Steampunk vs Dieselpunk

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.”

Advertisements

Steampunk: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I promise to get back to the Utopia posts, but I’m in the middle of Nanowrimo now, so here’s something I was working on before I started: A discussion of the nature of steampunk.

It’s often referred to as a genre, an aesthetic, a subculture, a way of life, even. Sometimes it’s only a minor element in a bigger sense of setting in a work of fiction, sometimes it’s the entire point. Some call it science fiction, some call it fantasy.

The obvious: Steampunk is characterized by Victorian or Edwardian aesthetics, or later periods, if you’re getting into Dieselpunk. And there’s the Steam powered gadgetry (or, again, diesel powered, if you’re going Dieselpunk). And finally, unless you’re going Gaslight romance instead of full-fledged Steampunk, there’s the “punk” part – the social commentary.

So, is it science fiction or fantasy? First, then, what’s the defining difference between science fiction and fantasy? The best definition I’ve found is the one given by Robert J. Sawyer: On the difference between Science fiction and fantasy.

So, Science fiction is a possible present or future, where fantasy is a world that never was and never could be. So where does that put Steampunk? It often has “technology” in it, that from where we stand today, we know is impossible and ridiculous, even. Often to bridge the gap of suspension of belief, the author must resort to stating it runs on some form of magic. But just as often, the Steampunk element will be something that, to the people of Victorian or Edwardian times, might have been possible. Like using a zeppelin to fly to the moon. Or even better, a chair with fireworks strapped onto it. (That last one’s an example from a much earlier period than Victorian times, but I had to include it because it’s awesome.)

So people will argue, well, when H. G. Wells was writing, they believed these things were possible. Time machines, making animals sentient, turning people invisible, traveling to the center of the earth and finding live dinosaurs down there, submarines that could carry people deep under the sea (oh, wait, that one turned out to be possible). So if what H. G. Wells wrote was science fiction, then is Steampunk science fiction?

Lets put it in perspective. Look at all the tons of medieval fantasy there is out there. Look at medieval times – what did they believe was possible back then? Well, they believed in mermaids and unicorns, and dragons, and wizards, and magic.  And when people write medieval fantasy now, no one asks whether it’s fantasy or science fiction. Granted, no one asked whether it was science fiction or fantasy in medieval times either – but that was only because they hadn’t invented genres yet. For that matter, when H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were writing, it was still being called “Scientific Romance.”

So if we look at it being not the subject matter or setting that defines science fiction, but the perspective of the author, then Steampunk, even when it contains nothing that the author calls magic, is fantasy. Since science fiction looks forward, to what the author believed was possible at the time he/she wrote the work, and fantasy looks backward, at bygone eras, and imagines what fun it would be if the dreams of the past were not shattered by the reality of present knowledge.

This is why you find Steampunk on the fantasy bookshelves, not the science fiction ones.  The point of genre, after all, is to categorize books into if-you-liked-that-then-you-might-like-this, in order to make it easier for readers to find things they’re likely to enjoy.

P.S. – Halfway through nano – a little behind, but catching up. Wish me luck.