Concept Art Writing Prompt: The Retro Fads of the Future

Illustration for article titled Concept Art Writing Prompt: The Retro Fads of the Future

The cool kids of the future find themselves perusing Discmen and casette players in this week's Concept Art Writing Prompt. Do you have a story about tomorrow's retro fetishists? Post it right here.

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This piece by Sergi Brosa is titled "The Retro of Tomorrow," and is currently one of deviantART's featured digital art pieces. As always, we invite you to write a story based on this image and post it in the comments.

Here's my story:

Abi melted in front of a blanket in the last row. The day had been a bust. Some asshole from Fremont had tried to sell us a minidisc player, swore it was genuine 1998, but when we pinged it with Abi's tuning hammer, it came back Grade A neoplasticyne. I'd screamed a fit, threatened to report him to the licensing board, but Abi said it wasn't worth it. His cousin or aunt or whatever would just be back next week with a fresh license and the same fake shit.

The merch was a girl about our age, a glowing star fixed to her cheek. She wasn't in millennial dress, but sometimes that was a good sign. And it's not like Abi's haunch-bearing loincloth was period authentic.

"What you got that's pre-iPod?" Abi asked the star-faced girl.

The girl rocked to her feet as an artificial hand telescoped from her wrist. She pulled back a stained Ghostbusters sheet, a faint smile dancing on her lips.

"Fuckballs," Abi breathed. "Is that real?"

The star-faced girl was grinning now. "Nineteen hundred and ninety-six," she said, "year of Our Lord." She nodded at the tuning hammer in Abi's hand. "Go ahead," she said. "Ping it."

We listened to the light tap of hammer, and Abi paused before checking the hammer's display. "Case is the real deal." She turned to me. She wasn't smiling yet, but I knew that shimmer in her eyes. "Can you imagine what we'd get for a boom box."

"If it's real," I said. But I'd already pulled an image from my live feed and surreptitiously posted it to our Scoutsy shop. I pointed a toe at the case. "Those radio stickers," I said. "WBRU and KGGO, those are from different sides of the Mississippi."

The star-faced girl shrugged. "I got no info on previous owners. Maybe the owner moved."

I leaned over to inspect the stickers on the back, but an alert popped up in my eye window. Someone had already made us an offer on Scoutsy. A big one. "We'll take it," I said.

Abi's head whirled toward me so quickly I could hear the fluid crack in her neck. "Already?" she asked.

I tapped my toe. We waited too long and the star-faced girl was going to get wise. "Wrap it up," I said. As soon as she had packaged the device in a styro case, we hurried back to the train, eager to get out of the heat and cash in on our find.

Maybe if it hadn't been so hot, or if my head hadn't been so sore from our encounter with the asshole from Fremont, I might have noticed the offer came from an unconfirmed account named "Estrella1996."

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"Wait until you hear it," I said. I pushed down on the button, which locked into place with a heavy, satisfying mechanical clunk. The little rollers began to spin and the thin tape advanced. Julie's eyes widened.

"Oh. My. Darwin." she said breathlessly. She clapped her hands over the earpieces as if trying to lock the sound in. I bit my lip to suppress a grin.

"What is it?" asked Candace, looking up from a junky old personal communicator.

"Candy, you have to hear this, it's HIDEOUS," said Julie excitedly. She pulled the headphones off and pressed them over Candace's ears. 'Hideous' was Julie's word of the summer. It denoted anything that was the opposite of what she considered to be the sterile perfection of the modern age. Steve, who banged himself up in a bodyglider accident, was 'hideous' for a whole two weeks until his body's nanos smoothed away the last of the scars and made him look as blandly handsome as anyone else again. The elaborate twen-cen tattoos with which Julie had covered herself were 'hideous', and the bloody, painful process of creating them with authentic inks and real steel needles was 'hideous to the most-plus'. Hideous was unique, hideous was different, hideous was good.

"I can hear the hiss and everything," said Candace. "And there's a sort of squeaking noise."

"That's the rollers," I put in. Julie and Candace paid me no attention. I sensed the moment slipping away from me, and felt a sudden stab of resentment. The pile of ancient tech had been my discovery, but I could tell that Julie and Candace were getting ready to appropriate it.

