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."

He views this most persistent of TV shows from a fashion angle: actors in pajamas. Their starship looks much like an office from the inside, with crew in look-alike uniforms: "[T]he same parables of success-through-team-effort that can be found on such later workplace-centered sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Designing Women."

Trek was thus the prophet of the politically correct multicultural future just ahead of us, with workplace equality conspicuously displayed. Disch wrings much humor from this insight, yet surely the crucial nature of both Star Trek and Star Wars lies in their invocation of family. The strangeness of outer-space futures had before been so daunting for audiences that typically it is the backdrop of neo-Freudian horror (the Alien series, etc.). Yet even here the chilly landscape of the scientific world-view is reduced to the conventional: vampires in space; dripping goo; aliens capable only of hostile rage.

Star Trek's insight lay in the promise of going to the stars together, with well-defined stereotypes who could supply the emotional frame for the potentially jarring truths of these distant places. That is why the cultures they encountered proved so boring: "Blandness and repetition can be comforting, and comfort is a major desideratum in bedtime stories." Alas, the genre set out to do more than rock us to sleep.

The market now mirrors Disch's withering analysis. Despite his assertion that "three or four slots on the best-seller lists are occupied by SF titles," in fact their occupants are fantasy tomes, media tie-ins, and Michael Crichton clones, not actual s.f. at all. Only one true s.f. novel I can recall from the 1990s made the lists for long, Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey, a media-driven sequel to a sequel to a sequel.

Indeed, Disch believes that once space travel, s.f.'s grand metaphor, proved to mean long voyages to inhospitable places, the genre reverted to fantasy-like motifs. There is truth in this, both in the rise of genre fantasy in books (now plagued with a numbing sameness and endless trilogies) and in the ascendance of Joseph Campbell (savant of the mythic archetype theory of storytelling, as used by George Lucas in Star Wars) over John W. Campbell (tough-minded editor of Astounding magazine, the font of s.f.'s Golden Age, yet also the crucible of Scientology and crank ideas like the infamous Dean Drive).

This retreat from an observable fact–that the real moon is indeed a harsh mistress–signals, to Disch, the end of s.f.'s best days. He scorns the Heinlein-Pournelle wing of hard s.f. ("Space is like Texas, only larger"), not distinguishing between libertarian and conservative elements. Disch's own politics are not easily unfolded from his novels, but he does dislike militarism and seems to view with pleasure a benevolent state run by people much like himself.

Still, the rigor of s.f.'s ongoing internal discussions appeals to him, and he nods approvingly at the "Killer Bs"–Greg Bear, David Brin, myself. He confesses a fondness for that seminal work of strict physical exploration, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (1954). Conceptual adventures without a political agenda, as with Arthur Clarke, refresh him.

Certainly, "hardness" in the sense of scrupulous concern for the facts and methods of science remains for Disch and many others the core of the field and its always hopeful promise. Hardness has been appropriated by some for politically hard-nosed analysis, often with a libertarian bias, sometimes even with a conservative one–this last a seeming contradiction, given that this is a "literature of change."

Hal Clement's world-building took us to far exotica, to meet the strange face to face. Indeed, aliens are the most pointed s.f. motif. "If God can't be coerced into breaking his silence, at least he can send emissaries," is Disch's neat compression of science's failure to reveal the holy, and s.f.'s literary attempt to find it metaphorically in the alien. Aliens are only passingly interesting to see; what one wants to do is talk to them, sense the strangeness of another mind.

Yet this is not the focus of the movies and TV, which have turned s.f.'s aliens into horror shows or neat parables. "Screenwriters do not have the luxury that novelists enjoy of taking the time to explain things, to pose riddles and work them out, to think," writes Disch. "Such bemusements can be the glory of s.f. (as of the deductive mystery, another genre poorly served by film)," but we see it seldom in the torrent of special effects pouring from our screens.

In the late 1990s we have entered an era when special effects can show us just about anything, sometimes at surprisingly little cost. This could liberate s.f. from the standard by which it is increasingly judged: the visual. The trick is to combine ever-bigger spectacles with real thinking, historically a tough job.

