A geek today is quite likely to reference the pop culture of 30 years ago: "Do or do not, there is no try", "Beam me up, Scotty" and "Ground control to Major Tom" are easily and commonly recognisable. (The first is Star Wars, the second is associated with Star Trek though it never appears verbatim, the third is David Bowie's Space oddity.) A geek 100 years from now might be familiar with those quotes, in the same way we are familiar with "Good night, sweet prince", but he is more likely to use references to the pop culture of his day.

Trouble is, of course, that the pop culture of 100 years from now has not yet been written. I can invent it, but then it wouldn't serve the goal of a pop culture reference: such a reference isn't used only to convey an idea between characters, but also to the reader. So it's real-life modern pop-culture I have to reference, if I reference anything - not invented pop-culture.

I can operate on the assumption that some references are timeless, like Shakespeare. It might turn out to be true of some of the references in question, but I doubt it will be true of all. And no less important, even though older references would still be recognisable, they wouldn't be as commonly used, would they?

The geek in the first paragraph is of course just an example - everyone refers to pop culture to some extent. However, being very much a geek myself, I find that such references are much more common in a geeky group, to the extent that writing a geeky character who does not make such references is almost unrealistic. The reference is both a way to convey a larger meaning in a few words, and a way to enjoy the work being referenced, in a way that includes the people having the conversation, and also the geeky reader (the likely reader of a sci-fi novel).

In light of this, how do I avoid references to modern pop culture becoming too jarring for the sci-fi setting? My current novel is set ~100 years into the future.

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    I find pop culture references to often be cheating. It's a way of using someone else's writing to convey your ideas. Only very specific tones of writing can get away with it. You need to go all in, or not do it.
    – Andrey
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:42
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    Related XKCD. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:58
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    They might use that catch-phrase the 73rd Doctor keeps using ... Commented May 1, 2018 at 14:03
  • The Quantum Thief does this a lot, especially later on in the story. It starts out by not showing you that, it's a niche interest, really, so that's pretty reasonable. Then the author introduces you to the quantum niche interest club, and they mostly references the tropes of certain parts of the media at present than the specific works. Of course, their excuse is that some of the members actually remember when that stuff was current. Commented May 1, 2018 at 21:02
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    Another related XKCD: xkcd.com/794
    – Sam Weaver
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 4:18

9 Answers 9


I face the problem myself when I dabble in future SciFi stories and settings, I like to use a "Famous 3" where the third one is an oddball that is either comically modern compared to what we see Or are obviously alien. For example, in dialog, the hero would refer to the "Three B's" of music (a real term denoting the significance of classical musicians Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) but his definition is Bach, Beethoven, and The Beatles (Or worse, Bach, Beethoven, and Beiber). In a space opera setting, using great philosophical minds such as Socrates, Locke, and Zibba to denote the importance of alien influences on the new modern culture.

Another idea I like to use is that aliens have an odd appreciation for the diverse works of art that come from Earth. I use this one in one of my Scifi things where aliens teach "Star Wars" as a great epic of politics and heroes, but also find it absolutely hilarious because every Star Wars alien has a near identical counterpart race... but they act totally differently. For example, the Hutt equivalent absolutely hate crime, and will over punish. The people from the Yoda race act more like Jar Jar... You get the point.

This reflects that in real life cultures, various cultures latch on to things from obvious cultures for all sorts of reasons, which help to expose things about their own culture when you dig into why they are important. By seeing what cultures like what earth things and why, you can actually say a lot more about their cultural identity.

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    The Famous 3 method was very often used in most of the Star Trek series. I guess there might even be cases a la "Einstein, Cochrane, and Zibba" where only one is real but another is well-established Commented May 1, 2018 at 14:25
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    You reminded me of the bit in Doctor Who, where in honor of the dying Earth, they played some classical music from its hayday, and it was Britney Spears 'Poison'.
    – IchabodE
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:50
  • @HagenvonEitzen: Star Trek had a weird one where they did the famous aviators/explorers, the Wright Bros, Armstrong, and Cochrane, the latter of whom was the odd ball, but had been established. Voyager also had Tom Paris, who was a hobby Earth Historian who would make these references. He still had flaws with this, such as when he had to pick 90s attire for the crew to blend (time travel) and did get it right for the period... but since they were going to L.A. another character questioned even needing Tom, as their own uniforms were a 6 out of 10 on the weird attire scale in this area.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 13:38
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    @IchabodE: Another wonderful example. Given that the setting is so far into the future that they had to use fruit as a date mechanic (The Year 5 million and Apple), the time period in question would likely think that Beethovan and Spears were contemporaries. It's no different than telling someone that the film "The Little Mermaid" is closer to the moon landing in time than it is to "Frozen".
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 13:42

Easy answer: Don't include anachronistic pop culture references. "writing a geeky character who does not make such references is almost unrealistic" Well, maybe, but surely not jarringly so. I'm a geeky person. If I spent a few hours with other geeky friends and no one made any sort of reference to a science fiction movie, it's possible that that would be unusual. But I can't imagine that I would go home saying, "Zounds, that was really weird!! Nobody made any Star Wars reference the WHOLE evening!! What happened to these people?" I wouldn't even particularly notice.

If your story is set 100 years in the future, then their view of our present will presumably be comparable to our view of 1918. When was the last time you made a light-hearted reference to a book or movie from 1918 while chatting with a group of friends? I'm trying to think of examples comparable to "beam me up Scotty" from casual conversations, and, wow, not coming. I heard someone refer to Rudyard Kipling's line, "a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke" once. Oh, the Sherlock Holmes books were from that era, so maybe, "elementary, my dear Watson". (Even though that line actually comes from much later movies and is not found in the original books.)

Because frankly, "pop culture" tends to mean "contemporary culture". Not the great works of our civilization, but the things we grew up with as kids. 20 or 30 years from now pop culture references are going to be to whatever kids and young people are watching today, not to Star Trek TOS and Man From Uncle.

Personally, I'd find it jarring to have characters in 2120 casually talking about Star Wars and Star Trek. Just like I would find it jarring if a novel set in 2018 had teenagers making casual references to Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplain.

If you need such references to make your story work, you could have one oddball character who is fascinated by the works of 100 years ago and who is presented in the story as having an odd fascination with this era. But frankly, I've seen many writers try to do this and it always come across to me as lame. This person in the far future just happens to be fascinated by the time that just coincidentally is when the writer of the story happens to live. It always comes across to me as very strained.

Why do you want to include such pop culture references? What do they do for your story? Do they serve a real purpose or did you just want to include them because you liked Star Wars or whatever and want to mention it? If that's the case, I'd say, Don't.

You can create your own pseudo-pop culture references. Have you ever noticed that comedians often tell a joke early in their act, and then at the end make some reference to that early joke? It gives the audience a feel like they're part of an "in joke". You can always do that.

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    I agree. Half the point of setting your story in the future is the fun of building an imaginary future world that's different from the present in interesting ways. Why would you want to shoe-horn in contemporary pop culture?
    – user30522
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 17:53
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    Of course they will still be casually talking about Star Wars and Star Trek in 2120. To think otherwise is the rankest of heresies sir! Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 20:04
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    @MichaelRichardson Any time I see a really bad movie, I think to myself: I wonder if when they were making this they realized it was stupid, hope to make a quick buck from people who pick it at random before they see any reviews; or are they thinking, Yes, someday when people talk about the greatest movies ever made, they'll talk about Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and this movie!!
    – Jay
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 2:57
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    Jay, if only you'd seen my six-year-old stabbing dinner rolls with forks and dancing them along the edge of the table...
    – IchabodE
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:45

I can invent it, but then it wouldn't serve the goal of a pop culture reference…

Paul Verhoeven isn't everyone's favorite director, but he often interjects invented "pop media" in his sci-fi: newscasts, tv commercials, in-world propaganda. Sometimes it works and sometimes it is painfully awkward (my critique: he blurs worldbuilding and satire, and Verhoeven is not a witty or funny person so his satire comes across as grotesque and exaggerated which undermines confidence in the accuracy of his world).

Verhoeven's successful insertion is the slogan "I'd buy THAT for a dollar!" which was repeated ad nauseam in RoboCop, until it became clear that it was just a meaningless catchphrase to trigger the "reward" of a laughtrack and jiggle women.

enter image description here

I think the reason it works is that Verhoeven is so on-the-nose about what a pop culture reference really is: a Pavlovian trigger. Ring a bell and the dog has been trained through repetition that there was a yummy treat involved, even though there really wasn't any.

