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Thread: SF references to current pop culture

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    SF references to current pop culture

    This could probably go into the "bugs you" thread, but it might spawn more discussion as a separate thread. Then again, it might not.

    I'm always a little vexed by SF writers, telling stories set centuries in the future, who have their characters make references to our present popular culture.
    I'm reading Robert J. Sawyer's first novel, Golden Fleece, and characters living a century and a half in the future have just made a "No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" joke. Really? Even in 1990, when Sawyer wrote the first version of this book (he revised in 1999), there were people alive who had no idea what that was about.

    The only writer I know who actually does SF pop culture references well is Jack McDevitt, who has his narrators make references to their own popular culture, but in a way that allows the reader to understand what's being said. Stuff like, "He looked like a younger version of Walter Lord, the news anchor who did gravitas so well during the Vanda Parliament scandal, if you can remember that far back."

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    I just recently watched "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," and Rufus, in the future, used the time machine to bring several "historical figures" to the class he was teaching. One of them was James Martin from the band Faith No More. As it turns out, Martin was out of the band within two years of the movie's release - he actually recorded some music for the movie without the rest of the band, because there was already a rift forming. And even now, how much is Faith No More, or James Martin, remembered?

    To the movie's credit, though, another figure Rufus brought in was an entirely fictional musician from (IIRC) the late 21st Century.
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    We still reference Bill Shakespeare's plays, Don Quixote, the works of Jonathan Swift, lots of novels from the 19th Century (Frankenstein is 200 years old now), movies from 80+ years ago . . .

    I don't find it at all silly that some bits of contemporary pop-culture will still have resonance long from now. Most will be forgotten, of course, like no one reads the stories Don Quixote makes fun of.
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkepticJ View Post
    Most will be forgotten, of course, like no one reads the stories Don Quixote makes fun of.
    Well, that was kind of my point with reference to the Monty Python thing. Humour is ephemeral, punch-lines and catch-phrases particularly so. We need an instruction manual to understand the jokes made by Shakespeare, and if you ever read Victorian issues of Punch magazine (which strangely I do), you'll know that hundred-year-old hilarious translates to modern "Huh?" (Though I do think satire on human affectations and frailties will be an exception to that rule for as long as people are people.)

    Trying to come up with people and events in our time that will be remembered for centuries is also a little fraught. I can see why, in 1990, Sawyer decided that Mikhail Gorbachev would have a statue next to Abraham Lincoln in some future hall of political fame, but that already feels a little unlikely.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Trying to come up with people and events in our time that will be remembered for centuries is also a little fraught. I can see why, in 1990, Sawyer decided that Mikhail Gorbachev would have a statue next to Abraham Lincoln in some future hall of political fame, but that already feels a little unlikely.
    There was another example that came immediately to mind when I read your OP, but it involves a politician even more recent than Gorbachev, so I'm not comfortable going into detail here. Far too early in that politician's career for the suggestion that he'd have space stations named after him in 400 years, IMHO.
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    I think we've had this kind of discussion before, most recently in the Orville thread. I'm not saying that to complain about this thread, just to note that I will be repeating myself.

    I think in a book you can sometimes get away with what Grant says about Jack McDevitt (self-referencing the book's culture), but I think that is a lot harder in a movie or TV program. But the fundamental "problem" (and I don't find it a problem) is that the book or TV program is written for our culture, not some future one, and so the reader won't get the reference. Sure, some people won't get a Monty Python reference, even now (or in 1980), but they almost certainly won't get the joke about Fl'tra, that vid caster from Plaxor XII.

    Shakespeare didn't write his references with the idea that people of the 21st century would just get them; he wrote them for the audiences of his time. It is our problem if we don't understand them now.

    There was a light opera company in New York I used to see regularly when I lived there. They did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which were full of cultural references to the events of the day (Victorian England). Some opera companies would leave the original references, and you'd just have to be "in the know" to get them. This company would update them. For example, a song about constables from the Pirates of Penzance, instead of referencing the head of Scotland Yard in 1880, would reference the then current head of the police department in New York.

