What styles defined specific eras of science fiction?

Science fiction writers of every generation had their own visions of the future, but what if their predictions became a reality? Rob dons his silver suit and delves into the archives to find out...

To me, living in 2010 seems like the future (well a bit anyway), and some of the things people dreamt of in years gone by have indeed come to pass. We have iPods which contain all our music, videos and data like the PADDs in Star Trek, have unlocked parts of the human genome, cloned livestock and created primitive artificial life. And while we don’t have jet-packs, teleporters or the ability to travel to Mars, current technology hasn’t don’t too badly on the whole.

We love our technology, all sleek, thin and mobile, full of wafer-thin elements that can pass data at massive rates, wrapped up in shiny and lovingly-designed bits of kit. The ‘aesthetic of the future’ in 2010 is that things have become touch-based, smaller, sleeker and more rounded. Thanks in part to a certain brand (okay, Apple), the notion of chrome- and organic-looking technology has become the style that has defined the last few years.

This is, of course, far removed from the past few decades’ idea of what the future would hold for us in 2010. I mentioned this to a friend jokingly, with his reply being that fortunately we don’t live in a Gerry Anderson-inspired future where we all have to wear-tight fitting silver jumpsuits and purple wigs.

Which got me thinking: what style defined a specific decade of sci-fi? What would the past pioneers of future thinking imagine the future to be like now with the mind-set on then?

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The design of the future hasn’t always looked as it does now, and our concept of what the future will look like is a great deal different from the design and ideas of the future that past decades saw.  What would our lives be like now if the ideas of futurists, writers and artists of past generations had come to pass?

1900s onwards: Steam-powered trips to the moon

Maybe if we looked at the beginning of the 20th century and asked the pioneers of sci-fi what the world would look like in 100 years’ time the answers would be very interesting. This, of course, is the biggest age of change we have ever had technology-wise.

From the late Victorian age to the end of the First World War, the first thirty years of the 20th century moved us forward like no other. We learnt to fly, learnt how to transfer information via radio waves, to put moving images onto celluloid and, unfortunately, to kill each other in the most unspeakable ways on the battlefields of Europe. Now, this turn of the century’s decades could have gone two ways into the predictions of the future.

Firstly we could have carried on with the wrought iron intricacy of the Victorian era, which we have seen many times in books and movies. Today we could have been living in a Steampunk world envisaged by the likes of Bruce Sterling and based on HG Wells, Jules Verne and Charles Babbage. Maybe we could still have iPods, but chances are they would be made from iron and powered by water.

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However, with the decline of the British Empire and the outbreak of the First World War, maybe the sci-fi thinkers of the time saw the aesthetic of the future becoming militaristic. Taking the notion that World War I had continued, would we now be living in a future where war was the main focus?

Would technology and medicine have moved forward at a quicker rate, as suggested at the time by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in Warren Ellis’s Ministry Of Space, or the third volume of Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where we still have cars and motorways, but also space-ports and a lot more smoking of pipes?

As we move into the next few decades of the 20th century, the style changes once again, with the notion of the metropolis and the daring heroes of pulp. Would the technology of the future according to 1920s and 30s mentality lead us into a Flash Gordon-like style of art-deco space-ships with sparklers at the back?

With sci-fi taking off in the 1930s and 40s thanks mostly to the growth of film and magazines, people had money to spend on both the printed page and cinema. This was the time of Alex Raymond, space adventures and Batman – would we be living in a Fritz Lang/Gotham city of the future full of airships and towering edifices, using Dick Tracy watches to communicate with fellow Futurians? Again this seems like an intriguing future to live in, until of course we move forward another decade and get invaded.


Books:The First Men In The Moon (HG Wells)John Carter Of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)The Shape Of Things To Come / The Time Machine (HG Wells)The War Of The Worlds (HG Wells)Heart Of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

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Films/Serials:Le Voyage Dans La Lune, aka A Trip To The Moon, Georges MélièsMetropolis (Fritz Lang)Lost Horizon (Frank Capra)20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (Stuart Paton)Island Of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton)

Cinematic serial:Buck Rogers (Ford Beebe)Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor)Superman (Max Fleischer)

Also see:The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Alan Moore)Ministry Of Space (Warren Ellis)

1950s: Atomic-powered saucermen and Googie

The 1950s were the time of hair gel, rebellion and the dawn of the atomic age. The design of the future (or indeed Back To The Future) was influenced by rock and roll, new energy sources and, of course, the phantom menace of the Russians and communism.

