In science fiction, subgenres often give birth to other subgenres. Solarpunk, for instance, begat lunarpunk. It’s also how we got dieselpunk out of steampunk. But what exactly is dieselpunk? That’s one of many questions I put to Danielle Ackley-McPhail and John L. French, co-editors of the new short story anthology Grease Monkeys: The Heart And Soul Of Dieselpunk (paperback, Kindle), in the following email interview.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, John L. French
For people unfamiliar with the term, what is dieselpunk, and how is it different from steampunk and solarpunk and other -punk genres of sci-fi?
Danielle: Dieselpunk is an evolution of steampunk; in fact, there is a brief period where the two overlap. Where steampunk is about Victoriana and invention, dieselpunk is more about evolving technology and a focus on science and war and even space. It is Edwardian and art deco and militant even. The technology has progressed from being exclusive to inventors and the wealthy to common use. Fiction focuses on espionage and the war effort, and mobsters and speakeasys. Think of a more mechanically inclined Bonnie & Clyde or Mata Hari. You have more of a contrast between socialites and common joes, rather than nobility and the well-to-do characters more typical of steampunk. While there is steampunk fiction about those in the lower classes rebelling against the institution, mostly, you needed money to even begin to invent.
John: When I first heard the term “dieselpunk,” it made me think of the workers, the ones who put the ships in the air and sea, the people who keep the machines running. Fossil fuels are grittier than steam, and the stories reflect this. It’s not the elite sailing above us in their steam-powered airships, but it’s us doing the work. Plus, it’s a way to get out from under Victoria’s shadow and move into the next century.
Looking at it another way, steampunk is Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers; dieselpunk is Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
What are some of the more famous dieselpunk novels, movies, games, etc.?
Danielle: To be honest, it wasn’t until recently that I was even able to find any dieselpunk fiction. It may have been out there, but when we first conceived of the collection, I couldn’t find any examples. Most of my references were cosplay photos and movies. Two of the ones that most people would be familiar with are The Rocketeer and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Both are excellent examples, in fact, though drastically different from one another in scope and feel. In fact, Ambrose from The Rocketeer and Dev from Sky Captain are the exact characters that inspired this collection. Sucker Punch would also fall into the dieselpunk category, though in a more surreal dystopic sense.
As for games, I believe the most well-known is Iron Harvest. Think WWI/II with diesel mechs. Command & Conquer is also considered dieselpunk, though I don’t think the connection is as strong there, personally.
John: I don’t have much to add to what Danielle said. But on reading the question, I went and had a look at my bookshelf (shelves, really). There’s a fantasy author named Joe Abercrombie, and he recently finished a trilogy called The Age Of Madness. It takes fantasy into the industrial age, so I guess you could call it fantasy dieselpunk.
And then what is the idea behind Grease Monkeys: The Heart And Soul Of Dieselpunk? I mean, it’s obviously an anthology of dieselpunk short stories, but is there more to the theme? Like are the stories also romantic or all based on that Huey Lewis song, what?
John: The subtitle says it all. Whatever the stories, this anthology focuses on the ones who make the machines and keep them running, and because of that, there’s a nice mix of stories. Some are as dark as they can be, and others shine a bright light on the future.
Danielle: I have a talent…a gift for ideas. Particularly for unique and attention-grabbing anthology ideas. One of the reasons for this is that I have always looked for the most unexpected way to address a theme or concept. Sometimes the idea comes to me first, sometimes the title pops into my head and I have to find the concept that goes with it, but if I lean into that inspiration and let it run away with me, I generally end up with a really successful project. This is what happened with the Bad-Ass Faeries series, which is where I made my name as an anthologist, and with Breach The Hull, the first book of the award-winning Defending The Future military science fiction series edited by Mike McPhail. Those were just the beginning.
