What are some good examples of retro sci-fi literature (retrofuturism)?
So I'm reading Asimov's short-story anthology The Complete Robot, which contains stories written between 1939 and 1977, and I'm fascinated by several instances in which Asimov tries to predict the future of robotics.
When he gets it right is just as interesting as when he gets it wrong, as even when he's wrong, he's wrong in very interesting ways.
For example, it's very interesting how Asimov seems to think that everything must have a positronic brain (which often produces something either identical or very close consciousness), when in reality we now have numerous useful robots that have nothing of the sort.
So this made me thinking, I think I'd like to write a story that was just like that, an exploration of universal themes that is facilitated by simplified technology. A form of retrofuturism. And since I had the idea, obviously someone else had it before. I wanna read it! More recent stories, especially those with old-school robots and artificial intelligence. Any suggestions?
Also open to other medias, but books would be particularly helpful.
It might be difficult to tell what's supposed to be a prediction, rather than something Asimov made up mostly so he can tell a good story.
For example, positronic brains are essentially fake technology he made up so he doesn't have to explain how they work. Also, some of Asimov's robot stories are mostly about setting up an interesting puzzle, sort of like a trolley problem. The three laws of robotics are a useful setup for these problems; you need some clear rules in place in order to set up the situation and make its resolution satisfying. Compare with setting up a locked room murder in a mystery.
I generally think of science fiction as a branch of fantasy with conventions around what kinds of contrived fakery are okay. Even the people who try to get the physics right are going to cheat in some ways.
To answer your question, Burning Chrome is a collection of William Gibson's earliest work and I think it's a good example of retrofiction. He had little idea about how computers or networks worked when he wrote it. In particular, The Gernsback Continuum is a story that's sort of a parody of previous science fiction that came before what we now call cyberpunk.
You're entirely right, that is quite difficult or impossible to discern with certainty. Which makes reading more interesting, to be honest. One of the first stories is about automated cars, and I kept thinking why exactly he decided that cars should have personalities, for what purpose would we give that to a car -- well, I think I know the answer: cause it's fun, but the in-universe reasoning is a bit puzzling. They're essentially like horses or very large dogs.
Gibson is a solid recommendation, thanks!
In-universe, the primary form of artificial intelligence available to Asimov's scientists is positronic brains. The more advanced the positronic brain, the more likely that it develops sentience, sapience, and self-awareness.
Self-driving cars would have to have positronic brains, and they would have to be relatively advanced to function independently: ergo, self-aware sentient cars.
But, mostly, it was just a way for Asimov to write a story about humans abusing what they see lower forms of life, like dogs, horses, and human slaves.
Is it weird to suggest that one of the most striking features of Golden Age sci-fi (to me anyways) is actually the personality of the protagonists (or lack thereof)?
They almost to a tee: young (white) males, with ‘superior’ intellect, cunning and a uhhhh, strong sense of their own perceived superiority, and at its worst: often especially so when it comes to members of different ethnic/gender/species groups.
You can look at say, Jack Vance’s Demon Princes, or Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (a particularly bad case), or Silverburg’s The Man in the Maze, or Bester’s The Stars My Destination / the Demolished Man (which actually intentionally takes this archetype and dial it up all the way), etc. could probably think of a few more if I had my collection handy.
To /u/skybrian’s point: this often forces the idea of the story to hold it’s own, because the characters are often lackluster at best. Sometimes this manifests with the central idea as a one trick pony (See: Man in the Maze for a particularly poignant version of this), but they’ve almost always got an interesting idea at the core.
Honestly: you might read a bunch of these (old short stories in this era are a very quick read by rule) and see if you can find a way to reverse the mold and have a strong characterization drive your core idea (Bester is the key here).
Yeah, it was pretty bad. From Reddit.
(No citations but I remember reading that in one of Asimov's introductions somewhere, a long time ago when I read lots of his stuff.)
As the person who wrote that wiki page you quoted, I could provide citations if necessary: mainly, Asimov's autobiography 'I. Asimov', but also 'The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov' by Joseph F Patrouch Jnr, such as this passage in chapter one, 'The Early Asimov':
EDIT: Transcription typos
Thanks! I probably read it in his autobiography.
That is a very interesting observation. Personally, I don't mind the "lack of personality" from science-fiction protagonists -- mainly because, well, I think they do have lots of personality. Maybe they're (apparently) unemotional, aloof, single-minded, driven, and prone to abstraction and speculation, but, well, so am I!
I do not think those characters are cold, distant, and inhuman... they just happen to represent a section of human experience that the overwhelmingly emotional and extroverted portion of the readers fail to comprehend. I even find humanity in Greg Egan's characters, for god's sake!
And, as you say, those characters are often better suited to drive further the plot, as well as the underlining philosophical speculations.
Maybe this is why I never seem to agree with literary critics who scorn flat unemotional characters (in sci-fi in particular, but also more generally). I'll enjoy a book immensely and then run across some online discussion of it where the major theme of conversation is how static, or one-note, or otherwise terrible the characters are.
Meanwhile every time some topseller goes on page after page about someone's poignant emotional turmoil I tend to skip ahead because it's either boring or uncomfortable to me.
Golden Age Sci-fi that's "too abstract" and "not character-driven enough" is exactly what I consider to be the best sci-fi out there.
