Let’s Get Meta: Science Fiction About Science Fiction

The following are some notes for an idea for a possible column for the Wayward Time Traveler on SF Signal:

In the November 1993 issue of Science Fiction Age, Scott Edelman had an editorial titled, “Some SF tries to answer the question, ‘What is Science Fiction anyway?'” He opens his essay with the question “Why is it that we read science fiction?” and then goes on to say:

What is it that we’re looking for there? Some have written lengthy essays attempting to pin down the appeal of the genre. But there are other writers who are trying to figure out the answer to that question by writing a special brand of science fiction which is called “recursive” science fiction, that is, stories that are not only SF in and of themselves, but manage to be about SF.

Scott’s editorial was my first introduction to the term “recursive” science fiction. But it wasn’t my first introduction to the idea that fiction could be meta. Indeed, I was at the time taking an excellent class on “metafiction” as part of my creative writing. In this class we examined stories by writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Italo Calvino and many other writers who commented on their literature through fiction.


I was surprised to find a vast array of recursive science fiction out there when I went exploring. Indeed, it seems to me that this self-referencing sub-genre, comes in three different variants. (There may be more or less, depending on your level of granularity, but three makes a nice number for a short column such as this.)

  1. Tuckerization
  2. Intertextuality
  3. Full-blown recursion

Tuckerizations–using real people as fictional characters–are probably the most familiar form of recursion about fans of the genre. Often times these are private and only those who know are in the know recognize the characters for who they are. But more recently, they have become more public, as when author action off Tuckerizations in their next book or story for some charitable cause.

Intertexuality is more subtle, but often more rewarding for the reader. One of my favorite science fiction novels is Robert Silverberg‘s Dying Inside. I devoured that novel. It was not only a conceptually good novel but the writing itself was of the highest quality. David Selig became one of my first dark heroes. Years later, while reading Gregory Benford‘s excellent novel, Timescape, I came across a passage in which the main character in Benford’s novel comes across a “David Selig” at a university in New York City. That was an instant of pure joy for me, recognizing the connection between the two worlds. I even emailed Doctor Benford a fan letter, and asked him if the connection was intentional. It most certainly was.

Full-blown recursive stories are, as Scott described in his editorial, science fiction stories that are about science fiction. Barry N. Malzberg‘s Gather in the Hall of Planets is a good example of this. His novel Herovit’s World is another example, although strictly speaking, the novel is not science fiction, but about a science fiction writer. There are actually many, many more examples by many writers, but Barry Malzberg is the master of the form in my opinion. His stories are not just recursive for the sake of the novelty, but the self-reflection acts as a commentary on the genre itself.

What I found most interesting as I explored this sub-genre was that while the term was relatively new, the concept, even within science fiction, was not. Isaac Asimov wrote a number of recursive short stories, even in his earlier days. His two most successful, in my opinion, were “The Immortal Bard” (because it was funny, pointed commentary on the interpretation of Shakespeare) and “Gold” which won the Hugo award in 1992. Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and many others have written recursive science fiction stories. While not strictly science fiction, Stephen King has also written a number of recursive stories.

There is a fascination with using the genre as a tool for commenting on the genre. There is an equal fascination with writers writing stories in which the characters are writers. And yet, as a rule, editors don’t seem to take well recursive science fiction stories. It’s not that they thing the stories are bad. I’ve received rejections for attempts at recursive science fiction in which the editor has described the story as “hitting too close to home.”

What I like best about the sub-genre is the commentary that it expresses in a novel way, through the fiction itself. Of the recursive science fiction that I’ve managed to read (and believe me, there’s a lot more that I haven’t read) I think that Barry Malzberg makes the best use of the technique. His commentary on science fiction through his numerous recursive stories is not always pretty. He opens up the genre with a razor blade and lets the guts spill out for everyone to see. But he does so in an elegant and clever way. And his stories were the first to really make me consider science fiction as more valuable than just entertainment. I will be forever grateful to Scott Edelman and his timely editorial. Without it, I might never have made such a wonderful discovery.

I mentioned just a few pieces of recursive science fiction. The list is much longer. For anyone interested in seeing an exhaustive list of recursive science fiction, check out the index of recursive science fiction on NESFA’s website.

So what do you think? Do you like recursive science fiction? Hate it? Does this kind of literature provide a valuable commentary on the genre?

