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Retrofuturism (wikipedia.org)
171 points by ccozan on May 5, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments

Not sure there’s a finer visual artist to produce in the medium of retrofuturism than Syd Mead - passed away late last year unfortunately but left an inspiring catalog and vision of the future that I imagine will endure a very long time ->


Simon Stålenhag does really great work that if not considered retro-futurism proper is something else that doesn't seem to have a name but certainly is at least in a space adjacent to retro-futurism.


Nathaniel Halpern (Legion) created an amazing adaptation of Stalenhag's artwork for Amazon. It's unlike anything I've ever seen and definitely worth a watch.


Cyberpunk or postcyberpunk if I you ask me

This is great, thanks so much for linking this. Might have to buy a couple of prints.

There is a full story behind that art. I love it. Thanks.

Dystopian sci fi, maybe

My fav

If you like Syd Mead check out Klaus Bürgle. To me he nails the Futurism genre like nobody else. Here[1] are some "Space" pictures starting as early as the late 1940s.

1.: http://klausbuergle.de/buergle_weltraum1.htm

HYPERLOOP! http://klausbuergle.de/images/buergle/750/Personenrohrpost_d...

edit: Personenrohrpost How fitting.

Getting some Sovietwave vibes from this. Like:


Thank you for this, I did not know about Syd Mead, but just flipping through the images on that page it's clear how influential he was. Wikipedia lists pretty much exactly the associations I made:

> Mead worked with major studios on the feature films: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Tron, 2010, Short Circuit, Aliens, The Spirit of '76, Timecop, Johnny Mnemonic, Mission: Impossible III, Elysium, Tomorrowland and Blade Runner 2049. George Lucas created the AT-AT for his Star Wars saga based on art by Mead.

This is in no way to diminish his work, but the impression I got (and that I'm trying to confirm/debunk, given the wikipedia article doesn't really address this) is that his art really transposes the society of its time into the future. That is, he almost exclusively addresses the technological advancement, while keeping the societal structures largely intact. For example, that's why the retrofitted houses give the impression of still being inhabited largely by working class people, while the ski resort and leisure time imagery with the sports cars still seems to be a luxury only few can afford even in the future. I don't see signs of "fully automated luxury space communism" there.

This may be me projecting though, hence the question if this is correct. And again, this is not to take away from his work. They are stunning. :)

> That is, he almost exclusively addresses the technological advancement, while keeping the societal structures largely intact.

Looks like it to me too. Which is probably far more realistic than all the "society will radically change thanks to technology" takes. In the last 70 years we've seen technological advances we couldn't have dreamed off yet society is in most parts still the same as it was back then. Sure, progress has been made, but not as much as many scifi writers hoped for.

It depends what you mean by "progress."

No one imagined Facebook and Twitter or even Microsoft and Apple. But also no one imagined gay rights and other progressive changes, or the general change in social register and emotional tone.

What hasn't changed much is - ironically - movies and science fiction itself. All the old 50s tropes - superheroes, militarism, mutant superpowers, apocalyptic alien evil, sentient robots - are still around today, although sometimes with more of a dystopian slant than was usual back then. And with much better visual FX.

It's not so much that retrofuturism is a thing, it's more that neither SF nor tech ever really outgrew it. There's been no shockingly unexpected and mind-expanding culture of neo-futurism to replace it. (Yet.)

Thanks for this. Here are some more easily downloadable images in case others also want to find a new wallpaper: https://wall.alphacoders.com/unregistered.php?id=6436

Beautiful I came to post about this artist and you did it for me. His art is incredible.

Makes me think of OMNI magazine.

Gibson's excellent collection of short stories, 'Burning Chrome', contains a story called 'The Gernsback Continuum' which is very explicitly a retrofuturist work, I think. Maybe one of the best! In the first few paragraphs of the story he also uses the term 'raygun gothic' to describe this idea. I won't spoil it for you, but there are people in pulp sci-fi spacesuits.


One of my favourite William Gibson stories. A little gem!

Indeed :)

There is an analogy to computing here. I mentioned a couple of 30+ year old books here about what the future of software would be:


by Brad Cox (inventor of Objective C) and David Gelertner (CS professor and entrepreneur).

I guess you could make Retrofuturistic software now by writing modern versions of those old ideas (which didn't turn out to be economically feasible / adopted, at least in the exact form predicted, although in some cases they were influential.)

Back in the Google Reader days I subscribed to a few Retofuture blogs. Was really into this stuff back in the late 90s and early 00s. Love the scientific optimism. Not surprising that I am a huge fan of EPCOT, it had a huge impact on me as kid going there in the 80s.

This was one of the blogs I enjoyed, have not kept up with it: https://paleofuture.com/

> This was one of the blogs I enjoyed, have not kept up with it: https://paleofuture.com/

Matt Novak moved to Gizmodo a while back: https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/

Did not know he had that site as an archive.

