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… ;-)

Filed under: The Wayward Time-Traveler

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