I believe this to be the great challenge to the genre: to use its insights and methods to reach the huge potential audience with more than simple bangs. The western made such a transition in the 1950s, producing its finest works (High Noon, The Searchers, Shane) before running out of conceptual gas.

Written s.f. may have lesser prospects. Media tie-in work fills a (thankfully) separate section of the s.f. division in the larger bookstores. In the rising tide of media spinoff novels and "sharecropping" of imaginative territories pioneered by early greats, Disch sees the genre's probable fate: "more of the same and more of the sameness."

Need this be so? I find the quantity of well-written s.f. has never been higher, counter-balancing the media tie-in clones. This goes little noticed in the windy passageways of the literary castles, for the division of that Wells-James debate persists.

The media-tied series books typically sell less well with time, unlike creative series (mystery writer Sue Grafton's, historical novelist Patrick O'Brien's), whose readership tends to increase. This opposite gradient suggests conceptual exhaustion, the market not refertilizing. Thus are genres depleted and cast aside, as was the western.

Perhaps this comes in part because there are few feedback loops carrying information-dense dialogue. The media tie-ins have their Star Trek conventions, but they are isolated from the larger s.f. genre discussion. Further, there is a curious mismatch between the reviewing media and the reading public. One would expect an efficient market to shape book reviewing to the great strengths of contemporary America: many genres, from the hard-boiled detective to cutting-edge s.f. and techno-thrillers, on to wispy, traditional fantasy. Yet s.f. particularly is seldom noticed outside its own few magazines, except when Hollywood steals its innovations, often without credit.

In the end, Disch seems saddened because the energy of the New Wave, just breaking when he entered the field in the 1960s, hissed away into the sands of time. But the legacy of his generation is deeper, upping the stakes in the genre's perpetual battle between conventional literature's subtle, stylish stamina versus s.f.'s blunt, intellectual energies. True, Disch's fellow New Wave marchers–Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard–have largely dug in and fallen silent, but the advance of hard s.f. after them used weaponry they had devised. From Clement's beginning, hard s.f. has fashioned a whole armament of methods; mainstream mavens like Tom Clancy, and savvy insiders like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, have used some of them to carve out rich provinces of their own.

On some issues Disch closes ranks with virtually all other s.f. writers. He deplores the recent razoring of literature by critics–the tribes of structuralists, postmodernists, deconstructionists. To many s.f. writers, "postmodern" is simply a signature of exhaustion. Its typical apparatus–self-reference, heavy dollops of obligatory irony, self-conscious use of older genre devices, pastiche and parody–betrays lack of invention, of the crucial coin of s.f.: imagination. (Philip K. Dick's identity anxieties resonate with postmodernists, though, so there is some overlap.)

Some deconstructionists have attacked science itself as mere rhetoric, not an ordering of nature, seeking to reduce it to the status of the ultimately arbitrary humanities. Most s.f. types find this attack on empiricism a worn old song with new lyrics, quite retro.

At the core of s.f. lies the experience of science. This makes the genre finally hostile to such fashions in criticism, for it values its empirical ground. Deconstructionism's stress on contradictory or self-contained internal differences in texts, rather than their link to reality, often merely leads to a literature of empty word games.

S.f. novels give us worlds which are not to be taken as metaphors, but as real. We are asked to participate in wrenchingly strange events, not merely watch them for clues to what they're really talking about. S.f. pursues a "realism of the future" and so does not take its surrealism neat, unlike much avant-garde work which is easily confused with it. The social-realist followers of James have yet to fathom this. The Mars and stars and digital deserts of our best novels are, finally, to be taken as real, as if to say: Life isn't like that, it is this.

The best journeys can go to fresh places, not merely return us to ourselves. Despite Disch's sad eulogy for the genre's past, which he considers its high point, I suspect there are great trips yet to be taken. But they will require courage.

Contributing Editor Gregory Benford's (gbenford@uci.edu) most recent novel in paperback is Artifact.