Our Jaded Tomorrows
Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni. Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future. Denver, CO: Speck, 2006. 128 pp. $19 pbk.
Elizabeth E. Guffey. Retro: The Culture of Revival. London: Reaktion, 2006. Distr. U Chicago P. 188 pp. $19.95 pbk.
David Heckman. A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. x + 214 pp. $21.95 pbk.
Mac Montandon. Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention that Never Was. New York: Da Capo, 2008. 261 pp. $25 hc.
Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, eds. Steampunk. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon, 2008. x + 373 pp. $14.95 pbk.
Daniel H. Wilson. Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. 192 pp. $14.95 pbk.
In Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, protagonist Tyrone Slothrop descends into the underground Nazi factory at Nordhausen, where the V-2 rockets were assembled. There he is assailed by a kaleidoscopic vision of a Space Age future that simultaneously conjures the past—a gleaming high-tech utopia compounded of fin-de-siècle daydreams and modernist longings, replete with imagery out of classic fantastic voyages from Cyrano to Tom Swift, all fused into a jaunty Offenbach libretto:
A popular attraction is the elegant Raumwaffe spacesuit wardrobe designed by famous military couturier Heini of Berlin. Not only are there turnouts dazzling enough to thrill even the juvenile leads of a space-operetta, down to the oddly-colored television images flickering across their toenails, but Heini has even thought of silks for the amusing little Space-Jockeys (Raum-Jockeier) with their electric whips, who will someday zoom about just outside the barrier-glow of the Raketen-Stadt [Rocket City] astride “horses” of polished meteorite…. bobbing, each radiant in a display of flourescent plastics, back in to the Waltz, the strangely communal Waltz of the Future, a slightly, disquietingly grainy-dissonant chorale implied here in the whirling silence of faces, the bare shoulderblades so space-Viennese, so jaded with Tomorrow. (296)
As the narrator comments, this bizarre techno-fantasy is not what “we were programmed to expect, not the fins, the streamlined corners, pylons, or simple solid geometries of the official version at all” (297), but something at once darker and more naïve, a phantasmal realm of glittering possibility that seemed to promise beauty and abundance, only to deliver sophisticated mechanisms of terror and death. The equivocal tone of the passage, which neatly balances ebullience and cynicism, nostalgia and paranoia, captures perfectly the complex ideological ambience of what has since come to be called retrofuturism.
Retrofuturism can be defined as an ambivalent fascination for what the Smithsonian Institution dubbed—in the title of a 1984 exhibition—“Yesterday’s Tomorrows.” Subtitled “Past Visions of America’s Future,” this influential show featured an array of pop-culture ephemera from the early-to-mid-twentieth century, from robot toys to shark-finned hovercrafts, pulp magazine covers to architectural utopias, canvassing the “outlandish, dangerous, or even silly predictions” embodied in “futuristic fantasies of the past”—as Smithsonian Director Peggy Loar put it in the foreword to the exhibition catalog (xi).1 Invention of the term retrofuturism has been credited to Lloyd Dunn, co-founder of The Tape-beatles, an Iowa City-based multimedia ensemble that produces sound collages, and editor, during the 1980s and 1990s, of a series of avant-garde magazines that published xerox montages heavily influenced by Situationist theories.2 What this all-American exhibition on the one hand and punk-agitprop venture on the other have in common is a focus on quaint and/or decadent popular fantasies, especially those in which a beckoning destiny of consumerist bliss is evoked with credulous wonder. Falling somewhere between the Smithsonian and Situationism on the retrofuturist spectrum is the populuxe craze of the 1980s, with its fondness for atom-age design and suburban lifestyles à la Jetsons, whose architectural monuments include everything from the Space Needle in Seattle to small-town coffeeshops shaped like flying saucers, from Disney’s Tomorrowland to backyard fallout shelters.3
William Gibson, in his classic retrofuturist story “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), coined the term “Raygun Gothic” to describe these neon-and-chrome enormities—“segments of a dreamworld abandoned in the uncaring present” (26), as the narrator puts it. Seeming to have sprung straight out of the “spray-paint pulp utopias” of sf illustrator Frank R. Paul (26), they point extravagantly towards a “shadowy America-that-wasn’t,” an era of technophilic over-confidence when “they put Ming the Merciless in charge of designing California gas stations” (28). The narrator, a photographer hired to illustrate a book commemorating this passé sci-fi future, finds himself haunted, like Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, by hallucinatory visions of a transcendent megalopolis whose lustrous perfection screens a core of technocratic violence:
As I moved among these secret ruins, I found myself wondering what the inhabitants of that lost future would think of the world I lived in. The Thirties dreamed white marble and slipstream chrome, immortal crystal and burnished bronze, but the rockets on the covers of the Gernsback pulps had fallen on London in the dead of night, screaming. After the war, everyone had a car—no wings for it—and the promised superhighway to drive it down, so that the sky itself darkened, and the fumes ate the marble and pitted the miracle crystal. (28)4
Gibson’s fictional coffee-table tome, entitled The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was, is astonishingly prescient, foreshadowing the Smithsonian catalog celebrating “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” and launching a publishing trend that continues to this day, as some of the volumes reviewed here demonstrate.
