Updates: My 7 Favorite Metafictional Science Fiction Novels

Here are my seven favorite metafictional science fiction novels. By metafiction I’m referring to devices such as breaking the fourth wall (characters addressing the audience), the author addressing the reader, a story about a writer writing a story, a story containing another work of fiction within it, a work where the narrator reveals himself or herself as the author of the story, narrative footnotes, etc….

I’d love to hear your favorites (they don’t have to be novels)!

Obviously, these types of experimental works only appeal to some readers (especially fans of the sci-fi New Wave movement of the late 60s and early 70s) but I personally love seeing experimentation in an often — dare I say — stylistically stale genre.  Often, the metafictional aspects do not prevent authors from deploying traditional narratives.

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My top seven (and an honorable mention):

1. Beyond Apollo, Brian N. Malzberg (1972) (REVIEW) — what you read is most likely the novel written by the main character. However, he’s most likely insane so attempting to get AT the true nature of his voyage to Venus is purposefully layered… Complicating the matter is how unreliable of a narrator he is and the fact that he’s tells many versions of the same story. Malzberg pokes fun at pulp science fiction throughout — which he clearly enjoyed as a child.

2. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968) — the metafictional aspects are rather hidden in this New Wave masterpiece (my single favorite sci-fi novel).  Brunner’s vast (in scope and depth) mosaic of invented book fragments, advertising jingles, and narrative portions are interspersed with news articles taken from his own day — including the school shooting at the University of Texas in 1966.  Of course, as readers we’re geared to imagining that everything Brunner is presenting to us is in the future — in this case an overpopulated world wrecked with social problems — the articles from  the authors era make his message all the more terrifying.

3. The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad (1972) (REVIEW) — in an alternate past Hitler leaves Germany for the United States after WWI and becomes a hack sci-fi writer (WWII never happens). What you read is Hitler’s posthumous Hugo-winning novel, Lord of the Swastika (which is really a sort of sci-fi post-apocalyptical future version of what Hitler wants to do — and really DID in our timeline — albeit in a different way) — also, attached to the end is a brief afterword by an editor of Lord of the Swastika — which, is clearly some version of Spinrad for he critiques his own writing.  However, the editor does not know our timeline so he has trouble figuring out the meaning behind the story.  An absolutely brilliant critique of pulp SF/F. Spinrad DESERVES a revival.

4. What Entropy Means to Me, George Alec Effinger (1972) (REVIEW) — Effinger revels, and I mean gloriously revels, in metafictional experimentation.  The result is a multi-layered/complex homage to the the act of literary creation.  The novel will especially appeal to readers who love to read about the act of writing, readers who have previously tried their hand at writing, and those aware of the history of literature (Medieval Romance, etc).

5. The Man in a High Castle, Philip K. Dick (1962) — most sci-fi fans know this famous alternate history of WWII…. Not only was I Ching supposedly used as an external narrative dictating principle by Dick himself but a novel appears within the book describing what really happened in WWII…. A delightful work and an easy way to introduce people to metafiction.  Kingsely Amis, in his alternate history novel The Alteration (1976) in which the Reformation never happened, pays homage to PKD’s novel by including a book named The Man in a High Castle describing the world in which the Reformation occurred.

6. The Einstein Intersection, Samuel R. Delany (1967) — a bizarre tale, as are most of Delany’s works, where Delany’s own diaristic travel experiences feature heavily before each chapter… The interplay between the actual narrative and his interjections can be intriguing (although, when I first read the book years ago I found it more frustrating than not — but, it is often downright poetic).

7. Revelations, Brian N. Malzberg (1972) (REVIEW) — The entire novel is comprised of the contents of the main character’s drawer — fragments of diary entries, interviews, show transcripts, letters.  Malzberg manages to weave together all these fragments into something cohesive and fascinating.

An honorable mention goes to Malzberg’s Guernica Night (1975) (REVIEW) — The author himself enters the narrative and recounts a dream he had about the person to whom the novel is dedicated: “And so it is night, and I dream that I am talking to Gil Orlovitz (1919-1973) once again, perhaps in a state of dreaming, perhaps waking, one is not sure; night is unjointed as one ages.  ‘Use artifice,’ Orlovitz counsels, ‘use artifice, use art, use masks, the manipulation of masks behind which the truth may be given, because only the masks are universe, and only the deceits count'” (124).  Of course, these are key concepts to “understand” the story he has told.

