Flight of the Vajra: Yesterday's Tomorrow, Today! Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-03-10 20:00:00 No comments

Another piece about John Carter (a full review), which brings up a point about both it and other works I've seen in its vein:

John Carter will dazzle you with the best (and worst) of retro futurism

One reason we're drawn to retro futurism, or visions of tomorrow from the past, is that there's a kind of crazy, adorable wrongness to them. We chuckle at nineteenth century visions of flying contraptions and glass cities.

Well, not all of us do. But I would wager the vast majority of people who walk into SF with nothing more than the most obvious touchstones of it rattling around in their heads — the folks who've seen all the easy* blockbuster SF like Star Wars, The Matrix, and so on — will do the giggling. They're less familiar with the idea of SF having a "retro" component that should be savored separately, and so attempts to invoke it don't work as well with them.

Sometimes this problem encompasses multiple domains. I've sat in on more than a few conversations where Person A spoke lovingly of stop-motion animation (the classic King Kong), matte paintings (everything from Metropolis to Blade Runner), bluescreen mattes and other practical effects — all because of the retro vibe they exuded. Person B, on the other hand, just equated that "retro vibe" with old. There's no point in criticizing them as unimaginative folks who would look at a manual typewriter and then wonder how cut-and-paste worked.

"Retro" is about how we used to see things. Most of the time we associate it with a sort of innocence, a naivete about how the future could be. We look at "flying cars and food pills" versions of the future and we giggle, because we're living in the timeframe that all that stuff was supposed to happen in, and we didn't get anything nearly that cute. Maybe we envy, however distantly, the optimism required to envision such a world. Even their idea of Armageddon might well be that much more quaint than ours, for what comfort that would offer.

Purchase on Amazon

One of the folks I have talked about Vajra with in detail has described it to others as having a "retro" vibe. I suspect he meant more things like Sam Delaney's Nova rather than, say, Logan's Run or Westworld. I wasn't sure how to take that — flattery? confusion? — in part because I hadn't been consciously striving for such a thing.

Or had I? I mentioned Nova above, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had been hearkening back in some ways to the SF of that period. Not in terms of the technology or the trappings, but the outlook — and one of the conceits that seemed to most suffuse the SF of the time was how we would enter outer space with not just our bodies and our spaceships, but our personalities and spirits. A spiritually-impoverished mankind that attempted to enter the rest of the universe would only find a greater arena in which to act out the consequences of his impoverishments.

SF as of late seems to assume that matters of spiritual investigation are either going to be subsumed into neurobiology or ignored completely. That may be the case, but I suspect a neurobiological explanation of such things will not suddenly cause us to shirk them. If anything, it might simply make them all the more vital, because now we have another piece of evidence for their importance.

It'll be useful, once the story is fully baked and out of the oven, to look back on it and see what about it was so "retro" in the eyes of others — but for now, that's my thesis. Something else to expand on in future posts.

(The title of this post, by the way, is an oblique reference to Keith Allison's excellent Teleport City.)

* By "easy" I don't imply that these movies are no good or that they're bad SF. I only mean to say that they're SF of a sort that requires little effort to know about because they're among the most popular and obvious incarnations of the genre. Compare with, say, Solaris, Metropolis, World on a Wire, Primer, etc.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra fantasy point-in-time disclaimer science fiction