Meta-SF: The Examples of Dick, LeGuin, and Russ

Article excerpt

Science fiction is less "about" science or the future than about 
fiction--world-making--and textuality--language, 
reference, interpretation. 
                    George McKay, "It's not 'about' science,..." 

* Several critics have argued cogently for the appropriateness of the genre-name "science fiction" by focusing on the first term of the label. Science is the principal instrument through which we exert power over nature, and Scholes and Rabkin argue "above all else, science fiction has used its special vision and its unique knowledge to trace the history of human power over nature and to ask how that power ought to function" (191). Gregory Benford states that the science in SF "represents knowledge--exploring and controlling and semisafe" (13), and I have elaborated on this insight by arguing that the discourse of SF is grounded in a scientific epistemology which assumes that there is an inherent order to nature that can be discovered through the systematic application of the scientific method. The discourse of SF assures us that the novums structuring its estranged worlds will yield to scientific investigation (Worlds Apart, chaps. one and five). (1)

Critics have dwelt on the science in SF, but have not given the same attention to the second term, "fiction," involving the power to invent the novums themselves. George McKay does address the fictionality of SF and attributes to the genre a "doubled difference": not only does it present a written world, separate from the real one, "but it seeks to displace or problematise the real world with its own imagined one" (52). McKay claims that SF is "about" fiction, but he doesn't really prosecute that claim. It has, in fact, been left mostly to SF authors to explore the nature and function of the genre's fictionality. SF deliberately and consciously unfolds in a made-up world--it knows that it is fiction--and some SF authors are acutely aware of that fact. These authors sometimes broach the question of reference, the relation between the fictive and the real. If they thoroughly thematize this issue, then they are writing meta-SF. The pioneer in this subgenre is Philip K. Dick. The opening sentences of Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," spells out some of the main themes and issues of the story. The tale begins with an awakening, presumably marking the passage from dream to reality, but it is an awakening that obscures the boundary between sleeping and waking, since protagonist Douglas Quail awakes dissatisfied, caught up in a very powerful "dream," a longing for Mars fueled by an intense desire, a "yearning." Indeed, the confusion grows, because, as he becomes more fully conscious, the dream grows more powerful, more real. Douglas Quail is a man who dreams both waking and sleeping about what he most wants--to go to Mars--and who tries mightily to translate those dreams into reality. The irony is that given his station in the futuristic world he inhabits--he is a lowly government clerk--the only way he can make those dreams real is, in effect, by dreaming them. He must hire someone to give him real dreams.

In order to real-ize his dream, Quail patronizes "Rekal, Incorporated," a firm which implants "extrafactual" memories into its clients while they sleep. Afterwards, these clients can remember having done something without actually having done it. Rekal promises to implant in Quail a false memory pattern guaranteed to satisfy his "life-long dream" (184); he will wake up firmly believing that he has been to Mars as a secret agent for Interplan. But, in a typical Dick reversal, the project backfires when the Rekal technicians put Quail under sedation, and the real persona emerges from the apparently timorous government clerk; Quail is actually a steely secret agent for Interplan, whose last assignment did in fact take him to Mars on a cold-blooded assassination mission. This reversal further obscures the boundary between real and unreal: the "reality" Quail has been living since the mission is a false one, his identity as government clerk having been manufactured by his previous employers, Interplan, who intend ed in this way to reprogram their agent and neutralize him. …