Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Pop-culture and obscure references in fiction

by Rob - March 9th, 2015.
Filed under: Writing.

An interesting article by John McPhee about obscure and pop-culture references in fiction appears in the March 9, 2015, issue of The New Yorker. My thoughts, speaking as a science-fiction writer who takes great joy in including such things in his work:

In his 1953 short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” Arthur C. Clarke includes this bit:

One of his recurring nightmares was that there would be some change of plan, and that the high lama (whom they’d naturally called Sam Jaffe, though he didn’t look a bit like him) would suddenly announce that the project would be extended to approximately A.D. 2060. They were quite capable of it.

That story — one of the most famous and most studied in all of science fiction — endures even though most of its readers today have never even heard of the film Lost Horizon, to which Clarke is alluding.

Likewise, countless kids remember things from The Flintstones with no idea that they’re references to once-famous people or events. They know Hum Along with Herman and Boulder’s Rule without any awareness of Sing Along with Mitch and Burke’s Law. And there’s many a Muppet fan who has no idea that Statler and Waldorf are named for hotels.

For my money, such references don’t detract; they’re Easter eggs for those who recognize them.

(Of course, sometimes the references aren’t actually there. I once congratulated Tom Doherty on the cleverness of naming his publishing company Tor in homage to Pinnacle Books, one of his investors, “tor” being a near-synonym for “pinnacle.” Tom was surprised; that resonance had never occurred to him.)

Although John McPhee quickly discards the notion, the first sentence of the second paragraph of his New Yorker article obviates the need for the rest of the piece. He writes: “Of course, in this advanced age of the handheld vocabulary …”

But that’s the key point: even if you’re reading a paper book, as opposed to an ebook, you almost certainly have easy access most of the time to the World Wide Web. Don’t know a word? As my mother used to say, back when the damn thing was almost as big as I was, “Look it up in the dictionary.”

And of course you can look up more than just words; Google is your friend. If you don’t know who Maynard G. Krebs or Roy Chapman Andrews were, or what “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” means, or what a Rube Golderg device is, or what “the stuff that dreams are made of” refers to, or what “Dewey Defeats Truman” was all about, well, you will within seconds.

The easy access to the whole wide world of information has, in fact, changed the way I write my science fiction. In Frameshift and Factoring Humanity, written in the 1990s, I had to find ways to work into the narrative basic explanations, for those readers who weren’t already familiar with them, of genetics and quantum-physics principles. Now, I trust that readers who come across something they don’t understand can easily look it up, in whatever level of depth they care to pursue it in; it’s not my job to make my book complete unto itself any more than a sports writer would feel the need to explain the rules of baseball or what a bat is.

And, besides, good pop culture endures. Romeo and Juliet was pop culture; so was, at the time they were created, Oliver Twist and Doyle’sSherlock Holmes tales and the Greek myths and the Bible stories.

And so, too, are I Love Lucy and The Flintstones, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Simpson, which have been with us for 64, 54, 49, 38, and 26 years, respectively, and show no signs of fading from our consciousness.

And the biggest movie properties in the world — Spider-Man and Iron Man and Batman and Thor and Superman — are based on pop culture from a half-century or more ago.

Brand-names and real-world references are part of verisimilitude. People don’t say, “I had a cola and a fast-food hamburger.” They do say, “I had a Big Mac and a Coke.” People don’t say, “Look at him! Movie-movie star handsome he is!” They do say, “Check out that guy! Makes Brad Pitt look like a dog’s breakfast!” People don’t say, “I went to the central intersection of the city.” People do say, “I went to Yonge and Bloor.” People don’t say, “I posted that on the leading social-media channel.” People do say, “I put that on my Facebook wall.”

Yes, there are some readers who take pains to insulate themselves from pop culture, who proudly declare they never watch TV, or listen to any music written in the last century and a half, or read anything that would ever be released in mass-market paperback. They also are likely pretty isolated from a lot of reality; one worries about their social and political awareness as they bury themselves in some highfalutin past.

Science fiction has a particular problem with being dismissed as far-out, irrelevant, escapist. My own predilection for pop references in my books is, in large measure, an attempt to ground the stories in the here-and-now, to connect them inextricably with reality, to show that the genre matters.

And what about the fear of dating one’s work? Well, first, we should all be so lucky that our writing is widely read years or decades after its first publication; rarely is that the case. But, even so, it’s easier to date a work of science fiction based on the implicit or explicit scientific assumptions than it is based on any pop-culture reference.

