This Guy Gets Dieselpunk

A friend directed me to a post today, and you all have to read it. 

Or anyway, if you like dieselpunk, you should read it.

Aside from my knee-jerk need to point out that steam is not a fuel, the fuel what is burned to heat the steam, and there were, ironically enough, steam engines that ran on diesel fuel, this guy really gets the spirit of the difference between dieselpunk and steampunk. “Steampunk heroes are engineers and tinkerers. Dieselpunk heroes are drivers and pilots.” In a steampunk book, the main character would build an aeroplane from scratch, maybe the first aeroplane ever, and it probably just barely flies. In a dieselpunk story, the main character flies the coolest, most advanced aeroplane their civilization has ever built, and a team of engineers to keep it running.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy his book.


16 responses to “This Guy Gets Dieselpunk

  1. Very interesting, Lindsay. A pilot and an engineer are major characters in my WIP, but my young protagonist is neither by training. He does manage to land a plane at one stage, not very well, but any landing you can walk away from…Or swim away actually, since it’s a seaplane and an ‘oceaning’ rather than a landing. The pilot flies an 80,000 steamship later, using alien technology (i. e. magic in thin disguise!).

    Said steamship burns a heavy form of bio-diesel, as do my airships. My planes burn a form of bio-gasoline. But my characters are not as ecologically-minded as that might suggest.

    Maybe a zeppelin WOULD improve many stories. Think what Hercules or King Arthur or Beowulf or Hamlet could have done with an airship. I see a story! A trilogy! Okay, maybe not.

    In any case, you’ve introduced me to another interesting website and TWO new writers. That’s the evening gone and it’s all YOUR fault!

    Thanks, Lindsay. JTS

    • 😀 Glad to be of service. The pilot vs tinker thing is just a generalization. The point is that the definition isn’t about what you use for fuel – it’s about the roles the technology plays. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that the era dieselpunk is generally set in is the first point where there was such a thing as public mass transit, for example. In steampunk the tech is new and wonderous, most often involving prototypes, where in dieselpunk, you have sleek, refined designs being mass produced, and used by the common man.

  2. Good point about steam not being a fuel. These days people need to be reminded that things like electricity and hydrogen are not fuels either, but made mostly by burning something else. How many electric car fans realize their cars are really mostly coal-powered?

  3. I think it’s a good broad distinction, yet misses a couple of things. Maybe I’m biased because I’m an engineering student . . .

    “Tinkerer” is a perfect description regarding steampunk. There’s a certain mechanical grotesqueness about steampunk that is strongly opposed to the refined industrial and artistic uses of technology in dieselpunk. I mean, yes it’s true about the nature of the protagonists–even in my latest work I have played out the pilot-surrounded-by-engineers-and-entrepreneurs thing you mentioned–but engineering as a focal point isn’t strictly steampunk territory.

    I jump on this because it isn’t until technology AND society have advanced beyond what steampunk provides that engineering can really reach a significant level. A major backdrop of diesel is the skyscraper, and the skyscraper needs massive amounts of steel and concrete and labour, none of which really exist in the steampunk world. Architecture ceases to become a happy faerytale picture and moves into high-modernist statement of individualism. So in that context, the architect and engineer and capitalist should be just as romantic as the pilot in dieselpunk.

    Engineering can sometimes involve brigolage, which is probably why at first glance it’s easy to lump it in with the steampunk tinkerer.

    I think at the core it is individualism that is being reflected in the standard dieselpunk hero of the pilot or driver, not necessarily the specific skills they have–it’s just that one of the coolest ways to portray individualism is in a pilot or a racecar driver. Granted maybe engineers aren’t as rugged individualists in general as architects and capitalists and pilots . . . so maybe that’s why that distinction seems easy to jump to at first.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to hijack. My blog is exploded and being redone and I have nowhere to write at the moment. Heh.

    • Petropunk exploded!? Well, petrol(gasoline) is more explosive than diesel. I hope you get it back together again soon. Meanwhile there’s always Facebook (something I thought I’d never say!).

      May I note some exceptions to your excellent distinctions between Steampunk and Dieselpunk? Consider the Brunels, father and son, the various Stevensons, and many other Nineteenth Century engineers. They had plenty of labor, concrete and wrought and cast iron, which could do most of what steel did in that century, not least building the thousand foot tall Eiffel Tower. Even the ancient Romans had engineers (particularly hydraulic engineers), labor (slaves!) and concrete, though less iron. And there were plenty of slaves in the Nineteenth Century too.

      It is true Steampunk only approximates the Nineteenth Century, and Dieselpunk the first half of the Twentieth Century, or post 1914, depending on one’s definitions. Stories in both genres are sometimes set in the (typically post-apocalyptic) future, and even on another planet, as is my WIP. But real history is still a useful yardstick.