What are your favorites?  Your top 5?  Your favorite metafictional short stories?

For more LISTS and ARTICLES consult the INDEX.

48 Replies to “Updates: My 7 Favorite Metafictional Science Fiction Novels”

      1. How about Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, you gave that a great review, so good that I have been trying to find a copy? The only ones I have read on your list are 3 and 4, so I will have to check out the first two, but no douglas adams? I hope its number 6.

      2. The Iron Dream is listed as no. 3…… Unfortunately all the editions are really expensive unless you find them at used bookstores. The ebook is 8$ but the transcription is supposedly awful. I desperately hope that Gollancz releases it in their masterwork series.

        I’m not fan of most comic science fiction — although Adams is one of the best at it… Just not my cup of tea. I did enjoy it when I was 12.

    1. I really enjoy the book within a book metafictional device. However, I’m not a fan of Ender’s Game or Speaker…. Or any of Card’s work in general.

      I’m being rather contrary today — haha

  1. Wow! I thought that I was the only person who ever read “Einstein Intersection”. One of my favorite books of all time.

    Phillip Dick has so much meta-fiction–my favorite is probably “A Maze Of Death.”

    Also George Alec Effinger’s “What Entropy Means To Me”. Effinger is another one who routinely smashed the 4th wall.

    I would add William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride”–the film concentrates on the inside story of Buttercup and Westley, but the original novel is much more about Goldman–how he came to be a writer, and his relationship with his immigrant father. (Not science fiction, I realize, but there are strong fantasy elements.)

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’ve read A Maze of Death but don’t remember the metafictional elements — could you remind me?

      Oh crap, utterly forgot What Entropy Means to Me — one of my five favorite science fiction novels of all time. I wrote a review a little while ago….

      https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/book-review-what-entropy-means-to-me-george-alec-effinger-1972/

      I’ll add it to the list. If I were including fantasy I’d definitely add Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: And Afterword. Highly recommended if you haven’t read it.

      Yeah, this was more a sci-fi list.

      1. “A Maze Of Death” may not be “meta-fiction” in the way that you mean it here, actually–it’s more that the end reveals that what is going on is not what seems to be going on.

        Oh–how about Frederic Brown’s “What Mad Universe”?

      2. Well, I used an established definition of metafictional devices… Not sure a final “plot twist” is really metafiction — hehe.

        I’ve heard of Brown’s novel but have not read it. It’s been on my list for a while. I should find a copy.

  2. I would suggest Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation as literary sci-fi which uses meta-fiction–in this case the main character’s autobiography–to directly inform the story at hand. I’m not sure it fits your definition, but Stand on Zanzibar contains innumerable excerpts from society, albeit fictional… Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit likewise has elements of fictional journalism.

    I keep looking for Malzberg, but damn he’s hard to get a hold of…

    1. Ah yes, The Affirmation is another novel I’ve been on the lookout for — unfortunately, due to my focus on 40s-70s sci-fi I haven’t ventured into the 80s much in the last 4 years….

      Yes, I remember Stand on Zanzibar’s selections of news articles — for example, the 1966 shooting on The University of Texas’ campus. By far my favorite science fiction novel but forgot about those selections. Hmm… Should I add it to the list or not considering it’s rather hidden, hmmm.

      As for The Jagged Orbit, I read it a few years ago and remember little (in my mind Stand on Zanzibar tends to overshadow concrete memories of the other works of his I’ve read).

      Well, online Malzberg’s books aren’t that expensive. You could snatch up a bunch for under 4 bucks each. Might be worth it. Especially Beyond Apollo and Revelations.

      EDIT: I forgot, you live in Poland… Getting ahold of Malzberg would indeed be much more difficult than in the UK or US. Is shipping from the UK prohibitively expensive?

      1. I know you prefer the 60s and 70s… 🙂 But Priest’s novel transcends era, and is as much humanist as the sci-fi published at the heart of the New Wave.

        Another book came to mind after I commented, but again I’m not sure whether it fits your criteria. Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration is not technically a story, rather a series of journal entries that can be taken either as the protagonist writing to themselves or to the reader, the story indirectly told in the process.

        And yes, since I’m Poland, how could I have forgotten Stanislaw Lem?!?!? His book A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of fictional book reviews.

