Henry Jenkins (via BoingBoing) has an essay on the origins of Retrofuturism and Steampunk. Jenkins explains the origins of retro-futurism in the essay and besides it has a stamp of approval by Cory Doctorow so its highly recommended. Here is an excerpt.
From the start, however, science fiction has also functioned as a genre which enabled us to reflect upon the past. Time travel stories, such as H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine,” were among the first science fiction stories written, even though the metaphor of traveling back into history fit rather poorly within the rationalist scientific discourse that otherwise defined early science fiction as a genre. To tell such stories, one had to shed the idea that the genre was governed by reasonable and plausible extrapolation based on known science. Time travel stories, such as Orson Scott Card’s PastWatch or Sterling’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” (also published in the Mirrorshades collection), continue to have currency. A second strand of science fiction, alternative history, takes us back to key historical turning points and asks what if scenarios, imaging how the world might have taken a very different shape if the outcomes had been different; alternative future stories, thus, imagine what would happen if the South had won the Civil War, if the United States had not entered World War II, or if Stalin had continued to dominate the Soviet Union down to the present day. A third strand of science fiction seeks to extrapolate based not on contemporary understandings of science but rather on earlier historical formulations, constructing science fiction stories based on ancient Greek, early modern, or Victorian conceptions of science. The term, “steampunk,” was coined to refer to science fiction which built on Victorian society and technology, a genre inspired as much by contemporary representations of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as by anything actually produced during the late 19th century. Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine, explores what might have happened if Charles Babbage’s experiments had been successful, paving the way for a pre-20th century version of the digital revolution. Finally, retrofuturism takes earlier science fiction as its raw materials, revisiting mid-20th century constructions of the future from a more contemporary perspective. For the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on works that mobilize the iconography that emerged through Hugo Gernsback’s pulp science fiction magazines, through Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strip, through films like Just Imagine and Things to Come, and through the 1939 New York World’s Fair, among other sources, but there are other retrofuturist works – for example, Christian Gossett’s comic book series, Red Star, which built on Soviet science fiction and socialist utopian literature – that revisit other historical constructions of the future. These various subgenres suggest that science fiction may be as effective as a genre for imagining the past as it is as a genre for projecting the future or commenting on the present and the key point is that its social commentary works by reading one time period against another.
Check out the full essay here.