I finally watched Loki on Disney+ (it’s hilarious) and one of the things that stood out to me was the aesthetic of the show’s Time Variance Authority (TVA). Brutalist with a mix of midcentury graphics and 1970s decor, it reminded me of the Fallout video games as well as Counterpart, the most underrated science-fiction series of recent years. The Office of Interchange in that show also uses dot-matrix printers, rotary-dial phones, old computers, typewriters, and pen and paper.
The Office of Interchange isn’t a time-travel authority. Rather it manages relations between two parallel Earths. The Temps Commission in The Umbrella Academy (our review here) is, and it too looks midcentury. So does the Federal Bureau of Control in the video game Control. Brutalist architecture and midcentury American office furniture seem to be the time traveler’s favorites.
The trope has a tenuous basis in reality. The Nazis really did develop strange aircraft, including a flying wing, and Allied pilots did claim to spot “foo fighters” over the skies of Germany near the end of the war. This was when Hitler was banking on his “wonder weapons” to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
German flying discs, though, were invented after the war by conspiracy theorists and ufologists — and eagerly exploited by dieselpunk creators.
It’s a name that conjures up images. The grand ocean liner of the Edwardian era caught up in fate and circumstances on its maiden voyage. A ship full of the rich and famous, as well as those hoping for a new life. All of their lives intertwined when the vessel hits an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic. And without enough lifeboats to save them all from the freezing water around them. It’s a tragedy that has played out in every form of mass media since that April night in 1912, from books and songs to computer games and movies.
The idea that the Earth is hollow has been disproven for centuries, yet, not unlike the Nazis who have made their home there in dieselpunk fiction, it refuses to die. It returns as myth, pseudohistory, fiction or hoax, most recently in the Hollywood movie Godzilla vs. Kong, where Hollow Earth is home to all sorts of monsters.
The Ancient Greeks and early Christians placed the underworld or Hell in the interior of the Earth. Ancient Tibetans imagined a much nicer place: they thought the spiritual kingdom of Shambhala could be found somewhere in the middle of the planet. Other civilizations had similar myths.
More recently, John Cleves Symmes Jr., an American Army officer, suggested in 1818 that the Earth’s interior could be accessed through holes at the North and South Poles. This isn’t true either (people have been there), but it has become a staple of Hollow Earth mythology.
Now that monuments to the Confederacy have been torn across the United States, non-Americans may be wondering why the country honored a rebellion in the first place.
The reason is the “Lost Cause”: an extensive mythology developed in the aftermath of the Civil War by Southern artists, authors and politicians, which denied the true cause of the conflict (slavery) and idealized the Antebellum South.
The best-known example is the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind, which was based on a 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. But there were many more books, magazines, poems, songs and statues that promoted the Lost Cause. Cities, streets and military forts were named after Confederate leaders. The Confederate battle flag was incorporated into the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi.
The goal was to give defeated white Southerners a new sense of pride and purpose and roll back the emancipation of freed slaves.
Given how omnipresent the Lost Cause was in Southern art and literature, and how widespread Confederate nostalgia remains, it can seep into our alternate histories if we aren’t careful. So let’s take a look at what the Lost Cause is and how it can work, so we know what to avoid.
The “traction city” of London in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) and its 2018 film adaptation (our review here) is probably the best-known example of a city on wheels. But it’s not the only one! In fact, there are enough examples in steampunk to call this a genre trope.
In the real world, airships weren’t successful weapons of war. Zeppelins were terrifying but inaccurate. Navigation, target selection and bomb aiming were difficult under the best of circumstances. In darkness, at high altitude and amid the English clouds, accuracy was too much to ask for.
German zeppelins were initially immune to attack by aeroplane and anti-aircraft guns. As the pressure in their envelopes was only just higher than ambient, holes had little effect. But once incendiary bullets were developed and used against them, their flammable hydrogen lifting gas made them vulnerable at low altitudes. Several zeppelins were shot down in flames by British defenders. Others crashed on the way to England. The Germans started flying higher and higher, but this only made their airships even less effective.
The zeppelin campaign proved to be a disaster in terms of morale, men and material. Many pioneers of the German airship service were lost.
But why let such facts stand in the way of a good story?
Flying aircraft carriers show up in steampunk, dieselpunk and atompunk fiction so often, we can consider them a genre trope. From Castle Wulfenbach in Girl Genius to the British aircraft carriers in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to the helicarriers of S.H.I.E.L.D., here is a look at these behemoths of the sky.
Rumors that the Nazis survived the fall of the Third Reich started to circulate almost as soon as the war in Europe ended in May 1945. There were stories that Adolf Hitler had escaped to Spain or South America. Some of his top lieutenants, notably Martin Bormann, were missing.
The speculation had some basis in reality. There really were efforts to smuggle Nazis out of Europe, but not on the scale Allied intelligence feared in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nor did anyone make serious preparations for a Fourth Reich.
Don’t tell diesel- and atomicpunk authors, who tend the exaggerate this history to spin wild tales of Nazi conspiracy.