I love the aesthetics of retrofuturistic settingsand I aim to build my own. A mixture of a fantastical, Thundercats(2011),Outlaw Star x Star*Drive.

How yesterday saw tomorrow is quite fascinating to me.

Especially 70s to the early 00s, before the digital and Internet revolutions made the world what it is today.

Those 70s/80s sci-fi works are so interesting because few authors, for all the wonders that they dreamed up, saw the Internet and its impact coming.

Even the small number of works like "The Shockwave Rider" by John Brunner that did envision a Networked future didn't envision it as what we have now.

The world of once current, now retro-scifi, were for the most part conceived of as a better version of the author's present.

Through our modern eyes those older retrofutures seem ridiculous...

  • V.I and perhaps full A.I Exist. Yet customer service, manufacture, construction, even warfare, are either done by humans or with automated systems that still require significant human oversight.

  • Mobile telecommunication devices, if they exist, operate more like walkies-talkies than modern smartphones or even older cellular phones; they may have video functionality. They're also likely expensive.

  • Public telecommunication and information terminals are the norm.

  • Personal computers are expensive beyond the average person's ability to buy or nonexistent.

  • Electronics are heavy, likely big as well, and work more effectively the larger they get.

  • Physical Media is still very much major a part of society.

  • If a computer network exists, it's different from, and more "primitive" than, what we have.

  • Computer systems and networks (if they exist) are centralized, around supercomputers/master-control systems. Less powerful systems dial into "Central" to access functions and information that they couldn't perform or hold; akin to the client-serve model.

  • Video game Arcades. Even if video game consoles exist, unlikely, they are under-powered compared to what Arcade machines can do.

I could just handwave all this, have the setting work the way I want through authorial-fiat. But that's not good enough. Even if the audience never knows, I want to have the hows and whys of the setting plotted out.

I refuse have lower standards for the tech of my setting than the magic.

You have to know the rules before you break them, and I don't know enough about computers, telecommunications, and data storage media.

My setting has its own computers based around weired living crystals.

Why the crystals-computers work isn't relevant; what is relevant is their behavior and properties.

What traits must they have for my setting to function like a retrofuturistic one?

  • A.I, but limited automation of labor and warfare.
  • Public communication and information terminals.
  • Limited portable telecommunication.
  • Physical Media being alive and well.
  • Electronics are big, heavy, and expensive.

The first and only explanation I have is that the crystals-computers actually need to increase in size to increase their performance, and with size comes larger power consumption; Thus the most powerful computers are immobile and have to be tied to a power grid. Which brings back the trope of central/mainframe computer and a master-control.

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    $\begingroup$ + for "weired"! Portmanteau of wired and weird. Don't dare correct that. Make your system match it. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 19, 2019 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ What you're referring to is a crystal-based Quantum Computer and these are being worked on in the real world and modern day. (From my understanding, we have yet to successfully build one, but it's an active project nonetheless.) $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk I made a new word? $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ @SoraTamashii I was really just playing with aesthetics/tropes that I liked, I didn't realize that I'd kinda built in something existed. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ The concept is also used a bit in the television series "Stargate: SG1" and quite extensively in "Stargate: Atlantis". I'd recommend looking into how they did that and see if that's what you'd be aiming for. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2019 at 1:31

4 Answers 4


The crystals you describe seem to be more similar to a CPU than a complete computer. It makes sense to break down your retro-futuristic computing technology into it's basic parts:

CPU: These are crystals that can somehow "think" like a human or - depending on their size - like a super-brain. Of course they should have blinking lights indicating their computing process. Since they are crystals, it seems viable to argue they run on light impulses instead of electric currents.

They should grow very slowly and be brittle to make super computers scarce and "dumb" public terminals omnipresent. If a crystal falls down or isn't cared for and grows bigger than the terminal has room for, it shatters and dies.

Also, user Going Durden raised a very good point in their comment:

I would also add heat dissipation as a limiting factor. A crystal is a single, solid object, increasing its size vastly increases heat-buildup issues. The biggest crystals would need to be submerged in water at all times, and release steam to vent-off heat when forced to think on a very complex problem. This steam could be then used to power other things, as to not waste energy (so, small crystal devices would be more 80s retro, but old, giant crystal based computers would need to be steampunk!)

Mainboard: This is the physical body that connects all components of the computer. It should be a console with physical buttons and maybe some conductive tracks for the general aesthetic. If the CPU crystals run on light instead of electrical power, the conductive tracks could be fibre optics instead of metal. To fit a big CPU crystal with all the conductive tracks it could utilize to compute, the board has to be bigger as well. This makes public terminals limited in usefullness and super computers heavy and stationary.

