Examples of a trope: posthumous vindication
June 22, 2022 4:48 PM   Subscribe

Today, in connection with Control in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the thought popped into my head: "Oh, I like the kind of story where someone is disgraced or their theories refuted and they die in tragic obscurity or ignominy, but then it turns out later that they were right and their actions or research end up having helped save the world."

But then I thought..."the kind of story?" What other fictional examples are there of this particular type of plot, so that I have subconsciously classified it as a trope? I couldn't think of any, though I feel I must have seen some. Meg's father in A Wrinkle in Time comes close, but he didn't really help save the world. Sarah Connor would've fit, if she had been dead when Terminator 2 began, but of course she wasn't.

What about you, Mefi? Can you think of any?
posted by praemunire to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want real historical examples or only fiction?
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:10 PM on June 22

Response by poster: Fiction, please. Although I guess a good historical fiction treatment (that emphasized this theme) would count!
posted by praemunire at 5:12 PM on June 22

The classic is Cassandra, of course. There's a few related TVTropes (warning: TVTropes) items that may give some notable examples.

A fair amount of cosmic horror is in a way predicated on this type of situation. Usually there's a rediscovery of some kind of knowledge that was either sealed away deliberately by that person (usually a good idea) or they tried to warn others of it and were dismissed. Sometimes the world is saved... sometimes, not so much!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:35 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

Good Omens's Agnes Nutter, Witch.
posted by humbug at 5:48 PM on June 22 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: The classic is Cassandra, of course

Cassandra, alas, saves nothing, not even herself.

A fair amount of cosmic horror is in a way predicated on this type of situation.

Right, that's what I thought, too, until I started trying to think of examples!
posted by praemunire at 6:00 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

This might be way off base for what you're thinking of, but isn't this pretty much how Christians view Jesus?

The Gene Hackman character in The Poseidon Adventure might also fit (if you count saving a group of people rather than the world).
posted by FencingGal at 6:34 PM on June 22

posted by rhamphorhynchus at 6:40 PM on June 22

In the cosmic horror vein, the video game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem features the tragic tale of Maximilian Roivas.


Living in the family estate in Rhode Island, USA, in the year 1760, he discovers that the estate is built upon a vast and cyclopean underground city designed to summon a Great Old One to our plane of existence. His tales of the discovery and the fact that he killed his demon-possessed servants (and some that weren’t, just to be safe) got him locked in an asylum for the rest of his ignominious life.

Generations later his descendants continued his research and exploration, and in the year 2000 were able to prevent the summoning of the Old One and save the world. They even got some help from Max’s ghost (among others), so Maximilian could at least enjoy his posthumous vindication.
posted by ejs at 7:52 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

"John, the kind of control you're attempting is not possible. If there's one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but - well, there it is."
- Dr. Ian Malcolm is a mathematician who specializes in a branch of mathematics known as "Chaos Theory". Malcolm is one of the main characters of the Jurassic Park franchise as well as the main protagonist in the The Lost World: Jurassic Park. ...
He dies in the first movie, but then recovers from the condition.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:28 PM on June 22 [5 favorites]

There was an episode of ST:TNG, "the Wounded", that was kiiind of like this. A Federation captain, Maxwell, is convinced that the Cardassians are re-arming in the neutral zone under the false guise of a science station. There is no proof that it's not a legitimate science station. Maxwell goes rogue and destroys a Cardassian ship that he thinks is carrying weapons. Maxwell is disgraced and taken into custody for this action. In the last scene, Picard tells the Cardassians that Maxwell's action was illegal but that doesn't mean he was wrong about the re-arming and that he (Picard) knows perfectly well that the Cardassians are lying about the science station.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:05 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]

Yeah, TNG has used variants of this idea several times, with researchers dying before their theories are vindicated:
  • In "The Chase", Picard's old archeology professor isn't disgraced, but has retreated from the spotlight to privately research a pet theory. After he's killed, Picard is able to complete his project and discover the common origin of all humanoid life in the galaxy.
  • In "Suspicions", a Ferengi scientist (Dr. Reyga) is trying to develop a new type of shield that can withstand the corona of a star, but is mostly written off as a crackpot. During the first test flight of his shield, it apparently fails, killing the pilot. Shortly afterward, Reyga is found dead, having apparently killed himself out of guilt. Dr. Crusher's sleuthing eventually reveals that the shield actually works just fine; the pilot faked his own death and killed Reyga, to discredit him and steal the technology for himself.
  • In "Force of Nature", a pair of scientists are trying to prove that warp travel is causing gradual damage to unstable regions of subspace, threatening their home planet. The Federation hasn't been taking them seriously, so they resort to ambushing ships to draw attention to their cause. Eventually, one of them goes out in a blaze of glory, blowing up her own ship to create a subspace rift that proves the issue is real.
  • In "Thine Own Self", Data is stranded on a pre-industrial planet with amnesia, and gets taken in by a local village. Despite having lost all his knowledge of modern science, he deduces that a local "plague" is actually caused by radiation poisoning, and develops an antidote. Unfortunately, most of the villagers don't believe his theory and blame him for the sickness, and he gets killed by an angry mob. (He gets better, so maybe this one doesn't count.)
The sci-fi/fantasy web novel Ra also uses this trope. In the novel's alternate history, "magic" is discovered in the 1970s by an elderly, retired physicist, who dies before the significance of his work is realized or acknowledged.

More loosely, if Mr. Murry from A Wrinkle in Time sort of fits, then I'd say Kevin Flynn from Tron: Legacy does too.
posted by teraflop at 10:16 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]

Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a possibility, even though the trope of the "maverick" rip-roaring male against a hegemon whose face is female hasn't aged well. The movie is good but the book is better.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:18 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

There is a pale imitation in the plot of Treasure Island: man in possession of a secret dies, and there is treasure in the end.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:00 AM on June 23

Bill Bryson's decidedly non-fictional "Short History of Nearly Everything" makes Clair Patterson's campaign against using lead in ..... everything?.... in the mid-20th c. sound close to what you're describing, but I think he got some traction late-in-life rather than posthumously. But I wonder how many of these stories might be baked into the history of science (or any field) where the younger researchers stop trying to convince the old guard that they're right, and just wait for a few funerals to flush out the old-heads.

Earlier in the same book, there's a story about how Lord Kelvin was dismissive of the discovery of radiation, and how that could synch two disparate estimates of the Earth's age that had been causing trouble. I don't think anybody ever convinced him; they just waited for him to totter off into the sunset (and stop being a bottleneck).
posted by adekllny at 8:01 AM on June 23

I think the movie Michael Clayton with George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton would fit the bill.
posted by victoriab at 11:54 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Not quite the same, but in the novel "Lucifer's Hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the character Dan Forrester, a scientist, aids the post-apocalyptic society by not only hiding a cache of "how-to" books (in a septic tank, if I remember correctly) to help rebuild society after comet fragments hit the Earth, kill billions, and Russia and China launch nuclear warheads at each other. Also, I believe that instead of manufacturing insulin for his diabetes, Forrester works on more important things that would benefit everyone in the community (although one of them is mustard gas to aid in fighting off ravaging mobs who only want to destroy). Forrester dies as a result of not treating his illness.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:33 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

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