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Insider Interviews: Dr Robert Edgar

A life-timer nurturer of creative talent, Dr Edgar is an Associate Professor at York St John University. Specialising in creative writing, media, film, theatre and television, Dr Edgar's research interests include folk horror, hauntology, music memoir, science-fiction, and satire. Dr Edgar has a number of published works including fiction and non-fiction volumes on music, horror, storytelling in film and much, much more. Dr Edgar also contributed to Horrifying Tales: An Anthology with Greenteeth Press, and An Ark for Offworld Survival with Valley Press.

Q. Let’s cut straight to it. What is it about vintage-feel science fiction?

As an artistic movement and as an aesthetic, retrofuturism has been around for quite a long time. The process of looking back at our own culture and repurposing it is enticing. Its about recalling the potential for the future which existed in an earlier age but was never realised. This has the potential for wonderful flights of fancy, rooted in what we perceive to be historical fact. This has a further effect in terms of authenticity; this could have happened. The fact that it didn’t happen also can be potentially quite bleak depending on the future that is presented. It can be different but it also has the potential to be better. This is the interplay between us looking back and seeing how the future might have developed but also looking back at visions of the future were perceived from an earlier period. Either way it takes us to a place which is uncanny.

Q. Does retrofuturism have to be tied to those very iconic viewpoints of, for example, Steampunk Victorians, Mid-West 50s or 80s-era Star Trek to qualify?

We are drawn back to significant cultural moments but also moments of cultural representation. The periods that are drawn on for retrofuturism (initially the 1950s) and other sub-genres of science fiction are those where there is an initial identification and representation of what the future might look like or sound like. In that sense retrofuturism has a strong connection to alternative timeline fiction, although not necessarily focusing on a particular event or moment in history. It’s a moment of development where much of time stood still and that recognisable aesthetic goes with it. In these terms retrofuturism will always be anchored to something in the past but we will see that anchoring point shift and develop. There is a lot of interest at the moment in ‘80s computing and we might see more of that as an aesthetic moving forward.

Q. The retrofuturism genre keeps evolving because, somewhat ironically, time insists on continuing in a linear fashion, causing our view of the future to continuously shift. What are the key things to look for when writing something in the retrofuturist form?

Time is, in theory, moving in a linear manner (although some physicists would argue with that). However, whether society is developing in the same way is debatable. There is a feel of the contemporary which feels like an earlier period, for example there is a lot of discussion at the moment of a new Cold War and with this time seems to be going backwards rather than forwards. The future that was promised never seemed to happen and we are shifting on to a different timeline. This is in part why Hauntology has come back as a method of assessing and describing contemporary culture. It would be far easier to suggest that there is an element of retrofuturism which is nostalgic for the version of the future from a more innocent age. This is the rosy fiction of nostalgia. Hauntology is potentially far darker in that we are being haunted by our own past and the lost potential for the future. This might be where we see the form developing in the future.

Q. You could argue that retrofuturism is really visual in nature. Does literary retrofuturism need to be setting-centric to get the genre across successfully?

Retrofuturism is visual in its original form but that gives us a connection to the story world that is created. As a form which is then attached to genre, retrofuturism is quite malleable. A film like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a really good example of this. There is a vague sense that we are in the future and the technology is advanced, but looks like it was created in the 1930s. The film has clear links to political fiction, in particular Orwell, and there are intertextual references to filmmakers like Eisenstein. Whilst there is often a visual dimension to the form it can exist in other forms. Kraftwerk for example can be seen as a retrofuturist band partly through their use of technology and expressionist aesthetics, but also given their aspirational socio-political work in something like Trans-Europe Express.

Q. Some of the best science fiction works because the ‘science’ part is very plausible. Can retrofuturism allow you to step a little further away from plausibility?

A key aspect of retrofuturism is that it could have happened. This is means that there has to be a level of plausibility or at least a unified logic within a story. The science element can be an important aspect but in the end people are interested in people. The aesthetic of retrofuturism is powerful and enticing and the science can give a visceral sense of reality but in the end we are interested in people and how they react in particular settings. Plausibility is therefore a relative concept and often relative to the boundaries of the story. Character behaviour is consistent to the world that’s created though. This is something that is consistent across lots of forms of genre writing; the creation of a historical or fantasy world shares a lot with SF, retrofuturist or not.

Q. Will all science fiction eventually become retrofuturism?

Science-fiction is a very broad ‘parent genre’ category and I think we’ll see even more development of sub-genres, each with their own traits. Retrofuturism is arguably much more of an aesthetic than it is a particular sub-genre. We’ll definitely see more examples of retrofuturism appearing but SF is too complex and varied to be limited.

Q. You’ve consumed quite a lot of science fiction… When you’re assessing new stories, what really gets your attention?

Like many forms of writing its impossible to limit this to one thing. The multiple and varied forms of science-fiction keeps it fresh and interesting. Science fiction, or any other genre writing for that matter, needs to have the same qualities as any good writing. Complex and three-dimensional characters, a complete world view and something to say to the reader. The most engaging SF work for me is where the genre is used for a purpose and where the story leads.

Q. Favourite sci-fi or retrofuturism trope?

This is another very tricky one to answer as there are so many enticing and engaging aspects to different science fiction stories. On a personal level I’ve always been drawn to SF where there is a satirical edge to the writing, such as with people like Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams. I’m also very interested in ordinary characters who find themselves in quite mundane situations in, what to our eyes, are extraordinary adventures. The idea of, for example, interstellar space flight seems remarkable, but if you were going through it the experience would be potentially mind numbing.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about writing?

One of the greatest quotes on writing is from Toni Morrison - ‘If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.’

The best piece of advice I’ve been given directly is - save drafts of everything.

Q. Any parting words of wisdom for our aspiring writers?

Be inquisitive. Great writers take us to places, sure, but actually they get inside people’s heads.

Find out more about Dr Edgar here, and more about the outstanding York Centre for Writing here.

The Writing Voices team would like to extend their thanks to Dr Edgar for his time, consideration and generosity.


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Cover image credit: With thanks to Dr Edgar. Additional image courtesy of bert b and Ugi K via Unsplash.


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