One day I will write an essay on this subject and I will call it “Let’s Get Meta”. Maybe I’ll use it as a topic for my Wayward Time Traveler column on SF Signal… ;-)

17 thoughts on “Let’s Get Meta: Science Fiction About Science Fiction”

  1. I’m a fan of this sort of thing.

    I can give you *two* examples from the same TV series: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

     

    In one episode, Buck Rogers meets a retired pilot played by Buster Crabbe.  Said pilot was named “Gordon” and had “been flying since before you were born, Captain”.  Its a reference to Flash Gordon, whom Crabbe played long before Gil Gerard had been born…

     

    Then, in the second season of the series, a character was not only named Admiral Asimov, it was explained he was a descendant of the writer Isaac Asimov, and his laws of robotics applied to the robots on the ship.  

    And it is my hope and dream that one day, I will be tuckerized into people’s work.  I think of it as a form of immortality.  It’s also a quasi Zelaznyian Amberite shadow thing.  “Hey, a shadow of me exists in the universe of The Smalley Wave Solution, by Jamie Todd Rubin . Cool!”

     

     

     

  2. And, referencing something you said earlier, Jamie, it turns out that Tobias Buckell’s kickstarter has, as one of its upper rewards, the opportunity to have a character in the story named after you.  Only $500…

  3. Paul, I never even considered that they do this on TV shows, but now that I think about it, there were two great episodes of the show Millennium, “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” and another one in which Frank investigates a murder on the set of a TV show, both of which were highly recursive. I believe both episodes were written by Darin Mogan.

    I think I need to write a story in which each of the characters is named after SF Signal people. And of course, it will involve bagels. ;-)

  4. To answer your question, I love recursive science fiction. (It’s no accident that I’m in that index four times.) I think it gives us a thoughtful and amusing way to look at the genre we appreciate.

     

    NESFA published a whole collection of Barry’s recursive SF at one point, but I think he wrote some more stories since the book was published. Still, it is worth owning.

  5. Michael, I bought A Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg as soon as it first came out, back in 1994, I think. :-)

    My two favorites of your recursive stories are “Cosmic Corkscrew” (for obvious reasons, I think) and “I Remember the Future” because, like Asimov’s “Gold,” it’s a well done, poignant story. Of course, as guest editor for Apex Magazine, you published my pastiche of Barry Malzberg, “Hindsight, In Neon” in the April 2009 issue of the magazine, so I know you like the form.

  6. As far as fiction that comments on genre fiction itself goes, Peter Phillips’ “Dreams Are Sacred” comes to mind as a classic (and hilarious) example – about a fantasy writer who works himself into a coma, and a friend who has to enter his dreams (a la, much later, Dreamscape, The Cell, etc.) and brave an onslaught of parodies of sword-n-sorcery cliches to save him. 

    Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, ostensibly a Hugo-winning golden age novel written by Aldoph Hitler, is an obvious choice. He and Malzberg were on a similar vibe that way, at the time. 

    Nick Mamatas, for a new and not yet classic good writer, has done a few such stories I liked – one about the horror “The writer returns to his tiny home town to face the ancient evil again” trope, one about fifties human replacements/commie paranoia, a la Body Snatchers and Puppet Masters, I recall. 

     

     

  7. Oh, duh, and: L. Ron Hubbard, Typewriter In the Sky, Frederic Brown’s What Mad Universe, those are good, too. 

    Does Gaiman’s Sandman cycle about the serial killers’ con count, or is commentary on fandom another thing?  

  8. Robert, yes, and fortunately (and to my great relief) Barry loved it. Not sure if the issue is still available, but the story is in the first Apex anthology which is available here. The e-book version is only $4.99 and there’s lots of other good stories by excellent writers as well in the book.

  9. I’ve read a few books, but not as much as you. When I was a kid the lure for me was seeing the world. I love to watch movies and shows about worlds, that could only exist in our imaginations. Right now I tracking down some Octavia Butler, because people are telling me she’s really good.

  10. An early entry in the recursion derby (was it perhaps the first SF novel to comment on SF?) was What Mad Universe by Frederic Brown. 

     

    SPOILERS FOR WHAT MAD UNIVERSE FOLLOW:

    Transported to a bizarre parallel universe where Earth is at war with Arcturians, the protagonist eventually learns that this reality conforms with lurid pulp SF tropes, sprung from the imagination of an ardent science fiction fan.

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