What is retro-futurism? Taken quite literally, it sounds like a contradiction of terms. Retro refers to things of the past, like antiques, and futurism is, well, the future. But retro-futurism isn’t the days of future past. It’s actually the future as envisioned by writers of the past. The year of 2060 would be described very differently by a science fiction writer of 1968 then it would be by a science fiction of today. We have experienced technical revolutions that nobody could have foreseen . . . or did they?

Many science fiction stories have been set in or very close to the present day. How do those visions of the future live up to reality? Let’s take a look!

A Virtual Tour of Los Angeles

In Philip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? he depicts a fairly classical cyberpunk universe. The story, as indicated by the title, includes androids, and electric sheep. The world has advanced significantly beyond the 1960s era it was written in, up to and including space colonies that  the androids were developed for. The story is set in the San Fransisco Bay Area, which the 1982 movie adaption moved to the city of Los Angeles. So how does the future that Philip K. Dick imagined measure up to reality?

To start out with, let’s take a look at the Los Angelos that existed at that time the story was written.

LA 60s 680

In 1968 we had television and electricity, but while the space race was well under way, Apollo 11 had not yet landed on the moon. Computers had been invented, but were not available for consumers, and the earliest form of the internet would not come into existence for another year. We were ten years away from the first word processor. A story that envisioned androids, space travel, and flying cars was written on an electric typewriter while Star Trek was still on the air, and long before we could even dream of the miniaturization trend that would lead to the possibility of the existence of electric sheep.

In contrast, let’s look at the movie “Blade Runner“–the best visual depiction of Philip K. Dick’s future that we have. Blade Runner was released in 1982, and set in a 2019 version of Los Angeles. The 1982 film designers had, perhaps, a better grasp on what cities of the future would look like, including skyscrapers, an endless sea of light, flying cars, and larger-than-life video advertising on nearby buildings. The result was stunningly life-like:

LA Blade Runner

For a future envisioned in a city that still looked like this:

LA Now

So how does this retrospective vision of the future measure up to today? Well, it’s not 2019 yet, but we’re pretty close. And while we don’t have flying cars or humanoid androids, electric pets are not far in our future, and I think they would both feel at home in modern-day Los Angeles.


Tron Revisited

When Tron was released in 1982 (a week after Blade Runner, interestingly) it was praised by critics but approached cautiously by the general public. Much like Star Trek two decades earlier, the storyline and world it depicted were too advanced for an audience that were barely acquainted with computers, and viewed computer programming as the domain of social outcasts and geniuses. Since the reboot/sequel Tron: Legacy the world has gained some new attention and a new fan following, but these fans too often dismiss original Tron for its cardboard props and simplistic technology. But what we, looking back, do not realize is that for them, looking forward, Tron was remarkable.


Tron was not actually futuristic, but contemporary; featuring programs that ran as text and computers that filled whole rooms. But it elucidated, perhaps for the first time, how code actually worked. By anthropomorphizing computer programming it introduced the average person to the computer grid, where people could interact by giving instructions to a program, who then acted for them inside of “cyberspace.” Much like Star Trek, however, Tron was perhaps a little too technically advanced for its audience. The concept of computers and networking that is so common now make us look back on the cardboard graphics with a shake of fond nostalgia, but in the days before the average consumer was acquainted with the sending and fetching of information in little packets it seemed far-fetched; fantasy even.

Tron Legacy

When Tron: Legacy came out in 2010, we got to see a modern take on the ’82 computer world of the grid. It was this film, more than anything, the proved how much the original Tron got right. Besides the updated graphics, Legacy introduced the concept of evolving code. Programming that can learn is one of the most viable options for true artificial intelligence, and the appearance of the ISOs in real life would absolutely have all the ramifications Flynn said they would. But in another thirty years looking back, will our views of robotics be the same?

The Future of the Future

In twenty years when we look back at the science fiction writers of today, what will our definition of retro-futurism be?

The 50s and 60s were the golden age of science fiction. Nothing was known about space, so writers imagined other worlds, other races both friendly and unfriendly, and the spread of humanity throughout the galaxy. Today the two most popular subgenres of science fiction seem to be dystopia and apocolyptic. The future, according to writers of the 21st century, appears to be a strange mix of flying cars and nuclear fallout; plague and time travel. Our visions of interstellar travel have come back down to near-reality. We have more hibernation technology than warp drives. We fear our own leaders more than any alien entities we may encounter.

Let’s take a look at a fairly contemporary futuristic film: I,Robot. I, Robot is already more than ten years out of date, but since it’s set in 2035 it will serve our purposes nicely. One can argue that it’s older than that since it’s based on Asimov’s famous book, but the only similarities are the name of the film, so we can safely assess it as an original work.  It also has an optimistic viewpoint of the future, which is important, since the Hunger Games and World War Z don’t offer us much of a future to look forward to. So presuming that we don’t destroy ourselves with nuclear radiation, asteroid impacts, or global warming, what kind of future can we imagine?

iRobot Chicago

Self-driving cars are a huge part of the world of I, Robot, one of the few movies to portray them so casually. In 2004 when the film was made, self-driving cars were still fantastical speculation, but now that they’ve been safely road tested, it is safe to assume that that future is not far off. Will Smith’s character receives criticism in the film for driving himself, which also fits well with current futurist predictions that manually powered vehicles will be deemed unsafe, and eventually outlawed.

In every science fiction dream there are robots. The robots of the past were metal, large and clunky to accommodate the actor inside the robot suit. The robots of today are sleek and graceful, reflecting the miniaturization process in effect regarding computer chips. The robots of I, Robot are far advanced of anything available today, but are visually very similar in design to many of the more talented androids built by Toyota. But once we finally have enough mechanical friends to actually worry about the Great Robot Uprising, will this style itself have become “retro”?

In the future, when we finally have robotic servants, when we’ve finally solved the energy problem, when we’ve finally landed those intrepid colonists on Mars, what will all this technology we’ve imagined for decades (or centuries) look like then? And what will the science fiction writers of that magical and mysterious age find to write about? In the future, what will the futurists predict?

Only a time traveller can tell us.


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One Response to “Retro-Futurism-NOW

  • The word “retrofuturism,” combines more recent ideas of nostalgia and retro with older traditions of futurism. An early use of the term was in the title of T.R. Hinchcliffe’s Pelican book

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