Famous, Famous, Fictional

"I note that Benjamin's taste in music essentially obeys the Science Fiction Law of Threes. (As in, 'For lunch we're serving chicken, mashed potatoes, and Betelgeusean laser squash' or 'I'm familiar with all the great philosophers — Socrates, Descartes, Xaxxix'x of Denobulon IV.')"

When several examples of something are being listed in Speculative Fiction, a couple of them will be from our time (or timeline if it's Alternate History), and the final one will be one from the future (or post-divergence Alternate History).

The most common variant is to list famous scientists, Newton, Einstein, Johannes Kepler, Werner Heisenberg, Da Vinci being quite popular, followed, finally, by a scientist from the future. Occasionally their inventions are also listed: Newton's mechanics, Einstein's relativity, Zefram Cochrane's warp drive.

Usually the trope serves only to remind us that it is, in fact, the future and people haven't stopped thinking and discovering things in between our time and story's setting. It would be odd if there hasn't been any new discoveries or geniuses worth mentioning, especially if the story involves something like Faster-Than-Light Travel. When someone or something we already know is used as such, then the author is just making a point: say, if Hawking is mentioned, that means people of the future in that verse think he is a genius equal to Newton and Einstein, meaning that readers also should.

Extremely prone to Rule of Three — meaning we go far enough into the future to see a new example, but not far enough that those we know currently aren't still on the short list. It is much harder to find an example which doesn't follow a "present, present, future" (or for added symbolism, "past, present, future") scheme. When there is a long list of examples, expect a third of them to be from the future. Particularly when the work is from the 1950s or 1960s, the third future example will often have a East Asian (or less commonly African or Indian) name, indicative of the the idea that these parts of the world would have a bigger part to play in the future in what at the time were still considered mostly European- and American-dominated fields like the sciences.

A variation occurs when it's alternate reality: say, when someone mentions Alexander, Bonaparte and Stalin as world dominators who failed, it means that in this reality the changing event is somewhere between the mid-18th century and the early 20th century, which made Stalin and not Hitler start WWII.

A subtrope of Cryptic Background Reference.


Anime and Manga

Comic Books
  • Inverted in Ex Machina: a traveler from an Alternate Universe arrives in the comic's universe (which is mostly identical to ours) and attempts to gather information by ordering his suit AI to connect to "gharity.com" and "skyvann.com". When both fail, he connects to...Wikipedia.

Fan Works
  • Inverted in Red Fire, Red Planet when Meromi Riyal lists off various martial arts she's studied.
    "Klingon mok’bara. Andorian shan-dru-shaan. Human jujutsu. Any style relying more on finesse and leverage than brute force.".
  • In The Wrong Reflection Eleya has replica posters on her old bedroom's walls for The Fifth Element, Mass Effect 2, and something called Adrian's Curse.

  • Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey opens with Rufus bringing important historical figures to the future as guest lecturers for his class, including historical figures from Twenty Minutes into the Future.
  • Lampshaded in The Last Starfighter, when Centauri brings up three people, but Alex doesn't recognize the last one.
    Centauri: Alex! Alex! You're walking away from history! History, Alex! Did Chris Columbus stay home? Nooooo. What if the Wright Brothers thought that only birds should fly? And did Galoka think that the Ulus were too ugly to save?
    Alex: Who's Galoka?
    Centauri: Never mind.
  • In the Film of the Book A Sound of Thunder, Ben Kingsley's character is hamming up a speech for the Time Safari tourists, with the last name a Shout-Out to Capricorn One. This also counts as a stealth gag, since the Mars landing in that movie is actually faked.
    Charles Hatton: Today you stood shoulder to shoulder with Columbus discovering America. Armstrong stepping on the moon, Brubaker landing on Mars.
  • An example that may not even be found anymore, but when the Starship Troopers film was released, the accompanying website which contained a lot of character bios and historical information listed the Mobile Infantry alongside historically prestigious military units such as The Knights Templar, the Winged Hussars and the Navy Seals.
  • The Prophecy used it rather well when they had their villain the Archangel Gabriel explain his motives. The first two are taken straight from The Bible, the second one is the plot of the movie.
    Gabriel: I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls, and from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.

  • It happens a lot in Enders Game and Speaker For The Dead.
  • John Barnes' Thousand Cultures novels do this ALL the time. "For almost everyone, the Slaughter was like Rome Falling, the Crusades, or the genocide of the Americans — unfortunate, vaguely remembered, nothing to do with the business of living now."
  • In David Brin's Uplift saga, it is mentioned that, as any animal may possibly become intelligent at some point in the future, making species extinct is a serious crime in galaxy, akin to genocide. Humanity managed to clear up their biology and history textbooks to prevent aliens from knowing what they did to lamantines, dodos and orangutans.
  • This Perfect Day by Ira Levin has a nursery rhyme paying tribute to the four people who are considered the spiritual forefathers of the society in which the book is set. The pattern of the rhyme requires four names, so there's two past people and two future people:
    Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei
    led us to this perfect day...
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan is a story of exploration and discovery by our virtualised descendants. It has physicists front and centre. The real-world Planck and Wheeler are joined in 2055 by Renata Kozuch. Wheeler suggested the vacuum is made out of a maze of microscopic quantum wormholes. Kozuch takes this idea and tranforms it into the foundation of particles physics: all particles are wormhole mouths. This is a rare example where the future member of the trio explicitly builds on the work of the real-world pair.
  • Used a few times in works by Arthur C. Clarke:
    • Rendezvous with Rama, "Rama needed the grandeur of Bach or Beethoven or Sibelius or Tuan Sun, not the trivia of popular entertainment."
    • The Fountains Of Paradise: "Having first made his name with a new cosmological theory that had survived almost ten years before being refuted, Goldberg had been widely acclaimed as another Einstein or N'goya."
  • In the third The War Against the Chtorr book by David Gerrold, "The screams got louder, sounding like Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Show Low." (The Show Low incident isn't simply a Cryptic Background Reference; it was discussed in detail in book one.)
  • There's a bit in a Red Dwarf novel, where Lister realised he's returned to Earth when he sees Mount Rushmore. The faces are Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln, and "possibly America's greatest President, Elaine Salinger".
  • In The Hyperion Cantos, Hegemony CEO Meina Gladstone is said to be often likened to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or Alvarez-Temp.
  • Inverted in Percy Jackson where the list of people who have entered Hades and returned includes Hercules, Orpheus, and Harry Houdini.
  • In Ringworld, Louis Wu describes the voice of a Pierson's puppeteer as like "Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Marilyn Monroe, and Lorelei Huntz, rolled into one."
  • A borderline example in William Gibson's Count Zero, where Bobby Newmark recalls his mother trying to make him watch holograms of religious texts, remembering them as "Jesus or Hubbard or some shit", subtly hinting at a future where Scientology is considered a mainstream religion.

Live-Action TV
  • From the Star Trek universe:
    David: Well, don't have kittens. Genesis is going to work. They'll remember you in one breath with Newton, Einstein, Surak.
    • Zefram Cochrane, inventor of Earth's first warp drive, frequently gets name-dropped along with scientific pioneers and explorers from the 20th century and earlier.
    • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy".
    Garth: All the others before me have failed. Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Lee Kuan, Krotus! All of them are dust! But I will triumph! I will make the ultimate conquest!
    • An inversion on Star Trek occurs in the original series episode "The Savage Curtain," where a battle between good and evil has "good" represented by Vulcan sage Surak, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Abraham Lincoln. Evil, in turn, is represented by future warlord Colonel Green, Mad Scientist Zora, the Klingon warrior Kahless, and Genghis Khan.
    • The novels get in on this too. From the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Relaunch: "He had learned all he could about Earth's eminent explorers — Leif Eriksson, Ferdinand Magellan, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Neil Armstrong, Jonathan Archer..."
    • In Voyager, the Doctor lists some of the greatest performers of La Bohème. The first two pairs are real people, the other is a pair of Vulcans.
    • In one episode of Next Generation, Picard lists (only) two infamous men in history: Adolf Hitler and Khan Singh.
    • In another TNG episode Picard mentions Pearl Harbor and Station Salem One as stages for bloody preambles to war.
    • An episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "The Muse", an alien named Onaya lists artists she's "influenced" over the centuries such as Catullus, John Keats, and Phineas Tarbolde. This is also a Continuity Nod since Tarbolde was mentioned in an episode of the original series.
    • Also from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in "If Wishes Were Horses", Benjamin and Jake Sisko play holographic baseball with all the greats, like Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, and Buck Bokai.
      • Unusually for this trope, Buck Bokai isn't just a one-time throwaway reference. His name pops up a few times during the series and it's clear he's one of the most accomplished players in the (now several-hundred-year) history of the sport.
    • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Court Martial", Simple Country Lawyer Samuel Cogley invokes The Bible, the Codes of Hammarubi and Justinian, the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, the Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies, and the Statutes of Alpha III.
    • In a Star Trek: Voyager episode, Janeway mentions The Omega Particle in the same breath as the most dangerous creations of Albert Einstein and Carol Marcus.
    • The logic behind the trope is the reason starships are almost always named after concepts or things recognizable to the audience. A list of scientists, most of them famous with a fictional one thrown in, gives the audience an idea of what the fictional one is supposed to be. But if, say, the USS B'Agalboodia is mentioned, without any sort of context for what that refers to, the audience won't know how to react to it.
    • In "Threshold" Janeway tells Tom that by being the first man to breach the Warp 10 barrier, he'll be joining the ranks of Orville Wright, Neil Armstrong, and Zefram Cochrane. Different from the usual in that Cochrane is from Trek canon, rather than a completely made-up name.
    • In "Space Seed", Lt. McGivers has several portraits of historic conquerors in her quarters, including Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and Khan Noonien Singh.
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "Infection", it's mentioned that Dr Franklin aspires to become one of the great names of medicine, alongside Fleming, Salk, Jenner, and Takahashi.
    • In the second season episode "Confessions and Lamentations", the Markab plague Drafa is compared by Dr. Franklin to earlier such plagues - Black Death, AIDS, Chalmers' Syndrome.
    • In the third-season episode "And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place":
      Sheridan: When we've had wars back home sometimes one side would leave a few areas of enemy territory undamaged. That way you'd get maximum results when you finally hit them with something big. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, San Diego...
      • The nuclear terrorist attack on San Diego had been mentioned several times and the abandoned city seen once, so it was simply keeping in step with that.
    • In the fourth season episode "The Exercise of Vital Powers", William Edgars asks Mr. Garibaldi how many people actually belonged to the Nazi Party, the Communist Party, the Jihad Party. He then almost immediately goes on to list historical examples of when "the people" have handed over power to people they thought could settle scores: the Germans in 1939, the Russians in 1917 and 2013, the Iraqis in 2025, the French in 2112....
    • In the first episode of the fifth season, Sheridan is threatened by someone who lists past Presidents - Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kyoshi, of the Eastern Bloc.
    • In the fifth season episode "A Tragedy of Telepaths", this trope is first used, then stretched WAY out by Garibaldi when he points out we divide up our history by the wars - the Hundred Years War, the War of 1812, the first three World Wars... the Dilgar War, the War of the Shining Star, the Minbari War, the Shadow War. Of these "future" wars, only the third World War and the War of the Shining Star were not previously described in-series—the Dilgar War was mentioned first in "Deathwalker", and the last two were actually depicted in-show.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the one in the season 6 where there is a banner celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice and "Garthak's Ascension".

New Media

Tabletop Games
  • In Android: Net Runner there are four IC Es (one per corporation), currently unreleased, that are named after a famous scientist. NBN (focus on information) has Gutenberg, Haas-Bioroid (focus on artificial intelligences) has Turing, Jinteki (focus on genetic modification) has Crick, and Weyland (focus on spatial colonization) has Meru Mati, the fictional engineer who made the space elevator possible.

Western Animation
  • Futurama
    • Prof. Farnsworth lists his influences as Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus, Euclid and Braino.
    • The video regarding the ancient history of Atlanta, and how all of its greatest citizens fled as it sank: "Ted Turner, Hank Aaron, Jeff Foxworthy, the man who invented Coca-Cola, The Magician ..." note 
  • Inverted in one of The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror episodes when Homer explains: "Vampires aren't real. Just like fairies, elves and eskimos."
    • In Homer's Triple Bypass Homer watches a documentary about obesity on TV, where the announcer says America grew up with jolly obese people like Alfred Hitchcock, Dom De Luise and Santa Claus.

Alternative Title(s):

Newton Einstein Surak