Trailer for Good Bye, Lenin! (2003).
I stumbled on to a genre of science fiction called dieselpunk. Dieselpunk, apparently, is set in an anachronistic interbellum/early postwar world (so 1920s to circa 1950) where the world runs on diesel, like steampunk is set in an anachronistic Victorian era that runs on steam. I couldn’t help but notice the tangents to a couple recent posts about retrofuturism and looking at the present through the lens of scifi and about wishing you were born in the past.
I wonder if all the *punks of science fiction don’t represent the same impulse. Both diesel- and steampunk employ two strategies: either transplanting modernity into the past, e.g., the by now familiar trope of positing that Charles Babbage’s proto-computer concept actually worked, thereby ushering in the information age a century early; or else extending the technology and aesthetics of the past into the future far past the point where they became outdated and forgotten in the real timeline. Either way, there’s a weird techno/aesthetic/cultural stasis going on. The original punk, cyberpunk, of course started out looking into the future. Unlike steampunk, which has always been about the past, cyberpunk in the 1980s was all about a cyberspace that we imagined to be the future, a cyberspace that was the future. But in the three decades since Blade Runner and Neuromancer, this vision of the future has grown old, too. Like most popular versions of the future, cyberpunk got some things totally wrong and other things completely right. But I’d argue that if you’re still writing cyberpunk in 2011, you’re engaging in retrofuturism. So if all these are today directed towards the past, perhaps they are a consequence of what—if you’ll permit me to quote myself—I wrote about here:
… once we have forgotten an age, once stories are all we have left, we come under the impression that everyone’s lives were so much more meaningful in the past. Because stories are designed to give meaning to their characters, and because we see the past through the lens of stories, while the present is there, unfiltered by narrative, straight before our eyes.
I mean, steampunk is pretty cool. Goggles and gears and all that. But I can’t imagine that steampunk enthusiasts appreciate that stuff in the exact same way they might appreciate their iPhone or a tv show they like. I can relate: I own a fifty year old twin-lens reflex camera that looks pretty awesome, but above all I appreciate it as a tool. It really does do things for me that modern cameras don’t. But I also have a vintage polaroid camera that I appreciate for nostalgic and retro-aesthetic reasons more than for any sort of objective utility.
This got me thinking about what other spatial and temporal locations might make for good *punks. Is there a sovietpunk out there waiting to be explored? (Apparently, there is a sub-subgenre called atomic punk that incorporates old Communist symbols, among other things. Geeks love to categorize things, and split them into ever narrower niches.)
I was amused to see the different traffic lights at pedestrian crossings in East and West Berlin. I later learned that the East German traffic light symbols, the Ampelmännchen, were due to be replaced with a generic Western traffic man, but they’ve gained a sort of cult following and a popular campaign saved them from extinction. The Ampelmännchen are an instance of ostalgie, nostalgia for life in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. It reminded me that the very funny German film Good Bye, Lenin! did both ostalgie and my hypothetical “soviet punk” pretty well back in 2003.
(As an aside, the melody playing in the beginning of this trailer is the theme music for another instance of ostalgie cult fame, the stop-motion-animated series Sandmännchen. Although I have zero experience with Eastern Europe, either during the Cold War or after, I have my own nostalgic reaction to that tune because the series was a staple of Norwegian children’s tv programming. I was pretty shocked when I learned that it was of Communist-era East German vintage.)