Various parts of Disneyland exhibit versions of retrofuturism.

First is the original tomorrowland, a future of rocketships, futuristic cars.

Next came EPCOT of the 1970s on the heels of Earth Day and environmental sensibilities.

Then both tomorrowland and EPCOT were reburbished with a future of computers and videao games.

Most recently it is the Star Wars experience "long ago and far away" another blast from the 1970s.

I love 60s and 70s retrofuturist style, white everywhere and rounded shapes being the most recognizable marks. Starwars was very much in that style: R2 and Luke, with a revival in episode I and maybe II. Rest of the movies were much darker.

See also: Zeerust [1]

> Something — a character design, a building, anything — used to be someone's idea of futuristic. Nowadays though, it ironically has a quaint sort of datedness to it more reminiscent of the era the work came from

For example, a science fiction show from the 50s showing a video phone with a rotary dial.

1: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Zeerust

“the future according to the past” as my writing teacher called it quite pithily

the bigger mistake, isn't the future according to the past but the future according to the present, which is on the cusp of becoming the past.

It is almost impossible to see the now, we are too close to focus. My favorite in tech is that someone is porting from a legacy system. No that isn't how it works, you port from a legacy system to a future-legacy system. Be timeless and love your future self.

that’s profound. we should have drinks.

your comment resonates with the thesis that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—that our inability to imagine and provision for the future, is the death of our imagination, of our transcendence, and the world.

I like your take on it, that love has to point in every direction of time, timeless.

In the zeitgeist of HN, The Fence [1] and that everyone was doing the best they could at the time, we need to have empathy both for the past and for the future. That is why we strive to make things better.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Chesterton%27s_fence

chesterton’s fence is great. I’ve recently appreciated the synthesis of the conservative and progressive impulses—to respect what has come before as it encodes unseen wisdom, but to recognize that there are fundamentally new things happening that we must account for.

Thanks for giving it a name, I love this stuff. Old visions of the future are amazing. I love the German film "Richtung 2000" (towards 2000) from 1972 [0] (should be understandable auto-translated). It's great to get a sense of the situation at the time (oil crisis, the aero train just having been announced) and evaluate what of it has actually happened.

They were right (albeit about 15 years off) about many major things: Home automation, shopping and talking over the internet, a lot of work being automated away, the psychological issues these innovations cause ...

Sadly they were also wrong about many of the great things that should've happened by now. Space exploration has barely progressed (damn, I'm glad SpaceX exists!) and we still don't care nearly enough about our environment/quality of life to have electric vehicles and good local transit.

It's weird to see that so many of the things going on today were so predictable. It paints a concering picture of our future.

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4U2zW4IPDY

Netflix's "Maniac" is an interesting recent example of retrofuturism in a show.

Fallout is probably my favorite example of that.

Came here to say this. Not a video game fan but the series has a charm that I found very hard to explain to friends.

The genesis of that world is interesting enough too: a post-apocalyptic world which mixes the old and the new out of necessity, rather than a deliberate desire to model things on the past.

Bioshock as well, although maybe it's more "steampunk".

The future was better in the past.

Mark Fisher (RIP) made a good point in this vein: our vision for the future is stuck in the '70s and '80s. If you watch a really old sci-fi movie like Forbidden Planet[0] (or listen to its rather incredible proto-industrial soundtrack[1]), you get the distinct feeling that it's "cheesy" or "wrong", that its vision of the future has fallen greatly out of sync with our own. This feeling diminishes as you go forward in time, and basically subsides entirely once you reach the eighties. Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk, Blade Runner, Akira... all "futuristic", even to modern eyes and ears. Is this due to improvements in visual effects and electronic instrumentation, or have we "given up" on the future in a very real sense?

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWQbnyHNY3k

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unSrf-htPbk

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

People once envisioned a fantastical future, where energy was practically free, allowing endless possibilities for transport and construction.

What almost nobody predicted is that information would become practically free thanks to the internet....

Well, energy is also almost free once you get some megascale space projects going. Sun is putting out a lot of energy that currently just radiates out to empty space.

There is a nice video 'in praise of retrofuturism' on the BBC Ideas page: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/in-praise-of-retrofuturis...

this remembering of the past and what they thought about us can mostly only mean one thing: we ourselves can't and haven't been able to think of the future.

I mean, there were also some remarkably prescient predictions made at the time. But the more accurate they were, the less likely they'd define a retrofuturistic artistic genre.

It's subjective remembering though, so this message would primarily apply to those who are creating such content or consuming it. Those are the ones for whom your viewpoint may be true.

