SciFi X SciFi
March 24, 2009 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Is there any first contact science fiction (or other types of scifi, more generally) where the characters have actually READ first contact science fiction before?

I'm reading Pushing Ice by Alistair Reynolds (no spoilers, please, I'm still in the first 150 pages), and despite the fact that there have been some tangential references to a Star Trek type show in the story, pretty early in the book the crew chasing this alien artifact finds out that things are not as they seem. Their response, "Nuh Uh, that's impossible!!!?!!!" I feel like this is a common theme in books of this sort, in which even the most sophisticated characters are presented as naifs for the purposes of just this sort of surprise. But anyone who's read any books like this knows that this is going to happen. Are there books that are self-aware enough to take that into account?

Similarly, I realized that the passing references to this Star Trek-like show are pretty rare in scifi, which tends to act as if scifi does not exist in the societies it depicts. There are examples (I guess that Ender's Game (ugh) is one). Do you know others?
posted by OmieWise to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"Their response, 'Nuh Uh, that's impossible!!!?!!!' I feel like this is a common theme in books of this sort, in which even the most sophisticated characters are presented as naifs for the purposes of just this sort of surprise. "

I think this is just an application of the oft-repeated advice given to medical residents, "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras".

Sure, the "hoofbeats" might be the traces of aliens, but like the winking lights seen by the Apollo 11 astronauts, it's far more likely there's a physical explanation that doesn't involve aliens, and there's enough strangeness in physics that you explore the much more likely reasons before resorting to aliens as an explanation.
posted by orthogonality at 8:53 AM on March 24, 2009

First thing that springs to mind, though it may not be what you have in mind, is the Niven/Pournelle novel Footfall, in which several science fiction writers have input to the government's response to an alien invasion.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:54 AM on March 24, 2009


If you haven't read Anathem, this is kind of a big spoiler:

One of the major plots in Anathem is a first contact scenario, but the non-spacefarers from whose perspective the story is told are both extremely intelligent and fairly well-versed in fictional accounts of alien contact.
posted by jedicus at 9:16 AM on March 24, 2009

One of the main characters in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series is a sci-fi reader, and this helps him a lot when aliens invade during WWII.
posted by cadge at 9:20 AM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since you asked about types of sci fi other than first contact, the author that springs to my mind as 'self aware sci fi' is Iain M Banks. For a taster, see what he names his starships.
posted by Ness at 9:31 AM on March 24, 2009

Unsurprisingly, Stanislaw Lem was astute enough to incorporate this into his masterful His Master's Voice, which, for all its Big Science trappings, is basically a playful hermeneutical romp. It's, like, Pale Fire with radio telescopes:
One day I found him amid large packages from which spilled attractive, glossy paperbacks with mythical covers. He had tried to use, as a "generator of ideas" — for we were running out of them — those works of fantastic literature, that popular genre (especially in the States), called, by a persistent misconception, "science fiction." He had not read such books before; he was annoyed — indignant, even — expecting variety, finding monotony. "They have everything except fantasy," he said. Indeed, a mistake. The authors of these pseudo-scientific fairy tales supply the public with what it wants: truisms, clichés, stereotypes, all sufficiently costumed and made "wonderful" so that the reader may sink into a safe state of surprise and at the same time not be jostled out of his philosophy of life. If there is progress in a culture, the progress is above all conceptual, but literature, the science-fiction variety in particular, has nothing to do with that.
posted by dyoneo at 10:05 AM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

To Reynolds' credit, he explain why there are no aliens in one of his other books. (this one, I think)

Which is to say: he explains why we've never encountered them.

Spoiler-ish (but not really):

In short, there's an alien machine race out there that destroys any civilizations that manage to get advanced enough for it to notice - i.e. - extensive space travel.

But still, I see your point, every time I watch a bad scifi movie, I think to myself "haven't these people ever seen Alien or Star Trek?" And no, none occur to me either.
posted by jaded at 10:23 AM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, probably not exactly what you were thinking about, but just about anything by Kurt Vonnegut, where the works of one of Vonnegut's characters, sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, play a prominent role.

For instance, in Breakfast of Champions one of the characters starts acting as though one of Trout's novels is actually happening to him, with predictable results.
posted by flug at 10:37 AM on March 24, 2009

Response by poster: I think this is just an application of the oft-repeated advice given to medical residents, "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras".

