Just how familiar are the people of Oz and the surrounding nations with the culture of the mundane world? It would seem that the most likely answer would be “not very,” but there are occasional references that suggest otherwise. One of the major ones is Victor Columbia Edison, the live phonograph named after the three main record companies in the United States at the time. Similarly, in the Utensia episode of The Emerald City of Oz, King Kleaver says he “must speak to Marconi” about a wireless sieve. The pun is obvious, but how would an inhabitant of a community so isolated that they don’t even know who Ozma is have heard of Marconi? Ruth Plumly Thompson has the Dictator of Dicksy Land reading Dickens, again bringing in the name for the sake of a pun, but also implying that nineteenth-century English literature has made it to Oz. So I guess the basic rule is that Ozites can demonstrate unlikely knowledge when the author thinks it’s funny. That said, it seems to me that it’s possible to go overboard with such references, and some modern Oz writers tend to do this. This came to mind recently due to Joe Bongiorno’s comment on my review of Chris Dulabone’s The Marvelous Monkeys of Oz, about a Winged Monkey comparing Sky Island to the U.S.S. Enterprise. Taken on its own, it’s not much worse than the references to Marconi or ragtime, but they’re really quite common in Chris’s books in particular. How would the Queen of the Scoodlers know what a ’58 Buick is, or an antique dealer in the Quadling Country have heard of George Washington and color television? Dave Hardenbrook’s Oz books share this quality, with one of the characters in his Unknown Witches being a pirate who enjoys watching Cheers on videocassette. I don’t mind such jokes in moderation, but when they’re overdone it kind of takes me out of the story. They might work better if the characters weren’t aware they were making them, perhaps. That’s usually what I’ve tried to do when making such references in my own Oz stories, but who knows how readers will react to that technique?
Another plot device I’ve seen in some relatively recent Oz books is the characters being familiar with the Oz series as we know it. There’s some precedent for that, as when we see a shelf of Oz books in Glinda’s palace in Kabumpo.
I guess it kind of depends on how you interpret L. Frank Baum’s title of Royal Historian of Oz. Does that mean he’s the historian for the people of the Great Outside World, or that his books are standard history books within Oz itself? I’m not necessarily so keen on the latter idea. The Famous Forty authors did give us examples of people from the Outside World knowing about Oz through the books, but not of Ozites studying their own history that way. I think the other thing that bugs me about all the references to our own culture is that it limits creativity in a way. Doesn’t Oz have its own culture that its inhabitants can reference? Their culture might reflect our own more than that of other fantasy worlds simply due to the fact that Baum made it modern in quite a few respects, but surely it has its own popular authors, right? Or has American culture become just as ubiquitous in Oz as it has in our own world? If so, let’s just hope Dorothy hasn’t started twerking. If John R. Neill’s illustrations are to be believed, she did keep up with American fashion to a certain extent.