives and their fiendish wizards. Etc. This is particuarly true for Ottensian dieselpunk where tropes like the masked avenger, Jungle Man and detective turn up in fantasy worlds.

    On the Weird War front I'm hoping to finish a series of articles on Weird War monsters and creatures for The Gatehouse Gazette. Basically ransacking mythology and brutally mixing it with WW2 tech.

    Edit: if anyones interested I can also tidy up some ideas for taking the real world and creating a more dieselpunk-fantasy version for the Gazette.
  • Pulp and Fantasy? Like this?...

    lwkong2.jpg
  • Just like that ;)
  • Toby wrote:
    Well, what about the possibility of fantasy in a Weird War setting? The British discover that the Nazis have used black magic to create werewolves/ demons/ undead vikings/ a doorway into a hollow earth etc
    That is definitely a common device used to inject fantasy into historical fiction. A good example would be the manga/anime Hellsing. Although set in modern times, it incorporates the idea of an undead Nazi army.
  • Exactly. Think of the possibilities in the Burma War: legendary characters from Britain, India and Africa fighting all kinds of weird demons and vampires and whatever else they have in Japan. Not conventional Tolkein-creatures, admittedly, but somewhat cooler in my opinion.

    Of course, it's possible that sterotyped elves and the like could crop up, but they might look a bit odd. Presumably the Nazis would either want to kill them all or use their magic/worship them. I suspect Lord of the Rings in some ways covers this anyway: there are a lot of (unintentional?) Weird War elements there, especially in the police state that is Mordor.
  • What if the Nazis actually DID have the Norse/Germanic gods on their side?
  • Steampunk has been mixed with fantasy in the Iron Kingdoms RPG in a dystopian way, Dieselpunk does seem to be easier to mix though.
  • Ah, of course! Children of the Sun! I completely forgot! How silly of me.

    Well, if the comments here are anything to go by, it would seem that there’s no reason why the diesel aesthetic and good old-fashioned high fantasy cannot coexist happily. Still, there does seem to be a somewhat tenser relationship between the two than exists between fantasy and steampunk. In the case of Weird War IIs, we have magic appearing solely as a weapon to be wielded by the Third Reich (or the Soviet Union, in certain contexts) in an effort to dominate the world, with the Allies scrambling for a counter. In Swanwick’s books, the juxtaposition of modern and fantastic creates a sort of jarring dissonance that only reinforces the artificiality of the fantasy realm.

    Personally, I would say that this relationship is due to the fact that in the case of steampunk, despite the focus on the “bourgeois” figure of the inventor/explorer/what have you, the world is still thought to be a very traditional place, with the type of class structure and mental environments that would complement the typical medieval Europe-based fantasy realm. With dieselpunk, by contrast, the aristocracy is a dying relic, industry and popular philosophy have supplanted the old gods no one worships anymore, the countryside has vanished in favor of the metropolis, and anyone can buy a map of the world for two dollars in a corner bookshop. Fantasy can exist, but only under duress.
  • Trubetskoy wrote:
    With dieselpunk, by contrast, the aristocracy is a dying relic, industry and popular philosophy have supplanted the old gods no one worships anymore, the countryside has vanished in favor of the metropolis, and anyone can buy a map of the world for two dollars in a corner bookshop. Fantasy can exist, but only under duress.
    I'm not so sure about that... the 1910's, 20's and 30's were still a golden age of travel and exploration. I grant that the blank spaces on the maps were fewer and smaller than a century before, but consider what passion was behind films like The Lost World, King Kong, Tarzan the Ape Man and Trader Horn. Doubtless they are related and proportional, but the World of Tomorrow ran alongside the age of the National Park and the safari. As for the old god... Well... Nazi occultists and Cthulhu cultists might disagree ^_~
  • Remember too the passion for spots not on the maps at all: hidden Tibetan kingdoms, Hollow Earth, Jungle bases in Brazil, Nazi fortresses in the North Pole etc. The difference perhaps is that dieselpunk fantasy has far more emphasis on total horror as a reflection of total war.

