Metafictional Science Fiction: A Short History

Metafiction is a narrative technique that has been part of Western storytelling for hundreds of years: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615), Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1776), Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-1853), Herman Hess’ Steppenwolf (1927), Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (2005), and the oeuvres of Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, Phillip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs. In essence, works like these involve the author explicitly drawing our attention to the fact that what we’re reading or watching is fictional, or has been informed by the fictions that have come before it, be it by breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader, mise en abyme (the appearance of a book within the book we’re reading), or the insertion of the author into their text, among many others. Because it is a technique that relies on our understanding of the mechanics of literature, our appreciation of metafictional works is deepened by our knowledge of the art of storytelling and any specific characters, stories and/or genres employed to underpin an author’s metafictional elements.

Metafictional devices roughly fall into one of two categories: they exist at either a narrative-level (within the text) or at an audience-level (outside the text), although some writers combine the two. As an example, take the difference between the comic series Fables and Planetary. Fables concerns the citizens of Fabletown, a secret neighbourhood in New York City—refugees from different worlds who escaped conquest by a villainous army and made a home on our world, and upon arrival discovered that they are also characters in our own fairy tales. The Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Little Boy Blue, the Three Little Pigs and their ilk are both ‘real’ within Fables narrative and characters in fictional stories, an example of metafiction working at the narrative-level. Planetary, however, is very different. Concerning a group of ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible,’ it follows their attempts at uncovering the secret history of the world, which consists of a multitude of pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction staples. Godzilla-style monsters, mad scientists, enormous insects created by radiation, anime-style digital ghosts, superheroes and their literary predecessors, and parallel dimensions are ‘real’ in Planetary’s narrative. But at the audience-level, they are a metafictional device commenting on pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction’s influence on our own culture and society.

Metafiction has been used in genres as disparate as romance, crime, literary fiction, horror, westerns and comedy. But when it comes to science fiction, metafictional devices have been adopted wholeheartedly by some authors. This hasn’t always been the case, though. Prior to the so-called New Wave/Second Generation of science fiction, almost no works of metafictional science fiction existed. While the reasons for this are many and varied, until the late 1950s/early 1960s, science fiction was still ‘finding its feet.’ Let’s not forget that it wasn’t really codified as a genre until the early 1920s, its ‘pioneers’ creating a brand-new method of storytelling derived from a set of liminal devices shared by writers of what we now call classics—Franz Kafka, James Joyce, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe. But these pioneers didn’t just create the genre, they also expanded it over time, slowly pushing its boundaries and widening its range of themes, styles and concerns. As more and more writers began dabbling in the genre and using it in their own ways, and as the genre grew in popularity, a dynamic process took effect in which science fiction began a constant evolution. However, while these pioneers were dazzling and groundbreaking, it took the generation of writers who came after them to break the genre wide-open. Many of these writers grew up reading the pioneers, and were inspired by them, but they took what the pioneers had created and dragged it into the positive maelstrom of cultural change that defined this point in history. They moved science fiction away from its pulp roots and suffused it with a hitherto unseen degree of literariness, experimenting with form, style, perspective, chronology, structure and grammar.

These were the so-called New Wave/Second Generation writers, emerging in the late 1950s/early 1960s before dominating the field in the late 1960s/early 1970s. One of the consequences of their emergence was the birth of metafictional science fiction, which can be dated as far back as the release of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in 1962, but didn’t really achieve momentum until the late 1960s. In the space of a decade, dozens of works of metafictional science fiction were released, many of which are now considered modern classics: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (1967), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971), Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975) and Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration (1977). This flood of work slowed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the subgenres of cyberpunk and hard science fiction began to dominate the field, but it didn’t stop: Philip K. Dick’s Valis and Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation were both released in 1981, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake in 1997, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen in 2001, and Nina Allan’s The Race in 2016.

What these works have in common is that they all work at a narrative-level—that is, the metafictional devices used exist within the text. For example, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history story in which the allies lost World War II and the United States are now ruled by the Germans and the Japanese, with these rulers hunting down an author who has written a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which details how the allies actually won the war. This manhunt is instigated as the German and Japanese rulers believe that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy will eventually lead to their downfall, due to its power as a piece of propaganda. In the end, it turns out that the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy used the I Ching to direct his writing, leaving us with the inference that a kind-of ‘universal power’ guided his hand in order to reveal the real truth: that Japan and Germany actually lost World War II, and that the characters of The Man in the High Castle actually exist inside a fiction.

Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy works in a similar way. A sprawling epic that is simultaneously satirical and postmodern, it is a kind-of science fiction-influenced adventure story revolving around a number of different pop-culture conspiracy theories. Deliberately over-the-top, especially in its final act, it contains many metafictional devices: moments in which the narrative stops dead and Shea and Wilson review and deconstruct the work itself; the inclusion of a wide variety of staples and characters from works of science fiction and genre-fiction that preceded it; and numerous instances in which different characters, baffled by the outrageous nature of their adventures, question whether they are actually characters in a book. Most of the other works listed above work in similar ways. In Priest’s The Affirmation, a writer creates a complex work of fantasy fiction that eventually blends his identity with that of his main character; Delany’s The Einstein Intersection combines an original work of fiction with excerpts from Delany’s own travel diary, with the line between the two slowly becoming indistinguishable; and Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, another alternate history, concerns a post-apocalypse novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, which was written by an alternate version of Adolf Hitler who emigrated to the United States after the Great War and became a successful science fiction writer, with the entire book followed by a fictional critique that explains its framework and metafictional trappings.

However, in the late 1990s, the direction of metafictional science fiction began to change. Rather than existing solely at a narrative-level, writers began to branch out and incorporate metafictional devices that worked at an audience-level (that is, said devices exist outside the text). In works like The Man in the High Castle and The Iron Dream, the reader doesn’t need to be a war historian in order to understand what is going on. The same concept applies to works like The Illuminatus Trilogy and The Einstein Intersection—our enjoyment and understanding of these works isn’t predicated on our knowledge of conspiracy theories or Delany’s life. The same can’t be said for much of the metafictional science fiction that emerged in the late 1990s, as the success of these works is dependant on the reader’s knowledge of science fiction’s history and tropes. Without this knowledge these works can leave the reader confused or exasperated.

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is an extreme example of this change of direction. Set aboard the spaceship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, it begins with a prologue that, to those in the know, lays the book’s metafictional cards on the table: a group of senior officers bemoan the strangely high casualty rate of low-ranking crew members who accompany senior officers on away missions. A newly-recruited ensign soon realises that something is amiss aboard the Intrepid: ensigns suffer the aforementioned high casualty rates, otherwise competent officers occasionally act incompetently, the basic laws of physics sometimes go awry, and the Intrepid boasts technology that sometimes produces last-minute inventions and medicines which are impossible to produce on demand. It soon transpires that the Intrepid’s reality and timeline are actually being periodically controlled and influenced by a trash science fiction television show from the past that has somehow been beamed into the future, and the show’s writers create thrills and hackneyed plot devices as a way of increasing its dramatic tension. All of this is, as any science fiction fan can see, a criticism of the original Star Trek series, which is notorious for featuring such cliched situations. However, this set-up, and the wild metafictional ride that follows, only really makes sense to those who know the ‘rules’ and modus operandi of Star Trek. Without such knowledge, Redshirts is a somewhat confusing book that follows unexplained rules, rather than a satirical critique of the type of lazy writing that abounds in science fiction.

Other works also revel in this type of audience-level metafictional science fiction. The film Galaxy Quest (1999) details a group of has-been actors that once starred in a Star Trek-esque show, who are abducted by aliens who believe they are actually real crew members of an intergalactic spaceship; in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), a time machine mechanic encounters numerous famous characters from the annals of science fiction as he tries to extract himself from a typical science fiction time loop; the stories in Julia Elliott’s collection The Wilds (2014) splice together science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes to create works that baffles those with little or no knowledge of the rules underpinning these genres; while Gene Doucette’s Unfiction (2017) concerns a budding writer whose genre characters and scenarios enter his real life, with amusing and sometimes disastrous consequences.

So, why has metafictional science fiction changed so much? In essence, the science fiction community has moved from the fringe to the centre—‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are no longer insults, but badges of honour; science fiction dominates our screens and bookshelves; and our postmodern age means that audiences raised on New Wave/Second Generation science fiction are no longer only seeking something as simple as a straightforward story, but also craving works that speak to their knowledge and love of the genre. And science fiction is all the better for it. In general, metafictional works tend to either be a riotous romp or an indulgent mess, but most creators of metafictional science fiction achieve the former rather than the latter, opening our eyes to the ways that science fiction has influenced the world around us.

(Originally published in Aurealis #108, March 2018)


One thought on “Metafictional Science Fiction: A Short History”

  1. I have been reading posts regarding this topic and this post is one of the most interesting and informative one I have read. Thank you for this! The rule of thumb is that writers are free to use anything imagination can invent and depict so long as it does not contradict the laws of science. Check this out A Guide to Science Fiction Subgenres


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: