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10 December 2011 @ 10:54 am
This morning my friend scarlettina was notified that she'd been selected as one of 1000 contestants to make a video explainng why she should be the one to win a suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic. I'm thrilled for her, of course, and in my LJ comment on her post I suggested that she use Kip Russel's contest-winning slogan from Have Space Suit Will Travel. But I didn't remember the actual slogan, so I went and re-read the first few chapters of the book.

Not only did I find the winning slogan ("I like Skyway Soap because it is as pure as the sky itself!"), I found that the book was packed with something I've chosen to call retroanachronisms: worldbuilding elements that were contemporary or futuristic at the time the book was written, but are distractingly outdated today. For example, in this futuristic world with bases on the Moon and Mars, Kip's small town has three paper newspapers, he has to "tune in" the local TV station on his hand-built black-and-white TV set (at one point the picture and sound go out and he tunes a station from another city "on the skip" but it's too staticky so he switches back), and the contest winner is announced on a variety show with singing, dancing cigarette packs. Not to mention the gender issues.

I have committed a few retroanachronisms myself. In "I Hold My Father's Paws," which must take place at least ten years in the future, I have a character remembering hiding something in a box of old CD-ROMs when he was a kid. Referring to something present-day as being in the past (in this case, a memory of something that was old at the time) is a great way of establishing that we're in the future, but it bit me here. There's no way the character -- who would be at most ten years old in 2011 -- would even know what a CD-ROM is, never mind have a box of them anywhere in the house. They became more thoroughly obsolete, and faster, than I anticipated when I was writing the story (2002). The exact same problem affected Back to the Future II, in which Marty lands in an alley containing bales of discarded 12" laserdiscs.

Retroanachronisms are, I think, impossible to avoid when writing fiction set in the future. You have to have some elements of the present day in your future world, for the sake of reader identification, and sure as shootin' some of them will turn jarring as the future takes twists you didn't anticipate. But they're fun to watch for in older SF.

markbournemarkbourne on December 10th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
Timapparentparadox on December 10th, 2011 07:31 pm (UTC)
I was also going to suggest paleofuture!
beamjockeybeamjockey on December 10th, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC)
"Virgin is as pure as the sky itself?"

It won't wash.
Luke McGuffholyoutlaw on December 10th, 2011 09:02 pm (UTC)
I used to really love retroanachronisms, and think that's a great term for the idea.

I remember one story where landing on Phobos was so tricky that special operatives waited in the aisles of the computer, with carts full of tubes to replace the burnt-out ones on a moment's notice.

There's also a detailed explanation of a cooking a roast in a microwave oven in Dhalgren, and a detailed description of a home fax machine in some Bruce Sterling story.
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on December 11th, 2011 06:47 am (UTC)
When it was found that the mean time to failure of tubes was bimodal (if they made it through the first thousand hours, they were probably good for five thousand) racks of tubes were set up to just burn for a thousand hours, and the survivors carefully taken to be spare parts . . .
beamjockey: Blinking12beamjockey on December 10th, 2011 09:08 pm (UTC)
For an antiretroanachronism, see Jo Walton's review of the book.
Kip’s also working as a soda jerk in a drugstore—this actually does mean he was serving soft drinks to people in a pharmacy, which, well, again with the science fiction astonishing future stuff. What an imagination I thought Heinlein had! Instead of cafes or restaurants, people are drinking cold Horlicks in chemist shops and calling it a “fountain”—what could be more futuristic? And Heinlein makes us feel Kip’s pride in his work—his shakes are the thickest. And it’s an actual pharmacy, the owner makes up prescriptions while Kip serves the drinks! It’s up there with food pills. Heinlein needed this as a plot device, so that Kip could be socialising with the horrible bully Ace Quigley while also selling soap, but he really made it work and seem almost plausible because Kip takes it so for granted. When I found out this was a real American thing I was extremely taken aback.

I LOVED this reaction.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on December 11th, 2011 02:40 pm (UTC)
LOL that's hilarious. I was reading that quote and thinking, someone should tell her that wasn't fiction...
David D. Levinedavidlevine on December 11th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
Jo also wished she could attend a university like the one Roger Zelazny made up, where you could attend whatever classes you wanted. It was only some time later that she learned that was simply the American system.

Also, Charlie Stross didn't know when he was a kid that Americans drove on the wrong side of the road, which made some things he read inexplicable.
beamjockeybeamjockey on December 12th, 2011 05:27 am (UTC)
I myself did not realize for decades that the Firesign Theatre's reference to "Doctor Beddoes's Pneumatic Institute," embedded in a fake-19th-century spoof of natural philosophy, was real.