Profusely illustrated with antiquated marvels culled in equal measure from the sf pulps and fifties advertising, Eric and Jonathan Dregni’s Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future examines, with a tone of wistful yearning, the postwar techno-utopia we were promised but which never quite came to pass. “What happened to all that leisure time?” the authors opine. “Weren’t we humans of the future supposed to laze by the pool with nothing to do except order another gin fizz from the robot waitress?” (8) If such popular prognostications as the 1939 World’s Fair, Disney’s Tomorrowland, and magazine sf were to be believed, we should now be whizzing around the world in atomic planes, from domed city to domed city, attended by mechanical butlers and “robo-secretaries,” chatting on vid-phones in our low-gravity condos, and so on. The authors patiently explain why these scientific miracles failed to materialize while at the same time pondering, with tongue-in-cheek earnestness, what sort of world might have emerged if they had; meanwhile, the realm postwar technoscience did in fact produce is a rather grimmer place than anticipated, replete with the dubious wonders of DDT and psycho-pharmacology, military robots and job-killing automation. Though intellectually lightweight, Follies of Science is an entertaining read, and fun to browse given the copious eye-candy. On top of the typical retrofuturist emotions of nostalgia and regret, it adds an occasional note of peevish complaint, as if calling on the carpet all those vanished prophets of the high-tech future for their extravagant deceptions and endless broken promises.5
At one point, chronicling the spate of dazzling gadgets that had once seemed within reach but have since receded beyond the horizon, the authors plaintively query: “Where’s my Jet Pack?” (19) As if in answer, two other books have appeared, one bearing that very title, Daniel Wilson’s Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived, while Jetpack Dreams recounts Mac Montandon’s inexorable quest for “the greatest science fiction invention that never was.” Judging by these works, there are apparently numerous male nerds of a certain age who feel deeply cheated that only a few Pentagon employees and a handful of garage tinkerers—not to mention Buck Rogers and James Bond—have ever had the chance to deploy a personal rocket-propulsion device. Indeed, Montandon ups the rhetorical ante, demanding to know: “Where’s. My. Fucking. Jetpack?” (7). Hell hath no fury like a retrofuturist scorned.
Wilson’s book is similar to the Dregnis’s, minus the full-color pictures: it presents a compendium of futuristic devices, with background on their history in science and popular culture, as well as an assessment of their theoretical feasibility in the present day. Like Follies of Science, it is organized into broadly thematic sections—covering future forms of transportation, new entertainment technologies, and so on—but Wilson provides considerably more technical detail, as befits an author with a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon (his previous book offered tips on How to Survive a Robot Uprising ). Wilson’s references to sf are also more deeply informed: his discussion of moving sidewalks, for example, begins with a summary of their appearance in Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), while his chapter on space elevators shows how the discovery, in 1991, of carbon nanotubes (microfilaments “one hundred times stronger than steel, and as flexible as plastic” ) made the vision in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1978) a palpable reality. Unfortunately, the book is deformed by a wisecracking fanboy tone—the flying car is “the most badass symbol of the space age” (46), Star Trek’s universal translating device “was one high-powered sumbitch” (123), invisible camouflage is not quite ready “to sneak into the women’s locker room” (108)—that any reader over thirteen is apt to find fairly irritating. If one could somehow cull and synthesize the better qualities of each book—the colorful design and general pageantry of Follies of Science, the sf literacy and scientific know-how of Where’s My Jetpack?—one would have a much more enticing work than either volume considered on its own.
