John DeNardo on Why I Love Retro Science Fiction

John DeNardo on Why I Love Retro Science Fiction

Thrilling Wonder Stories-smallOur bud John DeNardo, editor of the fabulous SF Signal, writes on a topic near and dear to our crusty little hearts, “Why I Love Retro Science Fiction,” over at Kirkus Reviews.

More than anything, retro-futurism is a flavor… It’s the way writers wrote science fiction in the past. Generally speaking, writers today are much more rigorous in their writing than the writers who were trying to meet the demand of weekly pulp publication serials. The resulting science fiction from that past era was plot-driven and didn’t spend pages discussing, say, some planet’s terrain. That made the stories shorter as well. Books from decades ago were 150 pages long and that was just fine.

Retro-futures are also kitschy. There’s a nostalgic quality to it. This is a little harder to describe. I tend to like the kind of science fiction that was written before I was born. Perhaps it’s because when I started reading science fiction, I often read older books that crossed my path. In the 1970s, I was weaned on sci-fi from the Golden Age and that mode of science fiction still appeals to me….

Today’s retro sci-fi is written by today’s writers, and while modern writers may try to emulate the science fiction of yesteryear, what they rarely, if ever, do is reflect the outdated thinking of those times. In today’s retro sci-fi, you will find more discussions of multiple viewpoints and philosophies, you’ll see diverse cultures portrayed on a galaxy-wide scale — and you’ll see it through the derring-do of space adventurers zipping around in the foreground.

Read the complete article here.

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What we call “retro” has been too maligned these days, more “Politically Correct” issues.

It makes me boil when they whine they didn’t predict the future. Well science fiction is not really -except the surface- about predicting the future for the most part, but about humanity and people. Even way way way back one of H.G. Wellss’s less known novels “When the Sleeper Wakes” he predicted Netflix/Hulu. Simply put he reasoned if you could develop something to transmit an image you could also then store and replay the image on command, and therefore you’d be able to “See any play ever made in the last century” and of course have issues with actors wanting more than their one night’s fee for that play. That was of course maturing meeting the Industrial era – what we now call “steampunk”.

The “Golden Age” – science fiction was adventure and technology driven – and mainstream. Flash Gordon, Jetsons, Tomorrowland at Disneyworld, etc. The problem was it had gone stagnant so they pushed in the “New Wave” when they tried to work on more mature stories and break from the “Golden Futurism”. These are stereotypes, plenty of short stories from that era are truly powerful, “Arena” from Fredric Brown for example.

Myself, its a no-brainer – Science Fiction needs a good “Retro” push – “RocketPunk”??? Make “Old School” stories and the challenge to the modern writer is to combine the modern needs for good stories versus formulaic (that’s TV) shoveled sludge -sales and word of mouth handle that quite well – and then still capture both the power and wondrous feel. In a way a modern “Retro” Rocketpunk would be to capture the “Don’t you wish you had that 50s future? The modern world promises only oppression worthy of Metropolis or some kind of Zombie/Environmental apocalypse…”

I’ll do fiction in that range someday – current other “Pulp” projects and too busy.

A few ideas – ok to use just don’t hassle me when I use – IMO we should do some “Shared Universe”/”Fair use” framework. All I’m doing here is to dump ideas on bringing forward cliches that have been ignored or mocked as relics of the past in science fiction, issues and tech.

1. “The Internet” – uh, again since “the Sleeper Wakes” scifi has had an “Internet” – just do you want to hear about the Rocket Rangers fighting the Chinamen of Mars or some overweight, unhealthy boys up at 3am in the morning pretending to be Furry critters online and doing naughty virtual stuff then get mom and dad a copyWrong extortion threat over downloading porn with a bizzaro title without paying for it? I’d rather ray-guns against laser swords vs pathetic people. In “The Future” they HAVE an Internet – but it exists where the PLOT needs it and it does NOT exist where the PLOT needs it NOT to exist – “I was going to send a technomail to the Fleet Commander but those ChinaMartians used a Data Bomb on the relay satellite!!!”

2. Rocket Travel – we actually CAN make rockets like classic sci-fi – DeltaV goes the way of Newtownian Fluid with:
a. Anti-Gravity
b. Fusion

For Anti-gravity I’d use “Neutronium” – simply put mmmaybe a billion years ago the solar system got hit by the remnants of neutron stars that collided and annihilated each other. The tiny fragments hit the planets and went through them. Most that remained re-complexified into normal matter but some was impregnated into crystal, a mere 100x as dense as normal matter. The strange properties allow gravity manipulation, say in tiny micron thin but 1000 lb discs that rotate in a precise environment (think a modern hard disk) at the speed of sound. Couldn’t care less if any of that happened or is real, but plausible to modern readers, nice solid “Bolognium” chunk for a core element to use a Niven term.
b. Fusion – rocket fuel is “Enriched Liquid Hydrogen” with heavy water. Lower weight plus fusion energy we could have a “Fun Future” where daring space pilots jump into phallic rockets and blast off and arrive on Mars with passengers (and cute women in see through spacesuits) in a few hours.
c. Hyperspace – well with “A” manipulating gravity that’s automatically touching the “Space/Time” field and anything from a warp drive to a wormhole creation would be quite easy. Just make it so it has a catchy name (Munchhausen Drive from Outlaw Star is my favorite) and it’s a function of plot – essentially a magic device they need the “Egghead” to work on, though in a pinch the Rocket Ranger can rig it for a desperation move.

