Retrofuturism (adjective retrofuturistic or retrofuture) is a trend in the creative arts showing the influence of depictions of the future produced in an earlier era. If „futurism is sometimes called a ‚science’ bent on anticipating what will come, retrofuturism is the remembering of that anticipation.”[1] Characterized by a blend of old-fashioned „retro” styles with futuristic technology, retrofuturism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology. Primarily reflected in artistic creations and modified technologies that realize the imagined artifacts of its parallel reality, retrofuturism can be seen as „an animating perspective on the world.”[2] But it has also manifested in the worlds of fashion, architecture, design, music, literature, film, and video games.
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 Retro-futurism – Penguin, 1967. A recent neologism, the actual term retrofuturism was used by American Lloyd Dunn[3] in 1983,[4] according to fringe art magazine Retrofuturism, which was published between 1988 and 1993.[5]

Retrofuturism builds on ideas of futurism, but the latter term functions differently in several different contexts. In avant-garde artistic, literary and design circles, Futurism is a long-standing and well established term.[citation needed] But in its more popular form, futurism (sometimes referred to as futurology) is „an early optimism that focused on the past and was rooted in the nineteenth century, an early-twentieth-century „golden age” that continued long into the 1960s’ Space Age.” [6]

In his 1967 book T.R. Hinchcliffe wrote: „The intention of this book is to examine major recurrent themes in mans’ many analogue predictions & prophecies of the future – from inspired fantasy to factually based notions, their cultural & scientific impact, the brilliance [or otherwise] of those ideas, and how they are now faring at the apparent dawning of our electronic future.” [7]

Retrofuturism is first and foremost based on modern but changing notions of „the future”. As Guffey notes, retrofuturism is „a recent neologism,” but it „builds on futurists’ fevered visions of space colonies with flying cars, robotic servants, and interstellar travel on display there; where futurists took their promise for granted, retro-futurism emerged as a more skeptical reaction to these dreams.”[8] It took its current shape in the 1970s, a time when technology was rapidly changing. From the advent of the personal computer to the birth of the first test tube baby, this period was characterized by intense and rapid technological change. But many in the general public began to question whether applied science would achieve its earlier promise—that life would inevitably improve through technological progress. In the wake of the Vietnam War, environmental depredations, and the energy crisis, many commentators began to question the benefits of applied science. But they also wondered, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, at the scientific positivism evinced by earlier generations. Retrofuturism „seeped into academic and popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s,” inflecting George Lucas’ Star Wars and the paintings of pop artist Kenny Scharf alike”.[9] Surveying the optimistic futurism of the early twentieth century, the historians Joe Corn and Brian Horrigan remind us that retrofuturism is „a history of an idea, or a system of ideas–an ideology. The future, or course, does not exist except as an act of belief or imagination.”[10]

Retrofuturism incorporates two overlapping trends which may be summarized as the future as seen from the past and the past as seen from the future.

The first trend, retrofuturism proper, is directly inspired by the imagined future which existed in the minds of writers, artists, and filmmakers in the pre-1960 period who attempted to predict the future, either in serious projections of existing technology (e.g. in magazines like Science and Invention) or in science fiction novels and stories. Such futuristic visions are refurbished and updated for the present, and offer a nostalgic, counterfactual image of what the future might have been, but is not.

The second trend is the inverse of the first: futuristic retro. It starts with the retro appeal of old styles of art, clothing, mores, and then grafts modern or futuristic technologies onto it, creating a mélange of past, present, and future elements. Steampunk, a term applying both to the retrojection of futuristic technology into an alternative Victorian age, and the application of neo-Victorian styles to modern technology, is a highly successful version of this second trend. In the movie Space Station 76 (2014), mankind has reached the stars, but clothes, technology, furnitures and above all social taboos are purposely highly reminiscent of the mid-1970s.

In practice, the two trends cannot be sharply distinguished, as they mutually contribute to similar visions. Retrofuturism of the first type is inevitably influenced by the scientific, technological, and social awareness of the present, and modern retrofuturistic creations are never simply copies of their pre-1960 inspirations; rather, they are given a new (often wry or ironic) twist by being seen from a modern perspective.

In the same way, futuristic retro owes much of its flavor to early science fiction (e.g. the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells), and in a quest for stylistic authenticity may continue to draw on writers and artists of the desired period.

Both retrofuturistic trends in themselves refer to no specific time. When a time period is supplied for a story, it might be a counterfactual present with unique technology; a fantastic version of the future; or an alternate past in which the imagined (fictitious or projected) inventions of the past were indeed real. Examples include the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, set in an imaginary 1939, and The Rocketeer franchise, set in 1938, both of which are also examples of the genre known as dieselpunk.[11] Adam Reed’s animated comedy series Archer is also set in a retrofuture aesthetic world.
The import of retrofuturism has, in recent years, come under considerable discussion. Some, like the German architecture critic Niklas Maak, see retrofuturism as „nothing more than an aesthetic feedback loop recalling a lost belief in progress, the old images of the once radically new.”[12] Bruce McCall calls retrofuturism a „faux nostalgia” – the nostalgia for a future that never happened.[13]

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