A mention of Spock simply means your work was published in 1966 or later, but how old you say the universe is; how many planets you say the solar system has; whether you use the now-deprecated notion of junk DNA; whether or not you say Neanderthals crossbred with us (and whether or not you consider them part of Homo sapiens); whether you refer to dark matter and/or dark energy; whether you mention the multiverse or brane theory or GMOs or stem cells; whether your phone is wired or wireless or flip or touchscreen — all of those date your work much more precisely. And none of them detract from the underlying essential truths of the story.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

5 Responses to Pop-culture and obscure references in fiction

  1. Nice article.
    Interesting: You mention “the stuff that dreams are made of” as a phrase one might want to be aware of. But the phrase in Shakespeare is “the stuff that dreams are made on.” On, not of. Although perhaps you had the Maltese Falcon in mind, where the phrase uttered by Bogart IS “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

  2. Absolutely I had the movie THE MALTESE FALCON in mind; my latest novel, RED PLANET BLUES, is a noir mystery set on Mars. Here’s a recent blog post by me about the character of Sam Spade:

    But actually, old boy, you’re misquoting the Bard. Shakespeare didn’t say “THE stuff that dreams ARE made on” — the wording you posted; what he said was “SUCH stuff AS dreams are made on,” in THE TEMPEST:

    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.

    But in the John Huston movie THE MALTESE FALCON, the line is exactly as I cited in my original post above. :) (The line doesn’t appear in the novel.)

  3. Interesting article, though I believe that you are associating two similar, but distinct, points. I wholeheartedly endorse your enthusiasm for popular culture references in fiction, particularly science fiction where such references can function as a touchstone to our own reality. Pop culture references, when used gracefully, can provide an additional subtle layer of meaning, a humorous counterpoint, or a point of perspective. This is in distinction, however, to the problems associated with the use of technological references to which you refer. While good culture may be timeless and poignant, technological references are almost always a trap that snares the reader from his suspension of disbelief, and the skilled writer of speculative fiction would do well to avoid “the Betamax moment.” You know you’re in real trouble when your technology is so out of date that the reader’s wikipedia search even draws a blank. No doubt “wikipedia” will suffer the same fate.

  4. I think the key is to be clear on your setting; the notion that every novel takes place in whatever year the reader happens to be reading it is clearly wrong — it takes place in a specific year (which might be the past, present, or future of when the author wrote it). There’s nothing at all out of place in a reference to Betamax in 1979; indeed, it’s an appropriate period detail and no more takes the reader out of the story than a reference to a Hansom cab takes one out of a Sherlock Holmes story.

    I often set my science-fiction novels in the present day (that is, at or near the time they were published), and period-specific references ground them in those actual times. To take three of my Hugo Award-finalists as examples — all absolutely science-fiction novels — FRAMESHIFT is set in 1997, HOMINIDS is set in 2002, and WAKE is set in 2012. I may, or may not, choose to reveal the year, but an attentive reader can suss it out.

    Any writer who gives their characters generic “phones,” “computers,” “watches,” “and “glasses” in the past, present, and future, with only vaguely described capabilities (lest a reader wonder why the user didn’t just ask Siri to look it up for her in a mainstream piece, or — horrors! — in hopes of avoiding the actual future turning out to be different from the one the author described) is as bereft of artistry as one who avoids any descriptions of hair length, clothing style, whether or not the Soviet Union has fallen, whether or not the Twin Towers are still standing, whether or not humans have yet walked on the Moon or Mars, or whether a Republican or Democrat sits in the White House; the regression toward nondescript characters in bland rooms in a world that might be 1950 or 2050 serves no reader well. All fiction is dated; GOOD fiction is SPECIFICALLY dated.

  5. The NEW YORKER article linked to above, much discussed on my Facebook wall, continues to irk me.

    The whole flawed enterprise of studying English literature can be distilled down into the subtext of John McPhee’s piece: they call the works they’ve anointed “the canon,” but what they really mean is, “I prefer you to limit your references to things I already know.”

    It’s _exactly_ why science fiction is so often pooh-poohed in the academy: the references are outside the experience of the ivory-tower English-lit crowd, and rather than assuming there are significant and meaningful realms they are ignorant of, they prefer to believe, because it’s easier to do so, that there’s nothing there.

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