3. City of the Future – well Star Trek had it right – although things like the 1937 Things to Come movie did it before – modern history is wiped out – war, comet strike, disease, etc. – and then from the ashes men of vision and science make a more perfect world. So instead of the same old stuff just slightly better we get the domed cities and swooshes and angles out of Popular Science

4. Sexism – don’t mock it or pretend it doesn’t exist – embrace it – conflict drives the story. Especially if #3 happened we’d have men being hard workers and women tending the hearth – that’s natural – it’s only the modern “Industry” that wants men and women working – and that itself is a conspiracy – divide and conquer – get men vs women then whoops both are working so pay them LESS than the man alone and the TV/Internet raises the kids. Thus a modern “Retro Future” world the woman would be “back in the Space-Kitchen” where machines removed most of her drudgery and she could use the internet (Viewscreen) to chat with her friends as she prepared the back porch and the Mai-Tais for her Husband and his friends to come over for a Tiki party;-) We have a fair, prosperous society where machines remove the worst of labor but with the scientific and social engineers working out a post scarcity world, we can have the MEN do the work while women tend the home and plenty of free time and luxury for even the least prestigious of them. There’d be “NeoFeminists” whining while most men would be polite and keep their mouths shut while their women slapped them for being such b—tches. The conflict between the modern world and the mistakes of the past and individual women wanting to be different…good story bait. It’s only be truly “Sexist” if the story supported women being “inferior” to men and put them down.

5. Racism – well in a nutshell we are ALL racist. That’s the irony of racism, how it is found in every race, class, tribe. Well the P.C. crowd loves to bash Retro Science fiction saying its “Racist”. Sure, some racist tropes – the original Buck Rogers “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” and “Airlords of the Han” had Chinamen going across the world in a Genocide war against non Chinese and the response Buck Rogers headed was of course counter-genocide… (The Chinamen had Netflix also, btw) That story itself was essentially Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” but expanded. At the same time that era of science fiction tackled racism and social issues – “The weapon too dreadful to use” – by Asimov himself for instance. It’d take balls worthy of a Rocket Ranger, but racial issues could be used and tackled, including things that reflect on today’s politics. Imagine for instance modern Black people ending up doing industrial work in a post “ChinaWar” America and while they start out with good jobs (no illegals either) they end up in very controlled corporate arcology housing that becomes a police state ghetto. One RL Idea I have is to get America to block out foreign trade subsidies and illegal immigrant hiring – that would make labor more precious than gold and wages would skyrocket – instant 50s prosperity again – also far fewer billionaires but many millionaires – currently poor urban (mainly black) people would take up the raw labor – and be paid GOOD money since labor needed- but long term might end up with an “Underclass” given man’s own nature. Again conflict drives the story and strong issues that resonate today but also could be eternal make for stories people still talk about decades or more later.

6. Magic materials – “Don’t worry, Space Cadet Billy – that stray heat ray from that inferior Venisian separatist didn’t hurt me. Our space suits are lined with a new, Science Material – Asbestos! We can breathe easy even in these steaming putrid Jungles. Now let’s teach them they have to use the back door in the respectable establishments in the Human Zones and they got to live with it!” – just joking there – again read that Asimov story – a counter punch to that even when this would be fashionable.

Well the modern science fiction, we have “nanotech” but it’s really the same thing – better tech equals fancier stuff we can do with seemingly common materials. Again the “Egghead” works on them, might as well be the magic cloak woven by witches or the crystal amulet the wizard makes. My favorite is that it would allow one of the best “Ridiculous” aspects of science fiction – the “See through Spacesuit” for purposes of putting on the cover to sell more copies! Hey, the Martian fighters of the Mandarin fleet shoot the spaceship and the pressure leaks, the Rocket Ranger has his own long term wear suit but the passengers put on “Emergency Pressure Ponchos” which are nanontech materials, see through but able to move and manage pressure. Why’d you make them? If someone puts them on in an emergency you need to see them. they might be wounded and the rocket ranger would have to get them to safety first. Also they might be the Space pirate with his SLIDE RULE in his mouth, let’s not let him hide himself. Also with the ship leaking gas, can we be sure the “Wifi Network” is working or that everyone managed to grab their laptop/smartwatch/whatever? If they are see through they can make hand signals and show they aren’t the drapes from the VIP lounge about to re-enter Mars’s atmosphere.

So, when the Professor’s daughter and her servant (blue skinned android slave girl) are trying on bikinis for the Martian Beach under the dome and the ship gets zapped they put on the “Drapes” and are floating helpless – well maybe one grabs an oxygen tank to propel them to safety or a raygun off an unlucky guard who got vaporized and fight back… But “See through spacesuit on Bikini wearing beautiful women” and action shot again!


I’m a big reader. I’ll clock in at over 400 books this year, if I include comic book collected editions. Big chuck of that number is SF/F/H. This is normal for me. This year I’ve struggled with reading happiness. I finally found my bliss by diving into my collection of old paperbacks, mostly from the 70’s. Karl Edward Wagner, Fritz Leiber, skinny Yellow-spined DAWs, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Roger Zelanzy, Poul Anderson, etc. And I have to say… it’s been the happiest reading experience I’ve had in YEARS. I’ve long talked about missing those years when the average SF/F novel was 200 to 250 pages. Now I’ve returned to exploring that period further. And it’s so pleasing and wonderful. I do believe I’ll be down here all Winter.

I’m gonna plug my favorite old paperback seller on Ebay, Otis the SF guy. Been finding many treasures in his shop.

James McGlothlin

Yeah, dig that Otis myself! I’ve bought around 20-30 used paperbacks from him over the past year alone–and usually because of something I’ve seen here at Blackgate–thanks a lot John O’Neill and his “vintage treasures”!

James McGlothlin

Yes you are. Please continue to do so!

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