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Revision as of 05:35, 4 March 2013

Welcome to the explain xkcd wiki!

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Stories of the Past and Future
Little-known fact: The 'Dawn of Man' opening sequence in 2001 cuts away seconds before the Flinstones theme becomes recognizable.
Title text: Little-known fact: The 'Dawn of Man' opening sequence in 2001 cuts away seconds before the Flinstones theme becomes recognizable.

A larger version of this image can be found by clicking the image at xkcd.com which can as always be accessed by clicking on the comic number above.

Explanation

Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: A complete explanation of the comic is needed.

How to read the graph:

  • X-axis: Date of publication.
  • Y-axis, "Years in the future": Number of years the story's events take place, after the story's publication.
  • Y-axis, "Years in the past": Number of years the story's events take place, before the story's publication.
For example, "Water Margin" was published in the 14th century (x ~= 1300) and relates events from the 12th century, about 200 years before its publication (y ~= 200 in the past).
Another example: The film The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957 and it was set around 14 years before (~1942-43).
  • Grey area in the "Years in the future" part: Stories set in the future (relative to their publication date), for which the date of the events in the story is already in the past (relative to now). The white and gray areas in this part of the graph are defined as "still possible" and "obsolete", respectively. The gray area (obsolete) will expand over time, assuming more works aren't added in the future: predictions from science fiction or futuristic work that are not confirmed by reality are doomed to be obsolete.
  • Grey area in the "Years in the past" part: Stories set in the past (relative to their publication date) but published closer to their setting than to today. The warning "Modern audiences may not recognize which part were supposed to sound old" is a recurrent theme in the author's work, being already formulated in Period Speech comic. The white area seems to be the region where modern readers will be able to distinguish the past setting of a work from the age of the work itself. This gray area will grow over time (again assuming new works set in the past are not added) with more and more works being indistinguishable as works set in the past.

Randall's intent with this comic might be to point out that modern readers' universe is collapsing, with non-obsolete future predictions and recognizable depictions of the past both shrinking.

Taking the "years in the past" on the y-axis to be read as negatives like in most graphs one can write

  • Dates on the lower line satisfy the equation y = x-2015. Corresponding works were published in the year x = 2015+y and are set in the year x+y = 2015+2y.
  • Dates on the upper line satisfy the equation y = 2015-x. Corresponding works were published in the year x = 2015-y and are set in the year x+y = 2015.

Thus it's clear that the definitions of the lines are consistent with each other as they follow similar but inverted functions. The graph uses variable logarithmic scales, adjusting the scale in various regions to the temporal density of works being plotted. If the scale were linear, the graph would in fact represent a (bidimensional) Minkowski diagram, which depicts the moving cones of past and future in spacetime as one's present advances in time.

Works listed

Differences listed in bright red are "former period pieces." Differences listed in dark red are other works set in the past. Differences listed in bright green are "obsolete" works set in the future. Differences listed in dark green are other works set in the future.

Asterisks (*) after a year of publication denote that it applies to the first installment in a series that spanned more than one year.

