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"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, Kepler, 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 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 to the future to see a new example but not far enough to not remember those we know currently. 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 mid XVII and early XX, which made Stalin and not Hitler start WWII.
A subtrope of Cryptic Background Reference.
- Bill and Teds 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.
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.
- It happens a lot in Ender's Game and Speaker For The Dead.
- 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 orang-outangs.
- 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 War Against the Chtorr book by David Gerrold, "The screams got louder, sounding like Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Show Low"
- Although, to be honest, the Show Low incident 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".
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 the 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, Caesar, Napoleon, 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 Boheme. 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.
- 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 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 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...
- Although 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.
- 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".
- * This is #5 of Cracked's 6 Sci-Fi Movie Conventions (That Need to Die), the example being "Newton, Einstein, Sulak".