Sunday, January 18, 2009

Raygun Gothic: The Future That Wasn't

Today I went for my first long bike ride of the year. It's day one of our school's voluntary "wellness challenge", and I'm looking forward to getting in shape.

The weather was very windy, but warm, almost warm enough for me to be wearing the t-shirt and shorts I had on. While biking, I listened to my iPod play the first episode of the old time radio series X Minus One. It was a great example of retro futurism, as the episode (from the mid 1950s) described the "future" in the 1980s.

Now, if you were a kid of the 80s like me, you won't recognise the 1980s in the old radio episode. That's because it was the future that did not occur, the future from the forgivably short-sighted minds of 1950s writers and producers.

As I was riding along, I got to wondering: what's the term for that style? Steampunk has it's own look, as does Cyberpunk. I found myself wishing I could Google it right then and there on my bike just to put an official term to it. Now, after looking it up, I find there are really two terms: retro futurism and raygun gothic (from Wikipedia):

Raygun Gothic is a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Googie, Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retro-futuristic science fiction environments. Academic Lance Olsen has characterised Raygun Gothic as "a tomorrow that never was".
I first came across this term when William Gibson coined it in his excellent short story, "The Gernsback Continuum." That was the first time I really thought long and hard about the concept of retro futurism. I mean, of course I had always watched The Jetsons and a host of other old science fiction shows. When I first watched them I still thought they were presenting a plausible (all-white, sexist, and safe) version of what the future could be. In time, though, you notice that the "future" of those old shows looks more like our own past--albeit with big shiny fins and slidewalks.

Great examples of Raygun Gothic are all around us. The Fallout 3 video game is 100% raygun gothic. The TV series LOST is also almost entirely raygun gothic. Heck, even this great video on Youtube is Raygun Gothic, as it tried to imagine the world of 1999 way back in 1967.

The thing is, though, that every story about the future to come is doomed to become another case of retro futurism. When I was reading cyberpunk in the late 80s, it sure looked cool and exciting. Now it looks a lot like ... well ... the late 80s. :-)

[Note: All the episodes of X Minus One are now in the public domain. You can find them at the Internet Archive for free.]

[Note number two: The difference between the term retro futurism and raygun gothic is this: raygun gothic is a particular type of retro futurism that features a future that was envisioned by the (male) writers and producers of the 1950s: automobiles with big fins, blonds ubber people, rayguns, etc. Stempunk, therefore, is also a form of retro futurism.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for researching and writing this...

I expect Raygun Goth and Retrofuturism will grow in popularity as evidenced by Steampunk and Electronica etc...