Julie looked dreamily around the warehouse.

"I would give anything to have lived back then," she said. She gestured to the boombox. "That, that is real art."

I frowned slightly at this. My understanding was that boomboxes like the one I had found had been cheaply mass-produced. The prims didn't have fabricators, but they were still able make objects in large quantities, to satisfy the demand of the teeming billions who had lived on the Earth back then. That didn't sound like art to me.

"Don't you see?" said Julie, registering the puzzled looks that Candace and I were giving her. "It's all about impermanence. About imperfection." She thumped the eject button on the top of the boombox and the music stopped abruptly as the machine disgorged the cassette. She grabbed the flimsy plastic cartridge and waved it under our noses.

"Look at this," she said. "It's fragile. It's temporary. The little plastic wheels can jam up. The tape stretches every time you play it. Bits of metal oxide flake off it. Every time you play it, the sound changes. It gets worse. It's never the same twice. Eventually, the tape bends and tears. You can never hear it again. It's over."

Candace and I continued to stare at her.

"When you listen to music today, it's always the same. You could listen to a piece a thousand times, ten thousand times, and it will always be the same. Delivered directly to your hearing centers by your implants. Identical. Perfect. Sterile. But this, this is evolving. It's alive. It's alive because it's going to die."

She waved her hand at the looming cabinet of an ancient arcade game.

"Or take that. Today, we have direct immersive virtual reality. It's more real than the real world. But when the prims played games, they had to use their imagination. Those blocky little shapes on the screen became alien spaceships, those funny beeps and boops were the sound of a titanic struggle for survival. It's pure impressionism. They captured the essence of the thing, reduced to its simplest components." A tear sparkled in the corner of her eye. "Einstein, it gives me goosebumps just to think about it. The artistry, the sheer genius of it, it's breath-taking."

Candace pouted. I could tell that she wasn't convinced, but we were both too intimidated by - or perhaps infatuated with - Julie to make any objection.

"You know what we should do?" demanded Julie. "Destroy it. All of it."

"Hey, we can't do that," I protested. "It belongs to my clone-uncle. He might - "

"We've heard this one," said Julie, waving the cassette in the air, not listening to me. "We'll be the last people ever to hear it." Before I could stop her, she threw the fragile plastic box down, stamped hard on it, grinding it under the rubber heel of her reproduction sneakers. The plastic snapped and she pounced on the damaged thing, pulling the tape out in handfuls, ripping and crumpling it.

I lunged for her, but she caught me, grabbing my wrists and forcing me back. I struggled to get free, but she was stronger than me. There was a fanatical gleam in her eye.

"You," she said. "You can be the witness. You can be the custodian of all this art."

Between them, Julie and Candace wrestled me into a chair and tied me to it with a few lengths of ancient power cord. They settled the headphones on my head and Julie stuck another cassette into the boombox.

"Listen," she hissed. "No one else is ever going to hear this. You have to remember it. When you're done listening to it, we're going to set it free."

She thumped the play button and my ears filled with the old, scratchy music. I struggled against the cables that held me, but Julie and Candace had done their work well. I had no choice but to sit there and listen to it. Despite everything, I found myself paying attention to the things that Julie wanted me to hear - the faint clicking of the motors, the hiss and whine of the tape, the layered flaws that made each performance unique.

Julie ejected the tape and passed it to Candace to destroy. "Keep listening," she told me. She bent forward and kissed me lightly on the lips. "You have to remember this," she said. "All of it. No one else will ever hear it again." She pushed another cassette into the maw of the machine.

Morning found me still sitting in the chair, surrounded by scattered wreckage, deep drifts of tangled gray-brown tape and shattered fragments of plastic. The blocky shapes of invading alien spaceships still danced in front of my eyes, superimposed on the shattered glass of the videogame cabinet. The broken boombox lay in pieces halfway between me and the door.

And in my ears still echoed the music that Julie had wanted me to hear: the soft squeaking of the plastic rollers, the hiss and warble of the stretched tape, the hum of the electric motors, the sound and symbol of the unique, unrepeatable imperfections that have disappeared from our world.