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What Is Retrofuturism? 20 Books to Help You Get the Grip of the Topic

PS is a voracious reader and a bibliophile. She has her own library with a collection of thousands of books of different genres.

Metropolis 1927 is one of the best examples of Retrofuturism.

Metropolis 1927 is one of the best examples of Retrofuturism.

What is retrofuturism?

Retrofuturism literally means “future of the past”. It is a creative arts movement that explores the impact of future depictions in an earlier era. Futurism is about the anticipation of what’s going to happen. On the other hand, retrofuturism is about recalling that anticipation.

Characteristics of retrofuturism

Retrofuturism is characterized by:

  1. Primitive surroundings
  2. Old-fashioned traditions and customs
  3. Futuristic technology
  4. The glaring variation between past and future
  5. Empowering and isolating outcomes of technology

As Robert Lanham mentioned in his book “The Oxford Handbook to Science Fiction”, “Retrofuturism is an animating perspective of the world”.

The word “retrofuturism” gained popularity during the 1960s and 1970s. However, its true origin is somewhat unclear. There is a multitude of books written under retrofuturism, some gained global recognition while some couldn’t even move out of their shelves.

Top 20 Books Based on Retrofuturism

  1. The difference engine
  2. Do androids dream of electric sheep?
  3. All my sins remembered
  4. 1984
  5. Where late the sweet birds sang
  6. A dream of Wessex
  7. Leviathan
  8. Electropolis
  9. Red star
  10. Ignition city
  11. Flash Gordon comic strip
  12. Atomic Robo
  13. Down to a sunless sea
  14. The naked sun
  15. Amatka
  16. The sheep lookup
  17. Skyracos: The mining mess
  18. The stars my destination
  19. The world inside
  20. Flow my tears, the policeman said

1. The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson

Published: September 1990

The Difference Engine is based on alternative history. It is highly regarded for popularising the term “steampunk”. Steampunk is a retrofuturistic sub-genre that combines technology with aesthetic designs.

It talks about the changes that occurred in the Victorian era of Britain after Charles Babbage’s successful invention of the mechanical computer. The novel had been nominated several times for various prestigious awards including the British Science Fiction Award in 1990.

The novel focuses on the life of Sybil Gerard, a political courtesan, Edward Mallory, an explorer, and Laurence Oliphant, a travel writer. Their lives ultimately link to a mysterious set of powerful computer punch cards, which are on a quest by various individuals.

2. Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Published: 1968

“Do androids dream of electric sheep?” is better known for its film adaptation “Blade Runner”. The novel setting is in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. A global nuclear war has severely damaged human life, also endangering most of the animal species.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter. He is being designated to kill six androids of the newly developed Nexus-6 model, which escaped to the planet Earth from Mars. The problems occur when he realizes the androids closely resemble human beings. Due to which, police have been mistakenly executing real humans in place of androids. Now, Deckard has to figure out his real targets and prevent any further killing of human beings.

On the other hand, John Isidore is a secondary character, who despite being a real human, aids the fugitive androids. Isidore is radioactively damaged and thus, has a very low IQ level even worse than the average human.

3. All my sins remembered by Joe Haldeman

Published: 1977

The novel is about an Anglo-Buddhist named Otto McGavin. McGavin is a peace-loving and an idealistic person. He believes in equal rights for humans and non-humans and thus, wants to join the Confederacion. However, things aren’t as smooth as he wishes for. The Confederacion wants him to be a Prime Operator for their secret service named the TBII.

The TBII wants McGavin to be a spy, thief, and ultimately an assassin. For the Confederacion, it’s a matter of everyday life. All they need is to use immersion therapy and hypnosis on McGavin to achieve the desired results. Then, McGavin is sent on dangerous missions into different worlds overwhelming with bizarre surroundings.

However, for McGavin, it’s an entirely different scenario. The situations he’s been thrown into are not what he desired. This will certainly cause emotional damage to his soul, but will he be able to recover from it or rather going to become an ardent supporter of the TBII.

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4. 1984 by George Orwell

Published: June 8, 1949

The novel “1984” primarily focuses on totalitarianism, repressive regimentation, and mass surveillance of common people and their daily routine. It shows how in an imagined future in the year 1984, the citizens of Great Britain are subjected to daily scrutiny without any prior notice to ensure their undying trust in the government.