        And a note on the Orson Scott Card comment above; I have to agree with you, he can easily be overlooked without missing anything worthwhile. Funny enough, there is one moment in Speaker for the Dead when Card’s moralizing becomes so overt that he does actually break the fourth wall for the briefest of moments to admonish the reader. I wish I had written down the page number to quote it here – it’s some impassioned stuff! 🙂

        Ebooks, well, unfortunately I’m still too old fashioned and prefer the hard copy. I keep waiting for a used edition of Malzberg to pop up on the Polish version of ebay. Who knows, stranger books have appeared, so perhaps his will someday. And maybe by that time I will have been converted to a virtual reader… (A side note, I recently listened to a discussion between Malzberg, Gary K. Wolfe, and Jonathan Strahan at Strahan’s Coode Street Podcast. They spend an hour intelligently discussing worthwhile sci-fi books and authors of the 50s and 60s in hindsight. It may be of interest to you.)

      2. Not sure I would call A Perfect Vacuum science fiction at all… But yes, it’s a wonderful homage to Borges and one of Lem’s best works in my opinion.

        Camp Concentration is on my shelf waiting to be read.

        Cool (the podcast) — can you provide a link.

  3. Camp Concentration: I think Joachim will definitely like this, very literary. Disch is a good writer, and Camp Concentration is above average for Disch. I have never thought of it as “meta,” though.

    What Mad Universe: This is not bad, but, personally, I felt like the “metafictional” elements, especially at the end, were kind of a cop out. I like traditional adventure narratives, so sometimes “hey-guys-this-is-just-a-silly-story” stuff can be a letdown for me.

    Malzberg: Galaxies is very “meta,” if Joachim hasn’t read it yet he certainly should. I read it in the collection Three in Space.

    1. I plan on reading all three — haven’t got my hands on the second two yet. But, Camp Concentration is on my shelf waiting to be devoured. I know I will like Galaxies…

    1. Haha, I could — it’s the reason I left Guernica Night off the main list and listed it as a honorable mention… I need a copy of Herovit’s World as well. Thanks for your suggestions! I do love Malzberg and wish Gollancz or someone would republish some of his works which have been out of print for a long long time.

  4. Off the top of my head…

    Robert Sheckley’s 1975 novel “Options” begins as a crash-landed spaceman attempts to get a spare part to repair his ship and make his way home, but soon involves the author himself as Sheckley makes use of every metafictional trope imaginable, even to a circular ending, as the author repeatedly attempts to return from plot digressions to get the novel back on track, without success.

    Vonnegut’s use of the fictional science fiction author Kilgore Trout, who appears as a bit character in early novels and soon assumes center stage, possibly as an alter-ego for the hack sf author Vonnegut felt he would have become if he hadn’t left the SF literary genre early on in his career, and Philip Jose Farmer’s appropriation (with Vonnegut’s consent) of the character to create a novel written, apparently, by Trout himself (“Venus on the Half-Shell”), and Farmer;s incorporation of Trout into his “Wold Newton” literary family tree (which relates Trout by blood to Doc Savage, Tarzan, and the Shadow, among many others, seems to be metafiction of a sort.

    Fritz Leiber, who frequently included autobiographic elements in his fiction, sometimes used himself, or a thinly veiled version of himself (as with “Franz Westen, who even lived at the same address as Fritz did at the time ” in his wonderful San Francisco-based horror novel “Our Lady of Darkness.” In his short story “Catch that Zeppelin!” a Fritz Leiber in a parallel universe visiting the Empire State Building gradually is subsumed into the “real” Fritz Leiber.

    I went on a Barry Malzberg reading jag back in the early 1980s and read pretty much everything he wrote – one of my favorite novels by Malzberg sometimes doesn’t show up in his bibliographies, “The Spread”, a softcore novel about the editor of a porn tabloid who appears to be going insane, or who is fantasizing the whole thing (he shares traits with Herovit, including a suspicious wife and an adulterous affair – hell, he may actually BE one of Herovit’s fantasies) which I found in a 1980 rerelease by Leisure Books – an odd little imprint which tried to use the bare-bones “generic” product marketing (made famous in the film “Repo Man”) that was popular in the early 1980s to try to sell books cheaply. It is available in an inexpensive Kindle version now, I see.

    http://vintagesleazepaperbacks.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/the-spread-by-barry-malzberg-belmont-tower-1971/

    Philip Jose Farmer wrote a twin series of soft-core porn SF novels that were later collected as “The Nature of the Beast,” which included SF fannish icon Forrest J. Ackerman as one of the characters.