Pop culture references in real life affirm tribal affiliations. Drop a recognized quote and it triggers an autonomic pleasure/reward response in your "tribe". People who don't recognize the quote do not react and are not your tribe. The "sci-fi geek" character drops pop culture references to trigger an autonomic response in the viewer, presumably another sci-fi geek. When it works the viewer identifies this character a member of his own tribe. Meanwhile, the other much more interesting (stronger, badder) characters stand around befuddled, haha the joke's on them. They are not "tribe".

Understand this does not work without breaking the fourth wall. The "geek" is tribe-signaling to the audience, not to the other characters. You keep seeing the geek do the signaling because of your media choices. Consider the character Elle in Legally Blonde who has a similar function but she is signaling to a different "tribe".

enter image description here

I use this example to contrast the sci-fi geek because if you are not a member of this character's tribe their constant pop culture references will make them seem shallow and kind of silly, at the very least they are socially unaware. Just as Elle is not taken seriously for her brains, sci-fi geek is not taken seriously as a leading man or love interest. This trope has baggage that undermines their maturity and seriousness.

Even in worlds where all the characters speak in popculture metaphors (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heathers, Shreck) the target of all that tribe-signaling is the audience. Other characters don't react at all. They don't laugh and say "Ooh, I loved that show," followed by a few more tribe-affirming references from their shared childhood experience (like happens in real life conversations).

For a character to make anachronistic culture references that no other characters will understand, nor have any desire to, and continue to do that as an ongoing character trait even when they know they will not be understood, I feel the character would have to be a literal person from another time AND have social/emotional problems that prevent them fully engaging in the here-and-now with the people around them. Either they are unable to adapt, or unwilling to adapt.

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    The last paragraph (pop culture reference made by person from another time) made me think of Back to the Future III where Marty (not wanting to identify as a McFly) picks the name John Wayne Commented May 1, 2018 at 14:20
  • +Hagen von Eitzen - You mean Clint Eastwood. Also "ooh, I loved that movie". Commented May 1, 2018 at 19:03
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    For a character to make anachronistic culture references that no other characters will understand (...) I feel the character would have to be a literal person from another time (...) unable to adapt, or unwilling to adapt That made me think of Peter Quill on Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Not quite literally "from another time", but close.
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 8:42
  • @xDaizu Guardians of the Galaxy is a really good deconstruction of the trope, because every time Peter has to explain where the quote came from and what makes it funny in the current situation. It's difficult to do for a character that's not comic relief, but the same technique can be used to insert made-up pop culture (Harry Potter is an example of this, with the children's stories that Harry's never read). Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 10:03

As others have said, avoid references to our pop culture completely, and invent your own. I think this is an example of making the world of your book much larger than that shown: as if the book is a window into a much larger world, which of course it must be in order to be a convincing piece of science fiction. I've seen authors (George RR Martin perhaps?) invoke a 10x rule for this - that the book should show a tenth of the fictional world, in terms of characters and places, compared to what the author has devised.

Dune is a good example of this, but with historical/religious references replacing pop culture: religious references (to different religions) are made frequently, with no explanation of what they mean. It's obvious that some of these religions are evolved from our own contemporary religions, but with many new elements.

Analogous to this, if you wanted your novel's world to feel like it still has some connection to our own, rather than being totally alien, you could "Mutate" current pop references into future ones, like people who worship statues of Carl Sagan or something like that. I think you would only need a small number of these.

Central to this approach, I think, is a glossary, for the reader who does want to understand the reference. Have a look at the glossary in Dune or Game Of Thrones - they feel like they were written by a historian living in the fictional world, often in a time after the period of the book, so that the events of the book have had time to be placed in a historical context (in this sense, the glossary can contain mild "spoilers", to some extent).

So, the road map could be:

  • create the whole world (including places, characters, culture and history), and make sure none of it contradicts other parts.
  • create the glossary based on that
  • write your novel featuring some of the elements listed in the glossary, ensuring it fits with all the consistency established in your larger world.
  • delete from the glossary (for your first novel at least) the elements that didn't happen to feature.

Obviously there's going to be a bit of back and forth, where as you write the story you have new ideas and change the world to fit. But the larger world can still act as a framework, to ensure consistency within the book.


Stranger in a strange land. A foil.

Create a tagalong character that needs explanations; a child, somebody new to the group, a good asset but a foreign born person that doesn't get pop references (even if they speak the local language without error or accent).

Pretty much the whole point of having Watson (in the original stories, not all derivatives) was to have somebody for Sherlock to explain his detective thinking to, because by himself it would not be in character to explain anything to anyone until he solved the mystery.

