Steampunk vs Dieselpunk


Full disclosure: The reason I thought to write this is one of the search terms that brings the most random traffic to my site is “Steampunk vs Dieselpunk”. So apparently there is an audience for such a post.

Short version: Steampunk is Victorian/Edwardian level tech with mainly steam powered engines, and Deiselpunk is allowed to have internal combustion. You don’t use Victorian slang, you use WWI/WWII slang. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is Steampunk, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (terrible movie that it is, don’t watch it) is Dieselpunk. “The Book of Eli” is Post Apocalyptic Dieselpunk.

That’s really all it is. But from there, you extrapolate what effect that tech level has on your society. At that point, war is mechanized, you’re looking at WWI and WWII level tech, with planes, tanks and machine guns. And machines guns were one of the reasons the first great war was so frelling bloody. People have more ways of killing larger numbers of people faster than ever had before, and this tends to mean that Dieselpunk is less often about discovery and invention, and more often about social struggle.

Also, the tech in Steampunk is more often a new thing, or if not new, something wonderous that few people have access to, while in Dieselpunk, the tech is frequently ever-present, and the average person is likely to have ridden on some form of mass transit at some point in their lives. The technology is no longer new, and mass production increases accessibility. You have trams and subways, trains, and other public transportation. You can have cars and motorcycles, and snowmobiles, and jetskis (“Waterworld”) if you want. The horse has been, or is in the process of being replaced in all but the most, shall we say, traditional communities.

That last one’s pretty huge. The horse has been around as transportation for a long time, and that shift is a major turning point in history.

Post Apocalyptic stuff is often Dieselpunk, and I can tell you why it usually ends up Dieselpunk and not Steampunk. It’s because why would we get thrown back to steam level tech, if we had internal combustion? If there’s a loss of tech, it’s likely to go back to the last level where the average person had access to the technology and could do routine maintenance on it, and find someone who can fix it if it breaks down. Computers, it’s completely plausible that computers wouldn’t make it far into a Post Apocalyptic world. That processor – if it burns out – and they burn out eventually, and not infrequently either – the average person can’t fix it, and can’t produce a replacement without sophisticated equipment.

Here, I’m defining sophisticated as anything that the average person has no understanding of, and no picture of what it looks like or how it works. I have a mental picture of a monkey wrench, and an idea of how it’s used. I’ve seen a car jacked up to replace the brake pads – that’s not that complex, and looking at the actual brake mechanism, it makes sense. I do technical support for computers, so I have a general idea of what most computer parts look like – I’ve replaced parts in my computers and my husband’s, and done it myself, without having to take it in to a computer surgeon. But I could not have created the replacement, or, in the case of a broken part as opposed to an upgrade, I could not have repaired the part, or found anyone locally who could.

And I think that’s part of the fascination with Dieselpunk. The technology level is assumed to be around that last level where you can take your vehicle in to a local shop to have it fixed, and not need to have parts shipped in from someplace else in the world where they make new parts. Granted, sometimes these days we do still have to have parts shipped in for our cars, but that’s because we’re moving away from that local based ability to maintain our technology. I had the opportunity to talk to S. M. Sterling at Keycon, a few years ago, and he said the best places to find information on how to build things, is the encyclopedias from those years, because, unlike the encyclopedias these days, they had full instructions on how to build anything you wanted.

That’s all I can think of right now, though. I hope this is helpful to those googling “Steampunk vs Dieselpunk.”


33 responses to “Steampunk vs Dieselpunk

  1. Steampunk actually does make more sense for post-apocalyptic settings. A good example of steampunk post-apocalyptic is this the excellent book “Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America”. This is for a few reasons:
    * If you live in a part of the world without oil that can be drilled without very high levels of technology (off-shore drilling is out of the question without robots and such). This already includes most of the world. And you don’t have a global economy yet. Or all the oil has already been drilled… maybe that’s why you are in the middle of a apocalypse.
    * The process to produce gasoline from crude isn’t trivial. Consider that Iran actually imports gasoline.

    On the other hand, coal is plentiful and you can dig it up easily without a big technological infrastructure, especially if aren’t concerned with worker safety as is the case in a post-apocalypse.

    • Computer chips and gasoline production both require large complex industries. I’m not sure it makes sense to have one without the other.

