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Recursive SF

Entry updated 25 September 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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Recycling material from the vast and growing storehouse of the already-written has long been a practice of sf writers. Plots and characters constantly reappear throughout sf, usually but not always in the form of sequels written by the author of the original work; venues (like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars) become universal props; and terms descriptive of devices or circumstances unique to sf (from BEMS to Corpsicles to partials – Greg Bear's coinage for autonomous computer-generated partial copies of human personalities, here discussed under Avatars) tend, once introduced, to become common parlance. When Robert A Heinlein made reference in "The Number of the Beast" (1980) to characters and situations which appeared in earlier novels by him and other sf writers, he was operating in this traditional manner. But when he introduced into the same book people – writers, editors, fans – who had been involved in sf itself, he did something very different, something which marked his career, and the sf genre within which the book was written, as approaching a late and self-referential phase. Wilson Tucker so frequently introduced real figures into his stories that such insertions became known for a while as Tuckerisms; but a Tuckerism is a private allusion or joke among friends, and should not be seen as making a binding argument about the relationship between fiction and the world. Heinlein, on the other hand, was writing full-blown recursive sf, a term narrowly defined in Anthony R Lewis's An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction (1990 chap) as "science fiction stories that refer to science fiction ... to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.". More broadly, recursive sf may be defined as stories which treat real people, and the fictional worlds which occupy their dreams, as sharing equivalent degrees of reality. It is, in other words, a technique which may be used to create Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.

An amusing early example from George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945) is the "electric hedge" (see Force Field) used to immobilize and confine future troublemakers; this borrowing from a similar device in Rudyard Kipling's "As Easy as A.B.C." (March-April 1912 The London Magazine) is acknowledged when a victim complains of being "Kiplingized". Another instance prior to Tucker's popularization of sf name-dropping is "He Who Shrank" (August 1936 Amazing) by Henry Hasse, whose events are supposedly communicated to and published as sf by the "renowned" author Stanton Cobb Lentz (Stanton A Coblentz).

Novels with recursive elements include Alma Alexander's AbductiCon (2015), Brian W Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound (1973) and Dracula Unbound (1991), Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976), Manly Banister's early spoof on sf fandom, Egoboo: A Fantasy Satire (1950 chap), Michael Bishop's The Secret Ascension (1987; vt Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas 1988), Anthony Boucher's detective novel Rocket to the Morgue (1942), Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe (September 1948 Startling; exp 1949) and Martians, Go Home (1955), Gene DeWeese's and Robert Coulson's Now You See It/Him/Them (1975) and Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats (1977), Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), David Dvorkin's Time for Sherlock Holmes (1983), Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go (January 1965-March 1966 Worlds of Tomorrow; fixup 1971) and its sequels, Charles L Harness's Lurid Dreams (1990), David Langford's and John Grant's Earthdoom! (1987), Sharyn McCrumb's farce-mysteries Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) and Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992), Barry N Malzberg's Dwellers of the Deep (1970 dos), Gather in the Hall of the Planets (1971 dos, both as by K M O'Donnell, a pseudonym which itself homages C L Moore and Henry Kuttner), and Herovit's World (1973), Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno (August-October 1975 Galaxy; 1976; rev 2008) and Footfall (1985), Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard (1989), Christopher Priest's The Space Machine (1976), Mack Reynolds's mystery The Case of the Little Green Men (1951), Rudy Rucker's The Hollow Earth (1990), Fred Saberhagen's and Roger Zelazny's The Black Throne (1990) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr's God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965). Many further titles could be added.

Media examples of note include Nigel Kneale's Kinvig (1981); Martian Successor Nadesico (1996), whose spoofing of Anime tropes includes a show-within-a-show which the cast watches and criticizes; and Galaxy Quest (1999), which affectionately mocks both Star Trek and its Fandom.

Inside the Funhouse (anth 1992) edited by Michael Resnick assembles examples of the form, with an introductory essay. A useful reference is An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction (1990) edited by Anthony R Lewis, subsequently much expanded on line [see links below]. [JC/DRL]

see also: Cthulhu Mythos; GURPS.

further reading


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