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 World War II.
- The Big Bad of Serial Experiments Lain lectures the eponymous character on the history of computers, elaborating on Vannevar Bush and John C. Lilly, and, since Lain is set in an Alternate Universe of some kind, concludes with Masami Eiri, the creator of the Most-Definitely-Not-the-Internet and an evil Expy of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, who is, in fact, the Big Bad himself. The trope is lampshaded by the art style: photographs of Bush and Lilly exist on-screen while the image of Eiri is obviously drawn in the same style as all the other fictional characters.
- In Superman #400 (1984), there is a vision of a future where Superman remembered as a legendary American hero alongside Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower,and "Kuhan Pei-Jing, who slogged through the ricefields of Asia negotiating to head off a third World War in the 1990's".
- 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.
- Used in DC One Million when a visitor from the 853rd century says how proud he is to be back in the 20th century, the time of such great scientists as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Ayo Sotinwa. He then corrects himself, realizing that Sotinwa would still be a child at this point.
- In the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip "Matildus", the Doctor placates the eponymous custodian of the Great Big Library of Everything after losing all the books he borrowed by offering her the first editions of The Iliad, Macbeth and the diary of Empress Goozoo the Quanteenth.
- Ultimate Spider-Man: When he first knew about him, Jameson was sure that Spider-Man would be the next O.J. Simpson.
- Inverted in Red Fire, Red Planet when Meromi Riyal lists off various martial arts she's studied.
"Klingon mokbara. 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.
- Inverted in To Date a Metamorph.
Johann: I'm not a 'pretty good musician', Tonks. I'm one of the wizarding world's best musicians. Someday, my music will be more popular than the Weird Sisters, the Hexen Meistros, Beethoven...just as soon as I finish my composition.
- 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 20 Minutes into the Future — one being a rock musician that was popular at the time, and the other being a futuristic historical figure.
- 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.
- In Spider-Man: Homecoming the pictures of scientists at Peter's school include Bruce Banner, Howard Stark, and Abraham Erskine among several real ones.
- A show business example in A Star Is Born. When Esther Blodgett checks out the footprints in concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theater she sees the footprints of Jean Harlow, Harold Lloyd, and Norman Maine, the fictional actor played by Fredric March in the movie.
- 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."
- 2010 Odyssey 2 (Published in 1982), "All this had been known since the Voyager flyby missions of the 1970s, the Galileo surveys of the 1980s, and the Kepler landings of the 1990s."
- H. P. Lovecraft was a master of it, even a possible Trope Maker, though his are more like "Genius Bonus, Continuity Nod, fictional", such as the following example from "The Nameless City":
"To myself I pictured all the splendours of an age so distant that Chaldaea could not recall it, and thought of Sarnath the Doomed, that stood in the land of Mnar when mankind was young, and of Ib, that was carven of grey stone before mankind existed."note
- In Alien in a Small Town, when Paul lists civil rights leaders from Earth history, he mentions Anthony, Gandhi, King, and... Stephenson, who was apparently involved in a civil rights movement for "biological androids".
- Aurora Cycle:note Tyler Jones studied the famous generals Sun Tzu, Hannibal, Napoleon, Eisenhower, Tankian, Giáp and Osweyo.
- 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.
- 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.
- Twice in the Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel The Drosten's Curse by A.L. Kennedy. The Doctor thinks to himself that his tendency to run off and think in strange places annoyed Einstein, Feynman, Leonardo and Zogg the Remarkable. Later Putta's plan to help the Doctor is described as not the kind of plan Napoleon, Genghis Khan or Thraxtic would have thought of.
- From Sisterhood of Dune: "The Discussion Chamber was one of the Mentat School's largest classrooms, an auditorium with dark-stained walls covered in statesmanlike images of the greatest debaters in human history, ranging from famous ancient orators of Old Earth, such as Marcus Cicero and Abraham Lincoln, to Tlaloc who had instigated the Time of Titans, to speakers from recent centuries, such as Renata Thew and the unparalleled Novan al-Jones."
- In The Hyperion Cantos, Hegemony CEO Meina Gladstone is said to be often likened to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or Alvarez-Temp.
- In The Night Mayor, the new form of public entertainment is a kind of hyperreal virtual reality. Susan notes that it is still waiting for a pioneer to really showcase its potential as an artform the way D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein did for film in the 20th century, or Chillmeister Freaze did for ice sculpture in the 21st.
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians inverts it, where the list of people who have entered Hades and returned includes Hercules, Orpheus, and Harry Houdini.
- 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".
- Combined with an Inspiration Nod as well as possibly Person as Verb in Red Rising: In reference to famous military geniuses and conquerors: "So this kid is what? A predestined Alexander? A Caesar? A Genghis? A Wiggin?" (Wiggin being the protagonist of Ender's Game). It's particularly funny/odd because the people of the series seem to otherwise know that fictional works are fictional.
- 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."
- In The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School, a tract on reshaping human society along purportedly scientific lines is said to have drawn favorable critical notice from H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, and Roderick Spode.
- 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...
- 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.
- 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.)
- In Hunter S. Thompson' Hell's Angels, Thompson lists some 'outlaws' who were welcomed into the mainstream - Frank Sinatra, Alexander King, Elizabeth Taylor, Raoul Duke. As anybody who has read (or seen) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas knows, Raoul Duke is Thompson's own fictional alter ego, although interestingly, Hell's Angels was the first time that name was ever mentioned in his writing.
- Babylon 5:
- In the 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: In one episode Giles hangs up a banner in the Magic Shop reminding customers that Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and "Gurnenthar's Ascendence" are coming up.
- Played for laughs in Lucifer:
Lucifer: This is patricide! A tale as old as time! Oedipus, the Menendez Brothers, Voldemort!
- Scorpion does a variation, listing two real Central American countries followed by a fictional one when listing potential landing places when the team finds themselves kidnapped and taken to a Spanish-speaking country, knowing that they've only been knocked out for 3.5 hours. Naturally, it's the fictional one that they're told they've been taken to. In reality, they never left the United States, and were only knocked out for one hour, during which time Sly's watch was reprogrammed.
- At one point in Stargate Atlantis, John Sheppard needs to get into Rodney McKay's computer account. The password is a long, seemingly-random string of digits, but fortunately he knows the mnemonic:
Sheppard: 1643 is the year Isaac Newton was born; 1879, Einstein; 1968
Teyla: The year Rodney was born.
Sheppard: NEVER underestimate the size of that man's ego.
- Many from the Star Trek universe. Given Trek's deep backstory, a number of the Fictional names are actually recurring references to well-developed characters or events, unlike most instances of this trope where the specific name chosen is essentially meaningless.
- Examples using references to established figures:
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
David: Well, don't have kittens. Genesis is going to work. They'll remember you in one breath with Newton, Einstein, Surak.
- In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier:
Sybok: The people of your planet once believed their world was flat. Columbus proved it was round. They said the sound barrier could never be broken! It was broken. They said warp-speed could not be achieved.
- 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 (first human inventor of the warp drive).
- Inverted 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.
- From the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Relaunch novels: "He had learned all he could about Earth's eminent explorers — Leif Eriksson, Ferdinand Magellan, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Neil Armstrong, Jonathan Archer..."
- Averted when the Doctor is thinking of adopting the name of a famous doctor. He considers Dr Galen, Dr Salk, or Dr Spock, though the last is also a Stealth Pun regarding the famous Star Trek character.
- 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 one episode, Picard lists (only) two infamous men in history: Adolf Hitler and Khan Singh.
- Benjamin and Jake Sisko play holographic baseball with all the greats, like Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, and Buck Bokai, in "If Wishes Were Horses". Bokai's 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.