To such a potential composite, Jetpack Dreams would add a relentlessness that borders on the obsessional. Though it has apparently become the emblem of a vanished Space Age, the jetpack itself receives only a handful of pages in Williams, whereas Montandon—a widely published music and pop-culture journalist—devotes eight long chapters to tracking this iconic beast to its scattered lairs, from the hangars of Bell Labs in the 1950s to the offices of a small Houston start-up called American Rocketbelt Corporation in the 1990s. Montandon provides technical specifications for the various devices that fall under the “jetpack” rubric, interviews scientists and businessmen involved in their development, and shows the centrality of science-fiction imagery in their promotion, but he wimps out finally when given the chance to pilot one: “Was I really going to test-fly a jet-fueled metal backpack at 80 mph? The machine’s kinks were still being worked out. Even my iPod didn’t work too well at first…” (245). The tale is smoothly told and has some startling interludes, such as a kidnapping-murder case involving estranged business partners, a fugitive rocket belt, and an impromptu torture chamber—though Paul Brown’s The Rocketbelt Caper (2007) offers a more thorough and compelling account of this sordid episode in modern technocultural history. I can recommend Montandon only for completists in this curious new subgenre of pop-science writing: the jetpack romance.
Coming on the heels of Where’s My Jetpack? and Follies of Science, Jetpack Dreams cements a conviction that retrofuturism has reached a fresh phase beyond the low-key emotions of nostalgia or regret, a volatile terrain compounded equally of disgruntlement and recrimination. The most astute analyst of this complex psycho-social syndrome is Scott Bukatman, whose 1991 essay “There’s Always ... Tomorrowland” descried—through the lens of Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”—the emergence of “a seemingly inexhaustible period of meganostalgia” (15) driven by the vertiginous perception that we have lost all mastery over our collective fate: “The return to the retro-futures of the 1920s through the 1950s speaks to a perceived loss of subjective comprehension of ... the invisible cyberhistories and cyberspaces of the present,” which discomfortingly elude “direct human experience or control” (16). Bukatman shows how theme parks such as Tomorrowland, with their spectacular narratives of technological innovation and progress, provide an illusion of command over impalpable forces that have already escaped our grasp, seeming to “guarantee the continuing presence and relevance of the [human] subject” at the very moment of its threatened collapse and dispersal (30). For Bukatman, then, retrofuturist nostalgia is at once a form of bad faith and a screen for darker impulses— specifically, for lurking fears of our own antiquation, as if reviving yesterday’s tomorrows could somehow endow us with the vanished confidence and agency they once expressed.
A rather different take on the ideological implications of the retro phenomenon is supplied by Elizabeth Guffey in Retro: The Culture of Revival, a genealogy of revivalist aesthetic modalities from the 1960s to the present. Published in Reaktion Books’ Focus on Contemporary Issues series (which also includes volumes on Anarchism, Stalking, and Chromophobia, among other topics), Retro identifies its subject as “a unique postwar tendency: a popular thirst for the recovery of earlier, and yet still modern, periods” (8). Unlike Bukatman, however, Guffey sees this impulse as at least potentially subversive, as much a critique of the “positivist progressivism” of cultural modernity as a lament over its epochal failure (12). Stressing retro’s “detachment,” its “ironic stance,” she categorizes it as “a deviant form of revivalism” (13-14), evincing “a powerful counter to forward propulsion” (12) even as it catalogues, mimics, and dotes upon the propulsive postures and imagery of twentieth-century technocultures. While I find Guffey’s optimism about retro’s ideological possibilities intriguing, she never develops the argument; ultimately, her book provides less a full-fledged theory of the retro world-view than a well-researched (and quite fascinating) survey of its popular manifestations. Still, her in-depth coverage does serve to qualify somewhat Bukatman’s more negative assessment, which generally condemns retro nostalgia as a regressive cultural impulse.6
The utility of Guffey’s book for sf scholars is, however, vitiated by the fact that she barely touches on retrofuturism specifically (save in her final pages), and her attention to technocultures more broadly is limited to a focus on postwar art and design movements, with some asides on the emergence of “retrochic” within contemporary high fashion and popular culture. (This is not intended as a criticism; Guffey, an Associate Professor of Art and Design at SUNY-Purchase, is simply working within the ambit of her disciplinary interests.) Four substantial, roughly chronological chapters canvass the revival of Art Nouveau styles during the 1960s under the aegis of a “camp” sensibility and an aesthetic of “scavenging” embraced by the youth counterculture; the consequent burgeoning of Art Deco as a pastiche of early-twentieth-century machine-inspired modes of design, which fused with Pop Art in the work (and lifestyles) of figures such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol; the nostalgia for Eisenhower-era fashion and musical culture evident in films such as American Graffiti (1973) during the 1970s and the “populuxe” fad of the 1980s; and finally, the ironic cultivation, throughout popular culture from the late 1970s onward, of imagery of passé high-tech futures, especially those still bearing traces of their original utopian investments, such as Soviet Constructivist art and American pop-science and science-fictional visions. Two clear animating assumptions of Guffey’s survey are that retro modes fasten upon—and recycle—previous historical styles at a rapidly accelerating pace under the impetus of capitalist fashion industries, and that they grow progressively more self-aware in the process, as sixties enthusiasms morph into the postmodernist hyper-ironies of the 1980s. How these assumptions cohere with Guffey’s underlying conviction that retro retains a genuinely subversive thrust is never really explained, at least to my satisfaction.
