Chances are, if you've Googled 'retrofuturism', you were mostly flooded with a tonne of steampunk images and a TED talk that turned out to be a slideshow of 50s style artwork with a sci-fi twist. When I wrote a Masters dissertation on retrofuturism, finding a solid definition turned out to Not Be Easy. Wikipedia suggested one, but building a dissertation around a Wikipedia entry seemed slightly risky… This is what I learned:
Retrofuturism is, essentially, the future as viewed by the past. I know what you’re thinking, the past keeps getting bigger! Although there is a collection of well worn and instantly recognisable tropes, the nature of retrofuturism has to be, ultimately, changeable, because both our cultural past and society's vision of the future is ever changing. While it initially sounds like a headache, that really allows writers having a bash at literary retrofuturism to be deliciously playful and innovative with the genre.
While it can be a little difficult to describe exactly what it is, the thing about retrofuturism is that it is generally instantly and universally recognisable. It’s tremendously easy to tap into iconic visuals, themes and tropes that tell your reader exactly where they stand and what to expect. This might be my inner writer’s sadism talking (don’t look at me like that, we’ve all got it), but when you can drop a reader into a predictable and recognisable world or narrative, that suddenly opens up a whole wealth of opportunities for you to play with expectations, subvert the natural order and quietly slide in something uncanny or unexpected while the reader is busy looking at the man in the silver spacesuit over by the moon dome.
If you’re not sure where to start, there are ample themes, visuals and tropes to choose from, or mix and match or, even better, pair with something off-the-wall. There’s also a goldmine of source material out there, and this is one of those genres where absorbing as much on-genre material as you can is going to really pay off. Shop about a bit, retrofurism comes in different flavours. Have a look at Logan’s Run, Captain Scarlet, Star Trek, Asimov, Bradbury, Flash Gordon, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Le Guin, Firefly, The Jetsons, Demolition Man, Arthur C. Clarke, the Fallout videogame series, even A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit. The list goes on and on but you get the picture.
By far, for me, the best thing about retrofuturism is being able to trigger nostalgia. Yeah, most people can’t articulate exactly what retrofuturism is, but they know it when they see it. It’s a genre that has vast potential to take you back to your childhood. We remember the stories or shows that were filled with possibility, daring characters, exploration, strange new worlds, toys that sent our imaginations on trips to the moon or Mars. We fondly recall thinking how awesomely advanced the special effects were when that guy’s head exploded in Total Recall. It’s easy to get a smile. Hell, I’m remembering watching Star Trek every Thursday night with my Nan and smiling about it right now. That sort of potential is a writer’s dream.
Retrofuturism is intrinsically embedded into our culture. It can be light hearted or it can carry deep messages that poke at modern day concerns and take apart huge issues. You can give your readers a glimpse at what our current problems might look like in the future through the lens of the past, making them both poignant and palatable.
Retrofuturism is the zero-gravity playground you’ve been looking for.
Liz has been waging a cunning campaign of procrastination for, well, her entire life. Her most recent schemes for avoiding completing a full length manuscript were a mid-life crisis Masters degree in Creative Writing and starting the Writing Voices website. She is now busy entertaining new strategies for continuing the cold war against her writing career. Keep going.
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Imagery by Maximalfocus, Mehdi MeSSrro and Xu Haiwei via Unsplash