Great Britain is a part of a totalitarian nation called Oceania. It is solely ruled by the Party, whose leader is Big Brother. Big Brother may or may not exist in reality, but it enjoys a cult of personality. The party has appointed a team of Thought Police who persecute individuals and their independent thinking.

The novel follows the story of Winston Smith, a diligent worker of the Party, who secretly hates the Party and hopes for an uprising. He unlawfully falls in love with his colleague named Julia and reminisces the time he had before the Party came into practice.

1984’s slogan “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS STRENGTH, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is still quite popular and holds value in today’s society.

5. Where late the sweet birds sang by Kate Wilhelm

Published: January 1976

The novel is set in post-apocalyptic Virginia near the Shenandoah River. The world population has been severely affected by disastrous environmental changes and global pandemic. This has caused deadly pollution leading to the collapse of civilization across the globe. As the death toll is on rising and there seems no end to the pandemic, most of the human beings have become universally infertile.

To preserve the human existence on the Earth, scientists have begun conducting cloning experiments through mice. Their research has theorized that fertility can be restored by multiple generations of cloning so that later, families can clone themselves to ensure survival.

However, the experiment doesn’t fully solve the problem as coming-of-age clones don’t support the idea of sexual reproduction. The original humans are aged and overpowered by the more number of clones, they are forced to comply with the new social norms and deal with further complications.

6. A dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

Published: October 1977

A dream of Wessex follows the story of 20th-century visionaries who build a virtual-reality future. Once they are in the virtual world, they can’t recall their identities and places they actually belong to. The novel shows how the advancements in science along with people's emotions going to impact the real-life future.

The novel revolves highlights a privately funded project named The Wessex Project. In this, researchers are discovering how to transform England’s brilliant minds to build an ideal society. The purpose is to collect vital information to ensure healthy human survival on Earth.

Julia Stretton, a 27-year-old geologist is the protagonist of the novel. She is on a mission to find David Harkman, an important member missing from Wessex, with whom she, later, falls in love. On the other hand, Paul Mason is Julia’s ex-boyfriend and the main antagonist of the novel who would do anything to take over the Wessex project.

7. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Published: October 6, 2009

Leviathan is a part of the trilogy series followed by Behemoth and Goliath. The novel talks about an alternate version of the first world war. It explores Central Powers, better called Clankers, which are put in use through mechanized war machines.

The Entente Powers, also called Darwinists, oppose these mechanical tools. Darwinists are known to fabricate living beings genetically and use them as weapons against Clankers.

Aleksander Ferdinand is the fugitive prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He is being betrayed by his own people. His royal status has no value. He is left to wander with a small crew of loyal men.

On the other hand, Deryn is a Scottish girl from a common family. She is determined to join the British Air Service and serve the nation along with her brother. However, her aunt and mother want her to become a proper lady. She has no choice but to pose herself as a boy and fulfill her only dream.

8. Electropolis by Dean Motter

Published: 2009

Menlo Park is a robot janitor. He is reprogrammed to work as a private eye on the streets of Electra city, a place developed to generate a massive amount of electricity. It’s been sixteen years when his human partner committed suicide from the world’s tallest tower.

One day, Menlo is visited by a blonde femme fatale named Anesta, who gives him secret information regarding his partner’s death. Now, the case is reopened, Menlo along with Anesta embarks on a gritty journey from the city’s elite society to its dark underbelly.

As the story progresses, it’s revealed Menlo’s partner’s death is not a solo incident. In fact, there’s a deep story behind which includes a mysterious object known as Astrolade and also, the secret of Electra city’s origination.

9. Red Star by Alexander Bogdanov

Published: 1908

Red Star explores the life of communist society on the planet Mars. Leonid is a Russian scientist turn revolutionary who travels to Mars to understand the distant socialist system and adapt the practices into his world.

The more time Leonid spends on Mars, the more he becomes attached to the place and its environment. He also learns that Martians are very fluid with "relationship" matters and it’s acceptable to have multiple lovers as well as multiple marriages at the same time. However, Martians have a hidden mission to colonize Earth and eradicate its human population.

Leonid’s life is closely related to Bogdanov’s own life. His mental and physical faculties are inspired by Bogdanov’s real-life incidents.

10. Ignition city by Warren Ellis

Published: 2009

Ignition City is a sci-fi comic book greatly inspired by the show Deadwood and the film Metropolis. The setting is in alternate history and the year is 1956. It’s the time of World War ||, which is obstructed by the Martians invasion. The invasion has caused space travel to become a common phenomenon. Ignition City is Earth’s only cosmodrome. It is an artificial island situated in equatorial waters.

Mary Raven is a former astronaut. She arrives at Ignition City to investigate his father’s(Rock Raven) death, under mysterious circumstances. Rock Raven was a British space hero and veteran astronaut who valiantly fought against the Martians.

11. Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond

Published: January 7, 1934

The Flash Gordon comic strip was one of the most successful comic strips of the 1930s. It follows the adventure of the titular character, who is actually a polo player and a university graduate. He is accompanied by his girlfriend Dale Arden, and a scientist named Dr. Hans Zarkov.

The comic strip talks about a space opera adventure where the planet Earth is threatened by another planet called Mongo. Dr. Zakrov has indebted a rocket ship to travel into space and prevent the tragedy. He has an eccentric personality as he decides to kidnap Flash and Dale to accompany him on his mission without any solid reason.

After landing on the planet Mongo, they come across its evil-ruler named Ming the Merciless, and thus, the story of our hero begins.

12. Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger

Published: October 2007

The comic book series follows the adventure of Atomic Robo, who is a self-aware robot and is built by Nikola Tesla. It is divided into several mini-series. Each of the mini-series depicts an extraordinary storyline and how Atomic Robo uses his intelligence to win over the hurdles.

Atomic Robo has superhuman qualities. He is strong, has extremely powerful eyesight with genius-level intelligence. As long as his atomic heart is active, he is described as an immortal invention.

The series has been nominated several times for various awards including the Eisner Awards. Its most popular min-series is Atomic Robo Volume 6: The Ghost of Station X published in April 2012.

13. Down to a sunless sea by David Graham

Published: 1979

Down to a sunless sea is a post-apocalyptic novel. America has an oil shortage and only a numerable population is left due to a nuclear war.

Jonah Scott is the narrator and main character of the story. He is a British pilot who works as a pilot for Air Britain and is currently in New York City. Since the collapse of the United States, the place is filled with burglars and other criminals. Jonah along with his colleague have to fight every day to prevent themselves from petty crimes.

The whole world is at war and several countries have collapsed due to nuclear attacks. Even the airport where Jonah had to aboard the plane is also crashed. Now, together with his comrades, he has to find a way to get through this life and death situation.

14. The naked sun by Isaac Asimov

Published: January 1957

The naked sun is based on the sci-fi genre. Rikaine Delmarre was an elite fetologist, who was researching about the birthing center of Solaria, an enemy planet of Earth. Rikaine is murdered under mysterious circumstances and Elijah Bailey is called upon to investigate the matter. Bailey is accompanied by R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot. Together, they have to figure out the weak points of Solarian society.

The novel explores the bizarre lifestyle of the Solarian society. It has a strictly controlled population of 20,00 and is governed majorly by robots. It is revealed that the Solarian rules discard reproduction ideas and teach people since birth to avoid any sort of personal contact.

With such strict rules and regulations, Solarians hardly have any big issues to worry about. No wonder, Bailey and Olivaw may never across any weak point of the Solarian government. In case, they do, will it be trivial or crucial enough to prevent the planet Earth.

15. Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Published: 2012

Amatka emphasis the impact of limited freedom, political oppression, and deep conspiracies on different individuals. The story is told through Vanja, who is sent to the Amatka colony for business purposes, but indeed, ends up falling in love with her housemate.

The novel asks a very perceptive question to its readers regarding daily life and how we deal with the situations through our self-made inclinations. It shows how a person’s life is more or less shaped by the use of different languages.

Amatka isn’t like any other conventional sci-fi novel. It not only talks about bizarre science moments but also discusses the elements of political dystopia.