We all have things we've encountered in fiction before learning about them in nonfiction. Sometimes, in trying to distinguish fact from fiction, one guesses wrong.
Kalimackalimac on December 10th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
I have long been puzzled at the number of 1950s SF stories set in the future in which advanced computers still have vacuum tubes. Didn't the authors read SciAm, hello?
markbourne: escape keymarkbourne on December 11th, 2011 04:13 am (UTC)
And on Star Trek all data retrieval is still achieved via "tapes." I retcon it so that "tape" is a casually used acronym for, say, Total Access Photonic Engrams or something.

It has long been remarked that SF has always failed miserably at "predicting" the social impact of science advances, the common example being that everyone "predicted" people landing on the moon but nobody wrote about half the planet watching the event on TV.

I would dearly love to find a short story I read in an antho in junior high. It might have been one of the Judith Merrill collections, although the story is not in any of the Merrill paperbacks I currently still possess. I don't remember the title or author, but I do remember the plot because it had a big, lasting impact on me.

It was written in 1950, or at least told from the vantage point of 1950. It concerned a journalist in 1900 having just returned via time machine from the amazing future of 1950. In trying to pitch his breathless account to his boss, he goes on about how fifty years from now (1900) people will have television and airplanes and all manner of wonder devices that, of course, actually did exist in the real-world 1950. As I recall the story, the journalist's boss rejects the tale with a dismissive laugh, saying something to the effect of "Televisions? Fast automobiles? Aircraft? Electrical appliances? Okay, I can believe all that stuff. What I canNOT believe, what proves you're a liar, is that everyone in this so-called future takes all that for granted!" Boom, end of story.

That strikes me as form of social retroanarchism lampshaded by the story's author, whoever it was.

Ever since then, an awareness of our own "future" world and what we take for granted, and how sf writers do/don't capture that, has inflected how I read and write the stuff.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on December 11th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)
"That strikes me as form of social retroanarchism lampshaded by the story's author, whoever it was." --Apologies, but I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet, and I can't get my brain to figure out what this means. Further enlightenment...?

Also, I've understood that the stuff we take for granted = our culture. Maybe not a 100% overlap, but still, kind of a good rule of thumb for thinking about how to create a real-feeling fictional world. Lucky you to get that insight in junior high!
David D. Levinedavidlevine on December 11th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC)
"To lampshade" means to call blatant attention to something that you know is a problem, metaphorically "hanging a lampshade on it." For example, if your characters' plan is plainly absurd, you can have one of the characters complain "this plan is plainly absurd."

And I think that "retroanarchism" is a typo for "retroanachronism."
threeoutsidethreeoutside on December 11th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC)
Ah, that does make more sense. Plus, I'm on my second cup of coffee now. :)

But I hadn't heard "lampshade" before. I think in olden times we said "spotlighted."
David D. Levinedavidlevine on December 11th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
"Lampshade" is a Hollywoodism. See also "fridge logic."
threeoutsidethreeoutside on December 11th, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC)
Is "fridge logic" anything like the French "staircase retort"?
David D. Levinedavidlevine on December 11th, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
Very much like, yes.
markbournemarkbourne on December 11th, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
And I think that "retroanarchism" is a typo for "retroanachronism."

Heh. Yes, it is. Earlier in the day I'd read an article on the anarchist roots of OWS; evidently it made me a convert to the cause. Or else "retroanarchism" is a time travel story about throwing a suitcase nuke at Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.
Allan: Readingallanh on December 11th, 2011 06:25 am (UTC)
I'm not sure if it's sad or heartening that I didn't even have to read your second paragraph to remember Kip's slogan.

Interestingly, in some of his later novels, Heinlein tossed in a few future predictions. I distinctly remember in Space Cadet there's a mention of the protagonist (uh...Matt Dodson, I think?) who answers his [implied cell] phone, then tucks it back into his bag.

I seem to vaguely recall a number of retroanachronisms in The Door Into Summer, but all I can specifically recall is gold being illegal to own.
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on December 11th, 2011 06:49 am (UTC)
I'm still in love with "Go ahead," and "unemployed spy."
David D. Levinedavidlevine on December 11th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC)
Um, what?
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on December 11th, 2011 05:04 pm (UTC)
When the high school senior tells his father he wants to go to the moon, his father says, "Go ahead." A lot of what I think Heinlein would have liked you to take away from his work is right there. I get regular use from the line, and expect to for ever.

When the I.R.S. guy tells the father he can't put down his profession as "spy", he says, "All right, unemployed spy."

HSWT was my first Heinlein, when I was about 10 and it was new. I think it holds up well (though I happened to re-read Citizen of the Galaxy a couple of years ago, and it's awesome), and stands on its own merits, but First is not subject to ordinary standards. Maybe a little like childhood-imprint comfort food.