Memory: The most common computer memories in the 80's were still magnetic tapes or magnetic disks. You could play with this theme by creating miniaturized cartridges with multiple tapes or miniaturizes floppy disks. Memory crystals seem to fit in better, though. Maybe combine both technologies into a (not floppy anymore) crystal disk. These enable people to use personal content and information on public computer terminals.

A super computer needs a lot of memory for all it's knowledge, so the mainboard must not only accomodate the big CPU crystal itself, but also connectors for thousands of fibre optic cables connected to racks full of thousands of memory crystals.

Periphery: This is all that's needed for the interaction between computers and humans. Terminals are connected by wires or fibre optic cables to communicate with each other. There shouldn't be displays or mouses in the future, instead, there should be a voice module for synthesized speech or a holographic projector displaying the "face" of the computer. The computer gets commands either by being spoken to or by pushing buttons on the console, or both. DOn't forget a slot for a mobile memory crystal.

Since the crystals somehow live and grow, so their outward presentation via periphery modules could mimic human aging. To stay in the "ridiculous 70s retro-future" realm, you can employ their own societal and gender biases: A young crystal employed in a public terminal should stereotypically be a young and beautiful woman like an airplane stewardess. An old super computer should be represented by an older male face, like a grey-haired professor. That begs the question at which point a crystal changes gender, which might be an interesting point to explore or challenge old gender biases.

Other stuff: Too keep it simple for your readers, I would ignore things like RAM, BIOS and all the interfaces of modern computers. There is no WLAN, USB or BlueTooth, the only data exchange happens vial memory crystals or network connection.

To limit the power of your network connection, you could make it work like analog telephones. The computers are not connected bidirectionally to a giant, all-encompassing internet, but they have to dial each other to communicate. If the line is busy, they have to wait.

Limit small crystals: If a CPU crystal stores it's knowledge on a memory crystal, you could take the memory of a super computer and implant it into a "dumb" computer. But the dumb crystal is much smaller than the super-crystal, so it can only connect to so many memory crystals. You cannot make a small CPU know everything, you have to remove one memory crystal to fit in another one.

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    $\begingroup$ You've just about given me the answer. I hadn't considered the crystals aging or deteriorating, I'd thought that once taken out of whatever solution is used to grow them that a crystal stops growing and is basically immortal unless destroyed. The crystals did already take years to grow, and cultivating more sophisticated crystals was a successively more expensive and time consuming processes. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ The Crystals are supposed to have tiers of performance based on effective intelligence. Tier-5 Reactive Non intelligent: Little more than what modern software is today, or very,very primitive lifeforms. Capable of responding to stimuli in a finite number of ways. Tier-4 Virtual-Intelligence: I first saw the term in Mass Effect. Tier-3 Animal Level Tier-2 Semi-Sapient Tier-1 Wholly Sapient capable of human level learning,reasoning, and creativity.. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Drop the gendered construction - they make no sense and are entirely unnecessary. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus the suggestion that 'young' crystals are beautiful young women, while older more powerful crystals are male and better at math and science (cue barbie voice saying "math is hard"). It is shockingly regressive and entirely irrelevant - you have to go out of your way to shoehorn such sexism into chunks of minerals. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi "It is shockingly regressive" Yes, the OP asks for a retrofuturistic setting as in the 70's. People were shockingly regressive in the 70's... This gendered representation does not in any way reflect my personal view (as a woman, btw). It reflects the stereotypical representation of computers of the past decades and even today. $\endgroup$
    – Elmy
    Jan 25, 2019 at 13:58

Physical Media being alive and well.

Electronics are big, heavy, and expensive.

Your idea for crystal computers lends well to this aspect of the retro-futuristic aesthetic. You should emphasize that the crystals needed to maintain the quickest, and most powerful computers are heavy, bulky, expensive, and fragile. This would be enough to justify the average person walking around with much less advanced technology—say—a cassette player, or floppy disk.

  • $\begingroup$ That actually is something I went with, I needed computers that scale from a simple search/index function to fully sapient. Without the higher forms of tech being economically mass producible. $\endgroup$ Feb 11, 2019 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ It's been a while so I kinda forgot what I was thinking. I suppose the crystals could grow as they be come more powerful, with larger crystals needing more energy to power themselves and perform greater functions, such as the processes necessary for AI. Couple this with a futuristic energy crisis or some-such and it should make sense. I'm not sure, maybe someone else already suggested something like that. $\endgroup$ Feb 17, 2019 at 2:48

Your crystals are weired.

They are found objects. Initially on the dark side of the moon, and then on earth. Including places where one would think they would have been found long before now. Were they there all along?