    Borges, of course.

    Not quite SF, but the reclusive J.D. Salinger, although best known for “The Catcher in the Rye,” included an oddly metatextual short story in his collection “Nine Stories,” (originally published in The New Yorker) as the narrator’s boy’s club is regaled by the story-telling of their inventive young coach whose continuing tales (which take up much of the story) of a deformed but brilliant master criminal – “The Laughing Man” of the story’s title, who is able to cross the “Chinese-Paris border” – parallels the young man’s own failing relationship with his girlfriend. As the relationship ends, the Laughing Man is finally captured and dies, to the dismay of the young audience.

    Steven King has been known to introduce metatextual stories within a story, as in “The Body” (adapted for film as “Stand By Me”), and writing shared universe novels with his pseudonym, Richard Bachman.

    One of the first SF writers, the swordsman Cyrano de Bergerac, could be said to have started the metafictional trend with his story of his (Cyrano’s) attempts to reach the moon – are tall-tale brags a form of metafiction?

    1. Enjoyed your detailed comment! Thanks!

      I’m definitely looking forward to getting my hands on Sheckley’s Options. I enjoyed (and reviewed) his short novel Status Civilization (1960) a while back and read one of his short story collections — Store of Infinity — both were great fun.

      I’ve only read Lieber’s The Big Time (1958). I do have a short story collection — Pale of Air — waiting to be read.

      Yes, Borges of course (I’ve read almost all his fiction) — he’s really not sci-fi….. My favorite non sci-fi work of metafiction has to be Potocki’s Manuscript Found at Saragossa from the late 18th century — it’s a frame story within a frame story within a frame story with the geography purposefully not how it is on a map. Delightful.

  5. I’ll toss in Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963, variant title Monkey Planet). I liked it better than either of the film versions, and the story is told as a discovered manuscript, read by one character to another (these characters appear at the beginning and the end of the novel). A good satire of Verne, mankind’s relation to animals, etc.

      1. Yes, I recommend Apes. One of my reading projects is non-English-language SF. Boulle, of course. Just finished Lem’s Return From the Stars. Keeping an eye out for secondhand copies of Macmillan’s Best of Soviet SF series, helmed by Theodore Sturgeon in the ’70s. Loved World Soul by Emtsev and Parnov. The only one I’ll probably never get hold of is the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, because the prices are sky high. Sigh.

      2. On abebooks there are copies for 11 bucks — Roadside Picnic that is — not so horrible — not like a copy of Spinrad’s The Iron Dream or Bunch’s Moderan! But yeah, I tend to procure expensive books through my university library — and its amazing inter library loan system.

        I’ve not read Return From the Stars but did read The Futurological Congress a few months back (never got around to reviewing it — sigh) but I highly recommend the work.

        Thanks for the other suggestions.

      3. Yep, the Strugatski book is amazing. I love the film (Stalker) but the book is even better.

        If I can suggest an interesting non-English SF novel, check out Karel Capek’s “War With the Newts.” Very timely on issues such as animal rights, animal feelings, colonialism, etc., also a damn funny satiric author. The only other Capek I’ve read is “R.U.R” which of course gave us the word “Robot,” but I’d like to find more. The Bantam cover art on the 1955 paperback seriously weirded me out when I found a copy as a kid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WarWithTheNewts-BantamA1292.jpg

      4. Yes, the film is amazing (and Tarkovsky in general — Andrei Rublev is probably my favorite with Stalker a close second and Solaris third). The only film of his I haven’t seen is Nostalgia…

        Here’s another amazing cover of Newts — by Jerome Podwil, a highly underrated sci-fi illustrator.

        I wonder who the artist is for the ’55 edition. My friend just wrote an entire PhD dissertation on the term “robot” and how the conception of robot/android etc evolved from its introduction through the Cold War/the Rise of Communism etc. When his book comes out — hopefully within the next few years — I will snatch up a copy. Sometimes I wish my dissertation involved lots of 30s-60s sci-fi….

      5. You’ll like Return From the Stars. An astronaut returns from an interstellar expedition, in a ship that traveled at near-light speeds, to an Earth that’s 200 years older. It’s all about the incredible sense of loss (and guilt and failure) he experiences on an unfamiliar Earth.

    1. Forgot to add that “War with the Newts” is also metafictional – the final chapter is an extended interview with the author who described what will happen after the events of the novel.

