So You Want To/Write a Diesel Punk Story
First, be sure to check out Write a Story for basic advice that holds across all genres. Then, get back here for a rundown of the genre-specific tropes that will help you, hurt you, and guide you on your way.
All examples here are, well, examples of examples. Do not try to wrap your head around a story using all of the examples.
This page is under construction! If you want to help, I(Hoodiecrow)'d prefer suggestions on the discussion page before direct edits, but hey, it is a wiki.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Costume Designer
- 8 Extra Credit
From the definition on the main Dieselpunk page:
A Punk Punk genre of Speculative Fiction based on the 1920s - 1950s period, spiced up with retro-futuristic innovations and occult elements. The dieselpunk narrative is characterized by conflict vs the undefeatable (nature, society, cosmic), strong use of technology, and Grey and Gray Morality. The protagonists are usually Heroic Neutral and have low social status.
One of the things you need to establish is a sense of different yet familiar times. Zeerust is your friend here; take something iconic from the time period and use it as a design model for your props. Make sure the retro-futurism is worn down with grease and grit.
The horrifying scale and depressing futility of the Great War led many to believe that warfare had become obsolete -- surely no one in their right mind would want to start a war when technology made easy conquest impossible (and they may be right, see Divergence below). To reflect this, choose non-military-types for Action Heroes, too individualistic and too busy exploring, solving mysteries or whatever to join military units. Or go for a Science Hero, a character type that is still fresh in this era. The villains on the other hand are likely to be in uniform and eager to find a way to make war exciting (and effective) again, possibly using bigger battalions or Weapon of Mass Destruction. They can be foiled though, being Fascist but Inefficient.
You will need to decide at which point(s) your story diverges from real history. A common one is that The Great Depression didn't happen, which is a pretty big one since it changes the economic and political situations considerably. In our timeline, The Great Depression and its aftereffects ended the optimism of the 1920s and left industry and commerce dead in the water. People lost confidence in capitalism and liberalism, and left- and right-wing extremist politicians were able to sway the masses. None of this has happened in a typical Dieselpunk setting.
The next big point of divergence involves World War II breaking out. It doesn't have to: a story can have the Soviets' or Axis powers' belligerence defused or contained. In a Diesel Deco-flavored story, the dictatorships aren't calling the shots; maybe the League of Nations has been successful? The world is open and peaceful, and human and industrial resources are available to raise science and engineering to new heights. Conflict is likely to be vs nature (exploration) or vs some kind of Science villain, maybe someone who wants to set history back on the global conflict track. In a Diesel Noir-flavored story, the different dictators are still in power, but competing in some other arena. A Communism/Naziism Cold War, maybe? This is a more dystopian variant, with democracy in retreat all over the world. Conflict is likely to be vs society, or vs various spies and agents.
Or maybe World War II did break out. Even without the disrupting effects of The Great Depression, it is likely to occur due to a number of reasons, including Soviet visions of a world-wide revolution, German revanchism, or Japanese expansionism. In that case divergence can simply be a technological difference (Diesel Weird War). The period had oodles of war-related inventions, a lot of which never saw practical use. They can in your story, though! Some of the inventions that were put to use can very easily be Turned Up to Eleven; a impenetrable Franco-Belgian-Dutch system of fortresses from the Alps to the Frisian Sea, Soviet Land Dreadnoughts, RAF Airborne Aircraft Carriers, Stupid Jetpack Hitler, nuclear arms in every arsenal (with some kind of phlebotinic countermeasures to avoid having the fun end too quickly).
It is also possible to diverge later, in the aftermath or final stages of World War II. In our history, conflict continued with Cold War, post-colonial unrest, and the perpetual crisis in Palestine. In a Diesel Dystopia story, liberty is a thing of the past as governments feel the need for total control to avoid being overrun by greater or lesser powers. Even worse, in a Diesel Desolation story, the war has finished off civilization completely.
Even later divergence lands you in Atom Punk territory.
You'll want to avoid writing a story that is Steampunk, Raygun Gothic (e.g. going into space), or Two-Fisted Tales (e.g. too much Diesel era, too little punk) rather than Dieselpunk. Also try to avoid ending up with Present Day Past. As with Steampunk, some anachronisms are to be expected and are perhaps necessary, but the right period feel is essential.
Exploration: during this era the last uncharted parts of the world were visited by westerners.
The internal combustion engine (ICE) has replaced the steam engine as the main power source. The typical power plant is a diesel-powered piston engine, but petrol engines and gas turbines are also used. Compared to the steam engine, the ICE 1) can be made significantly smaller and lighter, 2) is safer (steam engine explosions were common and lethal) and a lot easier to use (they don't require a trained engineer to operate them, for instance), 3) is a lot more fuel-efficient. This means that your story can have a non-engineer operating a light vehicle over a great range.
