Writing Retropunk Fiction – Perception Bias & Retrofuturism

Regardless of the genre you write in, we can all claim to be authors of speculative fiction of some kind or another. Every story speculates about something. Our imagination is built from even the simplest what if question. What if this happened, what would happen next? What if this confronted our heroine, would she succeed? What if this transpired, how could our hero escape? Whether you write mysteries, thrillers, romance or mainstream literary, the journeys of your characters are driven by what if questions.

The granddaddy of speculation is the what if question that deals with the future. ‘What would it be like if’…  has been at the core of science fiction stories since Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds. Nothing stirs the imagination of a speculative fiction author more than to project their what if thoughts into the future and ponder how the clouds of the cosmos would coalesce around them.

Speculative authors are inextricably bound by two fundamental biases of perception. The first is our knowledge of the past and the second is our perception of the present, our current reality. Our past has molded our values. We explore this in our characters’ behaviors and develop plots based on the principles of human interaction we’ve observed. The reality of our present acts as an electric prod to step us forward from this day into the next. This is the reality of the society we live in, our environment and communities, the politics and economics of our daily lives; a reality that molds our viewpoints, influences our current mood, motivates us to make changes in our lives and gives us either a feeling of optimism or pessimism about the future. With these two natural human biases, we see the future through the lens of what we knew to have been true yesterday and what we believe is true today. But is this the only lens available to an author?

In its simplest form, science fiction extrapolates our biased past and present into the future through the medium of change. In hard science fiction, a what if technological change such as artificial intelligence or cloning plops in the middle of the speculative pond like a weighty stone, creating a ripple effect. In space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars, authors extrapolate impressive changes in today’s science to create new worlds of wonder beyond known technology. In dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, we view changes as destructive forces accompanied by a deterioration in societal norms. Some of the most powerful classic speculative stories combine what if technologies with what if changes in society. Examples are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

But is there another unique lens to look through? Yes. But it requires a radical change in perception. What if you adopted the viewpoint of someone from the past? What if you could unlearn what you know happened to their future? How would you see the future differently if you could erase the history of science and technology you know and replace it with the imagination of someone’s yesteryear?

That lens is Retrofuturism. It is the basis of the new genres of Steampunk and Dieselpunk.

Retrofuturism is an expression of creativity that either (1) projects the future as those in a past time period might have seen it OR (2) expresses a future world using the vibe of a bygone era.

I highlight the term expression of creativity because Steampunk and Dieselpunk are more than just literary genres. They are a cultural phenomenon that captures not only written words but many creative endeavours in the arts, photography, costume design, video gaming, and crafting. All of these creative efforts adopt and adapt the retro-futuristic themes and aesthetics reflecting the politics, society, culture and technology from ‘whatever-time period’ they are trying to express in order to project to others the future as those in this past era might have seen it, or to convey to others how this era’s vibe would look like in a future imaginary world. For Steampunk, that whatever-time period is the Victorian to Edwardian era (the mid-1800s to the 1910s), an era of colonialism, exploration and invention, the Industrial Revolution, and the introduction of mechanized warfare in World War One. This was an age of ‘glass and brass’, an era of fine craftsmanship in optics and scientific instruments. The costume fashions of steampunk followers exude the Victorian’s love of leather, stiff collars and waistcoats; corsets, frills and lace. That bygone era was a time when society was split by social contrast; where ornate Victorian mansions rubbed shoulders with the grimy smoke-filled slums of industry. 

For Dieselpunk, that whatever-time period runs from the 1920s to the 1950s, encompassing gangsters and Prohibition, the Rise of Fascism, and World War Two. It was an era of hard-boiled detectives; fedoras and trench coats; the use of propaganda as a tool of politics and war; mass rallies, repression and revolution; the secret police with their jackboots and armbands. Cities became dehumanized with massive skyscrapers. The production line heralded machines that became bigger, stronger, and more ominous. Industrial aesthetics bristled with Art Deco chrome & steel, Bakelite and concrete.

Atompunk heralds the Age of Atomic Power, the Cold War, space travel, and the rise of consumerism. The future looked brighter and easier for the Average Joe and Jane. Television began to dominate over radio. It was an age of jet engines, rockets, early computers, and the atomic bomb. 

Authors have extended the application of retrofuturism to other centuries, technologies and past societal trends, manifested in several new Retropunk niches like PatriotPunk (the 18th century), EgyptPunk (Ancient Egypt), and DecoPunk (the Art Deco Jazz Age); Weird Western, Raygun Gothic, Teslapunk (where electric power reigns), Gaslamp Fantasy, and MagicPunk, among many others. 

The challenge of writers who want to use retrofuturism is to shed the influences from today’s technology, politics and social norms (our perception bias) and ‘think’ like someone living in some past era. Imagine yourself as a contemporary of Jules Verne or HG Wells, sitting as part of their writers’ circle. Or as an associate of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell. Develop your ‘what-ifs’ from that viewpoint. Pretend you don’t know what their future actually did produce but what those in that era thought it might produce.  

There is a quiet revolution going on in genre literature, an experimental trend dominated by Steampunk but expanding wherever creative energy is applied. One common denominator may be retrofuturism but it’s not strictly limited to that. Authors are defying standard genre formulas and exploring combinations of science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, mystery, the paranormal, horror, and romance. They are finding that their creativity cannot be constrained by the chaos of their everyday lives. Good for them! Why don’t you give it a try?

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Post by Charles A Cornell

As an author, my overactive imagination fills my mind with three dimensional puzzles of stacked what-if questions that cry out for answers. You can find me fueling my creativity amidst the chaos of a very busy life in my writer’s den where I dream up whimsical adventures that range from the satirical to the macabre which I then blog about on CharlesACornell.com

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