"Epistolary" is a adjective that describes letters (i.e. correspondence) or the writing thereof. A work of fiction described as "epistolary," in the usual sense of the word, is a story written in the form of a letter or a collection of letters. A notable popular example is Stephen King's short story "Jerusalem's Lot" from his collection Night Shift. The technique is often preferred by writers of horror or other fantastic fiction. Presenting the text of the story itself as an actual document or "primary source" from the fictional universe aids in the suspension of the reader's disbelief and removes the safe distance imposed by narration in the third person.
A word which I would like to exist (but does not, as far as I know) is one with the same connotation as "epistolary," but with a slightly more general meaning to include, not just a story in the form of letters, but any story which presents the text of the story itself as a document from the fictional universe of the story. Bram Stoker's Dracula, which takes the form of a series of journal or diary entries written by the characters of the story themselves, is a handy example. A more sophisticated case is Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. A relatively rare instance from the cinema is The Blair Witch Project--the film itself is part of its own story. From radio, there is Orson Welles' classic broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which seems (at least in the beginning) to be an actual piece of breaking news.
For lack of a better term, I use "pseudoepistolary" to describe such works. This technique is often employed in so-called "fan fiction," particularly in the science fiction genre, and in supplemental books published for role-playing games (e.g. the Universal Brotherhood module for FASA's Shadowrun.) I have on my shelf, for instance, a folio-sized book called Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual which presents itself as a kind of executive summary, written in the year 2179 AD, describing the weapons, equipment, and tactics of the wholly-fictional "Colonial Marines" military force from the universe of Jim Cameron's movie Aliens. Another (rather rare and sought-after) example is 1984's Dune Encyclopedia, which presents as a short one-volume encyclopedia published in the year 15540 AG (After Guild), which corresponds to the year 31640 AD in the Julian calender, with alphabetically-arranged articles on everything in Frank Herbert's Dune universe from "Fremen Menstruation" to "The Tarot of Dune."
Science fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, is speculative. It proposes a question and an answer, or a set of questions and answers, generally about the future of humanity and its relationship to its tools. In so doing, it invites the reader's mind to participate in a speculative dialogue. Like good science, good science fiction stimulates the imagination, tending to evoke as many questions as it answers. Thus it is that the reader's response is very often as much cerebral as literary or aesthetic. There can be no doubt, however, that this schizophrenia of science fiction is responsible for quite a lot of mediocre or downright miserable fiction, at least in so far as the word "fiction" implies a more-or-less traditional narrative with characters, story arcs, and (hopefully) an emotional response on the part of the reader thereunto. How often in the history of the genre have readers been asked to endure contrived plots, shallow characters, and heavy-handed exposition as a vehicle for the intellecual content of an author's futurological speculations? Fans of the genre must admit that this sort of thing happens all the time.
I propose that authors whose primary inspiration is speculation, as opposed to drama, are often better advised to adopt a pseudoepistolary format for their work, rather than a traditional narrative. The selection of the type of document to be fictionalized is guided by the substance of the author's speculations. Thereafter, the fomula is simple: Extrapolate the chosen expository form into a fictional universe chosen to evoke fruitful speculation upon a particular theme. An author who is interested in the future of video games and their impact on society, for instance, might elect to produce a fictional video game "FAQ" (of the type commonly found on the web) from, say, the year 2072, perhaps about a full-sensory-immersion virtual reality game which senses and adapts itself to the user's particular psychology. Depending on the extent of the player's emotional involvement in the story, the playing of such a game could be a highly personal experience, and any "FAQ" or "walkthrough" a particular player might produce would have to acknowledge this subjective quality. The resulting document could possible achieve the intimate emotionally-charged atmosphere of St. Augustine's Confessions: Here is how the game has changed me, here is what I think the game means, and here is how (and why) I think one should play. To go one level deeper, consider the extent to which the text of this example might be better presented as a fictional piece of literary criticism from a universe in which the proposed text actually exists, either as a piece of fiction itself or as a work of genuine exposition. This latter approach might convey the same speculative content as the "FAQ" route, but with less emphasis on the player's personal experience and greater emotional distance. The choice of form thus also depends on the author's preference to emphasize the cerebral or dramatic impact of his or her work.
