“Steampunk has 3½ Sisters”
Ben Thompson takes a closer look.
Although Steampunk has been around since the 1980s and arguably, before then, under different names, for a long time, it was somewhat “niche”. In recent years, though, it has been busy going mainstream. When both the New York Times and the Huffington Post have covered the topic, you know it is well on its way to being part of mainstream culture (See notes 1, 2 & 3). Like the “Goths” of the 90s and the “Emo”s thereafter, Steampunk is now firmly part of mainstream awareness, as well as niche culture.
The next stage is, probably, for it to be satirised. There are those who say that it is a short step from satire to the (presumably corroding-brass- and verdigris-) dust-heap of cultural history… along with more deserving candidates such as hipster “beard-oil” and breakfast cereal cafes. But on that, I disagree- I don’t think Steampunk will die out. On the contrary, I think it will continue to grow and thrive: it has already spawned several related genres: Raypunk, Dieselpunk and Atompunk. You might say that Steampunk, like an elegant lady in some Victorian fantasy, has at least 3 younger sisters and each is as gloriously quirky and beautiful as the next; how very apposite.
Anyway, like “Goth”-culture and, for that matter, like almost every song ever written, at least one of the “-punk” sisters speaks on some profound level to those of us who don’t always “fit” in to other places; there is something in this for nearly everyone. In any case, the big advantage of something old is that it is already dated. Steampunk is that very strange beast: a modern old-classic and, as everybody knows, “classic” never goes out of fashion.
Raypunk & Dieselpunk.
Picking up where Steampunk leaves off, Raypunk officially spans the years 1910 to 1930 and features Ray guns, streamlined objects, futuristic and unknown technology and, above all, aliens. In practice, Raypunk often stretches somewhat later than 1930; think of an artful take on the ”Thunderbirds” aesthetic and you’re in the right ballpark. Supposedly, Dieselpunk then takes up the mantle in 1930 and covers world set from then until the 1950s. This means it spans World War II, diesel powered machines and film noir, with a healthy (unhealthy) dose of the occult thrown in. Given the known fascination of the Nazis with all things occult and the broadly contemporaneous activities of the likes of Jack Parsons and assorted US Thelemists, it is easy to see traces of the real world of the 1930s to 1950s peering through the thick black fog of Dieselpunk’s parallel reality. The film “pulp fiction” is sometimes lumped into this world, but I personally think the anime classic “howl’s moving Castle” is a better fit – the dark bombers of war that haunt Howl’s nightmares are nothing if not Dieselpunk. Likewise, the shape shifting spies that creep among the city’s populace, literally melting into the shadows as they conduct their nefarious business, in service of the area’s ruling witch. The horrors of war are a recurring theme in the work of Hayao Miyazaki, as well you might expect from a boy who grew up in Japan’s darkest hours. But, for all his genius, Miyazaki would be just a small footnote in Dieselpunk if his only tight that world was through Howl’s Moving Castle. In fact, that is not the situation: the Edwardian – era mining theme of his earlier film “Laputa: Castle in the sky” is also squarely Dieselpunk, as is the film’s famous train chase scene, where the protagonists flee from the foot soldiers of their areas totalitarian regime. The trains, it is true, a steam powered, not diesel fuelled, so the chronology is a little blurred, but the ethos is wholly Dieselpunk. More adult films, such as “Sin City” and various “Gotham”-based films too numerous to list and related artwork could be called Dieselpunk. Casting our minds back 15 years earlier, we find dark-tinged classics like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” evoking a very similar era and feel. The time-travelling WW2 fighter pilot film “Biggles” (later released in the US as “Biggles: Adventures in Time”) might also be seen as Dieselpunk- the time period fits and there’s more than a little of the classic dark ethos with the Nazi sound-weapon, plus the alternative reality/time travel components to the plot (see note 4).
