Interview: Talking Atompunk and retrofuturism with Hieroglyph Community Member John Maly

John Maly is a Hieroglyph community member who works in patent law and enjoys exploring the atompunk scene through art and visits to mid-century landmarks like Atomic City, Idaho and the Dymaxion House in Detroit. I caught up with John over the phone about his travels, John Steinbeck, and the Fallout video game series.

A nuclear jet engine in Atomic City, Idaho.
A nuclear jet engine in Atomic City, Idaho.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Tell me about your experience with Hieroglyph and your interest in atompunk.

John Maly: I’ve been participating in the Hieroglyph forums for a couple of years now and I think atompunk is getting at a lot of the same aspects of Hieroglyph – this idea that we have an unlimited view of the future that has gotten largely lost in a lot of modern fiction. The atompunk scene espouses a retrofuturism that’s interesting because it comes from an earnest and limitless view of the world that’s exciting – even though a lot of the things predicted in that era never really came to pass.

BB: Why do you think that is?

JM: That’s a tough question. I think a lot of it is systemic. You’ve got the companies that used to build great, ambitious projects, and they have stopped doing that because they’re are publicly held and their main obligation is to shareholder value. And so you no longer have some giant flagship retail store that’s supposed to be a kind of a wonder to anyone who goes near it.

I used to work on a microprocessor design team and we used to have these alternating cycles where one cycle you’d come up with a new architecture entirely that would introduce a lot of new features and functionality.

Then you’d have a couple cycles that were not very ambitious in terms of increasing functionality; it was just kind of streamlining and making small iterations toward achievable goals. It’s why it’s boring to walk to the end of your driveway and get the mail because you know you can do it, whereas if you’ve never run a marathon before, that kind of ignites a human passion.

I don’t know where that ambition started to get lost in society, but it’s certainly reflected in a lot of ways in fiction, in the educational system, in Corporate America, in fear of litigation that, I think, has really stacked the deck against it now.

BB: So, is atompunk fueled by that same sort of that boundless aspiration?

JM: Yeah, but I think when you take a step back and look at the world when this stuff was new and not cited in an ironic way, we were coming out of the Victorian era with World’s Fairs where people would go to see these technologies that were so far in advance of what was currently productized that they almost seemed like magic.

Then suddenly you had Ford making jet turbine-powered experimental cars. Companies were designing atomic engines to use in spy planes. All of these things were very credibly put forth back in the 50s as, “Hey, this is the next step. This is where things are going to be in another 30 years,” and none of that really materialized. Of course, a lot of that didn’t materialize because the ideas became obsolete. When you have satellites, you don’t need planes that can sit up in the air for two years.

Interior of the Dymaxion House, designed by Buckminster Fuller.
Interior of the Dymaxion House, designed by Buckminster Fuller.

But other things like housing designs, all those things have just slowed down a lot. I think in a lot of ways, atompunk represents the last hurrah of the non-skeptical and unironic view of a magical future that America had back then.

For example, have you read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley?

BB: I haven’t. Can you tell me about it?

JM: There’s a section in there, set back in the late 40s I believe, where Steinbeck stops in what is essentially a trailer park. At the time, trailer parks were this vision of the future. If you want to read a non-ironic tribute to how trailer homes are just the best thing since sliced bread, it’s in Travels with Charley because he interviewed these people and he discovered this whole phenomenon. Back then, every mobile home in one of these parks was brand new. So it’s deluxe and shiny with woodwork and fairly expensive things inside. They were this idea of how humans would live in the future, where we would all have these mobile homes and if the breadwinner lost his job, well, they’d just put the wheels back on it and move it to the new city and protect their investment. It’s a product of the era, where someone applied technology to a problem and tried to see how far they can go with it.

BB: So much of the “punk” culture – steampunk, cyberpunk, what have you – seems to prioritize the individual. But in this there seems to be an underlying nostalgia for “better living through corporations.” Is that fair?

JM: I think if we rewind to the time when all of this stuff was happening, the interests of the individual and the interests of corporations weren’t as mutually exclusive as they are now. People now are much more skeptical of the corporations than they were before. During the era we’re talking about, it was thought that if you went out and became incredibly successful then you would start your own corporation and be the next Ford, or Disney, or GE.

Nowadays the average person’s interaction with a corporation is they dial into some 1-800 number and get abysmal customer service. So regardless of what’s going on inside these corporations and what their interests and motives are, the average person is already jaded toward their relationship with the company.

BB: So, is there a privileged superiority at play in atompunk and retrofuturism – a sort of “look how quaint and simple things were” outlook – or is it a legitimate love for and tribute to that time?

JM: I think it’s love and tribute. There are lots of people out there who are missile silo geeks or people who are interested in prototype cars or people who are interested in retrofuturism, but I don’t think it has been unified yet. But what you see is that certain media have had a crystallizing effect on a larger scale. For example, are you familiar with the Fallout games?

BB: Sure. Absolutely.

JM: The product literature and packaging for Fallout has grown to have this very kind of late 50s, early 60s graphical way of rendering characters. There are these stylized people who are living the Eisenhower Era ideal – the sun is shining, everybody’s got nice, bright pastel clothes, and they’re just happy as hell for some reason.

It’s just one of the aspects of Fallout, which you might think is sort of inconsequential, right, because the original game’s graphics themselves did not have that kind of art. So, there wasn’t any real reason for that art to take off like it has, but you can see its influences everywhere, and especially with the Vault Boy character on t-shirts and in online jokes and fan art. I think deep down it strikes that same sort of chord – it’s kind of its own time capsule. I don’t people necessarily have nostalgia for the Cold War or needing to be ready to hide under desks when a siren goes off, but I think that all of this represents the no holds barred, swing for the fences outlook that we no longer really seem to have universally now.

Images courtesy of John Maly.






2 responses to “Interview: Talking Atompunk and retrofuturism with Hieroglyph Community Member John Maly”

  1. Arthur Jordan Avatar
    Arthur Jordan

    Gibson took the conversation head on with “The Gernsback Continuum” in 1981. His character preferred the nuance of the present day of the 1980’s to the simplistic, if advanced idealism of the alternate reality that Atompunk aligns with. The Atompunk – Cyberpunk dialectic then is a good model for the discussion that prompted the Hieroglyph project. It would be interesting to see someone write “The Gibson Continuum” from the perspective of a new character living in the Gernsbach’.

    1. Bob Beard Avatar
      Bob Beard

      Thanks, Arthur! I’m familiar with the reference but admittedly long overdue in reading the original story itself.

      This is an interesting writer’s prompt. Keep the suggestions coming!