      • re: Doc Lawless:
        Of course diesel came long before computer chips. But now we have the knowledge to do both. So when you are thinking about what industries will survive some massive event, it should be based on how complicated those industries are, not based on some idea that we would roll back chronologically in progress and forget everything.

        especially because it seems like silicon chips will last a long time. They get burned out but this doesn’t happen often. Putting together circuit boards with existing parts isn’t a high-technology. At least the elites should have computers.

      • I agree eeanm, in a post apocolyptic world, elites should still have computers. After all, the process to make a cutting edge super-fast processor may be forgotten, but the knowledge to make old chips should be wide-spread enough to keep it from being lost. As such, the world, would not completely revert to a previous tech level. As such the post apocolyptic world can have a mash-up of nearly any tech. So I don’t really consider any postapocalyptic setting to be dieselpunk. It often shares the social struggle aspect though.

        On a side note, bio-diesel can be created in a trailer that is pulled along behind a truck now-a-days. So it does not really require the large in-place industry that is normally associated with it. At least not for the amounts required by a post-apocalyptic setting. (i.e. enough for a single vehicle)

    • Dieselpunk doesn’t require high-grade gasoline though. Ethanol, woodgas, methane, and biodiesel all work just fine in internal combustion engines (just look at some of the post WW2 retrofit manuals from Europe) and can be had even if there’s never been any oil (like in the later Ringworld books).

      • It does imply a large industry. Obviously I don’t have a problem with someone ginning up some alcohol and using that to power a scooter. But I think dieselpunk implies large industries and a middle class to run them (not just peasants in coal mines). Which implies a level of stability which would make the lack of computers rather inexplicable (unless you had some sort of Butlerian jihad type situation :P).

  2. I think that the mark has been missed on this. Steampunk generally is a neo-victorian fashion theme with a super-science beautiful machinery twist. Focusing on the beauty of both of those aspects. Dieselpunk is a WW1 WW2 1920-1950s bend with a focus on the high fashion and elegant cars. Post Apocalyptic settings are focused on the absence of beauty and beauty destroyed. The machinery is hulking brutish taped together monsters, and the fashion is a pieced together collection of scraps, focusing on function more than fashion.

    I don’t think that you can lump PA into either Steam or Diesel categories, it is its own fictional setting that can have aspects of both Steam and Diesel but not be considered part of either.

    • It was certainly not my intention to “lump” PA in as a part of either Steampunk or Dieselpunk. PA is an element in it’s own right, it’s just not mutually exclusive to many other elements. One of the things that seems to be getting more and more popular in publishing right now, is mixing and matching elements of setting, with traditional storytelling styles not traditionally set in those settings. I find it more useful to think of Dieselpunk and Steampunk as an aesthetic, not a genre/subgenre, because it’s too versatile, and you can throw in a little of it, or a lot, depending on what you want to do. I only mention PA in association with Dieselpunk, because those two seem to be paired more often than many other elements.

  3. As yes, the post-apocalyptic dieselpunk world, in which every millwright in America instantly becomes a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and every steam/dieselpunk loving hipster will, basically, die.

    • I feel like there’s a reference I’m missing on this – can you give an example of what you’re referring to?

  4. The world-building and conceptualization is interesting, but you are too hung-up on the labels. For instance, both steam and combustion engines would be found in a post-apocalyptic world in varying amounts depending on what sort of event we’re calling the “apocalypse”. You’d find combustion engines converted to run off smoke. Just look up what Filipinos did in WW2, converting engines to run off gases produced from the burning of coconut husks in a sealed chamber. People would do whatever they possibly could to hold on to useful technology.

    If genre and subgenre definitions and expectations dictate what can and can not be content in the story, it can have negative impacts in various ways due to imposed limitations. There is a threshold between too much adherence to the elements of a genre, and too little. It’s certainly not adherence to those things that makes a story good.

    • I don’t actually mean to set limitations by my descriptions – I’m just going by the predominant forms of technology. There’s definitely room for a lot of stuff besides diesel power. I think it’s kind of the same as people’s assumptions about medieval times and medieval historical fiction and fantasy – that they used swords and armour and didn’t have gunpowder. Well, ok, they did – in europe. But the Chinese had gunpowder centuries before the west started using it.

      I’m thinking about a post on that – the limitations people’s assumptions create, and the trouble with the assumption that if they had one form of technology, they must have this other technology that evolved at the same time in earth’s history (and specifically western history, because all secondary world technology must evolve exactly as western technology did), even if the two are not dependent on one another.

  5. We’ve already secured most of the “low-hanging fruit,” as it were, when it comes to mining, oil drilling, etc. To get at more, we’d need higher technology to (1) locate them (we currently use satellites) and (2) reach them–both of which we’d lack in a post-apocalyptic scenario. And this ignores completely the issue of simply producing food and the infrastructure necessary to supply it to population centers; the production of electricity upon which water-processing plants depend; and then access to potable water. “Somebody” would have to figure out how to recycle or repurpose physical resources that already exists, and that alone will require significant technical know-how (e.g., how to heat a kiln to a high enough temperature to melt certain metals when there is access to only wood, coal or a limited supply of fossil/fermented fuel). In a PA world, I think it’s generous to say we’d attain a level of steampunk, let alone anything more advanced. When the apocalypse happens, whoever survives will be living in an agrarian-centric “stonepunk” world. Check out the first episode of James Burke’s TV series, “Connections,” for a startling revelation of how technologically dependent out culture is and how easily it could all fall apart.

  6. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to mention that I have really loved browsing your weblog posts.

    In any case I’ll be subscribing for your rss feed and I hope you write once more soon!

  7. Pingback: My Blog Is One Year Old – Anniversary Post | Lindsay Kitson – Dieselpunk Author

  8. The working of computer can be brought down to FlipFlops.
    And this is logically a very easy principle and can be done in many ways.
    So computer may be not so sophisticated and easy to access but you would be able to build simple replacements for defined duties 😉

  9. Excellent overview and comments, Lindsay. I must say I liked ‘SKY CAPTAIN’ despite the unlikely aerobatics, a supposed successor to the HINDENBURG which looks only about three hundred feet long when moored to the Empire State Building and can be held by one guy holding one rope, a flying aircraft carrier fueled by magic, and WW2 fighter planes that can plunge into the sea at full speed without damage and turn into submarines…Come to think of it, I can see how a real pilot like yourself might not like it!

    • It’s not the Dieselpunk elements bordering on ridiculous that I disliked about that movie. It was very much the lack of a compelling plot, and the characters. The main character just seemed to have everyone falling over themselves to give him everything he wanted, for no other reason than he’s a charming sort of guy, and that just destroyed plausibility for me. And Gweneth Paltrow’s character? Pft. Why was she even there if she was just a ditzy trophy?

      • Audiences seem to have shared your view more than mine, Lindsay. The movie was a financial flop even though it cost very little as such movies go. That killed its makers’ next project, ‘A PRINCESS OF MARS’ until it was eventually made by others as ‘JOHN CARTER’, a much bigger flop! Mind you, I liked ‘JOHN CARTER’ too, so maybe I’m just weird.

        Gwynneth Paltrow’s character was deliberately ditzy I think, a conscious throwback to such characters in 1930s movies. I enjoy such silliness partly because I usually don’t take movies as models for real life behavior. The reverse, in fact. Movies (and books and stories) often give good examples of how NOT to behave.

        What I’d really like to know is where Sky Captain got the money to buy and maintain his own private air force…

        • Well, being a female, I probably notice more than you that there is the dearth there is of female characters who are there for any reason but to look pretty. Jolie’s character at least got to kick ass, but she got not character development, and that’s just as disappointing.

          • Interesting point, Lindsay, and a situation you are helping to remedy with your paint-balling pilot heroine (an intriguing first chapter, by the way). I wonder how or even whether Angelina Jolie’s character could have been developed within the constraints of a relatively short and action-packed movie. I agree with C. S. Lewis and other critics who warned that character description and development can be overdone and actually harm adventure stories, except when the development arises inevitably from the story. After all, do real people’s characters change within the time-frame of such stories? I’d say sometimes yes, but not always.

            But I would have liked to know more about what Angelina Jolie’s character got up to with the Sky Captain in Shanghai…

          • I’m certainly trying to expand the roles of women in fantasy. Men often don’t notice the lack of meaningful, fleshed out female characters because they haven’t been trained to identify with them, but women get a lot more frustrated, and feel alienated by movies and books where all the cool characters are guys and the only women in the story are either evil antagonists, or ditsy damsels in distress.