The final chapter, entitled “The Lure of Yesterday’s Tomorrows,” will likely prove of greatest interest to readers of this journal, especially its concluding section (152-59), which directly addresses the phenomenon of retrofuturism. Expressing an ambivalent engagement with “the discrepency between what the future once represented but what it no longer means” (152), retrofuturism emerged at the moment when postwar promises of endless progress and abundance came up against both their natural limits and their eco-social costs (roughly, during the mid-to-late 1970s). The waning of the Space Age in the vicissitudes of NASA post-Apollo also played a role in popular disillusionment with heroic technoscientific ambitions. In place of a forward-looking viewpoint, nostalgia became the order of the day, with films like Star Wars (1977) reviving the pulp space operas of the 1930s and post-punk bands such as Devo and the B-52s sending up the technocultural postures of the Cold War era. Guffey’s knowledge of sf is fairly sketchy (she does not seem aware, for example, that J.G. Ballard was mourning the Space Age precisely in the midst of its greatest accomplishments), but she does make the interesting observation that the emergence of a self-conscious critical history of the genre is more or less coeval with the collapse of the technoscientific utopianism that had long sustained it. During the 1970s, sweeping historical studies of sf began to appear, often lavishly illustrated (e.g., James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds ), “highlight[ing] the starry-eyed and outright bizarre images that had drawn many readers to science fiction in the first place” (155). Guffey does not quite say this, but one could almost conclude that sf criticism is itself a retrofuturist discourse, anatomizing archaic modes of imaginative extrapolation with the same complex pattern of nostalgia and irony that informs more popular manifestations of the syndrome. For all its flaws, her book is worth reading precisely because it allows for such moments of arresting reflection.
The same, alas, cannot be said for Davin Heckman’s A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day, though it does open a window onto one beckoning prospect of our postwar technofuture: the automated home, “an integrated living environment” (5) orchestrated by clever gadgets of various kinds and, in its most science-fictional version, overseen by a quasi-sentient computer. In the decades after World War II, Disneyland and other theme parks provided the idealized blueprints for—while advertising suggested the imminent arrival of—a domestic utopia, an ideological vision of blissful leisure and consumption that Heckman refers to as “the Perfect Day.” In four wide-ranging but dubiously organized chapters, the author tracks this high-tech fantasy through a range of pop-culture texts and institutions, the discourses of industrial design and A.I. research, architectural prototypes (such as Xanadu, the polyurethane “House of Tomorrow” built near the EPCOT Center in Orlando), and the rhetoric and imagery of modern consumerism. To the extent that there is a central thread of argument, Heckman links the emergence of the smart home to paradigms of Taylorist management that, expanding out of the workplace, systematically streamlined and regulated the terrain of everyday life over the past half-century, a process he clearly finds problematic if not pernicious: “The smart home exerts its own form of microscopic hegemony, establishing and scripting normative lifestyle actions and delivering these to the subject ... to restore and reinforce ‘normal’ social functioning” (51). Existence thus becomes the realization of “preprogrammed objectives” that effectively neutralize ethical consciousness, promoting “forms of mediated experience”—from television watching to web-browsing—that enforce a complacent passivity: “The smart home recreates experience as ‘virtual reality’” (164).
