The in-jokes from way out

Paul Raven @ 17-09-2010

Today’s XKCD may not be one of the funniest ever, but as is often the way, it’s the not-so-funny ones that tend to get me thinking:

Inside joke - XKCD

And as always, it’s the mouseover text that gets to the real point:

I’ve looked through a few annotated versions of classic books, and it’s shocking how much of what’s in there is basically pop-culture references totally lost on us now.

Now, that’s a pretty ubiquitous aspect of popular culture he’s on about, but I think we can suggest that sf will suffer more strongly than regular mimetic novels from this problem when appraised by the readers of the future. Making sense of, say, Jane Austen’s work demands an understanding of the sociopolitical milieu in which it was written, but imagine trying to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl a century from now (assuming, of course, that there’s still someone capable of reading it at that point). To fully grok the story and its commentary, the reader would need to understand not just the historical situation of the Noughties, but also the way the Noughties looked at the future, and (to a perhaps lesser extent) the way in which a work of sf tends to engage in a dialogue with its antecedents and contemporaries.

Of course, that’s partly true of almost any cultural sub-genre. And this here blog will read rather strangely in a century’s time, but (again assuming it’s still around to read, stuffed into a corner of a diamondite teracube in 2110’s equivalent of the Wayback Machine) there’d at least be the links there for context. But that assumes that the links aren’t dead either, of course… and that the reader would be bothered about checking that context. Hmmm. I seem to have just argued my way out of my own hypothesis; maybe Noughties sf in retrospect won’t look any weirder than any of its contemporary media. In fact, thinking about the music videos I’ve seen recently, it might get off quite lightly…

Even so, I quite fancy the job of knocking up hypertext Cliff’s Study Notes-style annotated versions of modern sf novels for the benefit of the cultural anthropologists of the near future… would anyone like to pay me to do that, please?

Related: Douglas Coupland pops in to the New York Times to coin some much-needed neologisms for the near future. I wonder if he has one for marginal book critics who portray popular post-modern authors as self-indulgent cynics?