11 Best Retrofuturism Books

Retrofuturism is defined as “the future as imagined by the past,” but that can mean almost anything (aren’t all science fiction books “the future as imagined by the past?”). In practice, it’s a broad category that touches on many of the punks: steampunk, dieselpunk, decopunk, etc.

by Scott Westerfeld – 2009

In this first book of the YA Leviathan trilogy, an alternate World War I is fought by steampunk/dieselpunk machines and genetically-fabricated monsters. The Leviathan of the title is a massive whale airship, and the spunky heroine is Deryn, a Scottish girl with dreams of joining the British Air Service. Girls aren’t allowed, but she’s got a way around that.

“Enhanced by Thompson’s intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld’s brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.”
—School Library Journal, starred review

Red Star
by Alexander Bogdanov – 1908

Red Star, by Russian political activist Bogdanov (Lenin exiled him), is about a communist and feminist utopia on Mars. It also gives a detailed description of blood transfusion (poorly understood at the time) in Martian society.

In 1924, Bogdanov started his own blood transfusion experiments, apparently hoping to achieve eternal youth or at least partial rejuvenation. Lenin’s sister Maria Ulyanova was among many who volunteered to take part in Bogdanov’s experiments.

“[A] surprisingly moving story.”
―The New Yorker

Skyracos: The Mining Mess
by John Picha – 2013

Chip Daniels wants to be a hero, but he gets more than he bargained for once encased in his streamlined flight suit. Chip and the rest of Unit 9901 are ordered to investigate a mysterious plague outbreak in an isolated mining colony. Things get out of hand quickly, unraveling into a life or death crisis. Notions of good and evil spin into a nightmare of moral ambiguity, which challenges Chip’s definition of heroics.

The Sheep Look Up
by John Brunner – 1972

In a near future, the air pollution is so bad that everyone wears gas masks. The infant mortality rate is soaring, and birth defects, new diseases, and physical ailments of all kinds abound. The water is undrinkable—unless you’re poor and have no choice. Large corporations fighting over profits from gas masks, drinking water, and clean food tower over an ineffectual, corrupt government.

Environmentalist Austin Train is on the run. The “trainites,” a group of violent environmental activists, want him to lead their movement; the government wants him dead; and the media demands amusement. But Train just wants to survive.

“Gripping on both an emotional and intellectual level.”

by Karin Tidbeck – 2012

Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

“Tidbeck excels in drawing small details that send a chill up the spine—and turn this dystopian novel into a fine piece of horror-weird fiction.”
—The Washington Post

The Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester – 1956

The Stars My Destination anticipated many of the staples of the later cyberpunk movement. For instance, the megacorporations as powerful as governments, and a dark overall vision of the future and the cybernetic enhancement of the body.

Marooned in outer space after an attack on his ship, Nomad, Gulliver Foyle lives to obsessively pursue the crew of a rescue vessel that had intended to leave him to die.

“Science fiction has only produced a few works of actual genius, and this is one of them.”
—Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War

The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov – 1956

A millennium into the future, two advancements have altered the course of human history: the colonization of the Galaxy and the creation of the positronic brain.

On the beautiful Outer World planet of Solaria, a handful of human colonists lead a hermit-like existence, their every need attended to by their faithful robot servants.

To this strange and provocative planet comes Detective Elijah Baley, sent from the streets of New York with his positronic partner, the robot R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve an incredible murder that has rocked Solaria to its foundations. The victim had been so reclusive that he appeared to his associates only through holographic projection. Yet someone had gotten close enough to bludgeon him to death while robots looked on. Now Baley and Olivaw are faced with two clear impossibilities: Either the Solarian was killed by one of his robots—unthinkable under the laws of Robotics—or he was killed by the woman who loved him so much that she never came into his presence!

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang
by Kate Wilhelm – 1976

When the first warm breeze of Doomsday came wafting over the Shenandoah Valley, the Sumners were ready. Using their enormous wealth, the family had forged an isolated post-holocaust citadel. Their descendants would have everything they needed to raise food and do the scientific research necessary for survival. But the family was soon plagued by sterility, and the creation of clones offered the only answer. And then that final pocket of human civilization lost the very human spirit it was meant to preserve as man and mannequin turned on one another.

“Kate Wilhelm’s cautionary message comes through loud and clear.”
—The New York Times

The Difference Engine
by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson – 1990

The Difference Engine is widely regarded as having helped establish the genre conventions of steampunk.

It’s 1855, and the computer has arrived a century ahead of time due to Charles Babbage accomplishing his dream of creating both the Difference Engine and the more-advanced Analytical Engine.

Part detective story, part historical thriller, the adventure in The Difference Engine begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for.

“Splendid . . . highly imaginative.”
—Chicago Tribune

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
by Philip K. Dick – 1974

Jason Taverner, world-famous talk show host and man-about-town, wakes up one day to find that no one knows who he is—including the vast databases of the totalitarian government. And in a society where lack of identification is a crime, Taverner has no choice but to go on the run with a host of shady characters, including crooked cops and dealers of alien drugs. But do they know more than they are letting on? And just how can a person’s identity be erased overnight?

“Dick skillfully explores the psychological ramifications of this nightmare.”
—The New York Times Review of Books

by George Orwell – 1949

Ideas from science fiction rarely make it into the public consciousness, but 1984 has been referenced in Supreme Court cases, and “Big Brother” has a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.

3 thoughts on “11 Best Retrofuturism Books

  1. I’ve read The Sheep Look Up, The Stars My Destination, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, all truly prescient novels. The others sound really interesting. I’ll use this list as a reference. Thanks much!

  2. I have had over three thousand SF/Fantasy books over my life time. I am 72 years old. So you see, I have read MANY SF/Fantasy books. I would have had a majestic Library compare to any other library (excepting such libraries as National Library) had my mother not made me get rid of over 75% of my books before I left for college. Well, such a loss is usually not a big deal, except for now many of them are worth a great deal. A GREAT deal.

    Now, I have only about 75 books. So, if I had the money I would buy more than I could probably read.

  3. Thanks Dan, another thought provoking list of contenders. I loved Flow my tears by PKD when it was first published. IMHO, retrofuturism is an absurd term with regard to sci-fi, as you point out.

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