“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves …” the play "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare
As I mentioned in my last post, I realized that there was a major flaw in my theory about why Dieselpunks have interest in both the dark as well as the light side of the Diesel Era while Steampunks seemed only interested in the positive aspects of the Victorian era. My theory was that the difference was because the Diesel Era was by nature polarized. One might say that the Diesel Era resembled the legendary villain Two-Face from Batman with good and evil on opposite sides of the same face.
This schizophrenic source material, I theorized, resulted in an essentially schizophrenic genre-punk.
Shortly after I had posted my theory at Dieselpunks.org, it hit me that I had it all wrong. My flaw was in assuming that the Diesel Era was unique in this schizophrenia. In reality, this same pattern of greatness existing next to the worse of humanity was just as true during the Victorian era as it was in the Diesel Era.
A brief note is necessary about the period at issue for those who aren’t Steampunks. Oxford English Dictionary defines Steampunk as a, "genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advance technology." However, if you ask most Steampunks, the sound bite definition is usually “Victorian Era Science Fiction.” In this case, the term “Victorian” is used differently than the history books. Queen Victoria reigned from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901. While there are some disagreements among Steampunks as to when the era for their source material ends, the consensus among the members of the community for the purpose of the genre-punk the term “Victorian” generally continues beyond 1901 and ends roughly at the start of World War I.
Age of Progress
One might say that the Victorian era saw some of the greatest progress in human history when it comes to inventions, discovery, and exploration. It was also a time when some of the greatest writers produced amazing classics of literature while passionate activists fought for civil liberties that today we take for granted. Here’s a short list to illustrate my point.
Great Inventions: Transatlantic cable, sewing machine, telephone, light bulb, internal combustion engine and the automobile, radio, movies, airplane, radar, refrigerator, and the rigid airship.
Great explorers: John Charles Fremont, David Livingstone, William John Wills, Robert O'Hara Burke, Robert Peary (who was the first to reach the North Pole) and Robert Scott (who was the first to reach the South Pole),
Great Inventers/ Scientists: Marie Curie, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, Write Brothers, Albert Einstein and Max Planck.
Great Activists: Karl Marx, Helen Keller, Frederick Douglass, Mother Jones, Norris Wright Cuney, Sojourner Truth, Edward Carpenter, Emma Goldman, Robert Fox, Emmaline Pankkurst, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Susan B Anthony.
Great Writers: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet, Mark Twain, Eliza Frances Andrews, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Louisa May Alcott, and Bram Stoker.
Age of Horror
However, while the Victorian era was an age of amazing achievements it was also one of oppression, racism, imperialism and extreme class warfare. It was a vulgar and violent age dominated by people who, as any Freudian psychologist would tell you, were screwed up. The average Victorian person was like a Victorian-style house. Bright and cheerful on the outside while dark and depressing on the inside.
Since so much of Steampunk is centered in the UK (some Steampunks won’t consider any cultures other than British as Steampunk), it deserves attention that I didn’t give in part one.
Life for an average child in Victorian England was extraordinary hard. In 1860, only half of children between 5 and 15 were in school. Armies of children were forced to work in the great industrial factories of that time. Children as young as 5 years old began work in the coalmines. The majority of prostitutes were between the ages of 15 -22.
Poverty was rampant across all ages. London was filled with slums of families living in crushing poverty According to Kellow Chesney, "Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the metropolis... In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room."
With the encouragement of Prime Minister Disraeli, Britannia’s imperial power continued to grow during the Victorian Era. Using racist, such as Kipling’s “white man’s burden”, along with religious and cultural bigotry the British expanded their empire to cover large sections of the Middle East, Africa and China.
However, before Americans begin gloating, the United States was far from innocent during the Victorian Era. The list of atrocities in American history during the Victorian Era would be far too long to list here but let me give just a few.
Howard Zinn noted that in 1865 New York 100,000 people lived in slums; 12,000 women worked as prostitutes and garbage laid 2 feet deep in the streets. In 1911, 146 people (mostly women) burned to death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire because the escape doors were locked to insure that no worker might sneak out with a needle or some other company property. Michael Bellesiles pointed out in his book “1877: America’s Year of Living Violently” that the lack of safety regulations for American railroad workers was so poor that it shocked even the British.
It was an age of robber barons that got the best government money could buy. For example, Edison guaranteed politicians $1,000 each for their support for legislation to his benefit. Daniel Drew and Jay Gould bribed the New York legislature $1 million dollars to legalize their stock in the Erie Railroad.
There was the American Holocaust of the Native Americans as represented by the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Jim Crow laws replaced slavery of African-Americans and thereby creating an American-style apartheid backed up by domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed shortly after the end of the Civil War. American imperialism was just as racist in its Manifest Destiny such as in the Philippians in which one American soldier wrote, “Our fighting blood was up and we all wanted to kill ‘niggers’… This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces.”
The Real Difference Between Steampunk and Dieselpunk
Therefore, if we can't say that the Diesel Era was any different than the Victorian then the difference between the genres couldn't be due to the eras we focus on.
It’s my opinion that the difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk isn't so much the source material as the viewpoints of the genre-punks themselves. It may be appropriate to compare Steampunk to the Society for Creative Anachronism in that it intentionally takes only the positive from its era of interest. I don’t mean that Steampunk exists in some form of denial but more in the sense of smelting silver from ore. In doing so, beyond the entertainment aspect, the Steampunk genre attempts to identify and rediscover what was good about the era and leave the bad to the historians.
Dieselpunk is different in that it embraces what Steampunk would discard. There are several ways of looking at this attribute of Dieselpunk. One explanation might be that Dieselpunk has a Taoist aspect in which reality is a combination of light and dark without saying that one is necessarily good or bad. Humans are neither angels nor demons and we must accept our full humanity. As the Roman playwright Terence wrote, "I am a human being; I consider nothing that is human alien to me." Instead, rather than this Yin/ Yang aspect, one possible explanation would be that Dieselpunk embraces the concept that eternal conflict rests at the core of existence. One variation of this viewpoint is that there is an eternal war between the forces of Good against the forces of Evil. Even if we don’t go so far as to use absolutes, in this view reality is at a minimum a conflict of interests. Using classical thought, we could say that Dieselpunk is in the philosophical school of Realism.
There are risks in both the Steampunk and the Dieselpunk views.
By focusing only on the good of the Victorian era Steampunks run the risk of forgetting the horrors. Such forgetfulness is dangerous for if we do so then we may also forget George Santayana famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Dieselpunks, by accepting the darkness of humanity, run the risk of not striving for social justice and being complacent with the way things are. In doing so we are in danger of forgetting the warning of one of the greatest men of the Diesel Era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
In conclusion, in my opinion the difference between the two genre-punks is that Steampunk, while acknowledging the reality of the past, intentionally focuses on the positive in contrast to Dieselpunk, which intentionally celebrates and embraces both the positive as well as the darkness. The difference between the genre's is nothing more than being purely the choices that the individual Steampunks and Dieselpunks choose make.
To put it another way, Steampunks respectfully bury their dead while Dieselpunks gleefully open up the closet to let our skeletons come out to dance.