An Atompunk Manifesto

Morning, campers!  Did you enjoy Monday’s fiction teaser?  More to come, I promise! And good news!  I’ve heard that Prime Books is going to be coming out with a Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk sometime in the next year.  I can’t wait to see that!

In the meantime, we have a guest here in my treetop lair in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  Mark J. Appleton is a fellow traveler in the -punk world, and was kind enough to share his thoughts with us.  I’ve not really followed atompunk as closely as I have diesel and steam.  But I’ve always been a big fan of Heinlein’s juvenile novels, so I’m willing to give it a bash.

(BTW: Mark’s doing some really intriguing research in the name of atompunk, so checking out his blog will certainly pay off in the end; link at the bottom of the post).

But enough from the hillbilly.  Let’s see what Mark has to say….

An Atompunk Manifesto

It’s cold in the desert at night, but work on the rocket never stops. Lit by floodlights, dozens of technicians cling to the gantries cradling the sleek spaceship, a concrete block holding its lower end, shielding them from the lethal radiation from the atomic reactor. Jack Trigger, scientist and astronaut, stands on a hill overlooking the furious activity, thinking of the morning’s voyage.

He glances towards the stars, and his eye catches on a faint green light in the sky. Faint – but getting bigger – a meteor? No…

It grows, and he realizes its a saucer, diving straight towards the rocket in a bombing run. Sirens wail as the air defense RADAR picks up the intruder, and Jack sprints towards the AA guns. As he runs he catches sight of a swastika on the saucer’s side – Moon Nazis!

That is atompunk.

Atompunk is a retrofuturism inspired by the half-enthusiastic, half-paranoid techno-optimism of the early Cold War. It is to the two decades of 1945-1965 as steampunk is to the 19th century, or dieselpunk to the 1930’s. Instead of zeppelins, atompunk has rocket ships. Instead of steam engines, nuclear reactors. Instead of brass, chrome. There are still mad scientists and steel-jawed daredevils (and steel-jawed daredevil mad scientists), but they carry blasters instead of revolvers, and fly rockets instead of biplanes. Atompunk is UFO’s, moon colonies, slide rules, bomb shelters, bug-eyed mutants, food pills, computers the size of houses, Godzilla, flying cars, unnecessary fins, everything sleek and streamlined and ready for the future!

Atompunk has not achieved the prominence of steampunk, sadly. The most prominent modern atompunk works are the Fallout series of video games. The Venture Brothers cartoon, the Ministry of Space graphic novels, and the Star Trek reboot are other good examples. Going further back, Heinlein’s juveniles, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the Jetsons and Johnny Quest cartoons, the second Tom Swift series, ’50s monster movies, the original Star Trek series, and some of the early post-apocalyptic novels are all examples of what would today be considered atompunk.

But atompunk doesn’t just draw on fiction. There’s plenty of inspiration to take from the real world. The government built or tried to build a whole host of atompunkish gadgets in the ’50s and ’60s: atomic-powered aircraft, atomic-powered rockets, atomic-powered locomotives, even atomic-powered tanks. And not just technology: the ’50s was the decade of the first and greatest flying saucer wave, with contactees like George Adamski eager to spread messages from the space brothers (mostly they wanted us to stop testing nukes). It was the time of Duck & Cover and Joe McCarthy, Googie architecture and fins on everything, Edward Teller’s hydrogen bomb and T. Thompson Brown’s antigravity machine, Sputnik and the first manned space flights. Even if it wasn’t intended as fiction, there can be just as much inspirational potential in a RAND futurological study or a Los Alamos technical report as in a novel.

So why atompunk? For fun, of course. It’s an appealing aesthetic. But, besides that, I think atompunk has something to teach us. It has something to teach about what not to do: William Gibson famously pointed out that, for the most part, atompunk was a dream of, by, and for middle-class white males. I wouldn’t go as far as Gibson, who called it fascist, but criticisms of atompunk’s source material on racial and gender grounds are valid and trenchant. Many of the best modern atompunk works are deconstructions and critiques of their progenitors – Ministry of Space depicts a British Empire that has extended its virulent racism and classism to outer space; Venture Brothers presents its scientist “hero” as a drug-addicted neurotic with enough daddy issues to single-handedly keep the psychotherapy industry afloat for decades.

But atompunk also has something to teach us in a positive sense. The best works of the original atompunk genre grappled with nuclear apocalypse, consumerism, artificial intelligence, the conflict between democracy and technocracy, the impact of automation, a whole host of issues we are still struggling with today. But most approached it with an optimism, a faith in ourselves and in the future, that we would do well to regain. Atompunk heroes are not Panglosses, but they have self-confidence, not just in themselves but in their society. They know there will be challenges, that you never kill the monster on the first try, but with gumption and brains they’ll destroy it in the end.

That’s a good attitude. The grimdarkness of modern noir is no more realistic then the idealism of Heinlein or Asimov. If atompunk can teach us anything, it is that we are better and stronger then we know – that, armed with science and liberty, we really can do anything, given will enough and time.

That is a lesson worth relearning.

Jack coughs, the smoke from the bombs making it difficult to breathe. He notes with relief that the geiger counter on his hip is still silent. His boots sink into the desert sand as he crests the top of the hill, the dawning sun giving just enough light to make out the smashed wreckage of the saucer – and, next to it, the rocket, still standing, pristine and silver and ready for launch. He calls out to the techs emerging from their bomb shelters: “Next stop, the Moon!”

Mark J. Appleton blogs on atompunk history at Atomic Skies.


And that’s it for now.  Thank you, Mark, for taking the time to share with us today.  Now you know the way here,  I hope you’ll come back and visit us often.  In the meantime, Dear Reader, I hope you’ll share, comment, tweet, and email me your Fun Friday recommendations.  And do go check out Mark’s blog, it’s really fascinating stuff (I confess, I’ve been cribbing from his blog into my idea notebook; such a treasury of info!).  Next up:  Fun Friday!

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  1. Pingback: An Atompunk Manifesto | Thoughts on Everything under the Sun or I am a guilty Secularist

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