Strangely enough, contemporary references in a written work will age with the work.
For example, Science fiction works which were “hard” when they were written will tend to “soften” over the years as science marches on. Go read Asimov’s work from the 50s – it’s based on a 1950s understanding of physics. Asimov doesn’t talk about string theory or dark energy. Because they hadn’t been discovered yet. Asimov’s work has a hyperdrive, which automatically tends to push you towards the softer end of the scale these days, but in the 1950s a hyperdrive wasn’t quite so implausible, so you could talk about hyperspace jumps and still be a fairly hard piece of sci-fi.
Similarly, if you read a work written in the late 1960s which makes many contemporary references, you’ll be reading about things which no longer exist – products which have since been discontinued or radically changed, companies that don’t exist any more, and people who have since died. You get a similar effect when a story is written for a particular audience or makes cultural assumptions – a book written for British readers will talk about pounds, while the American equivalent will talk about dollars.
I’m stating the obvious, right? Yup.
Enter “Bored Of The Rings”, a classic and brilliant parody of Lord Of the Rings, first published in 1969. It contains a bunch of contemporary references and talks about brands that no longer exist or are no longer popular, and a bunch of things which are American-centric, since it was written by Americans. But this in no way detracts from it’s awesomeness.
I was pretty close to the end of my first read-through when I realised what “Legolam” was, other than a misspelling of “Legolas”. It made me feel kinda stupid for not picking it up earlier. But at the same time, I felt kinda smart for figuring it out by myself (I was about 12, go easy). And the next time I read it, there were probably contextual jokes around the “Legolam” name which I didn’t get on the first read-through but did get on subsequent reads. It wasn’t until a reading during the internet age that I was able to find out what “Serutan” was. Another example from a different media: I got about 40% through my second viewing of the TV series “Veep” before I realised that “potus” wasn’t just a weird name or a nickname.
Figuring these little jokes and references out for myself is half the fun of it. This is what makes movies like Spaceballs such genius. It’s what’s awesome about Futurama. Any person who is able to watch Spaceballs through for the first time and list every single reference or parody has no life, and hasn’t enjoyed the movie at all because they were in ‘analysis’ mode – they probably couldn’t tell you what spaceballs was about because they were too busy making notes. This is why spaceballs is infinitely rewatchable – I will never know whether I have every single reference and in-joke. You’d be suprised how often I find new ones in this single example. My ability to find them and laugh at them expands as my knowledge expands – you won’t get the planet of the apes references unless you’ve seen planet of the apes. This is part of the joy of the film.
And Spaceballs isn’t the only example, it’s just one of many. It’s one of the roads to comedic genius – pack it tightly with references and in-jokes. Bored of the Rings is another great example.
But with bored of the rings, if you were born…say…after 1980, and especially if you’re also not American, you might struggle – there are lots of anachronistic or obscure references in that book.
So, helpfully, somebody has decided to update the book. I don’t know whether it’s only in the audiobook and therefore audible who are at fault or whether it was the genius idea of some editor while doing a revised edition, but it almost completely ruins the book.
What I’m talking about is this – the narrator of the audiobook will be reading along, and get to a reference, and then say “NOTE” and explain it for you, because apparently you’re such a fucking idiot that you’re completely incapable of using either google or wikipedia to look up things you don’t get.
So the audiobook goes like this:
“Spam Gangree, who was presently celebrating his suspended sentence for
the performing of an unnatural act with an underage female dragon of the opposite
sex. NOTE: ‘spam’ is a tinned ham product, and ‘gangree’ is a play on words for ‘gangreene’, a disease spam gives you.”
Oh, ha ha – the explanations are trying to be funny, too. Because spam gives you gangreene, you see.
One thing that really gets me about these explanations is that they’re very inconsistent – for example, I don’t think that “spam” requires an explanation – is there anyone who doesn’t know what it is? But these new added notes strangely omit explanations for the name “Dildo Bugger”. So I guess I’ll never find out what that one means.
The book has many saving graces – it’s still damn funny, even if you don’t understand any of the references – I understood few of them when I first read it. You don’t need these explanations for it to be funny, and in fact having the explanations sucks all the humour out of the joke, and destroys the re-readability of the book – if you already get all the jokes, there’s less in it for you to re-read it.
But at least there’s nobody out there confused about what spam is. That would be terrible.
If you want to read a great parody, go pick up a vopy of Bored Of the Rings. If you like Tolkien and have a sense of humour then you’ll be hooked by the time you get to the prologue. It’s far far better than both “The Soddit” and “The Sillymarillion”, books written decades later to cash-in on Peter Jackson.
For the record, wher I imply that I’m listening to an Audible Audio Book, I’m actually listening to a pirated copy in mp3 format, since Audible refuse to sell me a copy of the audiobook without DRM. I tried to give them money but they weren’t interested. Don’t buy things from Audible.
Excerpt from the prologue: