What is Decopunk? A subversive art deco genre!

what is decopunk and how do we write it well? SorcererOfTea.com

I stumbled upon the Decopunk genre a few years ago. I absolutely adore art deco, even though we don’t see very much of it here in Australia. Decopunk takes a leap further with the aesthetic, and reimagines the clean, geometric lines and classical imagery of art deco as science fiction.

“Dieselpunk but shiny” is what many people call decopunk and well . . . they’re not wrong. As far as the technology goes, decopunk doesn’t really don’t have much unique about it.

From 1910 to the beginning of World War II is when art deco thrived, though it was dimmed by World War I. The name Art Deco itself comes from the name of an exhibition in 1925 – Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.

I’m not an art critique or an architecture historian, so we’re not going to delve into the complex reasons art deco came to be. We’re here for the fun job of imagining a science fiction setting with art deco elements. Decopunk as its called.

Decopunk should be about social change

#1 complaint I hear about the sheer volume of punkpunk genres around is “they forget the meaning of the word punk”. I agree, honestly. I see a lot of fun stuff using art deco or dieselpunk or steampunk technology, with absolutely no punk elements.

BUT hold your horses, because it doesn’t have to be that way. The roaring Twenties were a time of social upheaval, and social resistance and change is everywhere to draw from.

World War I broke the idea of western civilisation for many. The Belle Époque – the Beautiful Era – had stretched since 1871 and ended suddenly with the war. The old alliances that people thought protected Europe had actually caused the Great War. 

When World War I started, cavalry were still in use. By the end, tanks and fighter planes were dominating. The Ottoman Empire, founded in 1299, and the Habsburg Austrian-Hungarian Empire, founded in 1526, both collapsed.

Here in my own country, Anzac Day remembers the Gallipoli campaign of WWI. It is broadly credited with creating the Australian identity as a nation and people independent from Britain

The fact is that the world was changing rapidly. Technology was too.

What does decopunk look like?

Art deco is characterized by geometric shapes, sharp angles, simple but bold pallets, and using a lot of classic imagery. Gods, angels, mythology, and sunbursts.

Time, 1941, ceiling mural in lobby of Rockefeller Center
Chrysler Building Lobby

The world was changing quickly

The Victorian Era had just ended. Airlines had just become a thing, and electricity, telephones, and cars entered popular use during the Twenties. The Model T was released in 1908, helping introduce automobiles to the masses.

Women got the vote in America in 1920, and the first commercial radio station launched the same year. For the first time in America, the average woman has a disposable income independent of men. “Flappers” become famous for their sexual liberalism, style of dress, and independence.

1919 the Prohibition starts. Ostensibly to stop the public nuisance of alcohol, but just as targeted at controlling immigrants, who the public viewed as the main consumers of alcohol. People go underground to illegal Speakeasies. Over the same period, millions of African-Americans migrated to cities from the South. The Jazz Age is born, and African-Americans contribute extensively to American literature and music in the period.

The white middle class American was scared of the boogeyman – immigrants and people of colour. The first seeds of the Red Scare start to build. In 1924, America bans or restricts Asian and East European immigrants from coming to America.

All these conflicts – the aftermath of a deadly war, women’s rights, immigration, communism, rural communities vs the big city, mass media vs the traditional forms of communication – build into one of the most intense periods of social change in American and world history

So, what should Decopunk stories be tackling?

Decopunk gives an incredible opportunity to examine the growing technology of the 1920s. An Decopunk story can explore the introduction of new forms of technology and the democratisation of media and transport. Women’s rights, an influx of immigration, or the migration of oppressed communities can motivate social conflicts.

The aftermath of a devastating war is something science fiction doesn’t explore nearly as much as it explores the act of war itself. Decopunk stories give you a great genre with which to look at the golden age that follows a war. Prosperity, innovation, the loss of those left behind and those who survived with scars – both physical and mental.

Colonialism’s dying days are another theme of the 1920s that you can explore. For example a galactic empire where mass media introduces news, education, and new ideas to remote colonies. Perhaps like Australia their service in a war for their imperial masters gives them a new perspective on their identity as independent nations.

By looking at the oppressed, at the conflicts between the new and old, and the ethics of technology, you can definitely put Punk elements into Decopunk.

Where to now?

Get started writing your next decopunk story with this advice in mind. You can also check out my Decopunk moodboard on Pinterest for more inspiration. Remember to follow the blog for more weekly posts!

6 thoughts on “What is Decopunk? A subversive art deco genre!

  1. This is a really interesting post. I had never heard of this before but you did a really good job at giving and overview of it. It inspires me to look into this more–maybe even try my hand at writing some of it?

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