    I think the same goes for works that reference our future (versus reference our past). Having Commander Bortus start singing the song from Titanic is funny (to people now); having Bortus sing a song from some rom-com in the 25th century would not be funny without a lot of explanation (which would make it not funny).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    I think we've had this kind of discussion before, most recently in the Orville thread. I'm not saying that to complain about this thread, just to note that I will be repeating myself.
    Apologies for looping it, then. I remember seeing the Orville thread, but I had no idea what it was about, apart from experiencing a frisson of concern that someone might be reminiscing about a hellish green ventriloquist's dummy from 1980's British TV.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Apologies for looping it, then. I remember seeing the Orville thread, but I had no idea what it was about, apart from experiencing a frisson of concern that someone might be reminiscing about a hellish green ventriloquist's dummy from 1980's British TV.

    Grant Hutchison
    See, a cultural reference I don't get.

    But, as I said, no apology necessary, as I wasn't complaining. Just avoiding getting the "ToSeeked" for my own post.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    See, a cultural reference I don't get.
    Be glad. Orville the Duck was unpop unculture.

    I think when it comes to making jokes (and although I opened with a joke, I didn't intend that to be the sole point of reference), SF also has the option of finding humour when people of the future don't remember events of our day with any clarity - like not being able to remember if it was Columbus or Armstrong who landed on the moon, or getting mixed up between USA and USSR because they have "too many letters in common" (one I recall finding very striking when I read it at the height of the Cold War).

    And in terms of jokes referencing the culture of the SF story itself, there's the option of making a joke that actually informs the reader about the culture. Iain M. Banks was good at that, but I have a soft spot for Larry Niven's "How many kzinti does it take to paint a skyscraper?" "Two. One to hold the spraygun and one to move the skyscraper up and down." That beautifully encapsulates the smug human view of kzinti in the aftermath of the Man-Kzin Wars - strong and stupid and mockable. A couple of sentences unpack into quite a nuanced view of Man-Kzin relationships at that point in Known Space history, and it doesn't even matter if you're new to Known Space or not. (In fact, Ringworld was the first Niven story I ever read, when I was in my teens, but that joke just leapt off the page at me as being a very clever narrative trick.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    "How many kzinti does it take to paint a skyscraper?" "Two. One to hold the spraygun and one to move the skyscraper up and down."

    Yeah, I had forgotten that one. Of course someone will now question whether they will have spray-guns in the future.

    This may be off topic (but maybe not), but I still remember in Niven stories how Louis Wu or another character would "dial up" some food from the food replicator. At the time we had dial phones, but even back in the 70s I thought it kind of amusing that in future one would have a dial to input the right code number to get a cheese sandwich (or whatever). But now that I think about it, we still talk about "dialing" the phone, whether we are pushing buttons, or using hands-free and are speaking to our phone. I suppose in the distant future, we might still be using the word "dial" when we input our request into a device, and not even know the origin of the word.
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    I’ve never really thought about this, but it is an interesting issue. Because aliens typically speak modern English, I wonder if there are instances in non-Earth SF where people make cultural references like ‘Jesus!’ Or where, say in a world with no dice, that a character says ‘The die is cast’.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    This may be off topic (but maybe not), but I still remember in Niven stories how Louis Wu or another character would "dial up" some food from the food replicator. At the time we had dial phones, but even back in the 70s I thought it kind of amusing that in future one would have a dial to input the right code number to get a cheese sandwich (or whatever). But now that I think about it, we still talk about "dialing" the phone, whether we are pushing buttons, or using hands-free and are speaking to our phone. I suppose in the distant future, we might still be using the word "dial" when we input our request into a device, and not even know the origin of the word.
    Apparently the inside of my digital watch is still called a "movement".
    I think it's decidedly on topic. SF writers have to deal with stuff like that - how many new terms do you make up, how many current terms to you repurpose, and how much explanation do you use, either way?
    You end up with clever stuff, like "the door dilated" and dumb stuff in which characters explain to each other in immense detail how the "vidphone" works.

    It's not SF, but I was recently jolted out of the narrative of an old Craig Thomas thriller, in which the characters were communicating by mobile phone. It was all going well, until one of them "let the phone dangle by its wrist-strap".

