The Weird Retro-Futurism of Pandemic Life

I think I first noticed it sometime in April. After the global coronavirus pandemic shut down our city, and our quarantine days started to melt into one another, my partner and I settled into a routine: Every morning, we would water our tiny garden of parsley, basil, and scallions so that we’d have herbs to season whatever it was we would be cooking that week (often using our homemade chicken stock); we fed the dough that would become our next loaf of bread; we drank cups of iced tea and coffee, not from our usual neighborhood coffee shops but from big batches we’d started brewing at home. Then we’d boot up our laptops and smartphones and teleconference all day: into work meetings, exercise classes, happy hours with our faraway college friends, even our parents’ houses while they did puzzles together. We traveled around the globe and never left our apartment. Life felt like an equal mix of Back to the Future Part II and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie novel The Long Winter.

That was spring; the early, high-alert phase of coronavirus protocols. Now summer is here, and out in Ingalls Wilder’s onetime home state of Minnesota, my dad has recently resumed going to his office every day. When he arrives, a machine scans his face in the doorway, announces his body temperature aloud in chipper, chirpy robot English, and either reminds him that he needs to put on a face mask to enter the building or thanks him for already wearing one.

If the 2020 pandemic were the setting for a work of fiction, you would be justified in describing that story as “retro-futuristic.” Sure, a purist might tell you that the phrase technically applies to works of design, art, and literature that depict the future as it was envisioned in the past (the 1960s animated show The Jetsons, for example). As Elizabeth Guffey, an art- and design-history professor at SUNY Purchase who specializes in retro-futurism, explained to me, a key element of the genre is dramatic irony, a sense of How quaint, how cute toward prior generations’ speculations about the future. As Guffey noted, though, a hallmark of any good retro-futurist work is that in the world it imagines, elements of the past are mashed up with elements of the imagined future.

The similarities that the coronavirus chapter of American history has both to the past and to imagined futures are more than just aesthetic. The urgent questions of prairie life (e.g., to what extent can people expect the government to help them?) and the urgent questions of science fiction (e.g., is technology being used to improve lives, or to exert control?)—are relevant today, and being worked out in real time.

Emily Matchar first  noticed an uptick in the popularity of old-fashioned domestic work in the late 2000s. All of a sudden, she told me in an interview, people in American cities and suburbs were pickling, knitting, baking from scratch, making homemade jam and cloth diapers. It was precisely the kind of “women’s work” that had gone out of vogue in the mid-20th century when the women’s movement rose to prominence, but now people were doing it voluntarily.

At the time, she said, it seemed like an understandable response to the financial crisis that was unfolding: Decreasing reliance on corporations and mega-retailers certainly made sense, and even if taking on hobbies such as these didn’t offer true, complete self-sufficiency, “I think when we’re feeling anxious about the world falling apart, it feels good to be able to do something like bake bread and say, I’m taking care of myself. I’m taking care of my family.”

Matchar went on to write about the phenomenon for The Atlantic and in her 2013 book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. In the years afterward, she watched “new domesticity” hobbies become more and more mainstream—and then explode in popularity when the coronavirus arrived. Once again, in 2020 as in the late 2000s, people are anxious and in need of soothing-but-useful activities. The risk of disease exposure in crowded indoor spaces such as grocery stores has made well-stocked pantries and home-cooked meals instantly more appealing. Plus, for most of this spring, people couldn’t go to restaurants or bars or sporting events or movie theaters, and weren’t supposed to see their friends or travel anywhere. They were bored.

To many Americans today, the type of manual household labor that Matchar describes seems like a relic of the early United States, of a time of homesteading, westward expansion, and manifest destiny. Americans living through the coronavirus pandemic have some of the same household practices as those who settled on the prairies of the Great Plains, because they have some of the same problems, Michelle McClellan, an archivist at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library who studies Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, told me.

[Read: Learning from Laura Ingalls Wilder]

Settlers developed their insistence on attaining household self-sufficiency because they, too, dealt with supply-chain disruptions and occasional prolonged periods of not leaving the house: In The Long Winter, for example, Laura’s mother figures out how to grind wheat to make bread using a coffee mill when the train that usually delivers general-store goods such as flour can’t come to town on account of blizzards. Her father plays his fiddle at night to entertain his wife and children while they’re stuck inside because of the snow. I have yet to hear of anyone using a coffee grinder in 2020 to make flour to feed their sourdough starter, but retailers across the U.S. were experiencing flour shortages as recently as last month. And McClellan has noticed that throughout the quarantine, parents she knows have been finding creative activities to do at home with their children that they might not do otherwise—reading and discussing books together, performing plays, doing puzzles, and yes, making music. McClellan also pointed out that prairie parents, just like working parents in 2020, had to go about their work and daily responsibilities with their small children frequently underfoot. Setting up schoolhouses was a first-order priority in many new settlements, but lessons were “pretty rudimentary,” McClellan said. But when kids weren’t at school or old enough for school, they were solely their parents’ responsibility, and were often put to work around the house or outside.

Some of the popular debates of pioneer America have their echoes in the coronavirus era too. A major theme of the westward-expansion period, McClellan told me, was the question of what exactly the role of government was in helping its citizens. Families worked toward creating self-sufficient households on the Great Plains in case of shortages—but they were on the plains in the first place because they had been led to believe the emerging railroad system would keep a steady stream of supplies flowing in. “They had all this rhetoric about, We’re free and independent out here on the prairie!” McClellan said. “But then they were almost starving to death when the government-subsidized railroad couldn’t get the train to run.” Documents and literature from the time, according to McClellan, suggest that settlers had real doubts and anxieties about their country and its leadership: What is the appropriate role of government in this situation? In a crisis, who can we look to for help? In 2020, when a pandemic is raging across the country and the federal government seems uninterested in stepping in, one could argue that the same questions are equally pressing.