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Who was a communist? Were your friends and neighbours being taken and replaced by pod-people from another planet? Were you or any of your family being visited by aliens hidden in sink holes under your garden, or whisked away with Arian-looking spacemen to battle giant, bulbous-headed monsters from space, or to stop the earth standing still, or even preventing Martian war machines using snotty tissues?

This was the 1950s, meaning sci-fi turned colour and was full of mod-cons. If we were living the 1950s future, the assumption was that we would be living in houses akin to those in the Jetsons, with robot housemaids and food in pill form.

There would be no need for pavements as we would have conveyor belts everywhere (actually if you go to Vegas, it’s a bit like this). Of course, it wouldn’t all be happy, as even with our future atomic, neon lifestyle full of ray-guns and jet-packs we would still be in trouble, as we would have to deal with the persistent problem of alien invasion from small Martians, who had a penchant for dressing up like Roman Soldiers and always looking for their ‘Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator’.


Books:Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov)The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)Starship Troopers (Robert E Heinlein)Final Blackout (L. Ron Hubbard)Films:This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman)Invaders From Mars (William Menzies)The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (Fred Sears / Ray Harryhausen)Plan 9 From Outer Space (Ed Wood Jr.)TV:The Outer LimitsThe Twilight ZoneHaredevil Hare/Hare-Way To The Stars (Looney Tunes shorts)The Quatermass Experiment (BBC)

1960s: The Moon… for real

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As sci-fi moves into the 60s we actually get to see what the futurists and thinkers dreamt up and pondered. And as the decade drew to a close, science fiction became reality, and we managed  to get to the Moon.

Okay, there are some sceptics out there saying we didn’t go to the Moon, but the efforts of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins brought the dreams alive for everyone who had ever thought of man venturing into space. Quite an achievement, really, as it was only a little more than half a century before that we learnt to fly.

Now, for any sci-fi fan or future thinker, this was a massive learning curve, and one that got imaginations racing – once we got to the Moon, where then? The era’s big question was ‘what if the space race continued?’ Would the future of 2010 have us living on Mars by now? Would we be in slow, beautiful ships rotating around to the tones of the Blue Danube? Would we have International Rescue and would we ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’?

While the world was watching and looking up at the stars, in stuffy labs across America the space race and the consequent growth in computer technology meant the military could start to build robust networks that linked these basic computers together. What was once thought up as fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury was slowly but surely coming to pass with actual machines ‘talking’ to each other.


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Books:Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick)Dune (Frank Herbert)The Drowned World (JG Ballard)A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)Macroscope (Piers Anthony)Films:Barbarella (Roger Vadim)Planet Of The Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner)2001 – A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrik)Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)

TV:Thunderbirds (ATV)The PrisonerStar Trek (Universal)Doctor Who

1970s:  Space gods to Star Wars

So thankfully we didn’t end up here in 2010 being controlled by our artificial intelligence overlords. Unfortunately, we’re unable to chat up Orion dancing girls, either.

From the 1960s onwards, the design of the future took a more realistic turn. We could now actually make spaceships (well rockets), had the money and resources to research into new fields, and eventually concrete over everything. The future in the late 1960s could be argued to be full of dull greys and diesel, as engineering and manufacturing took off in a massive way.

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That’s not to say there were not some quirky and fun designs for the future. For those who thought the reality of the late 1960s and early 1970s was plastic and dull, future thinkers on the printed page added glam, built on psychedelic inspiration and vivid colour, to the worlds of tomorrow.

Gerry Anderson placed his actors in purple wigs to defend the world from UFOs, Jon Pertwee stopped the Silurians and Ogrons wearing lace and velvet, and Jack Kirby was producing some of his best work in ‘The Fourth World’ comics based on aspects and ideas of Chariots Of The Gods? by Erich Von Daniken. The Age of Aquarius hadn’t happened, but instead moved into a ‘galaxy far, far away’ as Star Wars changed the way we saw sci-fi cinema forever.

While the future was being thrown up on screen or in comic books as a mix of Westerns in space, or Time Lords versus well spoken RADA-trained aliens, the real future thinkers, the men who could actually make real changes to the future in which we live, were busy beavering away in garages and research facilities in California. Geeks with second names such as such as Jobs, Gates and Berners-Lee slowly but surely moulded the future design we live in now.


Books:Chariots Of The Gods? (Erich Von Daniken)Rendezvous With Rama (Arthur C. Clarke)Dune (Frank Herbert)The Terminal Man (Michael Crichton)Protector (Larry Niven)

Films:WestWorld (Michael Crichton)Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull)Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)Star Wars (George Lucas)Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson)

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TV:Battlestar GalacticaUFO (Gerry Anderson)Blake’s 7Survivors

1980s: Cyberpunk and the post apocalyptic threat

It rains a lot in 1980s sci-fi. If you don’t believe me, then check out Back To The Future Part II, Max Headroom or more importantly the iconic Blade Runner. The aesthetic theme of 1980s sci-fi was ‘gomi’ – junk, rubbish and post apocalyptic versions of the run down and decaying estates that were built just twenty year before.