    Grant Hutchison
    Last edited by grant hutchison; 2018-Jul-06 at 12:09 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I’ve never really thought about this, but it is an interesting issue. Because aliens typically speak modern English, I wonder if there are instances in non-Earth SF where people make cultural references like ‘Jesus!’ Or where, say in a world with no dice, that a character says ‘The die is cast’.


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    In Battlestar Galactica, the actor who played Tigh was very good at ad libbing and got away with it a lot. In one episode he yells out: "Jesus Christ!". The whole culture is polytheistic and absolutely hates monotheistics, plus in the story line, Jesus won't appear for like 200,000 years. That goof made it on TV, but for the DVD they dubbed over the words to correct the rather obvious problem.

    Later in the re-imagined show, the characters make reference to the "Good ol' eyeball, mark I", again, something that shouldn't culturally exist. One episode is called "Islanded in a Stream of Stars", again another cultural item that shouldn't exist. I am not sure if they planned this beginning to end, but it ends up being a plot point. Their culture predates and influences ours. F-16's are their old fashion fighter jets called Vipers and they call their fancy space fighters Vipers in honor of it. The F-16 did have the nickname Viper, from people who watched the show in the 70s. Mind bending, eh? Even worse, if you zoom in on the bookshelves, the titles aren't gibberish, they are real books.

    In the original version of the show from the 1970s, they called dogs "daggits" and of the daggits was named Muffet. In the new series, there is a dog name Muffet, but daggit isn't a name that is used for dogs. The writers expressed relief that the characters can "pet rabbits" and "eat soup".

    There is an odd series of books called "The Black Hole Travel Agency" written by "Jack McKinney". McKinney is actually James Luceno and Brian Daley. When Daley died, so did the series. The whole thing makes pop culture references back to the late 80's and early 90's and the characters and situations seemed to be a bit too aptly named. I suspect there was a whole meta concept running through the book. "Lucky", the hero is a "themer", some who plays a character at an amusement park. If you changed that one word to "meme", the whole story gets turned inside out. As if the characters or the whole story is a series of memes run together. Since the series ended in the middle, there is no knowing what Daley was up to.
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Larry Niven's "How many kzinti does it take to paint a skyscraper?" "Two. One to hold the spraygun and one to move the skyscraper up and down."
    I remember that as "How many Jinxians does it take to paint a skyscraper?" "Three: One to hold the sprayer and two to move the building up and down." Don't remember which story, though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nowhere Man View Post
    I remember that as "How many Jinxians does it take to paint a skyscraper?" "Three: One to hold the sprayer and two to move the building up and down." Don't remember which story, though.
    Oh, darnit, you're right. False memory syndrome. Again.
    "Hey, Louis, why does it take three Jinxians to paint a skyscraper?"
    "Why does it?"
    "Why does what?"
    "The Jinxians."
    "Oh. It takes one to hold the paint sprayer, and two to shake the skyscraper up and down. [...]"
    It's Ringworld, but two pages before the kzinti appear.
    The kzin thing happens when Nessus says, "You never met my kzin, Kehula-Rrrit? I keep it as a pet."

    I seem to have conflated the Jinxian joke (which did impressed me as a narrative trick, but which actually turns out to have no pay-off in Ringworld), with the mockable-Kzin restaurant moment a couple of pages later, which establishes how the kzinti are stuck in a "diplomatic predator" role in that era.

    Anyway, I now hesitate to say this, but I think it was Niven who said that you didn't really understand your invented world until you knew the jokes the characters would make. Once you get to that point, you can start to reverse the information structure of the joke - for the characters, the punchline refers to something they already know, but didn't see coming; for the reader, the familiar structure of the joke lets them work out what the characters think about their world. After my late friend Brian and I had read Ringworld, we whiled away a couple of months inventing more and more elaborate jokes that (in our dreams) would work as SF data-dumps.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nowhere Man View Post
    I remember that as "How many Jinxians does it take to paint a skyscraper?" "Three: One to hold the sprayer and two to move the building up and down." Don't remember which story, though.

    Fred
    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Oh, darnit, you're right. False memory syndrome. Again.

    It's Ringworld, but two pages before the kzinti appear.
    The kzin thing happens when Nessus says, "You never met my kzin, Kehula-Rrrit? I keep it as a pet."