- Captain Janeway mentions The Omega Particle in the same breath as the most dangerous creations of Albert Einstein and Carol Marcus.
- Captain Lorca places pressure on Lieutenant Stamets by asking if he wants to be "Alongside the Wright brothers, Elon Musk, Zefram Cochrane?".
- In at least one novel, a character compares Hardboiled Detective heroes like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, and Tracy Torme's Dixon Hill (Hill being Picard's favorite, and Tracy Torme being the real-life creator of the character for "The Big Goodbye").
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
- Examples using one-off references:
- Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy".
- Lee Kuan is also mentioned by Spock in an almost identical context in "Patterns of Force":
Spock: Earthmen like Ramses, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Lee Kuan. Your whole Earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.
- In "Charlie X", the title character uses his mind powers to force Spock to recite poetry from William Blake's The Tyger, Poe's The Raven, and what appears to be a 'future' poem.
- 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.
- Picard mentions Pearl Harbor and Station Salem One as stages for bloody preambles to war.
- Data, considering Shakespeare, planned to study the performances of Olivier, Branagh, Shapiro and Kullnark.
- 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 "The Muse" episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, an alien named Onaya lists artists she's "influenced" over the centuries such as Catullus, John Keats, and Phineas Tarbolde. Tarbolde was identified as an author in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" of the original series (but did not receive significant development beyond these mentions).
- "The Ultimate Computer" shakes up the Rule of Three by using only one real person: Einstein, Kazanga, and Sitar of Vulcan.
- In "The Ensigns of Command", when the captain tells Data his violin playing is "quite beautiful," Data responds, "Technically speaking, Sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bron-Ken."
- Examples using references to established figures:
- 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.
- The novels for Battletech usually quote "Judas, Adolf Hitler and Stefan Amaris" as the worst traitors in human history. In the backstory of the series, Amaris tried to usurp the throne of the Star League, a huge empire ruling all of mankind. He caused a massive civil war that led to so many succession wars that mankind has been reduced to five warring houses using schizo tech(fighting in giant mecha while rediscovering the fax kind of schizo tech). Except for the defense forces of the Star League, who fled the fighting to avoid being destroyed and devolved to a group of marauding warrior clans that want to take over those houses.
- StarCraft has a slight variation with the four names of the ships that carried humans to the Koprulu Sector; each are named after a famous ship from the past: the Nagglfar (named after the Naglfar of Norse mythology, the Ship of Nails that carries barbarians to fight the gods during Ragnarök), the Argo (from Greek mythology), the Reagan (likely named after the modern aircraft carrier) and the Sarengo, which presumably is a ship from an explored part of StarCraft history.
- In a rare example where the universe is entirely fictional even though references to the real world are present, the city of Anor Londo in Dark Souls is strewn with real-world Renaissance portraits, engravings, and architecture. One of the few exceptions is a portrait of Princess Gwynevere, which is taken straight from her concept art. While the portrait itself is beautiful and doesn't clash too badly with the setting, Gwynevere has certain attributes which make her painting instantly distinguishable from the real ones.
- Mass Effect has several examples, but one clear one is the Armstrong Nebula, which is named after a famous astronaut - the first to walk on the moon - and each system is also named after other astronauts famous for firsts. Examples include Gagarin (first man to orbit) and Tereshkova (first woman in space), but also include Vamshi and Grissom. There's also Hong as Odd Name Out, most likely being named after the People's Republic of China's first satellite.
- Vamshi is not elaborated on, but Grissom is debatble: he's either a reference to in-universe Jon Grissom, the first man to go through a mass relay and the commander of the alliance fleet during the First Contact War, or Gus Grissom, one of the Mercury Seven and the only one to die in-duty when Apollo 1 burned down.
- A variation with only two examples. Dr. Catherine Halsey in Halo: Reach mentions that the Forerunner artifact under the Babd Catha ice shelf might be a discovery on the level of the conical bullet or the Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine.
- 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