People usually talk about Atompunk is the fourth and final “sister” of the – punk family, with its “true” sci-fi feel, complete with robots, atomic power, nuclear power and Cold War themes. As always, though, the lines between the different “punks” are not clear-cut. Nominally, the earlier end of Atompunk covers much of the heyday of sci-fi comics: a space – time place that is replete with invaders from Mars, plus women with 3 breasts being rescued by squarejawed human males from leery eyed and frequently drooling space monsters and the like. The thing is, much of that aesthetic and artwork also fits neatly into Raypunk, which is nominally some 20 to 40 years earlier. Personally, I am biased, I like Raypunk and that early sci-fi and space fiction more than the other “– punk” eras; there’s a knowing tongue-in-cheek levity with the absurdity of Raypunk: a levity you’d be hard-pressed to find in Dieselpunk. For me, the atomic eras real-world fruit is written in poisonous legacy all over the Ukrainian countryside, in the waters off 21st-century Fukushima and sealed in a Swiss tunnel for the next 250,000 years. It’s easier to laugh at the absurdities of space-mania, than the mania and irresponsibility of the early nuclear era.
Decopunk- the latest half-sister.
There is another member of the punk family, less known than the first four, perhaps we should call “her” half sister: Decopunk. As you might expect, this appellation covers works set from the 1920s to the 1950s: from flappers and the Roaring Twenties, right through Prohibition, the Wall Street crash in the darkness of the 1930s to 1940s courage and hedonism in the face of adversity and 1950s growth and renewed optimism. Within this time frame, though Decopunk focuses on the lighter aspects of life: it is the cleaner, more heavily-chromed version of the era: the flip side of the Dieselpunk coin, as it were. Author and costume designer, Sara M. Harvey, describes Decopunk as "shinier than Dieselpunk " and, conversely, Dieselpunk as a gritty version of Steampunk set in the 1920s–1950s”.
For many people living now, the brighter side of the 1920s to 1950s era comes loaded perhaps with connotations of the remnants of Edwardian affluence, of Flappers, or champagne breakfasts perhaps with smoked salmon and caviar, maybe feather boas strewn in haste across the bedroom floor… or impossibly rich magnates relaxing amongst the glorious golden and art deco world of private members clubs dotted around London’s Green Park. However, the core of Decopunk can be found in games like BioShock & it’s menacing sequel, Bioshock 2, which were inspired by the architecture of New York’s Rockefeller Centre, The GE building and its statue of Atlas (see note 5). The architecture in this region has been called unique, but, in fact, comparable and similar art deco projects can be found elsewhere: the University of London’s main administrative building, Senate House, in Bloomsbury, right in the heart of London is just one of a slew of comparable examples found around Europe (Note 6). Art Deco, after all, originally came from Paris. You might even argue that “metropolis” – that 1927 Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic (or its 1984 Giorgio Moroder re-edit) with its clean lines and art deco look fits into this genre most neatly of all.
Wherever you cast your attention in the worlds of Steampunk or Raypunk or Decopunk, Dieselpunk or Atompunk, you find a world that is nothing if not atmospheric. For all their tumult, the years from 1860s to the 1970 – the home of the “-punk family”- were a truly amazing time in the history of humanity. (Amazing for good and for ill). The “-punk” genres somehow capture and distil so much of the spirit of those eras for dreamers, present and future, to enjoy. So I, for one, am glad to see the Steampunk, Raypunk, Decopunk, Dieselpunk and Atompunk family expanding. With so much amazing content written, drawn, designed and animated already, I can’t wait to see where all 5 genres go next.
-Ben Thompson for The Greatest Minds.co.uk
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2. “How Steampunk became a stylish protest to the digital age”, Pub: New York Times, Thurs 8th May 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/style/steampunk-style.html
3. “What the Hell is Steampunk”, by William Higham, Pub: Huffington Post (Blog), 17/10/2011 Updated: 17/12/2011, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/william-higham/steampunk-what-the-hell-is-it_b_1015192.html?guccounter=1
4. The 1986 Sci-fi time-travel adventure film “Biggles” (dir. John Hough) was based on the character from the earlier books by W. E. Johns. It is the film that is Dieselpunk, rather than the novels.
5. “The Making of Bioshack”, Edge magazine, July 23, 2012-
More Steampunk & Related Content from The Greatest Minds:
" 12 Exciting Steampunk, Raypunk and Comic Artists" (Blog Post)
-for free full text, [CLICK HERE].
"Steampunk, Industry and Victoriana at St. Pancras: 3 Snapshots of Industrial Design from London" (blog post)
-for free full text, [CLICK HERE]
"Steampunk, Brussels Style" (Blog Post)
-for free full text, [CLICK HERE]
"Stars of Steampunk" (Feature Article)
-only available in The Greatest Minds's Book: "Marie Curie and the Ibexes"- Coming to Amazon Soon.