    I seem to have conflated the Jinxian joke (which did impressed me as a narrative trick, but which actually turns out to have no pay-off in Ringworld), with the mockable-Kzin restaurant moment a couple of pages later, which establishes how the kzinti are stuck in a "diplomatic predator" role in that era.

    Grant Hutchison
    Also Niven was his fondness for the Gyrojet Rocket Pistol, which appears in at least two stories.

    I've not read any Niven in a couple of decades. Perhaps I should do that.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Trebuchet View Post
    I've not read any Niven in a couple of decades. Perhaps I should do that.
    Find something from a couple of decades ago.
    Never read The Goliath Stone.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Find something from a couple of decades ago.
    Never read The Goliath Stone.

    Grant Hutchison
    You made me read the reviews - sounds appalling. I normally like Larry Niven but now realise that I haven't read anything newish of his for a fair while - lucky perhaps.

    In regards to your original post, yes some SF books definitely irritate me with pop references that are so obviously "out of time" as to be ludicrous.

    But in passing I must confess a "Punch" addiction. I have some 50 odd hard back volumes. Mostly 1950's - 1970's but some dating back to the famous Tenniel cartoon of "Dropping the Pilot" - now that is a reference that not many will get these days.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ozduck View Post
    But in passing I must confess a "Punch" addiction. I have some 50 odd hard back volumes. Mostly 1950's - 1970's ...
    Do you, by any chance, have the 30 November - 6 December 1977 edition in your collection?

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    Quote Originally Posted by SeanF View Post
    There was another example that came immediately to mind when I read your OP, but it involves a politician even more recent than Gorbachev, so I'm not comfortable going into detail here. Far too early in that politician's career for the suggestion that he'd have space stations named after him in 400 years, IMHO.
    It’s probably not who you mean, as I wouldn’t call them “more recent”, but I can recall a few stories from the 70s and 80s where things in space are named for William Proxmire as a sort of “ha ha in your face” by the authors. I recognize that these are references to his poor reputation among the space fandom of the last quarter of the 20th century because I have studied the early history of the space shuttle, but if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t recognize the name at all and think they just made up a random name. Since the references are usually just “William Proxmire Memorial [Something]”, I would miss that particular joke if I didn’t know who he was, but I don’t think it would interfere very much with my understanding of the stories.
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Do you, by any chance, have the 30 November - 6 December 1977 edition in your collection?

    Grant Hutchison
    I am afraid not and mea culpa, I should have been more precise in explaining that my books are mostly the "Pick of Punch" editions for the whole or half year -sorry. I do have a "Copyright 1977" edition which may be of use - what article are you looking for?

    Edit: I can find a copy for sale for £1.00 here :https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Punch-mag...UAAOSwXsFajWfJ
    Last edited by ozduck; 2018-Jul-06 at 11:38 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ozduck View Post
    I am afraid not and mea culpa, I should have been more precise in explaining that my books are mostly the "Pick of Punch" editions for the whole or half year -sorry. I do have a "Copyright 1977" edition which may be of use - what article are you looking for?

    Edit: I can find a copy for sale for £1.00 here :https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Punch-mag...UAAOSwXsFajWfJ
    Ah, I thought you had bound volumes of the original magazine.
    You're kind to go looking, but I actually have a copy of that edition.
    If you had had a copy too, I was going to direct your attention to my first ever paid publication, which featured in that edition.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Ah, I thought you had bound volumes of the original magazine.
    You're kind to go looking, but I actually have a copy of that edition.
    If you had had a copy too, I was going to direct your attention to my first ever paid publication, which featured in that edition.

    Grant Hutchison
    Now you have made me want to buy it so I can read it. But the seller only seems to ship within the UK. (It wouldn't be "The Grand Scottish Referendum" by any chance?)