You can create a dynamic for this foil, a love interest, a responsibility, a necessary business partner, an expert in a needed field, etc. They can give as well as receive. But then you use your invented pop culture references (or others do) and your MC explains them to the foil. You can even have some comic effects, of the foil trying to use them incorrectly. "Beam me up, Scott."


The easiest way to handle this would be to have your geek be fascinated with our current time. Consequently, he'll have seen a lot of movies we know today. He might even be familiar with the memes themselves.

However, in that case, I would expect other people to react with confusion to these outdated references. I mean, yes, Shakespeare is still being read today, but if a Shakespeare nerd were to quote from any given play, it's pretty unlikely that someone not into Shakespeare would recognize the quote. (The most famous one is probably "to be or not to be" and even then few people know it's about contemplating suicide.)

Alternatively, if your geek showed his favourite movies to his friends and family, they'll recognize the quotes too, and they'd become a sort of inside joke among his circle of friends.

As for how to find out which references might last a century, you could make a list of non-recent geeky references and do a survey among people of different ages. (Actually, it's quite likely that something like that already exists somewhere.) Then keep the ones that are best known among people of all ages, and assume that some people in 2100 will still know them. Most of the others will probably have dropped out of common knowledge.

The age part is important. After all, 30 years is not that long. Children today will have picked up these references from their parents or even grandparents. However, after a 100 years, everyone who's seen these movies when they first came out will be long dead, so you'd have to rely on these classics having been passed on from generation to generation.

Disclaimer: I know your 3 top quotes and could even tell you where they came from, even though I haven't actually seen these movies myself. At the same time, "good night, sweet prince" means absolutely nothing to me.

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    "Good night, sweet prince" is Shakespeare. Hamlet, act 5, scene 2. :) Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:35
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    Funny that I referenced another more well-known quote from the same play. But that just proves my point. ;)
    – Llewellyn
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:39
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    I hope you are not telling people to write "Ready Player One" where all culture died in 2020
    – Andrey
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 15:39
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    In "Demolition Man", Sandra Bullock's character was obsessed with the 20th Century and kept quoting pop culture from it, but always wrongly, and had to be corrected by Stallone's character who was actually from the 20th C. That was a cute device but it shouldn't be overused. Incidentally Bullock's character' name was Lenina Huxley, itself a reference to the character Lenina from Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World". Commented May 1, 2018 at 9:39
  • Great temporal distance will certainly blur things al lot - "20th century? Wasn't that the time when this Columbus guy bought America from India? And just to think that he only had a plutonium-driven Tin Lizzy ..." Commented May 1, 2018 at 14:35

Consider the real possibility of history repeating itself.

If, sometime in the next 20-30 years, Western Culture readopts prohibition and makes possession/consumption of alcohol illegal, the social and cultural identity of the entire country might re-embrace the style, mannerism and phrases of the 1920's. The slang of that era might likely re-emerge.

Similarly, a non-nuclear world war might re-illuminate the culture of the 40's, while a controversial police action mixed with a generation of alienated youth might re-spark flower-power.

Regardless of what happens in the future, people living in those days may find more than just wisdom and lessons in their history books. They may also find their own new cultural identity in the half forgotten fragments of a similar, earlier time.


The general rule is this: The more current something is, the quicker it goes stale. Allusions are a way of contextualizing a piece of work, a shorthand way to borrow some of the magic of the source(s). But the cost of using them is this. To the same extent that they do work for you for the people that get the allusions, they will fail to do that same work for anyone who doesn't get them.

Particularly for speculative fiction, frequent current or anachronistic allusions diminish the independent reality of the paracosm and make it parasitic on our own reality, reducing it to a pastiche. If you really want your reality to live on its own, better to make it self contained, with its own allusions that travel along with it.

With all that said, everyone uses at least some allusions. And Shakespeare, Plato, and the Bible are all still read today, despite being thick with allusions that we no longer understand or have any access to. The key is to make the work strong enough that it stands up, even if you don't get any of the allusions.


I thought this was done brilliantly in new reboot of Solaris.RiddleBox by ICP was one of 3 songs on the soundtrack. Moreover, it wasn't just placed randomly in the movie to fill silence. Snow (Jeremy Davies) was actively playing this song on the sound sytem on the ship.I found this facinating this song would be playing so many years into the future.

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