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

By Malmgren, Carl | Extrapolation, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

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

Malmgren, Carl, Extrapolation

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

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


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.