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    Quote Originally Posted by KaiYeves View Post
    It’s probably not who you mean, as I wouldn’t call them “more recent”, but I can recall a few stories from the 70s and 80s where things in space are named for William Proxmire as a sort of “ha ha in your face” by the authors. I recognize that these are references to his poor reputation among the space fandom of the last quarter of the 20th century because I have studied the early history of the space shuttle, but if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t recognize the name at all and think they just made up a random name. Since the references are usually just “William Proxmire Memorial [Something]”, I would miss that particular joke if I didn’t know who he was, but I don’t think it would interfere very much with my understanding of the stories.
    Yes, some authors do like to slip their own political or cultural preoccupations into their stories - this will last forever, this will be forgotten, this will go down in infamy. The only reason I know who Jerry Garcia is is because Allen Steele thought his legend would live forever.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ozduck View Post
    Now you have made me want to buy it so I can read it. But the seller only seems to ship within the UK. (It wouldn't be "The Grand Scottish Referendum" by any chance?)
    I wouldn't recommend spending any actual money on it. You can take a look at it here. (The background is that for the "Student Humour" section, we were invited to write about what the year 2000 might be like. Very strange to read it now that we're about the same distance after 2000 as we then were before that date.)
    Anyway, it's not entirely irrelevant to this thread, because it includes an example of what I was talking about - I assumed that the hellish "It's A Knockout" game show would still be broadcast in 2000. At the time, it really did seem like it would go on forever.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ozduck View Post
    Now you have made me want to buy it so I can read it. But the seller only seems to ship within the UK. (It wouldn't be "The Grand Scottish Referendum" by any chance?)
    All is good! I have now found the article on your site and will read it with pleasure - maybe.

    Apropos of nothing did you have any dealings with the then editor William Davis? Miles Kington, when he edited the 1998 Omnibus "Pick of Punch", was pretty uncomplimentary about him

    (Our post apparently crossed paths in the ether)
    Last edited by ozduck; 2018-Jul-06 at 02:20 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    I wouldn't recommend spending any actual money on it. You can take a look at it here. (The background is that for the "Student Humour" section, we were invited to write about what the year 2000 might be like. Very strange to read it now that we're about the same distance after 2000 as we then were before that date.)
    Anyway, it's not entirely irrelevant to this thread, because it includes an example of what I was talking about - I assumed that the hellish "It's A Knockout" game show would still be broadcast in 2000. At the time, it really did seem like it would go on forever.

    Grant Hutchison
    Our posts apparently crossed each other in the ether. I had already found it. A bit of fun and a good memory for you. Perhaps a bit Keith Waterhouse - ish in style?

  28. #28
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Anyway, it's not entirely irrelevant to this thread, because it includes an example of what I was talking about - I assumed that the hellish "It's A Knockout" game show would still be broadcast in 2000. At the time, it really did seem like it would go on forever.

    Grant Hutchison
    That just reminded me of the 2005 Doctor Who episode Bad Wolf, in which the cast wake up in future versions of then-current game shows. They used the actual show hosts as the voices of robot versions of themselves.
    Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt.

  29. #29
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    Quote Originally Posted by ozduck View Post
    Apropos of nothing did you have any dealings with the then editor William Davis? Miles Kington, when he edited the 1998 Omnibus "Pick of Punch", was pretty uncomplimentary about him
    "Kaiser Bill", as he was unaffectionately known. (An unexpected bit of synchronicity with your "Dropping The Pilot" reference!) I wouldn't have had any communication from such Olympian heights, though I can't now recall who I did deal with.

    Grant Hutchison
    Blog

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    During life, we all develop attitudes and strategies to make our interactions with others more pleasant and useful. If I mention mine here, those comments can apply only to myself, my experiences and my situation. Such remarks cannot and should not be construed as dismissing, denigrating, devaluing or criticizing any different attitudes and strategies that other people have evolved as a result of their different situation and different experiences.

  30. #30
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    I wouldn't recommend spending any actual money on it. You can take a look at it here. (The background is that for the "Student Humour" section, we were invited to write about what the year 2000 might be like. Very strange to read it now that we're about the same distance after 2000 as we then were before that date.)
    Anyway, it's not entirely irrelevant to this thread, because it includes an example of what I was talking about - I assumed that the hellish "It's A Knockout" game show would still be broadcast in 2000. At the time, it really did seem like it would go on forever.

    Grant Hutchison
    In games without frontiers, war without tears...
    The greatest journey of all time, for all to see
    Every mission makes our dreams reality
    And our destiny begins with you and me
    Through all space and time, the achievement of mankind
    As we sail the sea of discovery, on heroes’ wings we fly!

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