Happiness Patrols ran towering city blocks, lone gunmen roamed deserts to confront mutated frogs or Tina Turner in a wig, mega-cites were built and protected by judges and the strikes. Unrest, social decay and the end to once-great manufacturing businesses permeated sci-fi like the rain and pollution that slowly began to rot around the country.

1980s sci-fi wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t idealised. The future according to the 1980s was going to be bleak, with either the chance of being invaded by lizard aliens posing as visitors, or our mutually-assured destruction from either side of the Iron Curtain.

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The sci-fi aesthetic was one of misery, of dank and dark corners, or lawlessness. The technology that was creeping into our homes and becoming commonplace was not going to help.

If you wanted to ‘jack-in’ or become a Neuromancer, then life online was only just slightly better than the one outside, and filled with betrayal and strange goings-on that only Joanna Lumley could only solve. No, it’s a good job the style and prediction of the 1980s future didn’t come to pass, and that we are not now living in some ‘futuristic, ‘industrial’, ‘medieval’ or indeed ‘Aztec’ zones.


Books:The Sprawl trilogy (William Gibson)The Difference Engine (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling)Headcrash (Bruce Bethke)Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson)

Films:Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo)Robocop (Paul Verhoeven)Max Max Trilogy (George Miller)Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser)

TV:Star Trek: The Next Generation VMax HeadroomSapphire & SteelRed Dwarf

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1990s to now: Big Brother and the Matrix, via X-Files

Thankfully, the visions of a 1980s future didn’t come to pass. For one thing, we are all still here, and nobody is having to wander the outback of Australia having to fight a large man in a metal dome.

No, at the moment we are all too busy being spied on and wondering if there is indeed a spoon (see The Matrix). The 1980s gave way 1990s, and instead of having to chase ‘skinjobs’ while wearing trenchcoats, we were informed instead that the future would have us running around warehouses looking for aliens… while indeed still wearing trenchcoats.

The theory was, a decade or so ago, that the reason why there were so many sci-fi shows on television was that it was a secret conspiracy by the government to get us used to the notion of aliens. The continued presence of ‘Greys’ was a way of softening the blow when the big reveal occurred, and David Icke was right all along.

Again, this didn’t happen, and the closest we came to alien contact was seeing the White House being blown up at the cinemas. Now the 2010 we live in is not dominated by a global-cover up, but by a ‘war on terror’ where secret bad-guys lurk in the shadows ready to pounce, and the best way to stop them is through Team America. GeorgeOrwell’s vision of the future also appears to have come to pass, with surveillance now a huge part of all our lives.

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But disregarding the negatives for the moment, and looking back at what I have discussed over the past 2000 words or so, we have indeed come pretty far and the ‘future’ of 2010 looks (apart from all the spying) to be pretty good. And while, as I mentioned back at the beginning of this article, we still haven’t got the flying cars of the Jetsons, or the rocket-ships of Flash Gordon, some predictions have come to pass.

Computers and virtual worlds have become commonplace, proving William Gibson right. We have sent probes to Mars, which shows that Arthur C. Clarke and company were on the right lines, and the design of the sleek, pocket-sized gadgets we now use were anticipated, in part, by the designers and pulp writers of the 1920s and 30s.

While it may be argued that we as a generation have cherry-picked the best elements of sci-fi and future predictions on which to build our current aesthetic, and that the shape and design of phones, mobile devices, cars and clothing has borrowed heavily from what has come before, on reflection we have at least managed to circumnavigate some of the worst predictions sci-fi had to offer.

We’ve built on the innovative, creative and fascinating ideas of those who dared to dream that the future would be a brighter and much more exciting place to live. We haven’t yet gone to Mars, created machines that can think for themselves, or even managed to produce hoverboards, but the innovators, future thinkers and creative brains of today have done a pretty decent job of laying out the future.


Books:Spares (Michael Marshall Smith)Good Omens (Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett)Moving Mars (Greg Bear)Voyage (Stephen Baxter)Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

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Films:Dark City (Alex Proyas)Jurassic Park (Stephen Spielberg)Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven)The Matrix (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)Event Horizon (Paul W.S. Anderson)

TV:Star Trek: The Next GenerationThe X-FilesWild PalmsFringeLost