Steampunk, whether a style or subgenre, has always suffered from a misprisonment of title. When K. J. Jeter coined the word "steampunk" in his 1987 letter to Locus, he did so euphemistically, as a friendly nod to the still-great movement of cyberpunk. Unfortunately, despite some competition from the term "gaslight romance" in the 1990s, "steampunk" was the name that won out. As a result, steampunk has always had to dance uneasily with the shade of cyberpunk, sometimes appropriating its technology and milieu, other times sticking to period tropes, always vulnerable to criticism of being insufficiently anti-establishment. The association of steam with cyberpunk has also led to the curious effect of the suffix "-punk" becoming the modifier of choice for any story set in a genre-heightened historical era. The dash-punks ("sandalpunk" for ancient eras, "clockpunk" for heightened Renaissance Italies, "atompunk" for worlds emulating the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s) swim thick as herring, but have produced little more than excited discussion on a few blogs.
Of all the ephemeral dash-punks, one in particular, "dieselpunk," stands out in its curious endurance. The word itself began life as a marketing term used by Dan Ross, Joe Carl, and Lewis Pollack to promote their 2001 role-playing game Children of the Sun. The game itself came and went, and its setting, a multispecies fantasy world with a magically-infused mid-twentieth-century technological base, did not attract any followers. However the word "dieselpunk" persisted, in time becoming associated with a sort of neo-pulp science fiction aesthetic, a steampunk of the interwar period that gained its share of admirers. Unfortunately, the popular enthusiasm masks a critical problem: unlike steampunk, a literary movement that eventually became an aesthetic style, dieselpunk is a dissolute style without a movement. There is very little literature that bills itself as "dieselpunk" beyond self-published titles, and even those books are often little more than reheated pulp adventures. Discussions over the definition of dieselpunk, rather than looking to a core collection of new literature, haphazardly collect examples of visual media to use as models, resulting in the oddity of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Brazil (1985), and The Road Warrior (1981) all being considered "dieselpunk" works.
In light of these problems, Sean Wallace's newest anthology, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, represents a unique opportunity. A new collection, put out by a mainstream publisher and edited to have a unified voice, could be just the thing needed to put a face to the name of dieselpunk and introduce it to curious readers. Sadly, this is an opportunity that is not taken. Wallace’s Dieselpunk is of a unit with his two previous Mammoth collections, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures. Many of the same names appear in all three books, though about two-thirds of Dieselpunk is dedicated to new authors. Dieselpunk also shares with the previous two books an editorial mandate to gather as many stories from as many unconventional perspectives and national backgrounds as possible. In the previous Steampunk anthologies, this had the effect of including stories whose relationship to steampunk, indeed to science fiction and fantasy, seemed notional. This is less of a problem in Dieselpunk, given the reduced focus of the stories submitted, but still the feeling remains of a collection trying to push the boundaries of something whose limits are sketchily defined at best. Tobias S. Buckell’s introduction, a mere two pages, does little to clarify the matter, associating dieselpunk with the allure and anxiety surrounding technology found in Art Deco and with the optimism of interwar pulp literature, a vague description that could easily be applied to steampunk.
In its selection of stories, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk takes its cues from the popular conception of "dieselpunk" that has grown up online. As a result, the vast majority of the stories in the collection are modeled after the pulp science fiction and adventure fiction of the interwar period. Unfortunately, while a number of the stories are quite captivating, the selection reveals a major weakness of Dieselpunk, and indeed of dieselpunk’s embrace of pulp imagery: at this, the late date of 2016, there isn’t much that can be done with pulp that hasn’t already been done. The literature, however it is defined or delineated, has been exploited by genre writers, literary writers, and commercial interests continuously for decades. As early as the 1960s, Philip K. Dick was using his pulpy fiction to articulate his own explorations of the nature of reality. A few years later, Philip José Farmer was unifying all the heroes and villains of popular literature into one expansive multiverse. By the 1970s and 1980s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had turned homages to adventure stories and space opera into billion-dollar franchises. Today, you can pay twenty dollars for a movie ticket to watch corporate-curated pulp superheroes, or spend the same amount on independent comic books that offer pulp stories in choices of classic, modernized, or subverted. If dieselpunk is nothing more than the resurrection of pulp, then it is a redundant subgenre.