There are potentially as many types of pseudoepistolary fiction as there are types of expository prose. Of interest to me here is a particular type which I call "fiction science." Fiction science adopts the form and conventions of scientific writing, but with a subject which is partly or wholly fictional. The best book-length example I know of is Leo Leoni's Parallel Botany, which is a collection of scientific articles about plants "the diagnostic characteristic of which is that they do not exist." Consider also the various science-fictional bestiaries having the form of field guides or naturalists' notebooks from imaginary universes such as Wayne Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials and Dougal Dixon's After Man: A Zoology of the Future. It can be argued that, since scientific texts are often those to which contemporary people ultimately look to for "the truth," as far as experts understand it, the choice of scientific prose as a pseudoepistolary form is best for assisting the reader's suspension of disbelief, at least in today's world.
Below the interested reader will find links to my first piece of fiction science. Entitled, "The Etiology of Romero-Fulci Disease: The Case for Prions," the article enters into a speculative dialogue with Max Brooks' recent pseudoepistolary book, The Zombie Survival Guide. Zombie fans will recognize references and allusions in my article to most of the great authors of fiction in the genre, reconfigured in the text's universe as prominent scientific authorities. The .pdf version of the article is recommended, as some pains have been taken in formatting it to look as though it had been photocopied out of an actual journal. Eighteen of the article's twenty cited references are genuine, as is the text of the article which appears to follow mine on the last page.
Click here to download The Etiology of Romero-Fulci Disease: The Case for Prions in .PDF format. (RECOMMENDED)
Click here to download The Etiology of Romero-Fulci Disease: The Case for Prions in .RTF format.
My article may be inaccesable to those who lack the necessary grounding in both the physical sciences and zombie lore. This is a risk inherent to fiction science: to the extent that the forms of scientific communication it co-opts have evolved to facilitate rapid communication among experts, these forms tend to be exclusive of the average reader. Scientific prose is often considered rather boring writing, the redeeming quality of which is that it speaks the truth; take away this virtue by substituting an overt fiction, and what is left? The effect of the piece for some may be that of an eccentric and rather dorky in-joke instead of a "serious" literary effort. Scientists may be offended by the subversion of their form and by the pretense to "truth." (Consider here the reaction of the community to physics professor Alan Sokal's paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in a social science journal and later revealed by the author as a hoax.)
All of these may be valid criticisms. In response to those who would exclude fiction science from the domain of proper literature, however, I would quote John Gardner's The Art of Fiction to the effect that new literary forms are the bastard children of the "practical" uses of language:
The noblest of modern literary forms...began in the elevation and tranformation of trash when Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding began transmuting junk into art. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders spring, respectively, from the naive shipwreck narrative and the rogue's confession; Pamela and Clarissa add character and plot to the popular collection of epistolary models for the guidance of young ladies; Jonathan Wilde comes from the gallows broadside, or story of the character and horrible crimes of the felon about to be hanged. (p. 21)If the naysayers are still not persuaded, they can at least be grateful that the author has had the good taste not to produce an incidental work of literature as a vehicle for his or her speculations.
Another subject of interest to me is the extent to which production of pseudoepistolary fiction, or even of epistolary fiction proper, is amenable to role-play. Consider, for example, the possibility of a "Journal of Fiction Science," in which multiple authors submit works of fiction science for publication using a peer-review process more-or-less like that employed by actual science journals. The authors themselves become characters in the universe of the text, entering into a speculative dialogue with other authors and revelling in imaginative play. Anyone who might be interested in participating in such a project should feel free to e-mail me.