As I researched my paper on science fiction and nostalgia, I came across the work of Svetlana Boym.
In many ways, her book–The Future of Nostalgia–is an unintentional answer to SF scholars who protest contemporary science fiction’s use of retro tropes, or accuse modern SF of looking backward instead of forward.
Boym distinguishes between two kinds of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. Restorative is the conservative kind, the “let’s go back to how we did things before” kind. It idealizes the past, denying that such idealizations really don’t portray the past accurately.
Reflective nostalgia is more complex. It is more ironic and more individual, and so the signifiers are less stable. Boym says “It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another.” That is, we can love things about the past, but also critique them. And, most importantly, use them as building blocks for a better, more interesting future.
The things I find in nostalgic SF, particularly Howard Waldrop and Bradley Denton because I’m researching them, tend to fit into that reflective framework. That’s definitely true of the 20th century portrayed in Kathleen Goonan’s In War Times (more on that soon). I think most playful steampunk that both revels in and critiques Victorian culture (like Priest and DeFilippo, just off the top of my head) is also reflective as well.
I like that Boym gives a theoretical underpinning to my research, even as I continue to sort out the implications.