Of the fifteen stories in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk that could be called pulp-inspired, a bit less than half of them stick to the tried-and-true, albeit with some mixture of genres and modern accruements. A typical example is found in the first story in the collection, Jay Lake and Shannon Page’s "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Romance," a chaotic tale depicting the romance between a shotgun-toting dame and the patchwork freebooter pilot of a hyperpowered battle tank in a shattered 1930s America that lays the tropes on almost unreasonably thick. There’s a similar whiff of chaos in Brian Trent’s "Steel Dragons of a Luminous Sky," following a Chinese nationalist as he, an American aviatrix, and another Chinese operative attempt to get onboard the skyship controlling Japan’s robotic attack on Shanghai, a plot that vanishes in a whorl of double-cross upon double-cross. Most of the other stories are more sedate, such as Rachel Nussbaum’s ingenious misfit trying to save his personal mining rig from rumrunners in "Tunnel Vision." A few look to the other side of the law, with Trent Hergenrader’s Spanish thief trying to outwit a Francoist official and regain his purloined organ in "Thief of Hearts," and with Erin M. Hartshorn’s unfortunately truncated tale of a dragon trying to get itself into the mafia in "Blood and Gold." For a taste of the old space opera, there is Costi Gurgu and Tony Pi’s "Cosmobiotica," depicting Romania’s 1939 moonshot by telepresence-controlled robots, that preserves the naïve optimism of those older stories. Still, while the other stories don’t overheat their contents in the manner of Lake and Trent’s excursions, at the same time there’s not a lot that is very distinctive about them.
The other half of the pulp stories, the ones that aim for some manner of subversion, have the problem of treading ground that has already been trodden. Jeremiah Tolbert’s "Instead of a Loving Heart" presents the narrative of a painter-turned-robot henchman, his senile mad scientist master, and the scientist's estranged gentlewoman-thief daughter—an unhappy trio that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of The Venture Bros. Gwynne Garfinkle’s "In Lieu of a Thank You," the account of the growing infatuation of a woman with her mad-scientist captor and her desire for wings, feels like a condensed version of a story Caitlín R. Kiernan could have tossed off in her sleep. A. C. Wise’s "The Double Blind," an account of a lesbian vigilante who decides against resorting to violence to protect a nightclub catering to those of ambiguous sexualities and gender identities, does not really seem to have much going for it beyond a boilerplate depiction of homosexuality. Nick Mamatas’s "We Never Sleep" is a confused affair, depicting an unnamed female pulp writer who gets a job writing political pamphlets for a manufacturing tycoon, encouraging workers to embrace their transformations into the proletarian cyborgs seen in his earlier "Arbeitskraft." The story seems to be a satire of Technocracy or some such modern equivalent, but the viewpoints and descriptions weave around so much that it is hard to tell what point Mamatas is trying to make.
Still, a few of the pulp-derived stories fare better than the others. Carrie Vaughn’s "Don Quixote" initially seems like many of the other stories in the collection: at the close of the Spanish Civil War, two American journalists discover a humanoid battle tank built by two eccentrics to win the war for the Republicans. However, as the narrator begins to extrapolate the implications of the invention, the spectre of the Second World War rolls in, darkening the tale and ultimately killing the pulp simplicities. E. Catherine Tobler experiments in this vein with "Vast Wings Over Felonious Skies." Her story begins in mid-1941, with a female Japanese-American transport pilot and her crew being abducted by a fourth-dimensional vehicle that harvests aircraft. She makes her escape, only to land in 1942 and be fed into the Japanese-American internment camps. Unfortunately the story doesn’t quite know how to deal with this; there’s an extended sequence set in a camp, but the story climaxes with the protagonist returning to the alien ship to save her crew, leaving the whole camp sequence to seem like a great interruption that kills the narrative flow. Doubtless this is part of the point, but it has the effect of distancing rather than drawing in the reader. Cirilo S. Lemos’ "Act of Extermination," translated from a Brazilian collection of dieselpunk stories, is a wild reimagining of the coup that brought General Vargas to power, complete with telepathic assassins, ironclad war machines, cloned imperial progeny, and cyborg American commandoes. It’s a wild ride that illuminates a place out of the way to English readers, though the story is perhaps better appreciated by those with a decent background in Brazilian history.
There are a few stories in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk that try to move away from pulp formula, or only deal with it as a metaphor. Even here, the results are mixed. Anatoly Belikovsky’s "The Little Dog Ohori," a biography of a female Korean-Soviet sniper who got swept up in the Terror of 1937 and eventually died at Leningrad, seems barely to have any genre elements at all. Kim Lakin-Smith’s "Black Sunday" is another story that teeters on the edge of genre, a lone-noble-family-against-the ignorant-savages tale set in the Dust Bowl, where the noble family keeps its land fertile through another digging machine and some magical help. The worst tale of the book is Catherine Schaff-Sharp’s "Mountains of Green," a heavyhanded piece of didacticism in which Gamera the kaiju tortoise emerges to protect two Japanese children from a pedophile GI.