They are semisapient. They are useful and every so often they turn out to be useful for other new things. Useful in ways that one would think someone would have figured out earlier.

It is not clear if they are life forms, things created by other intelligent life, naturally occurring mineral phenomena or something else.

The crystals are connected one to the next but it is not at all clear how they are connected - thus "weired".

Your story needs to have these crystals but they cannot be the focus of the story. In the course of the action, the reader learns more and more about the crystals - how they were discovered, how they came to be used, how they are integrating themselves further and further into the workings of society, and the apprehensions of some persons as regards the ubiquity and omnipresence of these things, which are not really well understood.

Like the best scifi, your crystals are a metaphor for aspects of the real world which are doing the same thing in our society. Stripped of their name and reality, the crystals are a way to look at that aspect of society without contaminating your exploration with words like "internet".

  • $\begingroup$ I'd seen the crystals as the result of chemical experimentation that wound up making a life-form, one that was useful that people just started exploiting them in mass. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ That "we accidentally made them!" can be the party line, because it is not that weird. The truth of the crystals is actually substantially weirder and disconcerting. That uncertainty will energize your future world. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 19, 2019 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the crystals are only found in locations which tens of thousands of years ago, were human graveyards. The reveal would then be that the crystals are really the next phase of intelligent life. That the miracle which is biological intelligence transforms into crystalline intelligence over deepish time. With such a discovery uncovered late in your initial story, the crystals from the dark side of the moon imply a prehistoric space-faring culture, the exploration of which might make a good sequel. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2019 at 13:48

Actual scaling of larger individual compute units

Our IRL computers scale very very poorly. More powerful single processors are usually achieved with more cores (which already starts to not be single-computing thingy anymore, but still increases the thermal load on a tiny speck of material) or higher frequency (which means higher voltage and massively worse thermal load). Which is also why you consumer grade graphics cards using as much power as an entire "supercomputer" in the 1990s (despite a factor 1000s drop in power consumption per calculation).

Yes, supercomputers and datacenters are a thing but they are all actually just a huge amount of separate (and rather mundane) computing units geographically near each other where engineers spend a lot of time to get them to work together somewhat efficiently. As stated above, even consumer grade processors aren't a single computing core anymore because scaling is just that bad.

Your crystals computing power however scales exponentially with size. Be it some internal resonance in how they calculate or some other factor (this is where you get creative but it's not too hard tomake up something plausible). This means that a datacenter would be worthless if it were a million (a real number irl) separate but linked crystals and is instead one huge singular crystal of the same total weight/size.

This means that their computing theoretics are significantly ahead of us regarding mutitasking/threading and way behind in terms of distributed computing (further reenforcing the drive towards larger single crystals). Power consumption also scales however, preventing smart-phones or just viable personal computers for the elite. Anything you see in an office is just a near-brainless display for what a singular server computes.(Again, this is how we also did it during the 60s/70s+)

For all the higher functionality besides de-/encoding text and voice data and maybe displaying a terminal, large crystals are required which in turn are insanely expensive so there are only a few in hugely important datacenters.

So EVERYTHING is done in what we would call the cloud. For the everyday man however, it just means that the - for us archaic - server-terminal setup is still the absolute norm. Public data terminals make economic sense because their fixed position allows for the immense power draw of slightly-bigger crystals (those barely big enough to drive a graphical user interface), or the complex machineries of analogue computing.

This ruins the field of robotics since even minute calculations need to be sent to the central (factory) server, leading to delays that make productive use neigh impossible.

An early discovery of these crystals would make investment into transistor research uneconomic/useless, meaning it would never get off the ground. (Remember that it took WW2 levels of spending to see integrated circuits go from a niche military/academic technology to something actually commercially viable). So you don't even need to magically handwave this "lack" away. It's a natural result from your world.

Consumer electronics would likely ditch crystals entirely and resort to analogue or mechanical signal processing (which suffices for [even mobile] telephony and the terminals you want).

The huge communication delays, strategic vulnerability as well as susceptibility to jamming would also eliminate AI useage in war (besides administrative home-front duties) or most (semi) real-time uses. Maybe the construction of such large crystals is a strange hard process, meaning that there are very limited amounts of these to go around, which would mean that a lot of things viable to replaced by AI just aren't profiteable enough.

Also on AI: How we currently train/develop AI would be massively hindered by your setup since it relies heavily on parallel computation (which is why the parallel-optimized GPU is used instead of the CPU). This doesn't preclude an alternative, but could be a starting point for why it's not around/as good.

So yeah, all your requirements are actually all met with one easy, plausible fact about these crystals: Their computing power scales exponentially with size. No extra handwaving, weirdness or plotholes required.


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