      Anthony Burgess did something of the same kind in his novel “1985” which combines chapters that are self-interviews with the author about Orwell’s 1984, followed by a novella that shows what 1984 was likely to be more like (not too far off the mark, actually).

      1. Cool, now I really want a copy.

        Speaking of Burgess, have you read The Wanting Seed (from the early 60s)? It’s about overpopulation — one of my favorite 50s/60s/70s themes. I’m really curious about his take on the subject — a darkly satirical take I imagine.

      2. Yes, “The Wanting Seed” is one of my favorite dystopian novels – Burgess looked at how societies swing between the Augustinian and Pelagian extremes, often to the detriment of the people who are just trying to make a life in the middle of it all. Some seriously disturbing images remain with me from that novel, that I won’t spoil for you. I recall reading that he wrote a lot of his early novels very quickly in a spurt of energy, as he had a medical diagnosis that he would die prematurely and was trying to crank out and sell as many novels as he could to help provide for his wife. The diagnosis was, thankfully, mistaken but those short early novels (which include “A Clockwork Orange” were some of his best. He tried out a lot of genre-driven plots with his own spin on them – another favorite from this period is his James Bondian spy thriller, “Tremor of Intent,” which uses the British upper-class Soviet spy scandals of the 1960s (Kim Philby and that lot) with the anti-Catholicism of the British establishment for a really fast-moving plotline with a bizarre twist ending. Also a funny political novel about British tourists visiting the USSR in the 1960s, “Honey for the Bears.” Not SF, but fun nonetheless.

  6. As long as Lem is on the table, I feel impelled to nominate “Imaginary Magnitude,” as an SF metafiction par excellence: a collection of spurious introductions to nonexistent books. As with “A Perfect Vacuum,” it resists a lot of the genre connotations of the “science fiction” tag–to say nothing of a “fiction” tag alone. But its thematic bent is so heavily on the side of what we recognize as SF (alternate/future technologies, bacterial intelligence, sentient computers, etc) that it would be hard to apply any other label. Plus, the depth and exuberance of its world-building put most speculative fiction to shame. It may not be for everybody–it’s certainly not my go-to recommendation for those unfamiliar with his work–but I think it more than earns its place in this discussion. Cheers!

    1. I read it a while ago and loved it. Lem has always been one of my favorites. I think the best of his novels might be His Master’s Voice — in his contact sequence (i.e. Solaris, Eden, Fiasco, etc).

  7. Valis is probably my favorite Philip K. Dick novel. I think this can be considered metafiction, as the author suddenly appears as one of the characters in the book.

    1. Yeah, another one I’ve read. I think I would enjoy it more at this point of my life though. When I was in my PKD craze at 16 or so I didn’t appreciate VALIS as much as his earlier stuff.

  8. I’m glad to see the shout out for Stand on Zanzibar. It is my favorite SF novel as well. Are you familiar with John Dos Passos? Brunner lifted the narrative structure (with some slight modifications) from Dos Passos’ USA trilogy and used it in Stand on Zanzibar. If you ever feel the need to read some non-SF, you might want to check the trilogy out. Also, thanks for reminding about Beyond Apollo and What Entropy Means to Me. I have them both buried in a box in my attic. I’m now feeling the urge to them dig them out and read them again.

    1. Yes, I’m familiar with John Dos Passos. But have not read the trilogy…

      Do it! Find the box! And any other fantastic novels that might be hidden within it….

      But yes, everything else that Brunner wrote does not approach Stand. Well, besides The Sheep Look Up, and perhaps, The Jagged Orbit….

  9. I’m just getting acquainted with your blog and it appears that you are focused on the ’60s and ’70s, but what’s your take on Rudy Rucker? He appears to love the metafictional devices you mention, such as appearing in his own books, parodying other writers, and breaking the fourth wall. Oh, and how about John T. Sladek?
    Anyway, great blog!

    1. Ah, I have a good percentage from the 50s as well — so more 50s-70s. I’ve read about RUdy Rucker but I’ve never read his work. I’ve only read Sladek’s The Reproductive System (Mechasm) and was unimpressed… But I suspect I’ll like some of his other work, for example his short story collection where he parodies the style of other SF writers, etc.

      1. Yes, it was Sladek’s SF parodies I had in mind–those have stayed with me longer than some of his original stories!
        “Master of Space and Time” was the first Rucker I read, and along with the “Ware” series it’s probably the most accessible entry point. Thanks for the reply!

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