Retrofuturism can be summarized as the concept of ‘the future as imagined in the past’. In terms of science fiction, it can be seen in many stories with a sort of art deco aesthetic, and also encapsulates the genres of cyberpunk, steampunk, and raygun gothic. As such, its a broad subgenre of science fiction and caters to a wide range of tastes. Take the time to check out our list of the best retrofuturism, and you are sure to find much to enjoy.
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All My Sins Remembered
Joe Haldeman draws upon his own experience of the Vietnam War to offer a slice of potent science fiction in All My Sins Remembered. The book explores the conflict that occurs between one’s own morality and ethics, and what we are often compelled to do by others. It has a strong anti-authority streak and is incredibly critical of governments and their control. The book’s main character is a pacifist who is brainwashed to become an assassin. The story centers on his missions and his response to them. Thought provoking and stylish retro futuristic sci fi.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Philip K Dick
Of course, Dick’s Do Androids Dream...is well known for becoming the cyberpunk basis for film adaptation Blade Runner, but it also serves as an epic taste of the retro futuristic approach to science fiction. As cyberpunk is often classed as one of the subgenres of retro futurism, it would be rude not to include one of its finest stories. Do Androids Dream… deals with one forced to hunt down rogue replicants while also questioning the nature of his own reality.
Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang
Originally released back in 1976, Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang is a classic retro futuristic tale. The story mixes in ideas from the world of post-apocalyptic science fiction, and is often grouped under the New Wave Science Fiction movement as well. The story examines a devastated world in which clones are the primary form of population. How will the last naturally created human cope? Wilhelm’s tale is a perfect example of the future as imagined from the past, a pure encapsulation of the retro futuristic ideal.
A Dream Of Wessex
This is a really interesting example of retrofuturism, as it deals with ideas relating to virtual reality, despite being originally released in the 1970s. A group of people create a virtual reality world which they then transport themselves into. However, they are unable to escape it, and not only that, they lack the knowledge of who they are and how they arrived where they are. A Dream Of Wessex has an interesting depth to it, as it incorporates ideas from Jungian psychology, such as the collective unconscious.
Down To A Sunless Sea
Down To A Sunless Sea is an example of retrofuturism very much grounded in the concerns of the era in which it is written. This is seen through the way the story draws upon fears of the time such as the concept of a nuclear holocaust, and what would happen to America if its oil reserves became depleted. The story itself is gripping, dealing with a group of people on a plane, and how they cope when the world is gripped with nuclear war mid flight. Gripping and thought-provoking science fiction.
The Naked Sun
Isaac Asimov is one of the stalwart’s of the science fiction genre, and his work can be found amidst the finest examples of every almost subgenre imaginable. The Naked Sun can be seen as a mixture of retro futuristic and robot science fiction, The book earns its retro futuristic stripes by imagining a society in which 3D communication has just been invented. The story is a detective style yarn investigating a murder on a colonized world. Very interesting from a classic sci fi as well as retro future perspective.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck is one of the most unique novels in science fiction, let alone on this list. It deals with a world in which language is the key to reality. If things are not linguistically correct, they cease to truly be. The story’s main character is a new entrant to this world, and is forced to adapt to its ways. Her intention to stay only a short while before returning home is complicated by falling in love. This is a truly mind-blowing, conceptual example of retrofuturism, and one which will live on long in the memory.
The Sheep Look Up
John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up is similar to a lot of retro futuristic science fiction, in the sense that it deals with a dystopian world which has arisen as a result of environmental neglect. In this particular instance, the book proved to be especially prescient, as it has been directly cited by modern environmental groups as a forewarning which no one else made. Seriously, a lot of readers find this one difficult, as it mirrors so scarily elements of the modern world such as unsafe air and crackdowns on press freedoms. An essential read as proof of the power of fiction to warn the real world.
The Mining Mess
In contrast to the previous entry, John Picha Skyracos’ ‘The Mining Mess’ is a fun and enjoyable retrofuturistic tale. Instead of dwelling on environmental damage and so forth, this is pure, unadulterated fun, dealing with robots and jet packs. The plot tells the tale of an aspiring hero sent to investigate a crisis on a mining colony. Soon, his ideas of idealistic heroism are shattered, and he is forced to adjust to a reality far messier than he ever anticipated.
