RETRAUX: A Return to the Worlds of Tomorrow

by J. D. Harlock

      I. Whatever Happened to the Worlds of Tomorrow? 

      Whatever happened to the worlds of tomorrow? 
      Whatever happened to the tomorrows that never were?
      Our atomic dreams gave way to cybernetic nightmares. And it seems that, in time, we will fabricate a new vision of what is to come—that, too, will be discarded.
      But what happens to yesterday’s visions of tomorrow? 
      Once they have fallen from popular consciousness, do we dwell on them, and is there any value in that? 
      In speculative fiction, retrofuturism is that dwelling.

      II. Futurism & the Origins of Retrofuturism

      In early twentieth-century Italy, Futurism, the ideological predecessor of retrofuturism, came together as industrialization and urbanization transformed man’s relationship with the world. Its reverence for what its progenitors perceived as progress ended up fetishizing modern developments (such as planes and cars) with an emphasis on values that were frowned upon at the time, such as speed, technology, and youth. With planes crossing oceans and rockets racing into space, the throttles of scientific and technological progress were pushed even harder as the century sped on. Reflecting on this acceleration in 1920, poet Ezra Pound wrote, “The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace.” Futurism seemed to be that image—our anticipation of what was to come. However, it is now popularly understood as a form of early-twentieth-century speculative optimism that then continued well into the Space Age of the 1960s in other forms, such as the ray gun gothic genre when science fiction in the vein of Star Trek and The Jetsons was all the rage. Ironically, as Italian Futurism glorified modernity, aiming to liberate Italy from its past, its fixation with the future transformed into our lingering fascination with our past’s projections of it, or in other words, retrofuturism. Since the future the futurists and their ideological successors predicted never came to pass, retrofuturism emerged as our way of collectively recollecting that anticipation we now yearned for.
      Long before we found the word “retrofuturism” was coined, retrofuturism as a creative practice existed in some form or another throughout human history. However, retrofuturism emerged as a defined concept in the 1970s. Like the early twentieth-century milieu, Futurism was born out of retrofuturism crystallized in an era mired by rapid technological advancements contrasted against a turbulent socio-political and economic climate. It started as a skeptical reaction to the Futurists’ visions of flying cars and ray guns by creative writers and academics. In light of the environmental and energy crises and the seemingly never-ending war in Vietnam, the public began questioning whether life would inevitably improve through technological progress as futurists had once predicted. Simultaneously, commentators were reflecting on the scientific positivism of earlier generations, either in awe or confusion at how wrong it all turned out to be. These disorienting sentiments inevitably hit the mainstream, so much so that it is not uncommon for modern philosophers to condemn the retrofuturism fueling our nostalgia as a symptom of our inability to envision an original future for ourselves. 

      III. Retrofuturism: A Definition

      Retrofuturism can be defined as our dwelling on the future: 

  • Either as the future as seen from the past. This retrofuturism draws from the imagined futures of a period depicted in projections or science fiction. These imagined futures are refurbished for the present, offering counterfactual possibilities for the future.
    • Example: The Incredibles—an animated film stylized after what Americans in the 1960s believed the future would be.
  • Or the past as seen from the present. This retrofuturism first capitalizes on the aesthetics of retro styles. Then, it introduces existing or speculative technologies of the period this retrofuturism was imagined to blend past, present, and future.
    • Example: The Flintstones—a Stone Age-set animated series where automobiles are made of stone and baby mammoths are used as vacuum cleaners.

      What makes retrofuturism unique is that, unlike other futurist fiction, it does not attempt to predict the future accurately. Instead, it leverages our dwelling on the future to create a new world that feels familiar and new. In turn, it capitalizes on our nostalgia and anxieties.

      IV. The Case for Retrofuturism

            a. Retrofuturism As A Tool for Philosophical Inquiry

      British theorist Mark Fisher once said that in the post-Soviet world, “the dimension of the future has disappeared.” He goes so far as to claim that “we’re marooned, we’re trapped in the twentieth century, still.” Even though he did not refer to retrofuturism, his followers viewed it as a microcosm of Fischer’s concern. It is used as an example to verify his conception of capitalist realism, or in other words, the mass perception that capitalism is our only viable sociopolitical and economic system to the extent that it is now impossible to imagine feasible alternatives. However, these critics’ fixation on the nostalgia “inherent” in retrofuturism is peculiar, as retrofuturism does not solely dwell on the past but also the present and future, suggesting alternative paths for humanity by allowing us to explore the past, present, and future outside of real-world constraints. Performing these thought experiments in speculative fiction and other interrelated fields enables us to explore ideas in new settings that would otherwise be impossible if they were to be carried out within the confines of our world and its history. For example, Ken Levine’s Bioshock (2007), set in an alternate 1960s, imagines an underwater city called Rapture, presented to us as a false utopia that devolves into a dystopia. In-universe, the ethos behind the construction of Rupture is objectivism, as first espoused in the real world by Ayn and her followers during the period she was active. Rapture is a speculative conception of what objectivists back then believed would be a perfect society for that era. Critiques of objectivist societies are nothing new, but using retrofuturism in Bioshock opened up a new avenue to analyze and understand it outside of stories that either try to play out the philosophy in the real world or create a futuristic society in the indeterminate future to show us the logical conclusion of an objectivist society. By setting Bioshock in the 1960s, we can experience the societal milieu that would embrace objectivism in a way that wasn’t the case anymore when the video game was released in 2007 (and that likely wouldn’t be the case after that) and understand the appeal of objectivism to that generation.