Grease Monkeys is the latest in a long list of projects I have done based on a spark of inspiration that I ran with. The title (and subtitle) came to me first, in this case. We were in the midst of a few steampunk collections, but Grease Monkeys speaks to those who maintain the technology, not necessarily invent it. Those with an ear for the machines and how to keep them running or improve them, even when they don’t necessarily have the education to create the technology to begin with. More intuition than innovation. I very much liked the idea of making the focus of the collection characters who usually end up in the background, such as the two mentioned above and Scotty from Star Trek (to mix my media). The unsung heroes of every story, as it were.
So then Danielle, you kind of went into this already, but where did you get the idea for Grease Monkeys, and why did you think it would be a good idea for an anthology?
Danielle: I can’t exactly say where I got the idea. Most often, they are just moments of inspiration where my mind will jam two things together and hold them up like a proud toddler waiting for me to make sense of them. As for why I thought it would be a good idea…it was fun, and it was different and unexpected. Those generally seem to be the best ideas, the most successful ones. I always strive to give our audience something they haven’t seen before.
Also, as I mentioned, I couldn’t find a lot of dieselpunk fiction out there when I looked initially, so it was something new and exciting to explore where there seemed to be interest but not a lot of content.
And then why did you decide to co-edit this book instead of just doing it all yourself?
Danielle: Well, to be frank, I did something wholly unwise, and I committed to work on three projects at the same time on a very tight deadline. See, there is a brand-new steampunk convention in the area, Tell-Tale Steampunk Festival in Hunt Valley, Maryland, and I had the bright idea to suggest they turn their literary scavenger hunt into an actual anthology. They loved the idea, and we ran with it. But since we crowdfund our projects, we try to do multiple titles at once to maximize the effort, so I paired A Cast Of Crows (the anthology we created in conjunction with the convention) with Grimm Machinations, a companion book to another anthology we have done, Gaslight & Grimm, both collections of steampunk faerie tale retellings. Fitting, given we were aiming to have the collections in time for a new steampunk convention. And then I got the idea for Grease Monkeys, and that took off like a rocket. So here I was with three books to create from scratch and just under a year to make all three happen. We succeeded because I work with amazing authors and even better editors. eSpec editor Greg Schauer co-edited Grimm Machinations, and given that dieselpunk also overlaps with the pulp fiction esthetic, I invited John L. French to co-edit Grease Monkeys and help me keep the theme on track. He graciously accepted.
Which brings me to John. What was it about Grease Monkeys that not only made you want to work on it, but also made you think it would be a good book for you specifically to work on?
John: The short answer is that one does not say “No” to Danielle.
But seriously, I wasn’t planning to be involved in Grease Monkeys until Danielle called me and asked me to submit a story, pointing out how dieselpunk fits in with the kind of stories I write and the times in which they’re set. So, I decided to take up her challenge and give it a try, my first idea being a story that involved a monkey on a motorcycle. Then Danielle asked me to co-edit the book with her. Since we’ve worked well together before on eSpec’s cryptid series, Systema Paradoxa, and the anthology Devilish & Divine, I quickly said yes. We have differing styles and approaches, and I think that makes for a better book overall.
As for the contributors, did you ask people you knew to contribute, did you have an open call, what?
Danielle: We don’t tend to hold open submissions even when a project has more time because we work with very limited staff and don’t really have the resources to handle hundreds of submissions. Generally, with projects like this, we start off by offering it to those authors we already publish to see who is interested before considering what other authors we would like to see in the project. In the case of Grease Monkeys, we already had an eye on several authors we hadn’t worked with before but wanted to, and they were a great fit for the project.
And did you ask them to write something new, did you ask for specific stories they’d previously published…?
Danielle: In most cases, all of our anthologies are works of original fiction. Meaning, all the stories were written specifically for that collection. On rare occasions, though, we have included reprints. Grease Monkeys happens to be one of those occasions. We approached one of our wish-list authors, Maria V. Snyder, to see if she was interested. She is a very busy author and didn’t have time to write something new, but she did have a reprint that fit the theme (mostly). After we read it, we definitely wanted it for the collection, though she did need to revise it some to ensure it met the mechanic requirement.
