A retro future: A bit of an essay
Jul 27, 2019
Reading Time: 7 minutes
02 Dec 2023
For the past few years I have been doodling away in an attempt to create a visual language for the my ‘universe’. If I have to be honest about it, it had been a dismal failure as far as projects go, so much so, I found growing the universe through words, rather than images, to be far more satisfying; and in that regard I moved forward quite nicely.
The problem being (in a very ‘first world problem’ sort of way) that this was not what the whole thing was supposed to be about. The ‘project’ was supposed to be a creative visual outlet for me, where I could finally explore an idea I had been playing with for many, many years in the back of my head; ultimately gaining the satisfaction of finally seeing it come to life. But as they say, ‘the best laid plans of mice and men…’.
The upside, because luckily there was one, is in this new found love of exploration through words, I sort of accepted that the visual aspect of the project had, for the most part, died; and I was happy with that. So I started another project, still feeling the need to be visual, yet be free of any preconceptions, constraints of ideas, or the need to tie it all together with a written narrative. If I can say so myself, it worked a treat and I blissfully chewed my way through it.
It is often said to solve a problem, one must step away for a while. Anyone working in the design profession knows this all too well, often finding the solution they have been lucklessly looking for, by moving onto something else entirely. The new project, it turns out, seems to have been the distraction I needed to have…
One night I started doodling shapes for no real reason. There was something stuck in the back of my head, be it a concept, an idea, maybe a random thought; I’m not clear exactly. But as I doodled and shapes turned into forms, which in turn became ‘things’, a door opened and five full pages of doodles later, I had that elusive ‘something’ I’d spent too long trying to discover. How do I know it was a something? Beyond simply feeling ‘right’, looking at them fired off other thoughts and ideas in my head and most importantly, I started to smile. So I sat there, as one does, and looked at the pages – just what was it that was resonating with me?
That was it.
What I was looking were pages of little vehicles that were decidedly of a sci-fi retro nature. If I look back at a lot of the work I had been doing, there were retro elements and ideas cropping up here and there, yet always out of place. So on a sneaking suspicion, I went to my reference collection to look through the books and images… and there it was – shapes, forms, styling; a feeling that has been all but forgotten to world that has become geometric, harsh, mechanical and faux rational…
While my first exposure to science fiction on a grand scale, like many others, was with Star Wars (1) in ’78 (back in those days Australia got films very late), my real love for it first came through the work of Chris Foss (a year or so before seeing the film), followed later by the likes of Jim Burns, Chris Moore, Peter Elson, Peter Jones… a list too long to put here, and who were so prolific between the mid 70’s and early 80’s — what was to become golden age of science fiction illustration.
Looking at the images of the period, captured in the myriad of books (and book covers), the distinct feeling is one of no single style or influence. Unestablished and ‘pulp illustrators’ may have been, *ahem*, ‘influenced’ by the artistic styles of those already popular (Foss being perhaps the greatest), but it was not until Star Wars steamrolled its way into the collective conscious that one could say that an accepted sci-fi aesthetic emerged.
In the pre Star Wars era, shapes, forms and colours were diverse, often soft, organic, and the visions of the future they were part of, in paint and ink, were as varied as they were interesting. In stark contrast, the science fiction visual post Star Wars changed dramatically. Angular, hard and faux rational became the default and it’s influence could been seen in everything from book covers to sci-fi cinema, where the ‘cinematic’ industrial design aesthetic influenced everything; after all, if a little was good, excess was better and if the audience loved Star Wars…
Before long, science fiction started to look the same as the big screen aesthetics of Star Wars and its equally scape changing counterparts (though perhaps not quite as influential for the mainstream), 79’s Alien and 82’s Blade Runner, shaped what people thought the future would look like on a grand scale. Before we knew it, the future of the future became… predictable. While the established illustrators continued what they were dong, some might say with a diminishing output, many new entrants to the genre were more than a little influenced by the sphere of the ‘new’ screen aesthetic, and within a relatively short time the design of science fiction became homogonised.
And the trend only continued.
The machinery that drove science fiction pivoted. Film, with its growing technical abilities, replaced print as the driving force for mass consumed science fiction. Where it had been the array of illustrators’ personal visions of the future that had adorned book covers and the pages of compilations (notably published by the likes of Dragon’s Dream/Paper Tiger and the TTA series) through the 70’s, from the 80’s it became Hollywood’s. FX and design studios, the likes of Lucas’ ILM and Dyksta’s Apogee, began to shape the future and the collective the pool of talent the industry drew down from came from within the same circles. Scripts changed yet it was the same pool of talent doing the imagining.
Today, design within the science fiction realm still bares the legacy the early 80’s cinematic period drove it down. Combined with current design specific education, influences such as Japanese Animè and Manga, and current military hardware design, science fiction for the most part continues to be slab sided, angular with a hard edge to it; it’s the way we see things from today’s point of understanding. The future we see seems comfortable because it draws on so much we already are familiar with, hence understand; to deviate from this ‘norm’ is to risk moving into the unknown. Ironic when we think that science fiction is all about the unknown.
Finally though, after decades, things are slowly changing, as new ‘outside’ talent, thoughts, and ideas are entering the realm of sci-fi once again; and maybe to be noticed, studios and creators are looking for that new thing to help them stand apart from the next guy. As well as this, or maybe as part of, people within are starting to openly look back to the heyday for that originality — Chris Foss contributed to the Guardian’s of the Galaxy franchise and Rob Cunningham openly talks about being influenced heavily by the likes of Peter Elison when creating the now long acclaimed Homeworld series of games. It seems to boldly go, looking to the past could well be the way forward.
Pulling books down from the shelf and leafing through their now vintage pages, the visions contained within are still mostly without peer. Despite several decades of science fiction film, the rich forms, colours and ideas are fresh against the stark visions of the future we have been served since. I would heartily argue that they are true visions of the all the possible, and impossible, futures, as opposed to the ones contained within the two degree arc since Star Wars hit the screen.
So back to me, because you know, it really is all about me…
It would be easy enough to say my five pages of doodles clearly tapped into my love for old school science fiction, which is why I am so besotted with them. But that would be too simplistic, it’s more than that and certainly does not explain why finding a vision I felt was right had been such a struggle…
What I now realise is that the future should be about the unknown and in doing so, be unfamiliar to us. The only familiarity the Red Barron would have to draw on to compare his Fokker tri-plane with a F-117, almost one hundred years later, would be that the both fly. So to it should be when we look five hundred, or one thousand years, into our future. My issues were not with my inability to define a future visually, but with the simple fact that the future I was trying to visualise was tethered to one defined by its ‘cultural’ depiction over the past 30 odd years. In effect, the future in my head was already predefined at a subconscious level — what I was coming up with was comfortable, safe and possessing a faux logic that made sense. The future I was seeing was my present at very best.
By looking back, I can now see the future deserves more.
1. Obviously there were films and television before Star Wars. Star Trek had come and gone and 2001 was, and to a large degree still is, a tour de force, but they along with the smattering of others did not manage to impact the landscape of science fiction for the masses in the way Star Wars had managed to do, hence were not used as reference points for when creating the next big thing.