Steampunk – Dieselpunk – Atompunk

Steampunk is the one everyone knows now, even if they couldn’t define it for “Beat the Guillotine.”

The use of the terms began in the 1980s. In 1984, William Gibson’s stories began defining the cyberpunk genre. When he went abroad to the 1800s, some people kidded that he was now writing “steampunk,” a play on cyberpunk without serious intent. It had nothing whatever to do with punk music, art, or writing. Sorry, Siouxie.

As it has worked out, the “-punk” ending came to mean “kind of setting.” It doesn’t even differentiate scifi from fantasy.

In Europe, they don’t even like “steampunk,” because of the ending. They use terms like “gaslamp fantasy” because, let’s face it, 90% or better of steampunk isn’t hard scifi, or even soft scifi. It’s even past science fantasy, which tries to pretend to be scientific. It’s more like “let’s pretend the laws of physics are different and have a damned good time.”

Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machines by James Blaylock

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Morlock Night and Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter

Mainstream and Escapement by Jay Lake

Zeppelins West and Flaming London by Joe R. Lansdale

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Nomad of the Time Stream by Michael Moorcock

The Lord D’arcy stories by Randall Garrett, because while the dates were 20th century, the non-magical technology was about 1870s. Richard the Lionheart survived that crossbow bolt and founded a strong Plantagenet dynasty. The SF element is that in the Middle Ages magic superceded science, so in this other twentieth century not only is most of western Europe and the Americas in Plantagenet hands, but the technology is barely nineteenth century in many areas, while magic is used for everything from police forensics to food refrigeration.

Steampunk has been most notable as a visual school, showing up in comics, games, and anime: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Myst games, Lord Howl’s Castle, the game Lighthouse, and every version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, from Disney’s in the Fifties (considered seminal steampunk) to the rash of them around 2000.

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling can be classed as steampunk fantasy:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The world it really happens in, the wizard world, is full of people addicted to hats, tailcoats, and long robes and full-skirted dresses, steam engines, dark alleys and cottages in grassy fields, castles, and magical brass and gold devices. Sure, they can make cars fly, but in their own world they prefer flying brooms and coaches with winged horses or submarine clipper ships.

So can hard sf stories set in the future with a Victorianized culture, like The Diamond Age. Notice how there even the Chinese culture has reverted to the 19th century in so many ways.

Dieselpunk or radiopunk or Decopunk is the step beyond steam punk in historical inspiration. Instead of centering on the 1800s technology and culture (really, late Georgian through WW1), dieselpunk has post-apocalyptic worlds or alternate histories recalling the 1920s thorugh the end of WW2. Flappers and Nazis — one or the other, gotta have them. Otherwise, it’s the future as pictured in Golden Age science fiction, whether you play it straight or lace it wth 21st century cynicism. The future is Art Deco overboard. As some have said, Decopunk is dieselpunk without the grease.

Most of the easy examples of dieselpunk are movies: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer (which started as a dieselpunk comic book), the first three Indiana Jones movies which were supposed to be homage to the pulp fiction and movie serials of the Thirties.

Atompunk, as you may be catching on, is the world of early atomic energy, when it seemed it could do anything, inluding destroy the world any day. Its alternate futures usually have a bitter edge, if you’re used to the period’s science fiction and science fantasy. Picture your source as the Fifties and Sixties, and thereabouts. Disco starflight, anyone? Or Mad Men pushing a lunar colony. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull falls here. Instead of flappers and Nazis, we have greasers and Russkies.
One of two reasons for the attraction of these altered periods is that it lets us imagine them with fewer flaws than they actually had. Women can be strong and be-trousered, and other races are accepted. The other attraction is that they let us examine and use racism, sexism, and classism including as plot obstacles without readers flinching at the idea that the future holds these.

Stonepunk is sometimes used for stories of the ancient world featuring magic or excessive technology.

We can argue whether Poseidon’s Paradise: The Romance of Atlantis by Elizabeth G. Birkmaier (1892) has enough spec to qualify, or opt for the definitely stonepunk fantasy of 1899, The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis by C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne. Note that both follow the non-fiction pre-historic exploration of the possibility of an actual Atlantis, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) by Ignatius Donnelly, himself a speculative fiction writer.

There was the old legend of ancient Egyptian engineering, of Nitocris inviting her enemies to an underground banquet for novelty, then excusing herself and having the room flooded from the Nile so they could all die in screaming terror. This, and a few other tales of ancient engineering led to stories and scenes like the dungeon deathtraps at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is the basis for stonepunk: not just ancient-world type fantasy, because that has been around too long, and stonepunk seems to be connected to ancient magic intruding on later ages, or ages in which one has trusty war-mammoths attacking the gates in hundred-foot walls, but without hard metals.

Mannerpunk is the crazy name for fantasy and science fiction set in worlds or cultures where manners and punctilio are important.

The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust is a fantasy world version of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and the first of the Khaavren Romances.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as well as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After by Steve Hockensmith, not to mention Sense and Sensibility and Seaserpents by Ben H. Winters.

It’s also used for worlds that model on the period before steampunk, the 16th-18th centuries, like At the Queen’s Command by Michael A. Stackpole (and the rest of the books in the Crown Colonies series), set in an Earth whose history has gone awry from ours, so that smilodons still hunt on the equivalent of North America, settled on the east coast by the colonists of Norisle.

Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda trilogy (series?) can also be taken as mannerpunk fantasy, between foppish 14-year-old boys, girls in stays, and a spectrum of nods, bows, and curtseys of immoderate complexity, before even taking a semester of The Language of the Fan.