Publication Description Year written Year difference Year set in Notes
Epic of Gilgamesh anicent Mesopotamian epic poem ~2100 BCE ~500 ~2600 BCE Enmebaragesi, a historically attested Epic of Gilgamesh character, is thought to have lived around 2600 BCE
The Iliad epic written by Greek poet Homer 700s BCE ~500 1260–1240 BCE
Book of Genesis first book of the Bible, describing the creation of the world 500s–400s BCE ~4200 3761 BCE The Anno Mundi epoch, the product of scriptural calculations by Maimonides, places the Genesis date of the creation of the world at October 7, 3761 BCE in the proleptic Julian calendar
History of the Peloponnesian War history written by Thucydides ~400 BCE ~10 431–411 BCE
Gospels collection of literary works detailing the life of Jesus of Nazareth ~65–110 CE 25–75 7–2 BCE – 30–33 CE Setting dates are those of Jesus' estimated lifetime. Writing dates are as follows: Mark 65–73 CE; Matthew 70–100 CE; Luke 80–100 CE; John 90–110 CE. Randall's difference calculation seems to be based on the date of Jesus' death, as the majority of the Gospels' events takes place during the three years prior to Jesus's death.
Ashokavadana narrative of the life of Ashoka the Great 100s CE ~400 304–232 BCE
The Pillow Book book written by Sei Shōnagon 1002 6 996
Water Margin novel by Shi Nai'an late 1300s ~150 early 1100s
Richard III play by William Shakespeare 1597 112–119 1478–1485
Henry IV plays by William Shakespeare 1598* 185–196 1402–1413
King Lear play by William Shakespeare 1608 2400 700s BCE
King John play by William Shakespeare 1623 ~400 ~1200–1216
Henry VIII play by William Shakespeare 1623 90–102 1521–1533
Julius Caesar play by William Shakespeare 1623 1667–1670 45–42 BCE
Memoirs of the Twentieth Century book written by Samuel Madden 1733 264 1997
Rip Van Winkel [sic] short story by Washington Irving 1819 32–52 1767–1787 It's not clear why Randall has chosen 1787 as the year that Rip Van Winkle awakes.
The Last of the Mohicans novel by James Cooper 1826 69 1757
Moby-Dick novel by Herman Melville 1851 5+ before 1846 Inspired by events occurring in 1820, the late 1830s, and the early 1840s
A Tale of Two Cities book by Charles Dickens 1859 84 1775
Les Miserábles [sic] novel by Victor Hugo 1862 47 1815–1832
Treasure Island novel by Robert Louis Stevenson 1883 ~120 ~1760
Looking Backward novel written by Edward Bellamy 1888 112 2000
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court novel by Mark Twain 1889 1361 528
Golf in the Year 2000 novel written by J. McCullough 1892 108 2000
The Time Machine novel written by H.G. Wells 1895 800 000–
1 000 000 000
800 000–
1 000 000 000
Note that Randall has included only part of the book; which includes scenes all the way from the time of writing to the death of the last life on Earth. The part of the story marked is so far in the future that the hundred plus years between publication of the book and the comic have no noticeable effect on the timing of the setting.
Enoch Soames short story by Max Beerbohm 1897 100 1997
Gone With The Wind novel by Margaret Mitchel 1936 75 1861
Lest Darkness Fall alternate history SF novel by L. Sprague de Camp 1939 1404 535
Casablanca film directed by Michael Curtiz 1942 <1 1941
Oklahoma! Broadway musical 1943 37 1906
1984 novel written by George Orwell 1949 35 1984
The Bridge on the River Kwai film by David Lean 1952 ~10 1942–1943
Gunsmoke American radio and television series 1952* ~75 1870s 1952 is when the radio series started. The TV series didn't start until 1955.
The Ten Commandments film by Cecil B. DeMille 1956 ~3000 ~1446 BCE
The Music Man Broadway musical 1957 45 1912
A Week in the Wales of the Future novel written by Islwyn Ffowc Elis 1957 76 2033
Asterix French comic by Goscinny and Uderzo 1959* 2009 50 BCE
The Flintstones TV series produced by Hanna-Barbera 1960* ~2.5 million Stone Age
Catch-22 (Book) novel by Joseph Heller 1961 ~17 1942–44
The Jetsons TV series produced by Hanna-Barbera 1962* 100 ~2062
Lawrence of Arabia film by David Lean 1962 ~44 1916–1918
The Great Escape film by John Sturges 1963 20 1943–1944
