Borges, the Vulcans, and I

The estimable Alana Joli Abbott, whose novels Departure and Into the Reach are now available via DriveThruRPG, posted a few days ago on the fun and games of featuring authors in fiction.  She’s especially intrigued by the show Castle, the titular character of which is a James Patterson-esque super-mystery writer brand.  Richard Castle has actually published novels in “our” world, which (by virtue of the show’s popularity) have become NYT best-sellers – so Richard Castle, the fictional character played by Nathan Fillion, is a real-world bestselling author.

This Borgesian trick tickles my fancy, too.   It has a long and noble lineage in science fiction and fantasy, the best example of which that springs to my mind is the author Kilgore Trout.  Trout’s a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, and was intended as a fictional parallel to the author Theodore Sturgeon.  In Vonnegut’s books, Trout writes science fiction halfway between the gutter and the stars (as Fatboy Slim would have it) – Trout’s stories are mostly published (in Vonnegut’s world) by porn mags as filler, because text is cheaper than photographs.  The stories aren’t pornographic, they’re just side-by-side with the naked ladies.

Of course, there has been a real science fiction novel written by Kilgore Trout, a book called Venus on the Halfshell that’s hiding in my storage closet somewhere in Tennessee.  It feels like an American 1960s version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: everyman evades Earth’s destruction and travels the galaxy in search of one particular space babe.  Thing is, Venus wasn’t written by Vonnegut.  It was written by Philip Jose Farmer, one of the giants of SF and fantasy.  So, we have a fictional author based on a real-life author, who then serves as the pseudonym for yet a fourth author who writes a real book.

As if this wasn’t funny enough, Farmer and his daughter shows up in Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Place stories as time-traveling police officers from an alternate reality.  Confused yet?  To keep score, that’s a real writer, fictionalized, writing a book for a fictional writer who is himself a fictional version of a real writer.

I’m not enough of a PoMo nut to talk with proper words about what’s going on here, but I love the way fictional and real worlds intersect, especially when they’re used playfully.  (Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy takes itself too seriously to be fun, to my mind.)  I wrote a book a while ago where a sci-fi author from “our” world gets chased across the universe by characters from an apocalyptic novel that he wrote.  These characters, having become aware of the existence of their writer, naturally believe that he’s responsible for the destruction of their home planet and the death of billions.  Good clean fun!

There’s an interesting theological consequence of all this mixing of real and fictional worlds.  Alana mentions in her post that Yann Martel (who I’ve never read) prefers to write as if there is a God, because that makes for a better story, and how this dovetails with Castle’s tendency to solve crimes by looking at them as if they’re mystery stories.  The funny thing is, Castle’s right not because real-life criminals work like characters in books (often they don’t), but because he and everyone he knows are characters in a mystery TV series.  For characters in books, God exists beyond a shadow of a doubt – she’s the chick holding the pencil.

So what are we to make of books where the characters want to kill God?

4 Responses to “Borges, the Vulcans, and I”

  1. Alana Abbott

    I got linked! Woo!

    Also: I think your theological implications made my head spin. (And point to you about Castle’s one step further removed from reality than I was treating him!)

    I read a short story not too long ago where writer friend/mentor Jeff Duntemann (who you must read) appeared as a character. The short story was meant to feel like reality, but was about the author’s realization that his adopted son was an alien; Duntemann is mentioned in passing as a writer whose fiction was much missed in SF fandom because he’d become a technical writer and had no time to Write. This was actually exactly true, further mixing the reality of the story with its fictionality.

    Good clean fun indeed. 🙂

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  2. Vladimir

    Nice post, Max 🙂 I especially approve of the title, which riffs off one of my favorite Borges stories. That story, a tiny piece where the “real” Borges complains about Borges-the-author, arguably goes so far into metafiction that nobody else has dared plumb those confusing depths of intertextuality since. That’s why he was the Great Librarian, I suppose.

    On a far lighter note, this kind of blurring between different realities (different levels of reality?) has been happening of late in US TV, and I love it. I recently watched an episode of Fringe (no spoilers, I promise), where a young girl related to one of the characters asks another character to tell her a story. The storyteller proceeds to roughly recount the plot of the show as a bizarre steampunk-noir-musical (you have to see it to believe it). So now we have the fictional world re-fictionalized again within itself, as a story. Further, in a “classic” twist that hails back to the Princess Bride, the little girl occasionally interrupts and says “no, that’s not how it happened!” and re-tells parts of the story the way she would like to see them.

    This metafictional technique is great, not only because it messes with the viewers’ heads, but because it reinforces participatory storytelling. You may have heard me rant about this before, but basically I think that the model of storytelling as a static disembodied interaction between reader and author (or viewer and writer/director) doesn’t cut it. Real stories have been participatory since the beginning of time – told around campfires, part fun, part magical ritual, part talking things out that couldn’t be told literally without making people angry. Now, it seems, we’re coming back to that mode of storytelling, only infinitely richer. I couldn’t be happier 🙂

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  3. max

    @Alana: Head-spinning is a theological hazard sometimes. 🙂

    @Vlad: You’re spot-on in noticing the reference, of course. My favorite refictionalizing of a fictional world inside itself is C-3PO’s retelling of Star Wars to the Ewoks, complete with sound effects (and, I think, musical cues). It always made me feel that the entire story we’d seen up to that point was somehow inside 3PO’s head.

    For more TV wonders in metafiction, have you run into the St. Elsewhere / Tommy Westphall Universe? There was a TV show called St. Elsewhere at some point in the 90s, and one of the big reveals in the final episode was that the entire show was taking place in the mind of an autistic child named Tommy Westphall. The catch is, before this point, many characters from St. Elsewhere had guest-starred on other shows – so all *those* shows are in Tommy Westphall’s mind, too! The compounding nature of this sort of thing has resulted in some 283 shows being inside Westphall’s mind. Yeah, you read that right.

    These aren’t just tiny one-season shows, though. Examples include The X-Files, Dr. Who, Mission Impossible (the 1960s one – yes, the metafiction stretches back in time!), M*A*S*H, Bones, all of Law and Order, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Here’s a link with a full diagram of the extent of the crossovers: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~kwgow/crossovers.html

    What a wonderful world, eh?

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