Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Your Dieselpunk is Too Small

On a recently episode of the Diesel Powered Podcast, Johnny Dellarocca, at my request, expanded on his post on the podcast Facebook page where he wrote the following:

Hey guys, some here may disagree, but as the "voice of Dieselpunk," the Diesel Powered Podcast has taken Tome Wilson's definition and defined it a little further... To be Dieselpunk there needs to be several key elements:
1) contemporary in origin - from or since the historical Diesel era.
2) decodence - the visual aesthetics of the 20s - 40s (and even the early 50s)
3) sci-fi or alternative technology elements - future tech, magic tech fantasy, etc
4) Punk. This is a counter cultural attitude, not always a physical representation. It is really you the fan expressing your desire to embrace style and culture of another era as a counter statement to contemporary culture.

As I stated on the podcast, I respectfully disagree with Johnny on this. I stand by the traditional definition of dieselpunk that Tome Wilson posted on “Dieselpunk is an art style that blends the spirit of the 1920s - 1950s with contemporary technology and attitude.” In my opinion, this classic definition allows for more than just science fiction/ fantasy. It also includes neo-noir, anti-heroes, modern sensibilities, and counter-cultural attitudes. These elements are essential to the dieselpunk identity just as much as science fiction and fantasy.

Therefore, I’m writing another post on the definition of dieselpunk. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

In my opinion, rather than defining dieselpunk “a little further”, Johnny has instead created new definition of dieselpunk. His new definition would read as follows:

“Dieselpunk is a genre of science fiction or fantasy set in, or containing elements of, the 1920s – 40s.”

If this looks familiar, it’s because Merriam-Webster recently defined steampunk as “science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.” Johnny would therefore define dieselpunk as nothing more than late steampunk and would cause it to lose its distinctiveness. We would simply be exchanging brass for chrome, top hats for fedoras, and steam power for internal combustion. Other than these aesthetic differences, we would be nothing more than steampunks.

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Let’s look at the ramifications of adopting this new Sci-fi Definition.

Certainly, it’s true that most dieselpunk movies are science fiction, fantasy, horror or alternative history. I don’t deny that fact. The reason for this, in my opinion, is not that dieselpunk is nothing more than science fiction/ fantasy but that science fiction, which is one of several elements of Punk, lends itself easiest for storytelling.

While I still hold that there are dieselpunks movie that are not science fiction/ fantasy, if cinema was the only effect this might not be a major issue. However, the effects go far beyond what movies are included as dieselpunk. It’s in its broad range effect where we see how serious the problem is with the new definition. I will address those dieselpunk movies that aren’t science fiction or fantasy in a future post.

The effects on music by the new Sci-Fi definition would be devastating.

Admittedly, Johnny did agree during the podcast that music posed a challenge for his new definition. John Wofford, another co-host on the podcast, correctly pointed out that some dieselpunk music involves either science fiction or alternative history. Paul Shapera’s The New Albion Radio Hour, A Dieselpunk Opera is an excellent example. We would also get to keep the fantastic dieselpunk band Postmodern Jukebox since Scott Bradlee, the founder and bandleader, describes their music as “an alternate universe of popular song”.

Wofford also commented that Electro-Swing might be considered alternative history. However, I would respectfully disagree and propose that the element in Electro-Swing that makes it dieselpunk is actually decodence and not alternative history.

In my opinion, making science fiction a required element eliminates nearly all dieselpunk music (exceptions being the before mentioned work of Paul Shapera and Postmodern Jukebox). Wolfgang Parker’s Swing Punk is now gone. No more 21st Century Blues of Chris Thomas King. The Swing Ska fusion of Cherry Poppin’ Daddies is out of here. Good-bye to music by the End Times Spasm Band. The Goth Swing of Lee Presson and the Nails is history. Farewell to the 30s Punk of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Adios to the entire Retro-Swing movement played by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Indigo Swing and others.

Are you, the reader, prepared to kick all of that great music out of dieselpunk? I’m not.

Farewell to Most Dieselpunk Music
The newly proposed Sci-fi Definition would eliminate dieselpunk fashion leaving nothing but Cosplay. A man wearing a fedora, three piece suits, and spats is no longer dieselpunk. Now it requires one to dress as the Rocketeer or Captain America. A woman is no longer dieselpunk if she wears a pill box hat and gloves or an evening dress with an Empire waistline. Now she has to dress as Rosie the Riveter or Wonder Woman.

Are we ready to end the existence of dieselpunk fashion? I’m not.

Farewell to Dieselpunk Fashion

So what would the proposed Sci-Fi Definition mean for those of us Lifestylers? By redefining dieselpunk as being nothing more than a genre of science fiction we will all be included in that ugly and unfair stereotype of the geek that we’re all familiar with. In an opinion piece for the Columbia Chronicle, Luke Wilusz described the stereotype as being, “the image of an awkward, socially inept, mouth-breathing basement dweller who has never spoken to a girl and wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to do if he were given the chance.” 

While the above stereotype is unfair, this is how many people see hardcore fans of science fiction and fantasy. If the new Sci-Fi Definition becomes the accepted norm then society will view Lifestylers like myself, and many of you, in the same unfair stereotype.

There's a New Geek Stereotype in Town: Dieselpunk Lifestyler
Concern About the Classic Definition
Let me address one of the criticisms that Johnny proposes that his new definition solves.

Concern: Doesn’t the Classic Definition open the genre to claiming anything it wants as dieselpunk? Wouldn’t limiting it to science fiction/ fantasy set a needed boundary?

My Response: It’s true that some individuals have criticized dieselpunk as being too broad. This contains some degree of irony when it comes from steampunks since they’re often accused of claiming productions as being steampunk that are not (Doctor Who being the most recent claim of ownership by some steampunks). However, the fact that some dieselpunks go too far with what they claim to be dieselpunk is not the fault of the definition but with the individual’s application. The three components of decodence, contemporary (i.e. post-Diesel Era), and Punk when properly applied provides adequate limits. Let me show how.

1) Decodence – Decodence is that feeling or impression that one gets that says “1920s – 1940s”. It might be explicit such as a storyline set during that period or it might be just the esthetics of the Diesel Era. This helps to fix prior mistakes where some productions were thought incorrectly to be dieselpunk. A Founding Father of dieselpunk, Benardo Sena (“Mr. Piecraft”), made one of the most famous mistakes when he included Mad Max in the landmark article Discovering Dieselpunk (Source: Gatehouse Gazette, Issue 1). I know few dieselpunks who consider the Mad Max movie franchise to be dieselpunk. Decodence limits similar movies from being wrongly included.

2) Contemporary – Contemporary, which in this context is nothing more than short hand for “Post-Diesel Era”, prevents dieselpunks from laying claims to the creations of the Diesel Era. Contemporary sets a time limit on what is and is not dieselpunk.

3) Punk – The attribute of Punk sets an important limit on claiming all current movies with decodence as being dieselpunk. Does it celebrate the anti-hero? Is it neo-noir? Does it contain modern sensibilities? Is it counter-cultural? Does it involve alternative history? Finally, is it science fiction/ fantasy? (Yes, science fiction is punk.) If it doesn’t have at least one of those elements, even if it has decodence and is Post – Diesel Era, it’s not dieselpunk. Punk is the brake that sets the final needed limit.

I hope I’ve made my case well. This isn’t haggling over a minor detail. It’s about the heart and soul of our genre. This new definition would eviscerate dieselpunk. Gone would be most dieselpunk music and all dieselpunk fashion. With dieselpunk as nothing but science fiction, Lifestylers would simply be geeks with fedoras.

Dieselpunk is much grander.

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