The Stars My Consternation

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, by Thomas Disch, New York: The Free Press, 329 pages, $25.00

This sadly sardonic survey of science fiction worries its subject from many angles: historical, literary, sociological. Science fiction (s.f.) is perhaps the defining genre of the 20th century, although its conquering armies are still camped outside the citadels of literary Rome.

Throughout this century, conventional literature persistently avoided thinking about conceptually altered tomorrows and retreated into a realist posture of fiction of ever-smaller compass. Henry James and H.G. Wells had a classic debate on the matter during World War I, but in the end the novel of character, by foregrounding personal relations, claimed the high ground of orthodox fiction. James won his argument, surrendering the future to s.f., the genre that would increasingly set the terms of social debate. Though Aldous Huxley, Nevil Shute, Italo Calvino, George Orwell, and Vladimir Nabokov did impressive work, they were little emulated.

Thomas Disch underlies his wryly witty observations with poet Delmore Schwartz's resonant title from 1938, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. This "pregnant truth"--that s.f. has obligations to think coherently about our prospects, not just play melodramatic games with futuristic props--is Disch's clarion call to the genre that once fascinated him but that has plainly appealed to him less since the mid-1980s. He was a prominent novelist and short story author of the 1960s and '70s; his best novels, Camp Concentration and 334, displayed a cool, distanced mannerist style tending toward a razor wit (often seen in this book as well), revealing social nuances of possible futures. His rising repute as a "new formalist" poet carries forward this agenda.

Critic John Clute described Disch as "perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank sf writers," and there is justice in the claim. Disch was a major figure in the 1960s New Wave movement, which introduced many modernist and surrealist techniques into s.f. As a critic, he takes on such revered figures as Robert Heinlein and Ursula Le Guin with insightful malice, particularly wounding Le Guin for her political correctitude. He is no less forgiving of the wild ideas that have sprouted like weeds in s.f.'s rich loam.

Genres are best understood as constrained conversations, and s.f. is the leader and innovator in this. Constraint is essential, defining the rules and assumptions open to an author. If hard s.f. occupies the center of science fiction, that is probably because hardness gives the firmest boundary.

Like immense time-binding discussions, genres allow ideas to be developed and traded, and for variations to be spun down through decades. Players ring changes on each other--a steppin'-out jazz band that inventively agrees on its central tune, not a solo concert in a plush auditorium. Contrast this with "serious" fiction --more accurately described, I believe, as merely self-consciously solemn--which proceeds from canonical classics that supposedly stand outside of time, deserving awe, looming great and intact by themselves.

Disch seems to sense this central draw of s.f., which thins as popularity grows. Alas, this book treats few works under 15 years old; Disch has been separated from the field for so long, his expedition never reaches the core. He has missed several rounds of the conversation. Genre pleasures are many, but the quality of shared values within an ongoing discussion may be the most powerful, enlisting lifelong devotion in its fans. In contrast to the Grand Canon view, genre-reading satisfactions are a striking facet of modern democratic ("pop") culture. Paradoxically, visual media success has so diluted this aspect as to make it invisible to the masses who flock to big special-effects movies.

S.f. takes up Big Ideas and Big Wonders but does not always treat them with care; it is historically gullible. Its unfulfilled promise vexes Disch, and he rummages among the cranks, fakes, and crazies that often camped near the Legions of the Future. He treats us to tours of mesmerism from the time of Poe, to UFOs and their exploiters (Whitley Strieber, a flagrant example), to the huge religion--Scientology--invented in an s.f. magazine. These unseemly neighbors of the genre betray America's high dreams and ready gullibility. Skepticism is quite in order, particularly in the New Age.

The persistence of cranks and fools in the ranks of s.f. is sobering. We'll scarcely be invited to the high literary tea, Disch worries, if we have so many companions with such muddy boots.

This concern blends with Disch's class analysis of literature. "The difference between highbrow and low--between Eliot and Poe, between mainstream and scifi--is not one that can be mapped by the conventional criteria of criticism." He supports this by showing that Poe is more a formalist than Eliot, and less given to overt lecturing and preachiness (two oft-cited s.f. mannerisms). Instead, "The essential difference is not one of aesthetics or of some subtler metaphysical nature, but of the two writers' antithetical social and economic positions." Poe was a popular, market-driven writer, a "magazinist," while Eliot was supported by a high culture with subtle, indirect patronage.

S.f., in my view, has been the voice of a rising class that sprang from the burgeoning American masses, hopeful, middle-class, technological types. Their very earnestness carried their arguments and visions into the souls of the one country most responsible for our collective visions of the future; s.f.--at least since the great era of Wells ended--is notably an American creation.

Predictably, its grandiose dreams lead to its worst faults. S.f.'s greatest vice is lecturing. In the face of such large ideas, many authors became the "School Teacher Absolute, a fate that would befall so many later s.f. writers--Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Delany--that it must be considered an occupational hazard." It can carry a writer away. Disch sees the later work of Philip K. Dick, particularly the important Valis, as "madness recollected in a state of borderline lucidity." The lecture becomes a sermon.

Such faults go with the territory, but they do not dominate it. The true strength of the genre lies in its power to convince by imagining. Writes Disch, "A theory can be controverted; a myth persuades at gut level."

We s.f. creators are often great makers of myth, some lifted from written s.f. and tarted up for visual media consumption. Star Trek is notorious for looting the more thoughtful work of writers for their striking effects, leaving behind most of the thought and subtlety. Of the show's huge global audience, Disch observes that "few audiences like to be challenged," for after all, a challenge "is traditionally the prelude to a duel, not to a half-hour of light entertainment. Any artist's first order of business is not to challenge but to entice."

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