That does happen, sometimes, but I don't think its applicable in the kind of cases I mean to be talking about. In those cases, it's much more like no one has ever considered that weird shit might happen around an alien artifact.

the author that springs to my mind as 'self aware sci fi' is Iain M Banks.

I like Banks quite a bit, especially his playful side, but he isn't writing what I'm talking about. I'm talking about novels in which the characters have themselves been exposed to fiction that then affects their actions.

Thanks for the speculation thus far.
posted by OmieWise at 10:37 AM on March 24, 2009

For small values of "alien," Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution books feature people dealing with an AI who have read/seen things about AIs before. At one point, someone even says something along the lines of "Calm down, dude, it isn't Skynet."

Contact,unsurprisingly, does some of what you want. But instead of having read SF about first contact, the people in it have read stuff by the SETI people. They also calm down panicky "civilians" by applying physics -- the Machine won't blow up the world because we can gauge how much energy it takes and and moves from one part of itself to another.

I think Bear's Forge of God might have a little bit of what you want.

Footfall, already listed, has to be the canonical example. One of the characters is Heinlein, who's given a name on the order of "Schmobert Schmeinlein."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:01 AM on March 24, 2009

Although it's played for laughs, the notion of SF-aware people encountering genuine aliens is pretty much the entire premise of Galaxy Quest.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:20 AM on March 24, 2009

I might be wrong, but I seem to remember the central human characters in Larry Niven's Protector being reasonably savvy.
posted by lucidium at 11:22 AM on March 24, 2009

A lot of the supernatural-PI series coming out now are pretty self-aware. I'm thinking of Harry Dresden, Felix Cantor, Repairman Jack, and so on. The characters tend to be aware of the conventions of the genre and make quips based on it.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:24 AM on March 24, 2009

In the SF movie The Faculty, there's extensive discussion of other SF first contact stories.
posted by dhruva at 11:25 AM on March 24, 2009

Into the Looking Glass, as well as the rest of the Looking Glass series, have more than a few characters who read science fiction and are dealing with an alien invasion. Obviously, the first one is the only one with the first contact in there.
posted by Gneisskate at 11:27 AM on March 24, 2009

Another classic novel that is aware of SciFi within itself is The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein. Be aware, though, that it can be a little cheesy; as the Wiki says, "The novel lies somewhere between parody and homage in its deliberate use of the style of the 1930s' pulp novels."
posted by Xoder at 12:45 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not entirely clear what your asking, but Peter Watts' Blindsight is a first contact book where everyone is perhaps two steps ahead of where they should be rather than one step behind. It's pretty great.
posted by chairface at 1:42 PM on March 24, 2009

One of Robert J.Sawyer's main characters in Calculating God discusses first contact stories while exploring a first contact of his own. He also discusses Star Trek episodes and shares them with an alien.

Warning: Link is to the writer's page on the book.
posted by Seamus at 2:02 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

the Genre Savvy page over at TV Tropes has examples of this, though it isn't limited to SciFi.
posted by niles at 2:21 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

While not about first contact, in Dan Simmons' Ilium/Olympos books (I forget in which one), a pair of very amusing and highly intelligent robots who are very keen on human culture have a discussion about how much they like Star Trek. (They also have discussions about Proust!)
posted by DavidNYC at 2:37 PM on March 24, 2009

It's TV, and not hard SF, but Jack O'Neil on Stargate SG1 is constantly making Star Wars/Star Trek/pop SF references while traveling between planets and generally do their first contact thing. I always thought it added a fair bit of credibility to the otherwise goofy show that it understood how silly/amazing the situations were.

I'd also offer the show Farscape where John Chrichton is constantly making pop culture references, for example calling aliens that vaguely look like Klingons, "Klingons".

For some reason TV has a lot more pop culture references than books.
posted by Ookseer at 5:41 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers.
posted by OmieWise at 9:28 AM on March 26, 2009

I was recently given Seeker by Jack McDevitt and loved it. I just finished Chindi by him and enjoyed it as well. It has some similar themes to what youre looking for. Check it out.
posted by skrike at 1:14 PM on March 27, 2009

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