Paranoid speculations along these lines will be familiar to anyone who has read Adorno or Baudrillard. Indeed, A Small World adds rather little, at least conceptually, to the latter’s discussion of the postwar commodity landscape in The System of Objects (1968), whose penetrating analysis of bourgeois domestic spaces and lifestyles Heckman’s wandering catalogue can only weakly echo.
There are three main problems with the book, in my view. First, and most obviously, it is a thinly revised dissertation and has all the sketchiness, repetition, and aptness to lose sight of the forest among the trees that one might expect in such an enterprise. Some chapters are tightly focused, while others are sprawling; as a result, it is difficult to tell whether the author is presenting a developmental history or a series of loosely ordered case studies. And I do not think Heckman has been well-served by Duke’s editors indulging his notion that the book’s meandering structure is somehow innovative or productive of insight: “As I develop my thesis, I often ‘unveil’ information in an episodic manner, with the intention of producing a cumulative effect or understanding, rather than presenting my argument in a more traditional, linear fashion” (16). Translation: caveat lector.
A second, affiliated problem lies in the unevenness of the research strategies that have gone into the construction of this amorphous cultural history. On the one hand, Heckman has meticulously pored over articles and advertisements in popular magazines such as Omni and specialized journals such as Home Automation in order to show how the rhetoric of “smartness” as novelty or futuristic possibility evolved since the 1980s, especially with regard to computer hardware and software products. On the other hand, he relies, for a general history of the computer industry, on a bare-bones timeline developed by the editors of PC World and posted on the CNN website—ignoring such major studies as Paul Freiberger and Michael Swain’s Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer (2000) or Paul E. Cerruzi’s A History of Modern Computing (2003). Generalizations about the cultural legacy of streamlining and Taylorist automation are based on automobile advertisements archived online, rather than on the pathbreaking studies of David Noble and Christina Cogdell (see Works Cited). While I do not mean to imply that online research is necessarily suspect or unscholarly, the balance of digital to print resources in Heckman’s bibliography is around fifty-fifty, which does seem to me an excessive dependence on the neatly packaged and readily available as opposed to the more complex or in-depth—precisely the sort of preference, ironically, that the “perfect day” model tends to promote and which the author otherwise decries. Heckman is a consulting editor for the web-based journals Rhizome and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, and his book reads at times like a parody collaged from their databases: energetic and passionate, hiply fusing high theory with pop culture, but bordering on the pretentious and even the half-baked.7
Finally, the book combines a tone of wondering credulity with sudden eruptions of outrage, and the effect can be rather jarring. In attempting to limn the contours of postwar capitalism’s insidious domestic utopia, Heckman parades information from a range of sources without acknowledging the crucial differences—in terms of credibility or likelihood of realization—between an architectural blueprint and a promotional ad, or between a corporate research program and a work of science fiction. That said, he does on occasion offer intriguing observations about classic sf stories—predictably, Ray Bradbury’s smart-house tale “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950), but also Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), seen as a critique of a cynical “pay-per-use world” (123)—but these readings are so terse, and so quickly lost in the leveling flow of the argument, that they become little more than grist for the paranoid mill. More distressing are the intermittent outbursts bemoaning the ethico-political wasteland of “perfect day” suburbia and the bourgeois drones populating it; the worst of these have been subordinated to footnotes, but the effect is to convert the scholarly apparatus into a running soapbox commentary, as if the author felt compelled now and then to pause in his baleful chronicle to furiously tear at his hair.