Star Trek (TOS) TV series created by Gene Roddenberry 1966* 298 2264
Bonnie and Clyde film by Arthur Penn 1967 ~33 1932–1934
2001: A Space Odyssey novel written by Arthur C. Clarke 1968 33 2001
2001: A Space Odyssey (prologue) prologue to novel written by Arthur C. Clarke 1968 3 million 3 million BCE 4 million years BCE in the movie
Catch-22 (Movie) film by Mike Nichols 1970 ~26 1942–1944
M*A*S*H film by Robert Altman 1970 19 1951
Patton film by Franklin J. Schaffner 1970 ~25 1943–1945
American Graffiti film by George Lucas 1973 11 1962
Blazing Saddles film by Mel Brooks 1974 100 1874
Chinatown film by Roman Polanski 1974 37 1937
Happy Days TV series 1974* 19–29 1955–1965
Space: 1999 TV series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson 1975* 24 1999
Annie (play) Broadway musical 1977 44 1933
Roots TV series, adapted from eponymous novel 1977 90–227 1750–1882
Star Wars (IV – VI) original film trilogy 1977* 1 billion "A long time ago" It's not clear why Randall has chosen 1 billion years here. Wookieepedia puts the age of the Star Wars galaxy at ~13 billion years, and our Universe is only 13.8 billion years old, and the oldest known galaxy took 380 million years to form... So it would seem Star Wars should be no farther than 400 million years in the past, give or take.
Grease film by Randall Kleiser 1978 20 1958
Apocalypse Now film by Francis Ford Coppola 1979 10 1969
Chariots of Fire film by Hugh Hudson 1981 57 1924
2010: Odyssey Two novel written by Arthur C. Clarke 1982 28 2010
Annie (movie) film adaptation of the above by John Huston 1982 49 1933
Gandhi film by Richard Attenborough 1982 ~34 1893–1948
The Right Stuff film by Philip Kaufman 1983 ~20 1947–63
Transformers (TV Series) TV series 1984* ~20 ~2004
Back to the Future film by Robert Zemeckis 1985 30 1955
Platoon film by Oliver Stone 1986 21 1967
Dirty Dancing film by Emile Ardolino 1987 24 1963
Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series created by Gene Roddenberry 1987* 377 2364
2061: Odyssey Three novel written by Arthur C. Clarke 1987 74 2061
The Wonder Years TV series 1988* 20–25 1968–1973
Back to the Future Part II film directed by Robert Zemeckis 1989 26 2015 Only the first part of the movie is set in 2015; later the setting moves to an alternate 1985 and a revisit of 1955.
Zero Wing arcade/computer game 1989 112 2101 Previously referenced in 887: Future Timeline
Back to the Future Part III film by Robert Zemeckis 1990 105 1885
JFK film by Oliver Stone 1991 ~22 1963–1969
Terminator 2 (1995 Portion) film directed by James Cameron 1991 4 1995
The Sandlot film by David Mickey Evans 1993 31 1962
Schindler's List film by Steven Spielberg 1993 ~50 1939–1945
Apollo 13 film by Ron Howard 1995 25 1970
Raptor Red novel by Robert Bakker 1995 ~65 million Cretaceous Period
Evita film by Alan Parker 1996 44 1952
3001: The Final Odyssey novel written by Arthur C. Clarke 1997 1004 3001
The Big Lebowski film by the Coen Brothers 1998 7 1991
The Prince of Egypt animated film by DreamWorks 1998 3400 ~1446 BCE
Saving Private Ryan film by Steven Spielberg 1998 54 1944
That '70s Show TV series 1998* ~22 1976–1979
Freaks and Geeks TV series 1999* 19 1980–1981
Star Wars (I – III) prequel film trilogy 1999* 1 billion "A long time ago" See note at episodes IV–VI
Pearl Harbor film by Michael Bay 2001 60 1941
Enterprise TV series 2001* 150 2151
I Love the '80s TV miniseries by VH1 2002 13–22 1980–1989
Ice Age animated films by Blue Sky Studios 2002* ~12,000 Paleolithic-Mesolithic
Hotel Rwanda film directed by Terry George 2004 10 1994
I Love the '90s TV miniseries on VH1 2004 5–14 1990–1999
United 93 film directed by Paul Greengrass 2006 5 2001
300 film by Zack Snyder 2007 2487 480 BCE
Mad Men TV series 2007* ~47 1960–1970
10,000 BC film by Roland Emmerich 2008 11,992 10,000 BCE
Year One film by Harold Ramis 2009 2008 1 CE
Downton Abbey TV series 2010* ~90 1912–1923
The Wolf of Wall Street film by Martin Scorsese 2013 ~18 1987–1995
I Love the 2000s TV miniseries on VH1 2014 14 2000
Star Wars (VII – IX) sequel film trilogy 2015* 1 billion "A long time ago" See note at episodes IV–VI

