Why “Decopunk” Deserves to Be Bigger than Steampunk

A couple decades and a few art movements down the road from steampunk lies the world of decopunk. Drawing from the sleek, streamlined, futuristic aesthetic of the art deco movement, decopunk takes the glitz and glamor of the Roaring ’20s in science-fictional directions, frequently sprinkling in glittering elements of the weird and pulp fiction of the era.

Decopunk worlds are sleek and stylish, full of danger, awesome gadgets, strange magic, and high-flying action. More than that: the best of them go beyond the glimmer and gloss to provide elements of satire and social commentary that drawn a line between the world of today and a past that walked the line between social and scientific revolution and a fearful attempt to maintain the status quo at any cost.

As decopunk experiences something of a retro-resurgence, we thought we’d run down five outstanding examples of the form.

Radianceby Catherynne M. Valente
One of the few books to actually use the word “decopunk” to describe its mix of 1920s glamour and New Weird elements, Radiance follows the career of Severin Unck, a filmmaker who decides not to continue in her father’s footsteps making gothic romances, and instead travels to other planets in our solar system to document the various cultures she finds there. This leads her to investigate a sect of divers on Venus who commune with the mammoth native creatures that swim its seas, but she never returns from that voyage. Through magazine articles, transcripts, and narrative sections, the novel recreates the circumstances of her disappearance and the odd mystery at the center of the Venus expedition, leading to several startling revelations. But the real star of Valente’s novel is the grand and gorgeous world design, a thoroughly impossible recreation of a Victorian era imagining of the universe, painstakingly assembled through transcripts, film treatments, magazine articles, and even the odd commercial jingle. It’s a celebration of classic film and planetary romance in one elegant, unifying package.

Pirate Utopia, by Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling’s raucous, satirical alternate history has a leg up on most decopunk novels, seeing as it’s both set during the rise of art deco, and focused on the futurist movements that invented the aesthetic in the first place. But while he makes use of the trappings of the genre, his aim is more to demystify the time period and deconstruct the usual gee-whiz trappings of super-science. Instead, Sterling presents the terrifying, still slightly comic and cartoonish fable of Fiume, a tiny post-World War I republic whose quick rise to power as an anarcho-syndicalist nation leads them first to form a military dictatorship, and then get swept up in the worldwide rise of fascism. The result is a ruthless, pinpoint satire that keeps the “punk” in “decopunk,” and overflows with cool technology and occult intrigue.

Empire State, by Adam Christopher
In an alternate version of New York City shrouded in omnipresent fog, private detective Rad Bradley takes what should be a simple missing persons case: finding a lost young woman who may have fallen into the clutches of a cult. The job takes on new dimensions when Rad is haunted by a long-dead superhero, accosted by sinister gasmasked men who claim to be government agents, and manipulated by a friend who definitely knows more than he’s letting on. Christopher blends an incredible number of genres together to create this retro-futuristic science fantasy, building a deep world in which his characters can live, breathe, and double-cross each other. It’s an art-deco nightmare of skyscrapers and mysteries so dense, the publisher encouraged fans to create their own works to be showcased on the book’s (sadly now defunct) website.

Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly
In a fictional world of cabarets and intrigue modeled after Weimar-era Germany, Amberlough follows secret agent Cyril; Aristide, Cyril’s lover, who works as a cabaret emcee and smuggler; and Cordelia, Aristide’s top dancer and most trusted runner. With the rise of the fascist One State Party, tensions are on the rise, but Cyril and Aristide are more or less content with things as they are, until Cyril’s latest, disastrous assignment inflames tensions all over the city and the Ospies begin to take advantage of the unrest. Donnelly’s sparkling prose and eye for political intrigue and colorful characters make it an exhilarating read, despite the bleakness of a narrative that follows the rise of an authoritarian conservative government.

Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard
Howard’s pitch-dark comedy series about a morally ambiguous necromancer and his various friends and enemies may have straddled steampunk and dieselpunk in the beginning, but in Cabal’s second outing, he takes to the skies aboard a luxury airship, and the book marches right into art-deco territory. Detective finds Cabal fleeing his numerous enemies, both natural and supernatural, by stowing away on an airborne version of the Orient Express. While onboard, an old nemesis and a grisly murder force our reluctant hero to play Hercule Poirot. He must unravel a conspiracy, solve a murder he can’t fix with necromancy, and avoid being arrested by the actual detective who wants to bring him to justice. Detective features note-perfect comic timing, a lavish airship full of eccentric characters, and the best snarky response to a big mystery reveal in recent memory. There’s more than enough to recommend it to Cabal fans and neophytes alike.

What’s on your list of swell decopunk stories?

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