            I’m not inclined to follow C. S. Lewis’s advice, honestly. Keep in mind C. S. Lewis said in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, that women should not in any circumstances take part in combat. The weapons he gave Susan and Lucy were for self defense only. I believe Susan only ever used her bow to hunt for food, and Lucy used her knife to cut Aslan free from the stone table.

            Also, the female characters in the Narnia chronicles who came from earth were the only female characters in those books with the exception of the White Witch, and a spoiled princess in The Horse and His Boy. He didn’t believe in having female warriors.

  10. Some books and movies are indeed more popular with men than women, Lindsay, and vice-versa. And some cross over.

    C. S. Lewis’ writings have been a powerful influence on me for about twenty years, but his nonfiction more than his fiction, and I do not always agree with him. He didn’t always follow his own advice, particular regarding his relationships with women.

    The commands and gifts you attribute to Lewis in the first Narnia book are in fact the work of Aslan the lion, whom Lewis identifies with Jesus Christ rather than himself. Lewis warned elsewhere against identifying a writer too closely with his characters, and I agree with him. As for female Narnians, it’s been a while since I read any of the books, but Mrs. Beaver certainly springs to mind.

    • I’m well aware that C. S. Lewis was heavily into Christian apologetics, so you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that he didn’t believe the things he had a character he set up to represent Christ saying. 😛

      • I never said Lewis did not believe such things, Lindsay, though if he did it was related more to his social conservatism than to Christianity, which is a very broad church indeed and in no way intrinsically sexist. What I said was that Aslan was not Lewis.

          • Each to his or her own. I don’t think there is an exact ‘poster boy’ for how to write female characters or anything else. I’ve found Lewis very informative and wise, but I don’t actually write like him, or like anyone else.

  11. Maybe a liitle late for this thread, but I see another core difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk. Steampunk is a quite new thing. It ermerged maybe 10 years ago inspired by some books and movies and is in some way related with the goth scene (some steampunks would protest on this statement, but just go to a big goth event and you see the issue). Even the music preferred by most steampunks is rather goth stuff like dark wave but no music from the Victorian era. On the other side, during the last 50 years, there have always been people loving swing music of the 1930s/40s, film noir, art deco style, fashion from that time and integrating all this more or less in their daily life style. Just nobody called them dieselpunks. The only thing really new in Dieselpunk is the label.

  12. At first, with william gibson, came “cyberpunk” : a universe filled with cybernetic implants and street punks.
    You know, PUNKS. Leather, tattoos, chains, mohawks, and bad attitudes. So far so good, makes sense.

    Then, out of an astonishing lack of imagination, came steampunk. A world filled with steam technology, and hipsters with beards and vintage aviator glasses…can someone please explain to me were the “punk” part of steampunk is?
    If there are no punks, why call the movement “steampunk”?

    Because the inventor of this vapid genre had no imagination whatsoever, took “cyberpunk” (a litterary movement that has nothing to do with steampunk) and swapped “cyber” with “steam”…talk about a creative guy.
    So “steampunk” doesn’t really make sense as a genre name…and now we got “dieselpunk” (god help me) : a slight variation of steampunk (combustion engine instead of steam…WOW what novelty, what originality), unsurprisingly created post 2000 by unimaginative and lazy millenials…still not one punk in sight by the way.

    Do you see were this is getting ridiculous? First off, “dieselpunk” is basically steampunk painted in an other color (once again, yeay for imagination and creativity), and secondly, why INSIST on keeping the “punk” part, when all these genres have absolutely nothing to do with cyberpunk…why not come up with an entirely new name instead??

    Why the insistence of adding the word “punk”, to describe a world were the mere concept of a “punk” doesn’t even exist?

    This shows how lazy and unimaginative people are becoming…furthermore, they are not even trying to make sense anymore. So you can add “really fucking stupid” to the list of things i really don’t like about millenials.

    Try to come up with your own shit people instead of ripping off stuff that already exists (and slightly changing the name so you make it your own), it really wont hurt.
    Bunch of boring lazy ass idiotic conformist morons…no wonder everything looks alike nowadays…how fucking boring.

Leave a Reply to Ian Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s