Errors

Dates

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation is vertically positioned at about 500 years in the future, slightly too high for its actual date. This may be to allow room for other nearby labels.
  • The Gospels are horizontally positioned at about the year 250 CE, when they should be positioned slightly further to the left, near the 100 CE line. (While there is debate on their date of authorship, the range of "years in the past" indicated on the graph would require authorship between roughly 50 and 100 CE.)
  • Lest Darkness Fall takes place about 1400 years in the past, in the year 535. Its placement on the graph indicates it takes place about 535 years in the past, in the year 1400.

Spelling

  • Author Washington Irving titled his work Rip Van Winkle, not Rip van Winkel as Randall spells it. That said, van Winkel may be a more historically authentic spelling.
  • Les Misérables has been misspelled Les Miserábles (note that French doesn't use the character "á").

Transcript

Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
Date of publication
[A logarithmic scale running horizontally, from 3000 BCE to past 2015 CE]
Years in the future
[A logarithmic scale running vertically, from 1 billion down to 0]
Stories set in the future (science fiction, prediction)
Stories set in 2015
[A line divides this region into two. The upper side is labelled "still possible"; the lower side is labelled "obsolete".]
[from left to right...]
Memoirs of the Twentieth Century [1700, 265 years in the future]
Looking Backward [1888, 112 years in the future]
Golf in the Year 2000 [1892, 108 years in the future]
The Time Machine [1895, 800 thousand to 30 million years in the future]
Enoch Soames [1916, circa 60 years in the future]
1984 [1949, 35 years in the future]
A Week in the Wales of the Future [1957, 76 years in the future]
The Jetsons [1962-63, 100 years in the future]
Star Trek [1966-69, 300 years in the future]
2001: A Space Odyssey [1968, 33 years in the future]
Space: 1999 [1975-77, 24 years in the future]
2010: Odyssey Two [1982, 28 years in the future]
Transformers (TV series) [1984-87, 20 years in the future]
2061: Odyssey Three [1987, 74 years in the future]
Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987-94, circa 500 years in the future]
Back to the Future Part II [1989, 26 years in the future]
Zero Wing [1989, 112 years in the future]
Terminator 2 (1995 portion) [1991, 4 years in the future]
3001: The Final Odyssey [1997, 1004 years in the future]
Enterprise [2001-2005, 150 years in the future]
This chart [2015, 0 years in the future]
Years in the past
[A logarithmic scale running vertically, from 0 down past 1 billion to "Big Bang"]
Stories set in the past (History, Period Fiction)
Stories written X years ago and set 2X years ago
[A line divides this region into two. The upper side is labelled as follows.]
Former period pieces
Stories set in the past, but
created long enough ago that
they were published closer
to their setting than to today.
Modern audiences may not
recognize which parts were
supposed to sound old.
[from left to right...]
The Epic of Gilgamesh [circa 2100 BCE, 600 years in the past]
The Iliad [circa 800 BCE, 450 years in the past]
History of the Peloponnesian War [circa 390 BCE, 10 years in the past]
Book of Genesis [circa 500 BCE, 4000 years in the past]
Ashokavadana [circa 100 BCE, 300 years in the past]
Gospels (various estimates) [circa 250 CE, 24 to 75 years in the past]
The Pillow Book [1000 CE, 5 years in the past]
Water Margin [circa 1300, 195 years in the past]
Richard III [circa 1590, 115 years in the past]
Julius Caesar [1599, 1650 years in the past]
King John [circa 1600, 500 years in the past]
Henry IV [circa 1600, 190 years in the past]
King Lear [circa 1606, 3000 years in the past]
Henry VIII [circa 1612, 105 years in the past]
The Last of the Mohicans [1826, 69 years in the past]
Rip Van Winkel [1819, 31-51 years in the past]
A Tale of Two Cities [1859, 60 years in the past]
Moby-Dick [1851, anywhere from 4 to 14 years ago]
"Some years ago--never mind how long precisely..."
Les Miserábles [1862, 30 years in the past]
Treasure Island [1883, 130 years in the past]
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court [1889, 2000 years in the past]
Gone with the Wind [1936, 70 years in the past]
Lest Darkness Fall [1939, 550 years in the past]
Casablanca [1942, 1 year in the past]
Oklahoma! [1943, 37 years in the past]
The Ten Commandments [1956, 1400 years in the past]
The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957, 13 years in the past]
Gunsmoke [1952-61, 80 years in the past]
The Flintstones [1960-66, 100,000 years in the past]
Catch-22 (book) [1961, 18 years in the past]
The Great Escape [1963, 20 years in the past]
Asterix
Lawrence of Arabia
The Music Man
Bonnie and Clyde
2001: A Space Odyssey (prologue)
American Graffiti
Patton
Catch-22 (movie) [1970, 27 years in the past]
Chinatown
Blazing Saddles
Apocalypse Now
Happy Days
Grease
M*A*S*H
Annie (play)
Roots
Chariots of Fire
Star Wars (IV-VI)
Annie (movie)
The Right Stuff
Back to the Future
Gandhi
Platoon
Dirty Dancing
Back to the Future Part III
The Wonder Years
JFK
The Sandlot
Schindler's List
Raptor Red
Apollo 13
Star Wars (I-III)
The Big Lebowski
Evita
Saving Private Ryan
The Prince of Egypt
Freaks and Geeks
Hotel Rwanda
I Love the '80s
That '70s Show
Pearl Harbor
Ice Age
I Love the '90s
United 93
300
10,000 BC
Year One
The Wolf of Wall Street
I Love the 2000s
Mad Men
Downton Abbey
Star Wars (VII-IX)

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