Contrived vs Actual Narratives: Metafiction in Harness

(Picture from here.)

I’ve been reading several alternate world stories lately. Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Tidhar’s Osama. Not sure why these have shown up but that’s the way it is sometimes.

These are very famous works that have their followings. Tidhar won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. So, I suggest that people looking for a review of them need not seek them here. My tastes are too idiosyncratic to be useful.

I’ve spoken about TMITHC before. I read The Iron Dream some years ago and reread it recently. I read Osama for the first time.

What’s interesting is how all three authors tackled essentially the same take on the idea differently. In all three, the world of the characters is different from the world’s history and state as we know it. In TMITHC, the Japanese and Germans won World War II. The Nazis occupy the USA east of the Rockies. The Japanese occupy the USA west of the Rockies. The Rockies themselves are unclaimed territory.

In The Iron Dream, Hitler came to the United States and ultimately captured his life’s work in an  SF novel which pitted purebred human beings against filthy mutants. Hitler’s novel occupies most of the novel.

In Osama, Osama bin Laden lives only in the pages of novels by Mike Longshott. The plot revolves around a private detective who’s been commissioned to find the author.

In all three cases, there is a world of the characters presented against a fictional world that depicts, in some way, the world we know. These are by no means the only works with contrived vs actual narratives. John Gardner’s October Light and Freddy’s Book are two more examples.

For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to create two terms: the actual narrative, that refers to the narrative that includes the characters of the created world. And the contrived narrative, which is the part of the work that shows our world in opposition to the created world.

In TMITHC, the cares and worries of the Japanese/German occupation is the central concern of the actual narrative. The contrived narrative is depicted by the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, where Hawthorn Abendson depicts  the USA as winning the war against both Germany and Japan. But the center of the TMITHC is the world of the characters. The contrived narrative work is important in the actual narrative but considered propaganda. Even when Grasshopper is shown, it’s close to our world but significantly off. Like seeing the world through a dark glass. I’m not saying Grasshopper is tacked onto the world as an afterthought—it’s an important piece of Dick’s novel. But it lies in opposition to the world of the characters. It’s an alternate point of view. The prose of the actual narrative is very different from the contrived narrative. The two use significantly different prose styles.

The Iron Dream is hard over on the contrived narrative. That is the important part. The actual narrative is limited to a frame describing the origin of the included novel, and a critical analysis. The rest of the book is the contrived narrative as written by Adolf Hitler.

In Osama, the contrived narration and actual narration are given roughly equal footing. Several reviews have described significantly different prose styles between the two narrations but it was too subtle for me. I had trouble differentiating between the two.

The other choice Tidhar made was to keep a very low-level difference between the actual narrative and the contrived narrative. I.e., the two worlds weren’t all that different.

Three choices to handle the same idea in different ways.

I can see issues with all three approaches. In TMITHC, the actual narrative is so compelling and different that the contrived narrative can be lost. In fact, I suspect Dick introduced flaws in the contrived narrative for exactly that reason: the reader can’t discount the contrived narrative as just being something the reader already knows.

The Iron Dream was published in 1972 while TMITHC was published in 1962. Thus, Spinrad wrote TID knowing it would be compared to TMITHC. While the world of Hitler in the actual narrative might have been interesting, Spinrad keeps its exposure limited. Instead, Spinrad keeps the focus on the contrived narrative. This story is structured very much like a “traditional” SF, showing how close to fascism such a narrative can swing.

The issue with the third alternative—giving both the actual and contrived narrative equal standing—is that the two can blend in the reader’s mind. This, in part, I think was Tidhar’s intent: to show that no villain is so completely dark as to be inhuman. Osama was published in 2011 and, I think, largely insulated from Spinrad’s work but, perhaps, less so from TMITHC, given the attention given to Dick’s work in recent years.

That’s likely unfair to Osama: it is a vastly different work, in a vastly different time, with vastly different goals. Both Spinrad and Dick worked in the shadow of World War II. Tidhar is working with a completely different set of issues, icons, and symbols.

This shows the approach still has legs.

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Contrived vs Actual Narratives: Metafiction in Harness — 3 Comments

  1. Well, this sent me off down the Wikipedia Rabbit Hole for two hours.

    Thank you for an interesting review and an interesting tour!

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