16. The sheep look up by John Brunner

Published: August 1972

The sheep look up is a sci-fi dystopian novel that elaborates on the impact of environmental deterioration in America. It exclusively talks about social norms and issues, where Sheep is a metaphor for pollution. The pollution has so deeply affected the surroundings such that there’s hardly any water left to drink. Air pollution has forced people to wear masks all the time.

The pollution is so thick in the air that it’s almost impossible to ever see the glaring sunshine again. Acid rain is a common phenomenon due to which people have to wear plastics to prevent their clothes from burning.

Major species both on the surface and sea are extinct while some are living like corpses. Despite all these catastrophes, the government is indifferent to the problems and resort to violence when someone criticizes their methods.

17. Skyracos: The mining mess by John Picha

Published: March 31, 2013

Skyracos is a retro sci-fi adventure. It’s a story of flying men who have defied gravity and live in distant space. Their daily routine involves visiting alien worlds and exploring unknown realms. They are paid handsomely for their daily endeavor but the job isn’t as easy as it sounds. The novel gives you closer into the lives of such men who, as part of their job, have to live a million miles away from their homeland with no guarantee of returning back alive.

Chip Daniels aspires to be a space hero, but he is soon to realize what it takes to become a genuine hero. Chip along with his members of Unit 9901 is given a task to investigate a mysterious plague outbreak in an alienated mining colony. Appearing to be a game at first, the situation later turns out to be a life or death crisis.

The mining colony has thrown Chip into a dilemma. He is unsure of what’s good and evil anymore. The question arises, will he let his morals go away in the face of the worst nightmare.

18. The stars my destination by Alfred Bester

Published: March 21, 1957

Set in the 25th century, the entire Solar System is colonized by the human population. The story is told from the perspective of Gully Foyle, who is an uneducated and unambitious man. Foyle is left all by himself marooned in the space after his ship was attacked and the rest of the travelers died.

It’s been six months and no one has come to his rescue. Though one promising day a spaceship named Vorga passes nearby they ignore Foyle’s signals and abandon him. Foyle is consumed by revenge now and is transformed into an enraged being.

Determined to rescue himself, he starts to repair the ship but is apprehended by a cargo cult in the Asteroid belt. They mark his face with a hideous mask of a tiger. He somehow manages to escape and returns to his base, but is captured by his employer Presteign as he was about to blow the Vorga. Facing infinite hurdles and coming across never-seen-before faces, Foyle has to find a way to take his life back to normal.

19. The world inside by Robert Silverberg

Published: 1971

The setting is in the year 2381. The world population stands at 75 billion due to the people’s strong belief in the goodness of reproduction. Most of the story takes place in the massive city tower named Urban Monad 116. It is a group of thousand-floor skyscrapers, each of them divided into 25 self-contained “cities” having equal of 40 floors.

Each building can accommodate 800,000 people. People are given different floor levels to live on the basis of their status where administrators occupy the highest level.

Terms like war, starvation, crime, and birth control have no existence now. Everyone enjoys peaceful existence and mental issues are limited to only a small percentage of people. Higher authorities have put great efforts to maintain a stable society, but being humans is it really possible to ensure life-long peace for everyone? Sounds illogical.

20. Flow my tears, the policeman said by Philip K. Dick

Published: February 1974

The novel explores citizens' life after the second civil war when the United States’ democratic institutions have completely fallen apart. The higher officials are trying to reorganize the country through a dictatorship. The situation has turned devastatingly dystopian such that recreational drug use has become a normal thing and the age of consent is twelve now.

The story follows the life of a singer named Jason Taverner and his girlfriend Heather Hart. Both of them are genetically engineered humans and enjoy a massive fan-following. One day when Taverner is called by his former lover to visit at her apartment. He is attacked with a parasitic life-form. As a result, Taverner faces a drastic turn of events. When he wakes up the following day, he realizes he isn’t recognized by anyone and is a complete stranger to the outside world.

Baffled by the situation, Taverner tries to investigate into the matter through illegal means. Due to which, he is now wanted by police and unfortunately, he’s no one to claim as his friend.


Retrofuturism is an interesting genre. It gives equal importance to current living standards and how it can be affected by possible future advancements. Anyone, who wonders what could be the future and how the past used to be, should read retro-futuristic books to delve into a different era, which is a wondrous mixture of both past and future.

© 2020 Prachi Sharma

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