Science fiction is not ‘about the future.’ Science fiction is in dialogue with the present … [the science fiction writer] indulge[s] in a significant distortion of the present that sets up a rich and complex dialogue with the reader’s here and now.
Samuel R Delany
In Australia, 2020 was arguably not as terrible as it was in other places. Though we started the year with catastrophic bushfires, we ended with the easing of months-long lockdowns to control the spread of Covid-19. We were luckier than most of the world, but it was still a long, miserable year, especially if you lived in Victoria. While many of us languished in our homes, the most optimistic suggested we use the ‘free time’ to finally learn the piano, or to take up painting, or to write that novel. And yet nothing about this time was ‘free,’ certainly not for working class folk, and arguably not for many others. ‘Free time’ suggests a kind of liberty few of us had. There was certainly a lot of time, but the perception of it both contracted and expanded because of the circumstances. The days were both long and anxious and they rolled by in a flash. Time seemed capricious, something that mattered one moment then became meaningless the next.
I am very much a homebody: all of my favourite activities can be done quite easily within the four walls of my house. Yet at the height of the lockdown, reading, writing, watching films, even cooking a nice meal – I found it all impossible. Ordinarily, I’d have no qualms with this, since I like to think I’m well-versed in doing nothing. But even with the ample opportunities for it, it had become difficult. Every time I left the house, dawdling and wandering seemed a kind of illicit privilege. At times, it was probably unlawful. The only non-work activity I could bear to do at that time was the playing of videogames. Specifically, role-playing games like Fallout 4.
Fallout 4’s cataclysmic setting is the aftermath of a nuclear war, where the player-character navigates an irradiated wasteland that used to be Boston, Massachusetts. Perhaps part of its appeal was that it rendered the apocalypse in distant terms, while the catastrophic end of 2019 and start of 2020 was close. Close enough to literally taste.
But I’ve since noticed the game had another curious resonance in this time of world-halting pandemics: its idea of the future. While set in 2287 and featuring nuclear-powered armoured suits and other futuristic technology like energy weapons, Fallout’s setting is not so much an extrapolated future like in more conventional science fiction, it is what might be called an alternate future. More specifically, a vision of the future if the economic abundance, culture and aesthetics of post-WWII middle America continued until ultimately destroyed by nuclear weapons.
It seemed I’d rather wander this basically impossible wasteland than the one outside my door.
When I got bored with Fallout 4, I moved onto The Outer Worlds, where you take command of a customisable character who roams an open world filled with quests, randomly generated events, treasure hunts and scraps of lore. While Fallout is a representation of what the world would look like if an advanced nuclear future imagined in the fifties extended into the future – and was then destroyed by nuclear war – The Outer Worlds is set in a far-flung solar system visually and culturally reminiscent of the American Old West.
These aren’t the only games to imagine the future in such ‘retro’ terms: 2014’s Alien Isolation is a videogame sequel to the first Alien film and maintains the ‘lo-fi’ 1970s vision of the future in its art direction. Other games like the Bioshock series, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Dishonored likewise play with retro art direction.
What has come to be known as retrofuturism is not just a trend in videogames. Films like The Incredibles or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and even ‘electro’ musical styles like synthwave or chillwave, could be grouped in the tendency toward retro-stylisations of what the future might bring. Part of this trend can be chalked up to the postmodern ways in which past cultural styles are routinely recycled, often with a sense of awareness or irony. This tends to be most visible in fashion: one season, bell-bottom jeans are back in, the next, 90s grunge-style flannels are cool again. Science fiction’s relationship to this phenomenon is curious though, since the genre’s main function is to imagine a future.
I can’t quite recall who came up first with the idea that science fiction is never really about the future, it’s always about the present – probably a few people given it’s something of a truism. Published just after WWII and before the beginning of the Cold War, George Orwell’s Nineteenth Eighty-Four allegorised the anxieties of the twentieth century’s disastrous forays into totalitarianism. Alfred Bester’s classic novel The Demolished Man imagines a future where everyone is psychic so many crimes are impossible. In attempting to conceal a murder, one of the characters recites an advertising jingle in his head, throwing other telepaths off. There is so much more to this book, but one sly implication is the way in which consumerism gets into your head, the psychological underside of post-war American prosperity. Ursula Le Guin’s world of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness, where the androgynous inhabitants change sex at specific times during their lives, both evokes and anticipates feminist critiques of gender that were growing in the late 60s. These are literary examples, but many of the same trends can be seen in contemporary film and television: Westworld, on how simulation and reality intertwine; Arrival on the need for patient communication and dialogue in amongst antagonistic noise. And so on.