Some samples: “just because the people in Sudan missed the last episode of Will and Grace, it doesn’t mean Americans should have to forgo their ‘must-see TV’ to watch news coverage of the Sudanese missing Will and Grace—there’s deprivation and then there’s deprivation—I’ll let you decide which is worse” (180); “many imagine that their pets must have the same deep consumer longings for luxury items.... [T]he fact that refined pets can afford to be choosy eaters or have organ transplants while a great many human beings fail to raise eyebrows by dying from diarrhea might force us to question whether or not we have actually become more empathetic” (181-82); and so on. These curious diatribes often have only the most nominal relation to their putative in-text referents: the rant about Will and Grace, for instance, footnotes a discussion of a 1958 film about interior decoration!8 The author’s gratuitous displays of social consciousness combine with his often serenely unintelligible abstractions—“the good life is characterized not simply by a vast space, but by a maximized space that produces a yield” (12); “Once the impetus to streamline usurps the desire for ornament in the practical object, the establishment of new aesthetics creates again the condition of ornament as the shift in consumer subjectivity comes to seek the high-tech object” (93)—to generate a blur of rhetorical white noise that can in fact be oddly soothing, like dozing in front of a test pattern back in those quaint old retrofuturist days when tv actually went off the air. That is, before it finally seized control, with the connivance of the Internet and global neoliberal elites, and propelled us into the sinister Matrix-style universe that Heckman apparently believes we inhabit.9
This allusion leads us back to the sf genre, where critics have recently been provided the perfect opportunity to sample homegrown retrofuturist ideas in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine new anthology, Steampunk. According to Jess Nevins’s excellent Introduction, the advent of steampunk can be traced to New Wave parodies of the Wellsian scientific romance such as Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air (1971), an excerpt from which opens the volume. It was not until the early 1980s, however, that a “full-fledged genre” could be said to have emerged, “incorporating themes, motifs, and tropes from [science fiction’s] past” in an overtly “recursive” aesthetic (7)—Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) being the peak monument of the form. Nevins’s discussion of how steampunk authors began to subject the narrative styles and ideological assumptions of the classic Edisonade (one of the cornerstones of modern sf) to relentless satirical deflation is wonderfully well-detailed and compelling—and provides more insight into how retrofuturism might operate in a critical or subversive register than Guffey’s volume ever does. His conclusion that “second generation steampunk authors have changed steampunk from an argument to a style and a pose, even an affectation” (8) I did not find as convincing, partly because he provides no examples and partly because the experience of reading through the book does not seem (at least to me) to bear this judgment out. What it does most definitely show is that steampunk is, as Nevins observes, “a genre aware of its own loss of innocence” (10); but the responses to that loss display a wide range of tonal and ideological possibilities, from lush immersions in bygone styles (Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance” ) to brooding ethico-political allegories (Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” ) to much, much more. The book reprints twelve substantial short stories and novellas published between 1985 and 2007, and includes, along with Nevins’s Introduction, surveys of steampunk in popular culture (by Rick Klaw) and in comics (by Bill Baker). It is a well-conceived and cohesive compendium, as well as an unfailingly entertaining read, providing hours of retrofuturist pleasure. Occupo lector!
This review-essay began with a citation of Thomas Pynchon, so perhaps it is appropriate to conclude by observing that the Vandermeers’ Preface identifies his most recent novel, Against the Day (2006), as a significant “steampunk homage” (x). Certainly it is the most thoroughgoing deconstruction of the Edisonade ever published, a furious kaleidoscope of imagery culled from dime novels, boys’ adventure stories, and other proto-sf genres, basted, as always, in Pynchon’s vaguely sinister, mock-avuncular irony.10 At one point, almost precisely halfway through this delirious extravanaganza, a cynical interloper from the narrative’s future (i.e., from the reader’s relative present, since the story is set in the decades leading up to World War I) materializes to arraign the tale’s nominal heroes, a juvenile cohort of high-tech balloonists, as “simpletons at the fair, gawking at your Wonders of Science, expecting as your entitlement all the Blessings of Progress[;] it is your faith, your pathetic balloon-boy faith” (555). Behind this seeming innocence lurks, as in Gravity’s Rainbow, an incipient death-wish, soon to be realized in the “mass grave of History” looming before them, the killing fields of Flanders. Only this most visionary of (sf?) writers seems to have grasped one of the most painful implications of retrofuturism: not only is it an ironic celebration of the obsolescence of imagined tomorrows, it also bespeaks an unconscious recognition of our own fundamental complicity in the dubious pleasures of foreclosed options, extinguished possibilities, smothered hopes (a complicity from which the rigorously self-reflexive author does not exempt himself). Given its eruption at times into the prophetic tones of the jeremiad, Against the Day could almost be subtitled “The Revenge of Yesterday’s Tomorrows.” If that seems too downbeat a note on which to conclude this largely light-hearted discussion, well, as Bukatman has reminded us, there’s always … Tomorrowland.
1. The exhibition traveled the US widely before being retired in 2005. In 2003, it was mounted at Paolo Soleri’s experimental utopia, Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert (see <http://www.arcosanti.org/today/2004/03/17/1079570607000.html>), generating a weird mise-en-abîme: kitschy monuments to archaic futures erected in a kitschy monument to an archaic future (the exhibition actually featured some of Soleri’s blueprints and models). For a discussion of arcologies—vast megacities, at once influenced by classic sf stories and influencing the genre in turn—see Soleri. Pynchon’s delirious “Rocket City” is a parody of these visionary hyper-structures.