Others do create / conceptualize "new" futures, though I would add that a lot of this is a metaphor for big-picture ideas and general creativity drawn from the yet-unknown, which are then birthed into the present (the future present ;-)). These people have a tough job to do, because audiences like HN share the tech space with them, but tend to be relentlessly critical of wild new ideas at the same time. We are that retro-future crowd that's short on (or generally annoyed by) new ideas, many of us.

That's one possible way to look at it. The art of the present and the past is strongly influenced by the technological innovations that society has access to. However, there isn't any reason why the art of yesterday can't be used with the technology of present.

e.g. rotary telephones were designed because that was the only option to dial numbers; but someone might find that kind of telephone to be nice today because of the user experience (just a wild example) and they could be made today but with IC's etc.

Although, it is obvious, you cannot be close to the reality if you trying to predict more than 10 years upfront, to be more or less realistic, you have to go back from the present back as many years as you want to go into future and observe what did not change. Then extrapolate to the future that has changed and what has not. Say in 10 years we'll still have AMD64 computers on our desks, albeit 50% faster, we'll still be running Windows and Linux, we;ll probably have more than 10% cars running on electricity, we'll still be wearing jeans and t-shirts, yet there will be subtle change in the social order, perhaps a bad pandemic, change in social networking platforms etc.

We can't really imagine the distant future because we are very biased about the past and present. And we also can't account for developments that are entirely new.

People always imagined the future full of flying cars because cars and planes were the big thing so the combination must also be big. But nobody really imagined "social networks" 100 years ago, which are way bigger now than flying cars. They had no indication that this could possibly be a thing, at least not in their current form. We imagined/had forums and all sorts of communities but not really close to the current idea of social media.

Science-fiction tend to underestimate social changes compared to technological changes. The classic example is Asimov where we have an intergalactic empire thousands of years in the future but with gender roles stuck in the 1950's. Videophones are everywhere in SF, but who predicted people would prefer text messaging with emojis?

Smartphones and climate change crisis was predicted many times, but who predicted transsexual rights would become a divisive political issue in the US?

SciFi creators are also bound by the fact that their creations must be commercial successes. Touching on sensitive social topics can get in the way of that and it's the best way to get a lynch mob at their door. So even if one could have predicted in the '30s anything related to race and gender-related emancipation they would have been buried along with their work. Fancy futuristic tech? Yes, please! Radical social reform ideas? Solid nope.

That what I said. But at least, by not giving you fantasies a free reign, you can be a bit closer to the reality.

I was always under the impression that Lloyd Dunn coined the term.


I’d be curious if there is someone designing art or tech in this style.

Zillions of people. Usually it gets called steampunk (18xx) or dieselpunk (193x-194x). 195x-6x futurism usually ends up going very Googie. And we’re starting to see 70s/80s retrofuturism, mostly I’d say the word associated with that is vaporwave.

More art than actual tech, and most of the tech is one-off hand-built stuff.

Vaporwave, despite using a lot of 80s samples, is generally more associated with the 90s. Vaporwave is all about the simultaneous apex and decline of mall culture, consumer excess in optimism of the post-Cold War, and early WWW aesthetic.

70s/80s would be Cassette Futurism and Sythwave.

Would cyberpunk count as 90s retrofuturism? Or have we decided it hits too close to home for present times?

Nah cyberpunk is it's own thing and the aesthetic way predates the 90s.

Cyberdecks[0] come to mind. There seems to be quite an active modding scene; I remember seeing a few Pi-based ones recently.

[0] https://www.cyberdeck.cafe/

I think of Bioshock when I see that word

Agreed, as in: Steampunk is actually a form of retrofuturism

The Wikipedia article does describe steampunk as a high-profile example.

Also interesting to note the two non-distinct forms of retrofuturism: "the future as seen from the past" and "the past as seen from the future". Steampunk is an example of the latter.

Renditions of things described by Jules Verne could be considered both "the future as seen from the past" and "Steampunk"

Or working models of Babbage's machines!

Time to read Jules Verne books again.

I see a new wave of futurism with solarpunk. I hope it will catch on.

See also: false nostalgia

my favorite style of art!

What then is the converse of retrofuturism where the present or future is represented with a mix of obsolete technologies along with contemporary and/or hypothetical future ones?

A post-apocalypic present with ancient and highly advanced technologies unearthed from ruins that humanity no longer has the skill to remake. Miyazaki's Nausicaa comes to mind.

Or maybe a world where technology is futuristic but the societal structure is from the past. Warhammer 40k, the Roman empire but in space.

RPGs are often like that. Powerful items are never something like the optimized, advanced light sabre of performance but always something like the ancient rusty sword of the primordial elders.

Also Castle in the Sky

Fallout series.

Dune, perhaps?


Probably Blade Runner or the Alien universe (which is the same universe, depending on who you ask).

They certainly share a common aesthetic. Same universe? No.

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