Postmodernism came into critical focus as an approach thanks to an article by Fredric Jameson,1 and soon became one of the commonest critical approaches to sf. The term pre-dates Jameson; most significantly in architecture ‘postmodernism’ had been used to designate a particular style which rejected the brutalism of modernism in favour of eclecticism, quoting from earlier styles and mixing aesthetics.

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

In the 1960s and 1970s ‘postmodern’ began to be applied to a series of writers active after 1945 whose works demonstrate knowledge of their own fictionality, either by drawing attention to the creative process of narration, by containing books within books or by breaking down boundaries between author and characters – examples include the works of Beckett, Burroughs and Borges. Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps the author who has most featured himself as a character within his own science fictions – partly in the debate about sf in the novels featuring Kilgore Trout, but most clearly in his interventions into such narratives as Slaughterhouse-5 (1969), drawing on his experience in Dresden after the Allied bombing raid, or Breakfast of Champions (1973), especially at the end when he sets his characters free. It should be emphasized that Vonnegut here is just another character, just as Tom Robbins is when doing battle with his typewriter in Still Life With Woodpecker (1980) and Robert Sheckley when he tries to get his narrative to work in Options

In Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981) the narrator Phil Dick tells us about the strange events which have been happening to his friend Horselover Fat – events which Dick claims to have happened to him in real life.2 Robert Galbreath has argued convincingly that added to Philip the choice of names Kevin and David show a completion of Dick’s initials, and Kim Stanley Robinson, paralleling a point made by Steve Brown in a review of The Divine Invasion (1981), suggests that ‘We could say, then, that The Divine Invasion . . . [was] written by Horselover Fat, while The Transmigration of Timothy Archer . . . [was] written by “Phil Dick”.’3 Dick was experimenting with split protagonists prior to writing the novel which became VALIS, in giving displaced versions of his autobiography to major characters in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) and in the mental breakdown of Robert/Fred in A Scanner Darkly (1977).

These carefully developed metafictions erase the boundaries between fiction and fact, and perhaps induce a level of anxiety on the part of the reader. Elsewhere, such as in the introduction of sf writers as characters in Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Number of the Beast‘ (1980) or, most hilariously, the intervention of a task force of sf writers and scientists to save the day at the climax of Jack McDevitt’s Ancient Shores (1996), it can seem just like self-indulgence – which does not necessarily stop it from being postmodern. There is a thin line between self-indulgence and playfulness.

This quasi-definition of a (literary) postmodernism as one which involves metafiction places postmodernism as the next stage of an aesthetic history after realism and modernism. It can be argued, with this sense of fiction and its rules, that all genre fiction is postmodern, not just sf. In the reader’s encounter with generic material, an awareness of the structure of story or theme comes to the foreground, and familiarity with other works within the given genre is part of the reading process. Dan Simmons’s Hyperion (1989) is structured around two works of fiction, one from high culture, the other from low: The Canterbury Tales where pilgrims recall narratives to pass the time, and The Wizard of Oz (1900) where four characters travel on a journey to have a wish granted. The climax of the volume even draws out the latter parallel for the reader. Geoff Ryman’s ‘Was . . .’ (1992) also draws upon The Wizard of Oz, mixing together the narrative of an actor wanting to play the scarecrow, the life of Judy Garland and a harrowing account of a ‘real’ Dorothy Gale, who had no escape into a magical land of Oz.

Postmodernism is here a more extreme version of what modernism was. Modernism had been a movement in literature, music, dance, painting and other aesthetic forms which had flourished between the 1890s and the 1930s, reaching a zenith in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Following the emergence of Darwin’s theories of evolution, Freud’s early work on the impact of the unconscious on the conscious mind and then the cosmological and physical theorizing of Einstein among others, humanity was no longer situated as being between animals and angels. Its sense of place within the universe had been undermined and it was necessary to establish a new subjectivity, one which could take into account the growth of the metropolis, with its new social formations and paradoxical phenomenon of thousands of isolated individuals in crowds.Writers such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in their attempts to find new forms of expression, constantly quoted from both high art and low culture; but in the version of postmodernism which follows this modernism, a sense of the democratic outweighs the ´elitism associated with modernism.


1. New Left Review (July/August 1984), pp. 5394.

2. Cf. Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (New York:

Harmony, 1989), pp. 20833.

3. Robert Galbreath, ‘Salvation-Knowledge: Ironic Gnosticism in VALIS and The

Flight to Lucifer‘, in Gary K. Wolfe (ed.), Science Fiction Dialogues (Chicago:

Academy, 1982), pp. 11532, at p. 119; Steve Brown, ‘The Two Tractates of Philip

K. Dick’, Science Fiction Review 10:2 (1981), p. 11; Kim Stanley Robinson, The

Novels of Philip K. Dick (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), p. 111.