2. The first issue of Dunn’s PhotoStatic appeared in August 1983; Retrofuturism debuted as a “sub-magazine” along the bottom margins of PhotoStatic issue 28 (January 1988) and was spun off into a freestanding publication in January 1990. A history of the overall project, with a PDF archive of all issues, is available online at: <http://psrf.detritus.net/>. For a discussion of the Situationist tactic of détournement as a mode of critical montage, see Guy Debord and Gil Wolman’s “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” originally published in 1956 in the Surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues and available online at: <http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm>.
3. For a discussion of the populuxe phenomenon, see Hine. Another term for these swanky-futurist styles, especially with reference to architecture, is “googie,” on which see Hess. Shrines to these bygone vogues have sprung up all over the Web: a fine example is Space Age City’s “Googie” page: <http://www.spaceagecity.com/googie/>. A more recent eruption of fifties-era nostalgia is the Dutch “Atompunk” movement, on which see Bruce Sterling’s entry on his Wired blog: <http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2008/12/here-comes-atom.html>.
4. Gibson has spoken often of his admiration for Pynchon—“a mythic hero of mine,” as he told Larry McCaffery in an interview (138). The description in “The Gernsback Continuum” of the V-2s falling “on London in the dead of night, screaming,” is almost certainly a deliberate echo of the famous opening line of Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky” (3).
5. As if asking to be disillusioned once more, the authors close the book with a series of predictions of the year 2050 by one Hank Lederer, “nanotech aficionado and outspoken advocate of scientific optimism” (111).
6. Bukatman’s skeptical take on retrofuturism echoes Fredric Jameson’s influential Marxist critique of postmodern nostalgia as an insidious form of historical amnesia. Guffey attempts to distinguish her version of retro from Jameson’s quarry (21-22), but her discussion is so truncated that the larger implications are never clarified.
7. Reconstruction’s archive is available at: <http://reconstruction.eserver.org/>, while Rhizomes can be found at: <http://www.rhizomes.net>. Part of the introduction to A Small World was originally published in Spring 2004 in Rhizome’s special “Retro-Futures” issue, which Heckman edited (see <http://www.rhizomes.net/issue8/index.html>).
8. The only link I can discern here is a potentially homophobic one, but I will spare you my righteous outrage.
9. A Small World concludes with a “Postscript” in which the author narrates his own everyday experience sauntering along a suburban street, surrounded by humanoid simulacra obliviously living out the “dream of the Perfect Day ... in the toned bicep and manicured hand gripping the wheel, MTV-groomed head bobbing away...” (169).
10. John Clute’s review of Against the Day offers a detailed overview of its borrowings from early sf traditions. See also Latham for a discussion of the novel’s convergence with the genre of supernatural horror. For his part, Michael Moorcock, ostensible inventor of steampunk, has warmly saluted the novel in a review published in The Daily Telegraph.
Bukatman, Scott. “There’s Always ... Tomorrowland: Disney and the Hypercinematic Experience.” 1991. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. 13-31.
Clute, John. “Aubade, Poor Dad.” Sci-Fi Weekly 27 November 2006. 5 April 2009 <http://www.lxnen.com/rogerbeccon/StraubAgainstDay.pdf>.
Cogdell, Christina. Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 2004.
Gibson, William. “The Gernsback Continuum.” 1981. Burning Chrome. New York: Eos, 2003. 24-36.
Hess, Alan. Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture. Los Angeles, CA: Chronicle, 2004.
Hine, Thomas. Populuxe. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.
Latham, Rob. “An Anatomist of Technoscience.” Dead Reckonings 2 (Fall 2007): 27-31.
Loar, Peggy. “Foreword.” Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of America’s Future. Ed. Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan. 1984. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. x-xi.
McCaffery, Larry. Interview with William Gibson. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Bloomington: U of Illinois P, 1991. 130-50.
Moorcock, Michael. “Tomorrow’s World, Yesterday.” The Daily Telegraph 13 December 2006. 5 April 2009.
Noble, David F. America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.
Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. New York: Penguin, 2006.
_______. Gravity’s Rainbow. 1973. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Soleri, Paolo. Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1973.