The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination mixes together elements of fun pulp science fiction, retrofuturism, and sci fi warfare for a fun story. The core retrofuturistic idea found here is the ability to teleport, and the implications of this becoming the primary form of transportation. The story was originally serialized in the 1950s, and it retains that exciting and fun pulp feel even to this day. If you want to explore a world of teleportation, mixed in with a gripping revenge plot line, The Stars My Destination is the book for you.
The World Inside
At its core, retrofuturism is a genre which showcases the fears, dreams, and ideas held by the writers of the day about the world they would come to inhabit. The central concern in this area of The World Inside is that of overpopulation. The story is set in a future Earth where over 75 billion people coexist with one another. This has led to some incredible housing solutions, such as tower blocks stretching kilometres into the sky. What happens when one person dares to dream of a world outside of their suffocating confines? A fascinating concept by Robert Silverberg.
Dean Motter has produced a playful, graphic novel take on the retro sci fi genre with Electropolis. The book describes itself as ‘murder and intrigue in the good old-fashioned future’. If you’ve ever encountered the Timesplitters series of video games, this feels a little like that. The retrofuturistic backdrop serves as the setting for a murder mystery yarn, featuring a classic style private eye main character. A fun and refreshing take on the subgenre.
Just like Electropolis, Red Star is a graphic novel interpretation of retrofuturism. It is fascinating in the sense that it envisions a version of Soviet Russia which combines elements of technology and even sorcery! The storyline is about mythical battles between the Red Fleet and nefarious forces. Red Star even manages to throw in a few ghosts for good measure. Highly recommended.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick’s Flow My Tears...envisioned the near future of 1988 when it was written back in 1974. Dick pictured a dystopian world of surveillance and immense levels of control, and what happens when an innocent man gets on the wrong side of such a world. Dick presents an immersive and convincing portrayal of the future as he imagined it, and modern readers will find a lot of chilling parallels here.
The Difference Engine
Bruce Sterling & William Gibson
The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson is an example of how complex and mind-blowing retrofuturism can get. How exactly? Well, it’s an alternative history, steampunk story dealing with a divergent timeline. It imagines how the world would have changed if an 1824 inventor had managed to realize his vision. The Difference Engine has been widely praised from a critical standpoint, and has even gone on to inspire media such as video games.
What Makes a Retrofuturism Science Fiction Book?
Although any science fiction story which makes use of the core concept of ‘the future as envisioned from the past’ can be send to be retrofuturistic, there are a range of defined subgenres which many class under the banner of retrofuturism.
Cyberpunk. A combination of a dystopian world with advanced technology. Some of the most iconic sci-fi films can be considered cyberpunk, including Blade Runner and The Matrix.
Steampunk. An imaginative genre with a distinct aesthetic, postulating a world where steam was the primary form of power.
Dieselpunk. Similar to steampunk, but just as steampunk fetishizes and stylizes old-time steam technology, dieselpunk does the same for the time period from which diesel emerged.
Atompunk. If you think of the Cold War era in terms of aesthetics, technology, and the worries of society, you have a good idea of the influences that fed into the atompunk subgenre of retro futurism.
Raygun Gothic. This is an incredibly niche aesthetic related to retrofuturism. It’s primarily an architectural style, but fiction drawing upon that philosophy can be said to be raygun gothic.
Does The Term Retrofuturism Cover More Than Just Fiction?
Retrofuturism is a broad movement within the creative world, and retrofuturistic science fiction is just one strand of it.
Some of the other manifestations of the retrofuturistic influence include:
Fashion. Think about the look of music groups like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk. This is an example of a retrofuturistic style of outfit. This didn’t really bleed over into the mainstream. The sci-fi aesthetic of tight jumpsuits and other tropes thankfully didn’t make it into the everyday life of most Earthlings!
Architecture. Some architecture can be said to be retrofuturistic. Think about the Toronto Space Needle for an example of this style.
Food. Some methods of food-preparation can be considered as retrofuturistic. Think about the use of deep fryers as an example of this style...
Video games. The retrofuturistic style can be found in a ton of different video games, including Bioshock and Fallout.
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