      Lindsay’s also excellent distinction based on mass production and transit has exceptions too. Steam railways were the mass transit of the Steampunk age, not airships, which didn’t fly in reality until 1901 and were always rare and expensive to use. And the huge Mitsubishi company largely hand-built the Zero fighters that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, as the Americans discovered to their surprise later when they dismantled captured Zeros and found their parts were not always interchangeable. The exceptions do not disprove the rule, but they do encourage me to distinguish Steampunk and Diesel on chronological, technological, and philosophical grounds, rather than any one of the three. Or conversely, to just say I know which is which when I see them!


      PS I had to look up brigolage, which Google insists should be spelt ‘bricolage’!

      • Sorry, but I have to correct you on the petrol vs diesel thing…

        Petrol/gasoline is much less explosive than diesel – that’s why diesel engines don’t have spark plugs. In a diesel engine, the fuel ignites spontaneously due to the compression in the cylinder, because it has a lower octane value than gasoline. The higher the octane value, the less explosive a fuel is.

        • True only under compression and without a spark, Lindsay. At normal atmospheric pressure gasoline is far more explosive, though it does of course require a naked flame or hot substance. Diesel vehicles are less likely to burn in accidents, a fact not much advertised since most vehicle companies make both types.

          Storage and transport regulations for gasoline are also much stricter. For example, it is illegal to store even small volumes of gasoline in Ireland above ground and outside vehicles, but my 300 gallon tank of diesel is perfectly legal right behind my house.

          We’re both using the word ‘explosive’ to mean flammability rather than calorific value. Once ignited the explosive force of diesel is indeed 10% greater by volume, though similar by weight, which is more important to you aviators.

          I was joking in taking Petropunk to refer to petrol in the European sense. C. A. Lang probably means it to refer to petroleum in general.


          • Ah – yes – and Avgas (octane rating 100, even higher than gasoline), you have to have a grounding wire attached to the plane, and make sure the nozzle is touching the edge of the tank while fueling up.

            But you can understand why I assumed you meant explosiveness when you said explosiveness, and not flamability. And indeed why I’d nitpick about semantics and word usage on my dieselpunk writing blog. 😛

      • Yes I made a typing error!

        Since monolithic projects are a characteristic of dieselpunk, and projects like the Hoover Damn could not have been made by slaves pouring concrete by hand and hydrating it with little buckets, there has to be a bit of distinction between engineering at that level and whatever was going on before.

        • Definitely! Big dams and aqueducts and canals were built by the Romans and other ancient civilizations, but none as large or complex as the Hoover Dam, which featured in a recent Percy Jackson novel incidentally.

  4. Like I said Lindsay, I didn’t mean anything seriously. After all, blogs don’t really explode, I think and hope!

    Oddly enough, the gasoline octane or diesel cetane rating is irrelevant at atmospheric pressure as both measure susceptibility to detonation by pressure rather than by spark or flame and do not directly influence energy output either. Yet some drivers still think ‘super’ gasoline makes their cars faster!

    Faster vaporization is what makes gasoline ignite more easily than diesel at normal pressure. No wonder nobody gets high sniffing diesel!


    • Yeah, it’s cute when guys think premium is better for their car than the regular gasoline it was designed for.

      I find it interesting that lately there’s been some movement to bring back diesel in consumer vehicles, and in some aeroplanes.

      • Indeed, Lindsay. Most cars in Europe, Ireland not least, have been diesels for years, encouraged/compelled by our petrol and diesel prices of about $10 US per Imperial gallon and an annual Road Tax of up to about $3,000 US based on CO2 emissions. New car purchase taxes are also based on CO2 emissions and double the prices of many cars.

        As you may know, some airships were diesel-powered, notably the HINDENBERG and Britain’s ill-fated R101, though not its more successful semi-sister ship the R100. Both Germany and Russia built large diesel-engined airliners and bombers in the 1930s, and Britain’s post-war Napier Nomad turbo-compound diesel remains one of the most efficient aero-engines ever, even after 60 years.

        Maybe Dieselpunk writers should drive diesel cars!


        • Yeah, I grew up the daughter of a bee farmer, and he had a diesel truck for most of my life, so the sound of a diesel engine, to me, has a bit of a nostalgic quality. If I ever end up buying a car, and the diesel thing is taking off, I would definitely consider one.

          In planes though, the vibrations were a problem, but newer designs have been able to minimize the vibrations, so maybe it’ll take off in general aviation. I think I heard the diesel engine will give you more miles to the gallon, and increases the range of a plane with the same size tanks.

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