A Plague on All Your Houses
A review of Thomas M. Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World by David Pringle
"America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature, as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe." So begins chapter one, "The Right to Lie," of this new book about sf by the field's second-greatest iconoclast (the field's greatest iconoclast has to be J. G. Ballard -- of whom more later -- but it is hard to imagine JGB writing an entire book about the genre: his collected jottings, A User's Guide to the Millennium , are the nearest we're likely to get). The second-greatest iconoclast is of course Thomas M. Disch, and his book is called The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (Simon & Schuster/Free Press, $25).
Some of us have followed, with mixed delight and discomfort, Tom Disch's occasional non-fiction writings over the years. Best known of them is probably his 1975 talk, "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" (reprinted in Peter Nicholls's Science Fiction at Large , 1976), in which he argued that sf is essentially a juvenile literature, written for kids (or for the kid in us all) even when it is trying to be "adult." He revisited that theme in a more recent piece, "The Further Embarrassments of Science Fiction" ( Atlantic Monthly , February 1992), wherein he traced the alleged childishness of the genre all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe. Other well-known pieces, written for American papers but several of them reprinted right here in Interzone , were not so much about science fiction as about the murky penumbra of credulity which surrounds the genre -- his lambasting of Whitley Strieber's "non-fiction" books about alien abduction ("The Village Alien," IZ 25, and "Primal Hooting," IZ 29); his review of Peter Washington's excellent history of quasi-religious cults, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon ( IZ 102); and his excoriation of William Pierce's fascistic semi-underground sf novels The Turner Diaries and Hunter ( IZ 103).
Well, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of is not a simple gathering together of those various pieces, but it subsumes them. Disch has taken his published thoughts on most of his favourite hobby-horses from over the years -- science-fictional, pseudo-scientific, psychological and political -- and rewritten and expanded them, together with a considerable amount of personal reminiscence and "confession," into this highly entertaining new volume which is sure to annoy a great many people. He boots the usual betes noirs (Hubbard, Strieber, and erstwhile fellow-travellers like John W. Campbell); he launches assaults against the familiar fascists (Heinlein, Pournelle and the whole "Baen Books axis" down to, heaven help us, Newt Gingrich); but he also attacks, quite mercilessly, more counter-culturally chic figures such as William Burroughs ("who was not only embalmed in heroin through most of his adult life but had murdered his wife - - and, like O. J. Simpson, got away with it") and the critically-praised politically-correct such as Ursula Le Guin ("[her] feminism is less overtly phobic of the male sex than that of Andrea Dworkin, but it is no less absolute... Ideology breeds nonsense and ... Le Guin's work has undergone a gradual PC ossification"). There are hard words too for Samuel R. Delany: "His fiction production slowed down in the '80s and became ... ever more tendentiously the podium for his non-SF interests: the intellectually intertwined realms of deconstructive literary criticism and queer theory. At his nadir, he produced a novel/memoir/diatribe, The Mad Man, with the doubtful thesis that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, a favorite lost cause among queer theorists..."
Disch hates liars, and every which way he looks he finds them -- to such an extent that his entire vision of the sf genre, and of the modern world, comes to resemble a picture of a madhouse run by the mendacious, the venal and the terminally stupid (which is a fair description of the subject matter of his novels and short stories too: it's hardly surprising that he has never been among the most widely loved of writers). What will probably fascinate most sf readers, and guarantee this book a succes de scandale, are not so much his public attacks on the above-named persons as his personal anecdotes -- there are nice descriptions of his own late-1960s acid trips, ranging from a good trip in Spain "before a wide prospect of the Mediterranean, across the surface of which, in living Arabic script of wave foam, I read the ineffable" to a bad trip in Surrey "where a field of barley became as menacing as one of Van Gogh's last, minatory paintings" -- and, to phrase it bluntly, his bitchy gossip. On meeting the late Theodore Sturgeon, we are told, our Tom "was persuaded to sample the nudist lifestyle and invited to stay overnight for a threesome with Mrs Sturgeon (an opportunity I declined)."
His several meetings with J. G. Ballard in 1966 and after, we are told, "took the invariable form of a trip to the Shepperton train station south of London and then a terrifying ride with Ballard at the wheel of his sports car. At his home, a dilapidated, infinitely cluttered bungalow that he shared with his two children, Ballard, fuelled with whisky, would deliver an oral version of his private gospel. Sad to say, I remember not a single oracle from those occasions, only a sense that the man was, as advertised, a genius hard-wired to the Zeitgeist." Memory may play even the greatest truth-tellers false, and as one who has visited the same house on half a dozen occasions from the 1970s to the 1990s I can testify that Ballard lives in a classic British semi-detached, not a "bungalow," and that he raised three children there throughout the 1960s, not two; also I can vouch for the fact that JGB's front door is less than five minutes' walk from Shepperton station (which lies west of London, not south), so why a car-ride was necessary I can't imagine. As for the drinking and hairy driving of the period following his wife's death in the mid-1960s, Ballard has described those things himself in several interviews -- and has even fictionalized them, in a chapter called "The Exhibition," in his novel The Kindness of Women (1991); so, no surprises there -- except, perhaps, for the revelation (if true) that JGB once drove a sports car.
While there can be no doubt that Tom Disch's book will entertain (and enrage) many within the sf field, we are entitled to ask whether it will do anything to modify the low opinions of the genre held by outsiders. In one sense, it may have a positive effect: Disch is himself "an acclaimed science-fiction writer" (the first line of his book's blurb tells everybody so) and it must be a brave new genre that has such acidulous critics in it. He also finds words of genuine praise for a few specific writers and works: Joe Haldeman emerges as a hero in Disch's eyes for his fine sf novel The Forever War (1974), founded on lived experience; more surprisingly, dear old Hal Clement is praised unstintingly for giving us, in Mission of Gravity (1954), a world which is "mud luscious and puddle wonderful" -- a quotation from e. e. cummings, if I remember rightly, but sweetly chosen. Arthur C. Clarke is also treated kindly, and Joanna Russ respectfully. The collaborative novels of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth are commended only in passing, and I rather miss the more extended treatment Disch could have given here to that "pair of magnificent smart-alecks" (a phrase from an early Disch essay, not repeated in this book). In fact, Disch apologizes in his introduction for not finding space to praise more fully the works of the writers he admires most: he nods towards Gene Wolfe, John Crowley and Paul Park.
There are at least two other writers Disch holds in high respect, and about whom he has a good deal to say -- H. G. Wells and Philip K. Dick. His comments on the former seem dutiful rather than impassioned, while his comments on the latter are more personal -- though oddly distanced: he quotes himself being quoted in Laurence Sutin's biography of Dick. Overall, though, this book is a hatchet-job on science fiction, and is most unlikely to convert anyone to the genre -- not that proselytizing for the category is Disch's purpose: rather, he is out to raise dark laughter. From Mary Shelley to Orson Scott Card, few writers are spared Disch's withering comments. Above all, sf is conflated with the idiocies of pseudo-science, the juvenilities of Hollywood and the mass media, and the simplistic politics of Colonel Ollie North and a legion of other liars. Science fiction, for Disch, bears at least some responsibility for all of modern America's sins.
But I am not convinced by Disch's thesis that sf is essentially an American genre. Indeed, he undermines his own case. Clearly it's a form which began in Europe and whose greatest exponent (Disch describes him as such!) was an Englishman, H. G. Wells. Actually, Disch is writing, rather confusingly, about two different science fictions -- literary sf on the one hand, and cross-media "sci-fi" on the other (there's too much concentration on the latter in his book). Sci-fi, perhaps, is an American phenomenon (although the Japanese and British have contributed significantly to it: think of Godzilla and Doctor Who); but literary sf -- at any rate in its larger, Darko-Suvinian sense -- is a European-based form beginning with Thomas More (author, ironically, of the first "American" "novel" -- Utopia ) and running through Bacon, Swift, etc, to Wells and Stapledon, with major contributions along the way by various Continentals, from Campanella and Cyrano de Bergerac, through Verne and Kurd Lasswitz, to Capek and Stanislaw Lem. Even Hugo Gernsback was a European born-and-bred who, as a German-speaker, imported a good deal of Germanic sf into the pages of Amazing and Wonder. Disch mentions comparatively little of this: the names of Lem and the Strugatsky Brothers do not occur anywhere in his book, and Stapledon is consistently misspelled "Stapleton."
All that said, this is perhaps the first American book about science fiction, leaving aside collections of reviews such as Damon Knight's, James Blish's or Norman Spinrad's, which has not been written either by an academic (e.g. Scholes & Rabkin) or by a super-fan (e.g. Sam Moskowitz) -- or, most importantly, by someone from within the Campbell-Heinlein clubhouse (e.g. James Gunn and almost everyone else). As such, it stands comparison with such classic non-American treatments of the genre as Kingsley Amis's New Maps of Hell and Brian Aldiss's Billion-Year Spree. It's certainly as well-written and amusing as either of those old British books -- and that's high praise.
Note: this is a corrected version of a review first published in Interzone 133 (July 1998).
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© David Pringle 20 June 1998