Dieselpunk is a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction which is gradually coming into prominence after being introduced by Children of the Sun game designers Lewis Pollak and Dan Ross in 2001 to help market said game. According to Pollak, dieselpunk describes a "darker, dirtier side of steampunk" and should be considered a "continuum between steampunk and cyberpunk."
The term thus denotes works set in an era or world characterised by the rise of petroleum power and technocratic perception, incoporating neo-noir elements and sharing themes with Adventure Pulp. Dieselpunk fiction is typically set in the era immediately prior to or following World War II—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as real technological developments occurring at an earlier date. Dieselpunk may be closer associated with cyberpunk in that it tends to be more dystopian that steampunk.
Pulp magazines were widely published from the 1920s through the 1950s—the period usually associated with dieselpunk fiction. They often contained a wide variety of genre fiction; many classic science fiction and crime novels were originally serialized in pulp magazines. Pulp is nonetheless commonly associated with adventure fiction in the vein of Indiana Jones, whose first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, contains many typical dieselpunk elements, ranging from the archetypical great white hunter-hero popular in steampunk literature also to Nazis possessing more advanced technologies than they did in the real world, heavily indulged in mysticism and esotericism. Similar elements feature in Mike Mignola's Hellboy, the first film adaption of which depicts Nazis equally obsessed with the occult.
Pulp magazines gained immense popularity during World War II as cheap and portable tales of good triumphing over evil. The same applied to comic books which showcased superheroes battling the Axis Powers with depictions of iconic comic book heroes punching Adolf Hitler or fighting buck-toothed Japanese soldiers gracing the covers of the age. Director Kerry Conran of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow noted the influence of both pulp fiction as well as Golden Age comics in his film.
Despite the many similarities between dieselpunk and the pulp fiction upon which it is typically based, dieselpunk is no retro-futurism. Like steampunk transports modern-day automata and perceptions into the 19th century and is thus different from Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Voyages Extraordinaires, dieselpunk colonizes the past with technologies more, and more aggressively developed than in the real world and with sensibilities characteristic of cyberpunk and dystopian fiction. Like steampunk exists within the framework of speculative fiction, of which the origins date back to the pioneering works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain and Mary Shelley, dieselpunk draws its inspiration from pre- and post-World War II pulp magazines and the technologies of war devised or nearly produced during the last phases of that war.
1920s German Expressionism in film was cited by director Kerry Conran of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as an important influence for his film. Conran particularly referred to Fritz Lang, whose petroleum-powered corporate city-state Metropolis is an inspiration to much dieselpunk fiction bordering the dystopian. Conran cited the works of American delineator Hugh Ferriss as another key influence, whose drawings of immense buildings seem to overshadow the human individual as if embodying the rise of technocratic perception. Director Tim Burton of Batman Returns drew similar inspiration from the works of Ferriss and his 1992 film is typically considered a modern attempt to capture the essence of German Expressionism. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Metropolis.
Film noir is an inspiration to dieselpunk not so much in terms of setting and plot, but in terms of its visual style inspired by German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in pre-World War II American pulp fiction.
Among the leading Hollywood directors of noir during the past and current decade is Christopher Nolan whose 2005 Batman Begins marked a more dark-toned take on the superhero as inspired by Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, both greatly influenced for their Batman graphic novel by film noir, particularly Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Both the 2005 film adaption of Miller's Sin City as well as the 1994 film adaption of the The Shadow heavily incorporate neo-noir elements as well. A 2005 film adaption of H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu was even produced entirely as a black-and-white silent movie to produce the look of a 1920s-era film.
Film noir ' s typical heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm were translated into cyberpunk by Lawrence Person as "marginalized, aliented loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures." Dieselpunk fiction may feature similarly flawed and troubled protagonists.
As the term dieselpunk was originally coined to describe a genre similar to steampunk set in a later era, the 1920s through the 1950s can be the setting of dieselpunk fiction. Thus three different and distinct settings could be categorized: dieselpunk set either during the Roaring Twenties or Great Depression, that is the 1920s or 1930s; dieselpunk set during World War II, which typically lasted longer than in the real world; and dieselpunk set during the first years of the Cold War, sometimes being referred to as Atomicpunk.
Pre-World War II
Pre-war dieselpunk is often set during the 1930s and inspired by that era's adventure pulp. The 2004 Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the most obvious example of dieselpunk in this setting, with a Buck Rogers-inspired protagonist, an archetypical villain known only as Dr. Totenkopf, and technologies far more advanced than in the real-world 1930s, including rayguns and mammoth dirigibles.
In this world, where there is no sign of the world being in the grip of economic recession, the spirit of the Roaring Twenties very much persisted. With no Great Depression to halt industrial progress, the Jazz Age never quite came to an end, nor did the era's sense of modernity. Everything seemed feasible through modern technology and not in terms of technology alone—the economic growth inspired new cultural and social sensibilities to find widespread acceptance; formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality, in architecture as well as in daily life. Americans became more and more enamored of wealth and everyday luxuries and new inventions, especially automobiles, film and radio proliferated modernity to the masses. At the same time, amusement and lightness were cultivated in music and dancing, in defiance of the horrors of war.
The aesthetics of dieselpunk fiction are thus typically inspired by Futurist are and Art Deco architecture, with the zeppelin mooring at the Empire State Building as epitome of dieselpunk visual style. In the authoritarian states of Nazi-Germany and the Soviet-Union, the monumental styles of Albert Speer and Socialist Classicism would dominate the city landscapes, with Speer's Germania completed by the 1960s according to Robert Harris' alternate history novel Fatherland.
World War II
World War II is the most common setting of dieselpunk fiction, with a panoply of video games set in an alternate history where Nazi-Germany was able to prolong the war through advanced technologies in reality unavailable at the time.
Such is the setting of Gear Krieg, Blazing Angels 2 and War Front: Turning Point, which each feature futuristic German technologies of war based upon real-world inventions such as the Messerschmitt Me 262 and the ambiguous German atom bomb project. Similar technologies are featured in the games Iron Storm and Fallout, though both are set decades after the war concluded in the real world. German science is typically depicted to have progressed its experimentation with biotechnology, sparking off a genetic revolution of cloning and organ harvesting and producing cyborg "supersoldiers" in games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein and ÜberSoldier.
Dieselpunk fiction set in the late-1940s and 1950s, sometimes referred to as Atomicpunk, draws its inspiration primarily from early-Cold War pulp fiction and comic books nowadays appreciated as retro-futurism. Examples in film include the 1991 The Rocketeer and the 1999 animation film The Iron Giant. Themes that usually surface in this setting include:
* Red Scare: the fear of communist intrusion sparking mass hysteria;
* Space Race: the competition for the conquest of outer space;
* Arms race: the continued research and development in new weapon systems;
* Suburbia: the restructuring of society into new community developments;
* Nuclear power: the emergence of nuclear power as a source of both energy and destruction.
"Atomic" dieselpunk draws inspiration from adventure pulp as much as pre-World War II dieselpunk such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The protagonist of Tom Floyd's Captain Spectre And The Lightning Legion, advertised as "the midwest's own pulp hero", is very much similar to Joshua Dysart's Captain Gravity—both being heavily influenced by the comics about Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.