Speculative fiction has a storied and fantastic history, and while every book is in conversation with genre conventions to some extent, some speak a hell of a lot more loudly than others. These books explicitly comment on the conventions, memes, and tropes of SF/F, either critiquing or blatantly referencing their predecessors. Here are eight unapologetically meta speculative novels.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon’s novel Pulitzer Prize-winner is a love letter to the history of comics. In 1939, a young would-be escape artist from New York named Joe Kavalier and his newly emigrated cousin Sammy Clay turn to the burgeoning field of comic books in pursuit of the American Dream. Chabon tends to fall on the literary side of the book world, but he wears his geeky credits proudly, and even worked on a draft of the screenplay for Spider-Man 2. His novel takes place in roughly the same world as the one inhabited by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, and closely follows the trajectory of early comics’ history.
Armada, by Ernest Cline
Some novels are coy about their use of meta narratives; with his second book, Armada, Cline goes for a rather more of a direct approach. Zack Lightman is an obsessive video game player who just wants to get out of high school and begin working at a gaming store. His plans are upended when he learns that the game that he’s been playing for years is actually a recruiting tool for a military force that will be the last line of defense against an alien invasion speeding toward Earth. If that sounds a little like The Last Starfighter, you’re not wrong. Cline puts a modern spin on the story, not only referencing that film by name, but also Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Star Wars, and a multitude of others. His first novel, Ready Player One, is also chock full of references and meta narratives.
I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas
H.P. Lovecraft’s reputation is not-undeservedly tarnished these days, and it will be interesting to see just what Nick Mamatas’s upcoming novel, I Am Providence will do to further drag the master of unseen horrors into the light of modern-day mores. A Lovecraftian author attends a Providence Lovecraft convention at which a fellow author dies, a tragedy with its own occultish overtones. A Lovecraft horror novel set at a Lovecraft convention is just the perfect setup, and we’re really eager to see how this one plays out. See also: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle.
Redshirts, by John Scalzi
John Scalzi’s Hugo-Award winner takes place on the starship Intrepid. Its crew members begin to realize that the below-the-line away team members are dying at enormously high rates. Even worse, they figure out why: they’re really living out a Star Trek-eque television show, and the production’s terrible writers are killing them off one by one. To save themselves, they have to enter the real world and confront the frustrated writers directly (just go with it). It’s a fun riff on the conventions of science fiction television, enhanced by the fact that Scalzi worked on a television production (Stargate Universe) a couple of years earlier..
Arkwright, by Allen M. Steele
Older sci-fi novels are often dinged for failing to predict the future; the world isn’t turning out like those classics imagined it would. When Allen M. Steele began to put together his latest novel, Arkwright, he added a new author to the famed “Big Three” trifecta of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov: Nathan Arkwright, who channels his considerable earnings into a foundation dedicated to bringing humanity to interstellar space and ensuring the future really is as fantastic as he imagined it. The first section of the novel follows Arkwright’s career, layering in a new set of characters to genre history with irresistible skill. (In a fun twist, Steele’s imagined scenario more or less just became fact.)
A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay
A family is ripped apart when their daughter begins to exhibit signs of acute schizophrenia—or is she possessed by a demon? Priests and a reality television show descend on the house to document the events as they unfold, providing the basis for one of the more horrifying stories I’ve read in a long time. Tremblay uses this book to cast a look back on the horror genre; movies like The Exorcist and authors like Daryl Gregory and others are fair game. What’s really amazing is how Tremblay takes a good hard look at the conventions of Gothic horror itself, and weaves his commentary into the narrative.
Among Others, by Jo Walton
Among Others earned Jo Walton the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2011, in part because the old guard of fandom couldn’t resist its descriptions of the world of fandom and reading in the 1970s. Morwenna Phelps is a boarding school student coping with the lingering scars of a magical battle with her own mother, one that killed her twin sister and left her crippled. To cope with her isolation, she turns to science fiction and fantasy novels, recording her thoughts on the novels in a sort of running commentary on genre history. It’s a quiet, excellent novel that considers the power of stories and science fiction.
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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
Charles Yu’s debut novel is meta from the title on down, and that wry reconsideration of the genre continues throughout the rest of the narrative. The narrator is Yu himself, sort of, though this version of him is a time travel technician whose job is to save people from themselves. When not taking calls, he’s trying to find his father, who vanished years ago after inventing time travel. The book is a brilliant, recursive masterpiece, one in which the physical copy which you’re reading becomes part of the story itself.
What’s your favorite meta-narrative?