How can anyone in their right say that the man who writes like this makes cold, unemotional, detached characters?
 In this scene, a "human-machine hybrid" of sorts experiences the Sun for the first time. This short story is severely misguided and outdated in its treatment of autism, but it was written in 1973 so I don't hold it against it.
To be fair, 'Stranger in Paradise' isn't Golden Age science fiction. It's post-New Wave science fiction, and the influence of the New Wave movement shows in Asimov's writing.
It was also written by a man in his 50s, rather than in his 20s. Asimov had grown as a person and a writer in those 30 years. His earlier works do have cold, unemotional, detached characters.
It's always nice to learn something new from someone that loves the subject. Thanks ;)
I definitely don’t mind it either. I probably have say, 2 dozen or more of these types of short novels? They’re almost always a steal at the library book sales and are an easy read to boot.
It occurred to me: you might also consider reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, as one of the finest examples of a modern novel built around an idea, or I would even argue the final phrase of the book itself.
Haven't read it but I thought Mieville's The City & The City was pretty interesting in a weird high-concept sort of way. Roughly, it's about two cities in the same location where everyone pretends not to see the people in the other city.
It's been a while since I read Demolished Man, but was it not criticizing that sort of American Psycho archetype who tortures/destroys himself with his own paranoia and elitism? The novum of telepaths used to attack that sort of society-facing veneer of a flawless man as being something that could only exist through deception and showing beneath it was a complicated inner life?
TBH, I only have rather vague memories of the Demolished Man, but that sounds correct. Probably should have hung my hat on Gully Foyle and left it there! But hey, if you’re gonna read some Bester, you should make some time for the Demolished Man as well
I've gotta be honest: I'm not exactly sure what you want, except that you want stories with robots and/or artificial intelligence. In that vein, I offer up:
'I, Robot' by Eando Binder, 1939 A short story which is basically 'Frankenstein' re-vamped for a mechanical age. Also, reading this story inspired a young Isaac Asimov to write his first robot story.
'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' by Robert Heinlein, 1966 A story of a war of independence, with one of the central characters being a self-aware computer.
The WWW trilogy by Robert Sawyer, 2012 What if the internet became self-aware?
My original intention was to ask for contemporary works which make use of tropes and elements that remind me of old-school science fiction, like someone trying to write contemporary robot fiction reminiscent of people like Asimov. So a form of retrofuturism. Some people suggested actually old-school fiction instead, and I didn't reject them, they were also quite interesting.
I've read I Robot already, and The Moon... is on my list. I didn't know the third one and I'll look it up, it certainly sounds interesting, thanks ;)
That's a very specific taste. Good luck!
Are you sure? This isn't the Asimov collection of robot short stories. It's a short story written over a decade before Asimov's 'I, Robot' was published. It's not a very well-known story, so it's not one that a casual reader would just stumble across by accident.
As for 'WWW' by Sawyer, if you're looking for someone writing Asimov-style stories, that's not it. It's a great trilogy, but it's firmly rooted in modern times, in both theme and style. Sorry.
This isn't quite what you asked, but it reminds me of Robot Artists & Black Swans: The Italian Fantascienza Stories where Bruce Sterling pretends to be an Italian science fiction writer who writes stories from an Italian perspective. They are mostly set in Milan and sometimes set in the past.
I have some recommendations.
From roughly the same era, I've got two quite different books to scratch that kind of itch, 2001, and A Canticle for Leibowitz. 2001 needs no introduction but I personally much preferred the book to the movie, though both are definitely worth a look.
Canticle chronicles the slow rebirth of civilization over the course of millennia after a nuclear war, it's almost like a more grounded version of Asimov's foundation series.
I've also got two later and (IMO) underappreciated books from Clarke and Asimov, Songs of Distant Earth and Nemesis respectively, incidentally my favorites from each author.
I won't spoil them too much, but Songs is a melancholic book about the last survivors from the destruction of the solar system stopping by an idyllic colony set up by an AI seedship hundreds of years prior, while they continue on their centuries long journey to a barren new home.
Nemesis is ambiguously set in the earliest days of Asimov's Foundation setting, and heavily features O'Neil style free space colonies, which Asimov was quite enamored with in his later days. Interesting use of space colonization as an allegory for white flight and the collapse of the rust belt as I recall, more women with active roles than in his previous work for what little that says. Really makes you wonder what we missed from his relatively premature death.
Do I need to know the Foundation universe in order to read this book?
No. 'Nemesis' is a stand-alone novel, with no connection to any other of Asimov's works.
Enders Game had the concept the "the nets" - a series of inter connected computers which (ironically now) elevated political discourse.
Snow Crash coined the phrase the metaverse.
spoilers Remember though, two kids manage to sock puppet argue with each other and astroturf a political debate to where one of them becomes President. /spoiler
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner might be worth checking out? I read it as a teen so I'm not sure how it holds up, but I recall being impressed by its foresight.
It includes a supercomputer that is complemented by its operator ala centaur chess, countries competing with genetic engineering, and a highly stylized 60s-inspired feel to it.
A quote from the reception section of the wiki:
Depending on how "retro" you want to go, I found this interesting YouTube video about Lucian.