“I can’t think, I can’t speak, my speed is still increasing.”

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Concept art for Iron Grip: Warlord…I think. It’s been a while.

Well, another review of mine has gone up on Strange Horizons, this time for Sean Wallace’s 2015 anthology The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. I confess I had a personal motive for reviewing this book. Way back in the wild and wooly days of 2005, I used to write for The Gatehouse Gazette, a small ezine focusing on steampunk and dieselpunk culture. It was one of the first places I tried out online criticism, and I certainly had a lot of fun writing about obscure books and games, but after a while I began feel a disconnect between how I viewed “dieselpunk” and what everyone else wanted from it. I’m not a fighter by nature, so I eventually decided to leave the ‘zine rather than argue my case, but I get into some of my issues with the current state of dieselpunk in my Strange Horizons piece.

Ultimately, I think my main issues with both steampunk and dieselpunk is that I came to them from my interest in alternate history, rather than from pulp scifi or fantasy. I certainly love the aesthetics of early 20th century Europe, even if my tastes run more towards the militaristic and autocratic, but what I love most of all is translating these images and styles into different contexts, something alternate history excels at doing. There’s just something so fascinating about taking images that have been recorded and mass-produced and studied exhaustively, then reworking them into a different context. I love seeing things like the naval combat sim Enigma: Rising Tide, which ends with the American navy launching an Pearl-Harbor-style attack against the Imperial German navy at Scapa Flow, or things like Resistance: Fall of Man which had mocked-up photos of Americans engaging in a D-Day style landing on the British coast with period-styled VTOLs hovering over the beach. My favorite story in the collection, “Dragonfire is Brighter than 10,000 Suns,” is pretty much built on this concept, with communist Romans in a conventional standoff with the capitalist Chinese in central Asia. Aside from the uncanniness of seeing familiar images translated into new forms, there’s also a great opportunity to come at situations and problems from a different angle, where the same event becomes something different when the characters have been recast and the background has been altered.

(As an aside, I’d like to apologize for the lack of new writing recently. January has not proven to be a productive month. I’ll have something up at some point in February. I promise.)

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4 Responses to “I can’t think, I can’t speak, my speed is still increasing.”

  1. S. Qiouyi Lu says:

    Hi there! I read your review on SH today and it’s so great to see that someone else was disappointed by the volume—I wanted so much to like it, but it ended up not reaching any of my expectations. Like you, I constantly feel dissatisfied with what gets called dieselpunk and the concept of dieselpunk that I have in my mind’s eye. Honestly, I think a lot of Miyazaki’s work like Howl’s Moving Castle comes closer to what I’d want to see than any of the stories in the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

    For me, one of the difficulties I face with dieselpunk is that, while I find a lot of the aesthetic and history of the time fascinating—China had some really cool art deco-inspired graphic design; I have a whole volume talking about it—I keep feeling like dieselpunk reproduces historical inequality and oppression rather than exploring alternate histories or challenging the past. So that’s where I’m coming from.

    Really enjoyed your review; if you have more thoughts on dieselpunk, whether already out there in the world or not, I’d love to read/hear them.

    S.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alasdair says:

      Sorry for getting back to you so late, but thank you so much! Honestly, I found one of the harder things to do is find anyone online who read either …Dieselpunk or any of Wallace’s two previous steampunk collections and said anything about them. I read the previous volumes before tackling …Dieselpunk, and there’s definitely a problem with the stories having a very similar voice despite the differences in time and place.

      For myself, I’m mostly interested in using “dieselpunk,” or “industrial fantasy,” or whatever I’m calling it, to figure out why the first half of the 20th century turned out the way it did, and maybe to try to process the intermingled currents of optimism and horror of the period. At the same time I like the aesthetics and imagery of the period, particularly coming out of continental Europe and the Soviet Union, and I also find it an interesting period in the history of science fiction, where there was a clearer idea of what SF “should” be, but the American model was not yet predominant. Not entirely sure how all of those can combine, but there’s gotta be a way, right?

      Liked by 1 person

      • S. Qiouyi Lu says:

        Definitely, yeah! I’m working on a story at the moment that I want to be dieselpunk, but even then I’m not sure how I want to go about it myself—it’s an alternate medical invention with fantastical elements, but then I wonder if I want to incorporate alternate history (if so, how much?) or if I want it to be almost secondary world (if so, what makes something “dieselpunk” in a world without Earth’s cultures and history?).

        I’m also interested in what was going on in the Pacific around the same time, in particular in China—seems most dieselpunk centers in the US or Europe. Have you taken a look at Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s comic Monstress? It’s only a few issues in so far, but the secondary world aesthetic is shaping up to be a cross between steampunk and dieselpunk.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Alasdair says:

          Well, I can only offer vague advice, but if you do decide to assay a full-on secondary world, hit me up with a email. I’ve been (very casually) puzzling out the question of how to represent the 20th century as a fantasy for a project of my own, and who knows, maybe some of my dumb ideas might be useful to somebody.

          My comic reading has fallen off in recent years, to the point where the only two things I read regularly (for a given value of “regularly”) are The Manhattan Projects and Caitlin Kiernan’s Alabaster. I’m not entirely sure Monstress is quite my thing, but I’ve been thinking I might give it a try once the first trade hits.

          Like

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