Retrofuturism’s relationship to the present is different to this more traditional kind of science fiction. The future worlds it imagines are not about the present, at least not directly. They are about the past. This curious approach to futures of the past is illustrated in William Gibson’s short story, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, whose narrator is an illustrator tasked with designing a coffee-table book about 1930s architecture. Researching the futuristic styles of a bygone era, he is struck by the images of an airplane that is ‘all wing, like a fat symmetrical boomerang with windows in unlikely places,’ and ‘movie houses like the temples of a lost sect that worshipped blue mirrors and geometry.’ That era’s future never came to pass, and so these images haunt the narrator with the unrealised dreams of a more hopeful time.
Gibson’s story has a kind of ironic view of the history of the future and isn’t retrofuturistic in itself. But what does the resurrection of these old styles into so much modern science fiction say about our moment? In the face of rolling catastrophes, are the only futures we’re now able to imagine futures of the past? There may be a connection here to the same cultural impulse fuelling the seemingly unending ‘reboots’ of old sci-fi franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and pastiches like Stranger Things. Yet retrofuturism goes beyond mere nostalgia, and into an almost hysterical retreat from the anxieties of what the future will bring.
It wasn’t so long ago that many different futures were imagined. Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, I almost exclusively watched and read science fiction. All of it extrapolated current technology and society into settings for interesting stories of what might be. The only time the future seemed retro to me was if I read a dated science fiction book or watched a kitsch 1950s creature feature. But for the most part, the science fiction I experienced back then took the future seriously. The future now seems rarely graspable – when it is, it’s either dystopian fiction for young people like The Hunger Games, or it’s retro.
The pervasive atmosphere of what the late scholar Mark Fisher called capitalist realism suggests the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. The idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism and its demands makes new futures inconceivable. As Fisher suggests:
The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value.
What this means is that the values, beliefs, practices and histories of art and culture become less important than the price that art and culture fetches. The American writer Fran Lebowitz offers a caustic account of this dynamic. She describes how horrified she was when she attended an auction of a Picasso painting and applause came not when the painting arrived, but when its exorbitant price had been settled.
Fisher’s claim is that, in the process of assigning a monetary value to all things, the past becomes a collection of artifacts and the future becomes an extension of this depressing present. One would think you can’t get more pessimistic than this, but turn Fisher’s analysis slightly on its head and we can perhaps see the dark underside to all this retrofuturism. A sense of ‘the new’ is gone, replaced by an endless remix of past styles and aesthetics in typical postmodern fashion. Perhaps more troublingly, representations of the future become a series of what-could-have-beens instead of what-could-bes. A series of alternate histories because actual history and where it’s leading us seem so disastrous. The future has become merely an artifact of the past.
At the end of a year in which a global pandemic devoured the future, I found myself re-reading Fisher’s work and nodding gravely along. It made me recognise why I retreated to the ashen, rococo wasteland of Fallout 4, a world where things have gone quite bad. Given all that’s happened in recent months, I had found a perverse comfort in it. The future it offers will never come to pass. In a way, I suppose that was reassuring. But I realise it was a strange sort of escapism. I retreated from the disaster that was the world in 2020 and spent a lot of time in an imaginary disaster-racked world. A cozy catastrophe instead of the one I had no control over. I’ve never been very convinced by the idea that art or pop culture is often a form of escapism. The stuff I enjoy can have a richness that goes beyond reality avoidance. But playing these sorts of videogames, where a retro visual style refracts a different sort of future, a stable kind of future – that definitely was a vector of escape. An escape that was much needed.
Image: Bernard Roundhill, ‘Auckland 2000’ (1956)