            b. Retrofuturism to Understand the Past, Present, and Future

      Humanity has been grappling with change as far back as we can remember. Retrofuturism allows us to reevaluate our relationship with transformative technology in familiar fictional settings. In stark contrast to the total rejection of post-medieval science and technology prevalent in fantasy and its various subgenres, retrofuturism is far more considerate when evaluating existing and imagined science and technologies. In their time, The Flintstones and The Jetsons acted as a mirror to suburban Americana, using their retrofuturistic humor to comment on the lifestyles and preoccupations of the average suburbanites in a way their primary influence, the then-modern The Honeymooners never could. Retrofuturism does this by offering a refreshingly nuanced portrayal of science and technology that is in short supply in futuristic science fiction but without its isolating and overwhelming alienness. 
      Coupled with this unique ability to engage with technology is retrofuturism’s ability to host atypical characters and premises in recognizable period-specific settings. This framing allows writers to recount and recontextualize our pasts in novel and complex ways, offering answers only speculative fiction can give. For example, Alan Moore’s serial comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen extensively uses famous literary creations by other writers such as Mina Harker and Captain Nemo mixed in with retrofuturistic elements from steampunk to raygun gothic in its ambitious attempt to deconstruct the entire corpus of Western art. Using retrofuturism to create an alternate history for our literary world, he can offer a holistic critique of Western art of the time by illuminating the unsavory implications of revered works and depicting the settings through these atypical plots and characters in a manner that would otherwise be impossible if he tried to integrate them into our real world. 

            c. Retrofuturism for a Better World

      Every decade experiences waves of nostalgia; historically speaking, what we are experiencing is nothing new. This period of creative stagnation is a natural part of the intellectual cycles of art, entertainment, and media. We can move forward only by ruminating on our pasts, and retrofuturism is the perfect vehicle. Though it could fall into kitsch, optimistic retrofuturism, in contrast, can evoke an era when a bright future reminds us of what we were and what we thought we could achieve. Unlike the dated art of the ’50s and ’60s that is no longer capable of connecting with the masses as a result of succumbing to its heavy censorship and tired tropes, retrofuturistic art drawing from this period can inspire in us the optimism of the atomic age needed to vision a brighter future for humanity without the problematic elements of the time period they are associated with. The fledgling solarpunk movement, for example, is refreshingly reminiscent of the atomic age and its hopefulness. Taking inspiration from that era’s ethos (as well as its stylistic elements) coupled with a refurbishing of age-old Arcadian utopias and indigenous practices with green tech, solarpunk draws on retrofuturistic movements to forge a new vision for humanity inspired by the past, present, and future. 

            d. Retrofuturism As A Necessary Byproduct 

      Retrofuturism is a byproduct of trying to envision the original futures these critics claim to have disappeared from the public imagination. Numerous projections are made at any given time. One, if not all, will inevitably be wrong and perceived as retrofuturistic. However, they are all necessary to envision a new world, even the once-embraced futures that fall out of favor. An example is the relationship between the last century’s predominant futurist science fiction subgenres. Cyberpunk, popularized in the 1980s, was conceived as the antithesis of the then-dated ray gun gothic of the ’50s and ’60s. Back then, the public perceived cyberpunk as a serious projection of the future. Its influence on popular culture was significant enough to alter our mass projection of the future, from rayguns and flying cars to crackers in shades jacking into cyberspace as an escape from dystopian cityscapes. However, by the 1990s, cyberpunk had become dated and discredited, seen as too silly, over-the-top, and poorly researched to be accurate. In turn, post-cyberpunk was envisioned as the antithesis of cyberpunk and had as much of an influence on the public’s perception of the future as cyberpunk had. Cyberpunk is now a form of retrofuturism, and cyberpunk media, both modernized and in the vein of the works released in the 1980s, is still being produced and has an influence on the culture. Even if the future the cyberpunk envisioned did not come to pass, cyberpunk, in its time, allowed us to envision a new future for ourselves that was, if not entirely true, more in line with the data of the time and is still able to inform us about humanity now that the current projections of the future have moved away from it.

      VI. Conclusion

      Far from the creative dead end that its critics try to paint as retrofuturism is one of the most complex and versatile approaches in speculative fiction to conceptualize the future. Considering the multiplicity of the periods, locations, and futuristic visions that writers can work with, the possibilities of retrofutures are limitless. Because we might be done with these futures, but these futures are not done with us.