Part of the reason the coronavirus era feels so unmoored from the timeline we usually live in is that it’s also reminiscent of other periods of the past. As McClellan pointed out, this year has seen “Great Depression–era numbers of people filing for unemployment” (which may be yet another reason everyone suddenly feels like stress-baking a loaf of bread). Some societal norms feel Victorian: Under social-distancing protocols, sex is safest for married (or cohabiting) people and sneaking around for casual hookups is therefore frowned upon; going on a date means walking together in an uncrowded place with an ample amount of space between bodies, the way love interests always seem to in onscreen Jane Austen adaptations.

The widespread Black Lives Matter protests have also given the present moment echoes of the civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century, as well as other times of unrest sparked by racism. The coronavirus era seems cobbled together from random fragments of the past few centuries: As one political scientist joked on Twitter, “I always wanted to know what it would be like to simultaneously experience the Spanish flu, Great Depression, and 1968 mass protests while Andrew Johnson was president.”

And yet in other ways, the coronavirus era feels like it has pushed us into a technologically sophisticated, hyper-connected future that otherwise may have been years, decades, or generations away. A pandemic can seem self-evidently old-timey, probably because the last time the world dealt with one was at the beginning of the 20th century. But as scholars who study science fiction and popular depictions of the future know, plagues and pandemics are staples of speculative fiction—as are many of the other elements of daily life that Americans have become familiar with in quarantine.

Teleconferencing and videochatting are ubiquitous in speculative depictions of the future. The same goes for social lives and social interactions taking place in virtual worlds—a key feature in works such as Ender’s Game, Ready Player One, The Matrix, and multiple episodes of Black Mirror. This spring, many people found comfort and connection in the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing, in which players can visit one another on their home islands.

[Read: The quiet revolution of Animal Crossing]

Lisa Yaszek, a science-fiction-studies professor at Georgia Tech, notes that speculative fiction has also predicted remote learning and remote work, as well as social distancing to deter disease. Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1994 story “Solitude,” for example, “imagines a world in which people are socially isolated from one another, but the isolation leads to self-reliance,” Yaszek told me. And Leslie F. Stone’s “A Letter of the Twenty-Fourth Century,” written in 1929, “imagines a future where we’ve managed to beat disease and germs in part through medical intervention, but also in part through social distancing.” Stone “imagines the invention of the internet, and she imagines that in the future, there will be no crowds because everyone stays home. They get their school from the TV; they get their education from the TV. They do politics online,” Yaszek said. “And they’re not having electronic election problems in their future.”

As businesses across the country reopen, they, too, are adopting many practices that seem pulled from science fiction. Cashless monetary transactions, such as those that feature in futuristic fiction like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, have grown more popular because of concerns about the spread of disease. Companies such as PwC are trying out contact-tracing app software that tracks cellphone signals and promises to alert both employers and employees when an employee has been near someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19. In certain parts of Europe, workers are reportedly wearing bracelets on the job that beep when another person is within transmission distance. The NBA, which is preparing to resume the 2020 season later this summer, is offering players on its campus in Florida smart rings that measure the wearer’s vitals and warn them of early signs of an infection. But perhaps the most obviously futuristic addition to daily life is the use of biometrics technologies, which employ measurable human characteristics as sorting mechanisms for granting or denying access to something. In my hometown, my dad’s access to his office is dependent on the approval of an automated temperature scanner; on U.S. military bases, rapid-result COVID-19 testing programs are being developed to determine whether soldiers will be infection risks to the rest of their units if they’re deployed.

[Read: We need to stop trying to replicate the life we had]

Biometric identification such as retina scans and facial-recognition AI have been “baked in to science fiction for a long time,” Yaszek told me—especially science-fiction stories that are told on-screen, such as Gattaca, RoboCop, and Minority Report. Visually, these technologies are “very dramatic,” she said. They’ve also developed a reputation for being a little creepy, given that they often appear in cyberpunk stories (such as Blade Runner) as sinister forms of surveillance and government control that protagonists have to circumvent. Cyberpunk stories “are always thinking about the control and dissemination of information, and issues of freedom versus security,” Yaszek said. So perhaps there’s a reason some people feel uneasy about, say, their bodies being detected by thermal cameras as they go about their daily lives: Technologies such as these are reminders that the dilemma of whether to prioritize collective safety or individual liberty, which drives countless sci-fi and dystopian narratives, has come to life.

Every work of futuristic fiction is informed by what the world looked like when it was written. In the mid-20th century, stories about the future dealt with then-present anxieties about overpopulation, Yaszek said. “Plague fiction,” especially, tends to swing in and out of vogue, but she has found that it typically returns to popularity within a decade after an epidemic of contagious disease, bearing the hallmarks of whatever plague precipitated it. Today, Yaszek said, there’s not much precedent for plague stories that also incorporate biometric technologies as gatekeeping apparatuses—but just give it a decade or so.

As the country reopens and Americans venture out into the world again, some people will be returning to offices that have been dramatically transformed, outfitted with state-of-the-art disease-prevention instruments. Others, especially those of us who have lost jobs in the recession or simply remain cautious about catching or transmitting COVID-19, will stay at home, watering our gardens and baking bread, still striving to have everything we need to live in one place. Perhaps the pandemic sci-fi stories of the mid-21st century will also imagine a world in which friends, lovers, and families find themselves drifting apart, some living in a present that feels like the future and others living in a present that feels like the past.