Many of the stories trying to operate outside of pulp focus on the First World War—an appropriate choice, as the first war is less hospitable to optimistic adventure than the Second. This matter is sensed in Joseph Ng's "Into the Sky," where a Chinese soldier resigns from the army and floats away just as his nation is drawn into the conflict. Dan Robarts fares well with "Floodgate," where the story of an Australian aviatrix drafted into liberating a German war creature during a prolonged First World War evolves into a metaphor for the character’s struggle with her own racism, managing to balance the action and the thematic content with some flair. WWI also plays a part in Laurie Tom’s "The Wings the Lungs, The Engine the Heart," a secret history centered around the interactions between a resurrected Manfred von Richthofen and the doctor charged with maintaining his mechanical heart. It's an earnest attempt to understand the mind of the Red Baron that is stymied by its inability to assess the man on his own terms. Genevieve Valentine deals with the aftermath of the war in "This Evening’s Performance," where a trio of aging stage actors come to terms with their professional and personal obsolescence in a post-WWI England where actors are being replaced with emotive automatons.
Looking over these twenty stories, it is hard to collect them under a single rubric. If a prospective reader was asked to define "dieselpunk" solely based on this collection, the resulting definition would be incredibly vague: something set between the World Wars, inspired by pulp fiction, and loosely centered on the United States. There would also be a great deal of confusion about how this literature differs from steampunk; a fair number of the stories in this collection are so vague in their setting or rely so heavily on artifacts infused with brass-and-steam glamour that they could be slotted into a steampunk anthology with little effort. Indeed, these days a lot of mass-market steampunk is pulp fiction with a neo-Victorian gloss, making dieselpunk even more redundant.
This is strange, since it would seem that steampunk and dieselpunk should produce very different stories. Steampunk is often associated with beginnings: the beginning of mechanical industrialization on a massive scale, the beginning of our modern political outlook, and the beginning of science fiction itself. It is a vision that can be seen crystallized in the writings of Dickens, Wells, and Verne, writers who have come to define steampunk as a whole. By contrast, the years between the World Wars (and the wars themselves) resist formulation into a single ethos, a major reason why "dieselpunk" has always been so difficult to define. And yet there are certain elements of the period that are fertile for fantastic literature. The years from 1914 to 1945 were the golden age of alternative modernities, of attempts to build societies with wildly different views of human nature. It was a time when art became politics and politics art, when honest men and women tried to change the world, leaving untold joy and suffering in their wake. It is telling that the stories in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk are all alternate histories, secret histories, or historical fantasies. To build something like a secondary-world fantasy requires a broad understanding of the period being emulated, something most of the stories in this collection do not attempt.
Still, there is one story in Dieselpunk that makes an honest try of it. "Dragonfire Is Brighter Than The Ten Thousand Suns," written by Mark Robert Philps, is a fairly conventional alternate history story set in a Eurasia divided between a post-imperial communistic "Roman Commonwealth," and a post-imperial capitalistic "Eastern Mandate" of China. The story itself concerns the adventure of a Roman dissident dragooned by the Commonwealth’s security service to make contact with his former girlfriend, a deep-cover agent doing weapons R&D for the Mandate. As the characters wind their way across a divided central Asia, Philps does a superlative job of translating the troubles of our own twentieth century into his new world. Old institutions, millennia old and seemingly eternal, have been erased from the face of the earth. The military has been inculcated into civilian life, while ignorant armies of millions clash in the night in places forgotten by cartographers. Ideology has become statecraft, dividing nations with checkpoints and concrete borders, and dividing men and women against themselves. More than any other story in this volume, "Dragonfire . . . " gets to the cold, fearful, hateful heart of the world between the wars.
At the time of this writing, we stand about as far from the first half of the twentieth century as the writers of the British New Wave were from the era of the Victorians and Edwardians. Those writers, Christopher Priest and Michael Moorcock (and even Keith Roberts, in a certain light), began to probe back to that era, considering it critically and nostalgically, creating the groundwork for what eventually became steampunk. Doubtless, as the World Wars pass from living memory, something similar will happen to that era as well. However, if there is a revolution waiting to be born, it is not to be found in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.