Obviously, all of the stories in Grease Monkeys are dieselpunk sci-fi, but are there any other genres at work in this anthology?
Danielle: A number of the authors have ongoing steampunk universes where they set a lot of their stories with an eye toward eventually releasing a collection. They creatively devised a way to meld those universes with the dieselpunk requirement. Other authors leaned more into the espionage aspect of dieselpunk, giving those stories more of a pulp fiction feel akin to the classic detective novels.
John: The great thing about an anthology like Grease Monkeys is that as long as you stick to the main theme you can incorporate any genre. Grease Monkeys has war, adventure, superheroes, and more.
Now, as you mentioned, you both also have stories in Grease Monkey. What are your stories called and about?
John: I wound up writing two stories, and Danielle was kind enough to take both. “No Man’s Land” is set mostly in the trenches of WWI and is possibly the darkest thing I’ve ever written. It’s so dark I fully expected Danielle to send it back along with a WHAT THE @#$%^* WERE YOU THINKING! So, after I sent it, I started working on another, lighter one just in case. This one is called “The Return Of The Diesel Kid.” It has a career criminal who uses machines to commit his crimes and a brand-new superhero who has to stop him. To my surprise, Danielle took them both.
Danielle: My story is called “The Impossible Journey,” and it was originally supposed to be about the concept for the first lunar exploration suit created by the British Interplanetary Society, the designs having been revealed at the tail-end of the dieselpunk era. However, I was ambushed by a documentary on Aloha Wanderwell, the young woman who made a name for herself as the face and mechanic for the Wanderwell Expedition, which drove around the world in Ford Model-Ts. Aloha captured my attention, and my story metamorphosized from there. It still incorporated the British Interplanetary Society, but became more about how Aloha inspired a young girl to mechanical ends and adventuring. And that is all I have to say, without giving anything away. Other than that, I had fun incorporating historically accurate details, and this fun little story is unlike anything I have ever written. The character’s voice very much makes itself heard.
I asked earlier about dieselpunk movies. Are there any stories in Grease Monkeys, aside from your own, that you think could work really well as movies?
Danielle: I think several would make excellent movies. It is so difficult to pick, but the ones I think most likely would be accepted by Hollywood are James Chambers’ “The Maps Of Our Scars” and Derek Tyler Attico’s “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Both stories are unique and exciting and touch on themes and concepts that would lend themselves well to a visual medium.
John: I think the first and the last stories in the book, David Lee Summers’s “The Falcon And The Goose” and Bernie Mojzes’s “Hyena Brings Death,” would make excellent adventure movies along the lines of the Indiana Jones franchise.
So, is there anything else you think people might need to know about Grease Monkeys?
Danielle: If you like historical influence and pulpish fiction, this is definitely the collection for you. Each story is unique but also weaves together with the others in the book to create an ambiance not often found in anthologies.
John: If you haven’t read any dieselpunk and like the idea, Grease Monkeys is a great way to get started. And, like all anthologies, a great way to discover new authors.
Finally, if someone enjoys Grease Monkeys, what genre-specific anthology that you edited would you suggest they check out and why that one?
Danielle: I think the best fit for something similar would be The Side Of Good / The Side Of Evil, which is a superhero / supervillain flip-book anthology we did back in 2016. Along the lines of the old Ace Doubles, half of the book is about superheroes, then you flip it over and the other half of the book is about the villains. A lot of the stories have a similar tone and style as those in Grease Monkeys, and a couple of the dieselpunk stories even feature superheroes and villains. And on the plus side, several authors are in both books.
John: Of the anthologies I’ve edited, I’d have to pick Mermaids 13. The one and only rule was that it had to have a merperson in it. As the title suggests, there were 13 stories and 13 different kinds of stories: horror, crime, young adult, adventure, etc.