    Many of the elements you identify as being dieselpunkian such as the death of the aristocracy, gods and the countryside etc. are rather more popular culture than historical truth. Certainly the aristocracy was dying but in WW2 that old chestnut, the OSS, was almost entirely run by American aristocrats with their tweeds and pipes. The countryside didn't so much die as evolve into an uneasy relationship with science and god or at least gods, were stunningly popular with many groups holding up their utopias (Fascism, Communism etc. might not have a god as such but they have religious structures: Original preacher, chosen people, chosen enemy, final end when the chosen are elevated and the enemy destroyed). It was the Soviet seizure of Poland in 1945 that led to the streak of extreme religion amongst the Poles. It was the Nazis who kick-started Zionism again and led to the creation of Israel. And so on.
  • Interesting minor fact: the SOE was deliberately run by a member of the Labour party, so that at least one secret service was under left-wing control. Why do I know this stuff?
  • A firm belief that there is no such as thing as unnecessary information and that information that would be categorized as such is often far more interesting then that categorized as "necessary"? At least that's why I remember things like that.
  • Toby wrote:
    Interesting minor fact: the SOE was deliberately run by a member of the Labour party, so that at least one secret service was under left-wing control. Why do I know this stuff?
    Because you are, in fact, an uncover government agent? :o

    This is an interesting discussion. I regret that I haven't the time to read the thread in much detail right now.
  • xeoran wrote:
    Many of the elements you identify as being dieselpunkian such as the death of the aristocracy, gods and the countryside etc. are rather more popular culture than historical truth. Certainly the aristocracy was dying but in WW2 that old chestnut, the OSS, was almost entirely run by American aristocrats with their tweeds and pipes. The countryside didn't so much die as evolve into an uneasy relationship with science and god or at least gods, were stunningly popular with many groups holding up their utopias (Fascism, Communism etc. might not have a god as such but they have religious structures: Original preacher, chosen people, chosen enemy, final end when the chosen are elevated and the enemy destroyed). It was the Soviet seizure of Poland in 1945 that led to the streak of extreme religion amongst the Poles. It was the Nazis who kick-started Zionism again and led to the creation of Israel. And so on.
    Oh, absolutely. Just about everything I mentioned in that list was not unique or universal to the interwar period. In many ways those trends were just another step in the direction Western culture had (and has) been evolving since the Enlightenment. Certainly there were plenty of intellectuals, political reformers, and what have you who were arguing throughout the 19th century that the “traditional” way of doing things was no longer valid. I would also agree that many of these traditions were able to persist through the period and into the present day. Still, I would suggest that the trends I listed would be useful to categorize dieselpunk, if I may be allowed to oversimplify, because by the time WWI ended, pretty much everyone in Europe had come to realize that the old ways had been irrevocably altered, and there was no going back.

    Mind you, I am a cultural-history nerd that takes the theories of Oswald Spengler a little more seriously that I ought to, so I do like to reduce periods of history to little eras that manifest a certain set of trends. Given how steampunk does do something akin to this with the Victorian/Edwardian/Gilded Ages, it seems natural to do the same thing to the interwar period for dieselpunk. Your mileage may vary, of course.
  • Trubetskoy wrote:
    Mind you, I am a cultural-history nerd that takes the theories of Oswald Spengler a little more seriously that I ought to,
    Do you read the anonymous Spengler column in the Asia Times too? ;) Very good- anyway, I agree with all you say.
  • I wonder about that willingness to forsake tradition... One of the major messages of the Universal Studios Monster movies (how's that for the supernatural in 1930's movies?) is not to ignore the wisdom of tradition. If you don't heed the gypsies, ancient scrolls and arcane professors, you'll end up dead. Or worse. And then there's deMille's introduction to the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, in which he asserts that the progress of modernism died in the fires of WWI.
  • xeoran wrote:
    Do you read the anonymous Spengler column in the Asia Times too? ;) Very good- anyway, I agree with all you say.
    I haven’t read much of him. Much of my experience of Spengler has come from the fellow who runs this website:

    http://www.johnreilly.info

    I really like his articles, if only for the fact that he has an actual sense of humor, a trait that is surprisingly rare to find in someone commenting on history and contemporary politics.
  • Trubetskoy wrote:
    I haven’t read much of him. Much of my experience of Spengler has come from the fellow who runs this website:

    http://www.johnreilly.info

    I really like his articles, if only for the fact that he has an actual sense of humor, a trait that is surprisingly rare to find in someone commenting on history and contemporary politics.
    That looks interesting, thanks for the link, looks like some good reading coming up.
  • John Reilly's great. Alternate history with a healthy doses of keen wit!
  • I've been reading Reilly and he is rather fun though his WW1 article had me in stitches (Lloyd George is not the man you base your opinions of the Allied war effort on! ;) ). Anyways, good stuff.
  • and reviving another thread (sorry, me new-one browsing through the forum) ;)

    What if the Nazis actually DID have the Norse/Germanic gods on their side?
    it has already been thought over... :)

    thelifeeaterscover.jpg
    The history of the comic follows ours, until one night during the winter of 1943, when a number of bright lights appeared over Nazi-occupied Europe. Intentionally or otherwise, the slaughter of the death camps has somehow been used to summon the Aesir, Norse gods. Quickly allying themselves with the gods, the Nazis are able to push aside their mortal foes. The extended war has an amazing effect on human technology - by the fifties, the American military has a manned spy satellite.

    The trickster, Loki, works against his fellow Aesir. On the night they arrived, Loki used his magic to whisk hundreds of thousands of death camp internees to safety in Persia. Thanks to his knowledge of magic, the American government cracks the necromancy angle - before that, they had assumed the Aesir were secretly alien invaders. (This is a reversal of roles from the The Mighty Thor series of Marvel Comics, which partially inspired Brin, and where Loki is the unquestioned villain).

    As the Nazis continue to conquer the world, with the help of their Japanese allies (and their Shinto gods), the story of the necromancy spreads. As a result of "Asian faith and African desperation... and all the madness of the tropics", the multiple gods of the developing world are given form through human sacrifice, band together and fight the Aesir (who have to keep to colder regions). As the Tropicals advance, they burn the Arabian oilfields, leading to global warming. With the atomic-armed Nazis beginning to understand the principles of nuclear winter, the remaining free Americans must race against time to prevent the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy...
  • Ah, I like David Brin's SF, and love Hampton's artwork. not sure whether he ever did Slaine, but his work is very reminiscent of Simon Bisley's, who did.
  • Why, I'd never heard of this! Shame on me, I suppose ;)
  • Trubetskoy wrote:
    xeoran wrote:
    Do you read the anonymous Spengler column in the Asia Times too? ;) Very good- anyway, I agree with all you say.
    I haven’t read much of him. Much of my experience of Spengler has come from the fellow who runs this website:

    http://www.johnreilly.info

    I really like his articles, if only for the fact that he has an actual sense of humor, a trait that is surprisingly rare to find in someone commenting on history and contemporary politics.
    Great link. Thanks.
  • some kind of offshoot from the Warhammer 40k universe, the setting of The Death Korps of Krieg mixes it's Scifi (and isn't scifi just future fantasy ;) )based origin with a "trench horror meets weird war" optics. Haven't played it but the design suits my taste just fine:
    Originating from the planet of Krieg, the Death Korps was established after their planet was bombed by the Imperials. Krieg was a sight of a rebellion against the Imperium of Man, after of which the Imperials began a five hundred atomic bombing. The Death Korps of Krieg is a siege specialist regiment of the Imperial Guard. Their home world of Krieg was ravaged by 500 years of nuclear civil war and bitter trench warfare which left the world little more than a scortched rock of dust and mud. Today the regiments raised on Krieg seek to repent themselves from their former treachery against the Imperium by displaying a disturbing disreagrd for their own lives in combat. They excell at stationary warfare and defensive fighting in particular...
    deathkorpcover.gif
    cas10151.jpg
    uww08.jpg
    57429099.jpg
  • Great artwork! Post-apocalyptic meets Weird War Nazi -- what can possibly go wrong?
  • Ottens wrote:
    Post-apocalyptic meets Weird War Nazi -- what can possibly go wrong?
    there's nothing to add ;)
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