Steampunk vs. Retrofuturism: A Pedantic Rant

Because there is a difference.

To the VAST majority of the population this is a topic that doesn’t matter in he slightest. But for the 2 other people on the planet that care…this post is for you.

Not that there isn’t some cross over or middle-ground, both seem to think zeppelins are the most effective mode of transportation and why not?

Steampunk and retrofuturism are both styles of science-fiction design that incorporate past elements with future ones, and have become hugely popular in film, TV, books, comics, illustration, sculpture, costuming, video games, a seemingly infinite number of artistic platforms. But here’s the thing, they are separate and distinct from each other. So to start, let’s just try to define each one and then will go over what really makes them different.

Steampunk design begins with a basis in the 1800’s. The two primary locations involved are Victorian era Britain and “Wild West” America just on the heels of the pioneer era. Put those goggles on a cowboy and your work is done. And there actually isn’t as much futuristic technology in steampunk as you might first think (though there is some). Rather steampunk more often takes contemporary technology and places it in the past.

Examples: The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Stardust, Hugo, Wild Wild West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Retrofuturism takes place somewhere between the 1930’s and, if you really stretch it, the 1970’s. This is often based in America (if not space) and tends to feature strong cityscapes, often romanticizing Hollywood in its golden age. It takes technology that does not exist (think flying car) and puts it in that time period. In its most basic sense, it’s almost the inverse of steampunk: basically technology that people in those times dreamed the future would have. Ever seen those vintage Tomorrowland posters from Disneyland? It’s like that.

Examples: The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Lost in Space, The Iron Giant, Metropolis (though this was retrofuturism before retrofuturism was really a thing. And German)

So with each more clearly defined, here’s what makes them different. And this is usually the point where I just want to throw up my hands and say “they just look different!” But apparently to some people they don’t, so I’m gonna try and use my words:

1.) LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION – I mentioned this, but has a tremendous amount of impact on the stylings. Any sign of a class system (not just money but class) or Gothic tones and you’re in steampunk territory. City past the year 1900 and your in retrofuturism again.

RETROFUTURISM! from Metropolis

2.) THE TECH – Are there Ray Guns? Because if there are Ray Guns it’s retrofuturism. Zeppelins can go either way, but if they’re outside the US, you’re probably in Steampunk territory. If the setting IS America, you have to go back to observing the time period. Also, steampunk likes to show the innards. Clockwork where you can see the gears cranking is a steampunk thing for sure. As the term steampunk would suggest, most of the tech for them is steam-powered, while retrofuturism uses more modern fuels, which leads into:

STEAMPUNK! from Hugo

3.) ROBOTS (AND CYBORGS) – Robots by and large are used in retrofuturism, while steampunk leans to cyborg, but they have often swapped places and you can tell by the materials they’re made from which category they fall under. Again, steampunk robots or cyborgs are probably steam-powered and made of copper, while retrofuturistic ones are more likely to be diesel powered and made of more common metals like iron. Visually this difference is very striking, the copper having an orange/red color, while the iron is grey.

RETROFUTURISM! from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

4.) THE DRESS – This goes hand in hand with setting. Steampunk clothing is ornate and period, either Victorian Britain or American old west (which has more Victorian stylings in it than you may first think). Retrofuturistic clothes lie somewhere between the 30’s and 60’s, depending on the time period, and include a lot of World War II era pilot attire whilst also employing a lot of utility style jumpsuits and work clothes, slicked hair, jackets all around. Even in the summer.

STEAMPUNK! from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

And again, all this can fall apart at the drop of a hat. There are always exceptions, nuances and crossovers, but these are two distinct styles that I constantly seeing being used interchangeably and I felt the need to be an annoyance about it. Cheers.


About Risa Romano

Writer type thing. I work on stories for kids when I'm on the clock and screenplays quite a bit less for kids when I'm not. I have a blog: I'm also the creator and moderator of the Doctor Who vodcast/podcast A Disused Yeti:
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