The Five Best Works-within-Works in Science Fiction4 min read

Sci-fi authors pride themselves on creating immersive alternate worlds, with well-thought-out fictional societies and cultures. Oftentimes science fiction universes have their own languages, and, indeed, bodies of literature. Sometimes a really serious writer will bother to write those books that appear in-universe in part or in full. These are five of the best works of literature that originated within other pieces of sci-fi.

Captain Proton (Star Trek: Voyager)

There’s no question that Voyager was at times one of the most serious and darkest of the Star Trek shows–the crux of its plot involves a starship crew stranded on the wrong side of a sector and struggling simply to get home. But that doesn’t mean it was never funny. Case in point: Flight Controller Tom Paris fancies himself a great writer and fashions a novel in the form of holodeck roleplaying scenarios entitled Captain Proton. From the snippets we see in the show, it seems the Voyager writers intended it as a parody of 1930s pulp serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers. Paris naturally gives himself the starring role and conscripts his groaning, eye-rolling crewmates to play supporting characters, including Ops Officer Harry Kim as his sidekick, an uncooperative Seven of Nine as his secretary, and an exasperated Captain Janeway as the villain Queen Arachnia.

The Ballad of Jayne Cobb (Firefly)

Any serious Firefly fan can sing it in full: The man they call Jaaaayne… In the classic episode “Jaynestown,” the crew of Serenity has a job to do on a destitute mud-mining colony where they make a startling discovery: Jayne Cobb, the crude, womanizing, and treacherous dumb muscle and “public relations officer” of the group, is regarded as a folk hero there. There’s a statue of him (made out of mud, naturally) in the town square, and when they get to the local pub, a balladeer is singing a jaunty song about him and his exploits, because in his earlier and even less savory career he was forced to jettison both his loot from a robbery and his erstwhile partner in crime while making an escape. Jayne thought he was merely saving his own hide, but the people of Canton interpreted it as a magnanimous Robin Hood-like gift, and while Jayne naturally exploits the miners’ love for him at first, by the end of the episode he proves himself to be at least somewhat like the Big Damn Hero the song makes him out to be.

Tales of the Black Freighter (Watchmen)

In a twentieth century not quite like our own, comic books are a popular medium of fiction… but superheroes exist in real life. So reading about caped and cowled crimefighters would feel just so… mundane. What’s the most popular genre of comic books in the world of Watchmen? Pirates, of all things. Seems Alan “Rasputin” Moore had the high seas on the brain, or something–looking for logical explanations to much of the man’s work is a fool’s errand, though Dave Gibbons reported Moore as saying he was a big Berthold Brecht fan and was influenced by the Threepenny Opera. The one pirate comic we get to see in detail within the pages of Watchmen is Tales from the Black Freighter, a bleak and surreal tale of a deluded mariner who commits pointless murder and is dogged by the titular ship, which exists to ferry the souls of the wicked to Hell. Since Watchmen is constructed in a series of complex parallels, the story of the Black Freighter mirrors that of the larger piece’s villain.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Inscribed with the most important mantra for an interplanetary traveler–“DON’T PANIC”–the fictional and eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is simply the most expansive travel guide in the known universe. It comes in many forms, from conventional print book to presciently e-reader-like device with an incalculable number of buttons, and it contains information on every subject hapless protagonist Arthur Dent needs to know about, from the paradoxical Babel fish to the notorious lady of easy virtue Eccentrica Gallumbits to the most intoxicating and hence best cocktail ever made, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.

The Necronomicon (Cthulhu Mythos)

Evil books of forbidden lore are a dime a dozen in fiction, but the Necronomicon is the granddaddy of them all. H.P. Lovecraft said the concept came to him in a dream, and made repeated allusions to it in mostly unrelated works to lend the thing “evil verisimilitude.” Lovecraft’s version of the Necronomicon was authored by the “mad Arab,” Abdul Alhazred, after receiving demonic visions in the lonely desert. Alhazred’s original Arabic title for the Necronomicon was al-Azif, a term meaning the maddening whistling of the wind. While the contents of the fictional tome have been inconsistent in the many works of horror and sci-fi that reference it, the Necronomicon always contains information about the alien gods, the Old Ones, and how to summon them. Not only has it appeared in many a film and video game under its true title, the Necronomicon has also formed the inspiration for dark grimoires as diverse as the Oghma Infinium from The Elder Scrolls video games and the Book of Lorgar from Warhammer 40,000.

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