The ICE also lets the aircraft really take off. Originally a Steam Era invention, the early-modern aircraft is almost synonymous with Dieselpunk. Of the 20 most produced aircraft to date, only two (the Mil Mi-8 and the Piper Cherokee) were designed later than the Diesel Era. New types of aircraft include:
- Airliners such as the DC-3 provide a faster alternative to travel by ship, and a more flexible alternative to railway travel.
- Cargo aircraft, like the C-82 Packet, both made air freight possible and led to development of stronger, more powerful designs.
- High-speed aircraft, most famously the Supermarine planes, were the prototypes for World War II heavy fighters and medium bombers.
- Alternatively, talented but punkish captains of industry pushed the envelope of aircraft construction outside the realm of commercial reason: Ettore Bugatti, George Fernic, Richard Vogt from Blohm&Voss.
- High-altitude aircraft, such as the Caproni 161, drove development of pressure suits and pressurized airframes.
- Jet-powered aircraft: honorary mention goes to the Me 262.
- Rotorcraft takes to the air. The 1920's and 1930's were the golden era of the autogyro or gyroplane. Pioneering helicopters also flew in the Dieselpunk era, though they really came of age after 1950.
A secondary but important effect of this is the introduction of aircraft manufacturing corporations. Apart from being plausible actors in a Dieselpunk story, the presence of such manufacturers drives innovation heavily in areas like guidance/cybernetics/electronics, materials (especially lighter and stronger kinds), engines (safer, more powerful/efficient), and production quality control.
If WW 2 has not broken out, expect many more flying-boats. Before the war brought an explosion of airfield-building all over the world, water-landing was widely used, especially for large aircraft too heavy to land on grass. The famous Pan-Am Clippers or the Empire Flying Boats flown by B.O.A.C. were perhaps the most famous.
Airships flourished briefly during the Diesel Era as IC Es brought down the power-to-weight ratio. Within a decade or so, the problems with airships (flammability of hydrogen, vulnerability to high winds) made the airliner a much better choice. In your story, airship technology might have improved quickly, using helium and more aerodynamic shapes, leaving airships a slower but cheaper alternative. Or you might decide to leave airships to the steampunks.
Diesel-electric transmission uses a diesel engine connected to a generator to power an electric motor that drives a vehicle. Since electric motors can supply torque down to 0 RPM, this makes the system ideal for trains, submarines, and ships (and heavy tanks: the Elephant tank used petrol-electric transmission).
There are no transistors or other semiconductor components, so electronic devices are bulky, fragile, and require a lot of energy. Radio and primitive radar equipment is cutting-edge technology--no lasers or rayguns.
This period in our history saw the first working computers, the beginning of cybernetics, and a feeling that true AI was just around the corner. In a Dieselpunk story, AI (of some kind, most likely Robo-Monkey to Average Joe) has been realized. Contemporary computer designs aren't really advanced enough (and above all not portable enough) for AI purposes, so some kind of Applied Phlebotinum like positronic brains is needed. Usually packaged in a Tin Can Robot.
Newspapers, magazines, and the telegraph are established forms of mass media, but the term "(mass) media" in this usage is a Diesel Age invention. Early on, a kind of telephone-based subscriber broadcasting was used; for instance theater and opera performances were broadcast by telephone. Television broadcasting exists in most advanced countries (beginning with mechanical television in the early years), but the iconic medium is radio broadcasting (cable radio and cable television also exist). For those without a TV set, movie theaters show newsreels. Film has sound and color. While the musical movie is more popular during the Diesel Era than nowadays, most modern genres have precursors in this age, including special-effects-heavy science-fiction and monster movies.
- The Indiana Jones films, which are the Trope Codifiers. Nearly every nuance of the genre can be observed here. The new vastness of planet Earth coinciding with ancient secrets only just being re-discovered; modernization contrasted against the old world; and our hero--a rugged, individualistic adventurer--is pitted against faceless legions of uniformed Mooks.
- Batman: The Animated Series, one of the most influential works of animation to come out the nineties, takes place in a noir-influenced world of zeppelins, art deco, and overlapping shadows.
- Fullmetal Alchemist blends Dieselpunk aesthetics (trains, tanks, dictatorships) with Magitek--a perfect study of how to mix in heavy fantasy elements to a Dieselpunk story and keep it engaging.
- Some works of director Hayao Miyazaki, including Kiki's Delivery Service and Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
- The works of H.P. Lovecraft exemplify the dark side of Dieselpunk. His stories are places where the dark corners of the earth were never meant to be uncovered, where man's accomplishments are dwarfed by the unconquerable vastness of the malignant universe, where digging deeper into the truth only leads to madness. Despite being an author of the actual time period, his works have influenced Dieselpunk writers for decades.