There isn’t a name for what I’m trying to explain. At least, not one given name.
In his short story “The Gernsback Continuum,” William Gibson coined the term “raygun gothic” to describe an old-school sci-fi aesthetic. He described it in the story as this sort of forgotten aesthetic. The future of yesteryear appreciated through a retroactive viewpoint.
Gibson utilizes the aesthetic as a means to comment on our collective nostalgia for a time gone by, a “simpler” time. Gibson and frequent collaborator Bruce Sterling would later go on to create a new subgenre of science fiction known as “cyberpunk,” and later “steampunk.”
At the time, the cutting edge genre of cyberpunk twisted scientific technology into something at once invasive and grotesque, showing how technological advancement may not improve society. He explored how cybernetic advancement might affect the counter-culture lifestyle. His sci-fi was seen through a dark lens of cynicism and darkness.
And, ironically, now it is the subject of nostalgia.
I first started thinking about it when going back to rewatch Blade Runner for the 189th time. I remember seeing all the bulky television screens and outdated Polaroid cameras, seeing cars fly through streets illuminated by neon lights, with huge-ass Atari logos glaring down at all like Big Brother.
But not a single cell phone, laptop, or even digital-based piece of technology.
Most works of science-fiction try to be cutting edge. They attempt to stay ahead of modern technological advances. Except, of course, in the realms of video games, where retro-style games have proven very successful.
A great example of video games incorporating this neo-retro style is in Alien Isolation, a game that faithfully replicates the futuristic technology from Ridley Scott’s Alien, despite the fact that, from the perspective of someone in the 2010s, none of it looks futuristic. Monitors are bulky and low-rez, facilities leak all over…they look like a cynical, 70s perspective on future tech.
Not a realistic futuristic perspective.
But this style has an appeal — a strong appeal. Going through this game transported me to a unique, unknown setting that remained unlike anything I had experienced prior — except, of course, in a film from the late 70s.
Science fiction often falls into patterns. We advance, only to look back into the past in some attempt to bring what we grew up with to the modern day with a modern coat of paint. This cyclical pattern is inevitable.
I believe that the next movement of science fiction will incorporate tape decks and CD-ROMs in some sort of steampunk-esque revision of history. An alternate future where the 80s kept on rocking and the digital age took off in a different direction. Proof? Check out Ready Player One, a love letter (maybe an obnoxious one) to the 80s. Look at Blade Runner 2049, which maintains the 80s futuristic aesthetic, extrapolated further into the future.
I want to call it neo-retro, but I think a fairer name for it may be Tapedeck Gothic.