Disch on dreams and stuff

In dreams begin responsibilities. But it’s no less true that in dreams begin irresponsibilities. The menu, in terms of our possibilities in both those respects, is well-nigh infinite. Science fiction is that menu.

Title: The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World
Author: Thomas M. Disch
Year: 1998
Rating: 2/5 stars

dischstuffI’m always interested in reading opinions about science fiction from those who actually write it. And so I was sure I’d enjoy this book, and I did, even though I can’t agree with everything Disch has to say. Rather than being a straightforward work of criticism or history of the genre, the intended focus here is, as Disch tells us, the impact of science fiction on our world:

In short, science fiction has come to permeate our culture in ways both trivial and/or profound, obvious and/or insidious. And its effects have not been limited to the sphere of “culture,” in the narrow sense of one art form’s influencing others. The influence of science fiction, as we shall witness abundantly in the pages ahead, can be felt in such diverse realms as industrial design and marketing, military strategy, sexual mores, foreign policy, and practical epistemology — in other words, our basic sense of what is real and what isn’t.

Despite such a clearly stated purpose, the book fails to make any overall, unified point, and ends up being merely the rambling thoughts and recollections of one particular SF writer. Each chapter sets out to discuss one particular aspect of science fiction’s cultural impact, but there is a lot of sidetracking into topics not really related (or only loosely so) to the chapter at hand. That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading, for there is certainly plenty of fascinating material here. I’m just saying it’s not the most well-oraganized book I’ve ever read.

Disch spends a couple of chapters discussing some of the important “fathers” of the genre: Verne, Wells, Stapledon, Clarke. And, strangely, Edgar Allen Poe; I find Disch’s argument for considering Poe part of that group to be pretty weak and unconvincing. There is a chapter on how SF influenced people’s views about nuclear danger and the Cold War. There’s another chapter on Star Trek (which Disch didn’t think very highly of). A chapter on feminism. One on SF and religion. One on politics and the military (which frequently makes reference to Heinlein and Pournelle). A chapter on aliens, and how they are often stand-ins for the Other in real life: women, different ethnic groups, etc. The final chapter considers science fiction’s future, ending with the quote at the top of this review.

My major problem with the book is Disch’s largely negative portrayal of the genre and its fans. He recognizes, once or twice, that there are two sides to SF: the pulpy, mass-market entertainment side that caters to the lowest common denominator, and the more intellectual side of at least a portion of SF literature. However, he spends a disproportionate amount of space on the former, and not much on the latter. More than once he implies that SF fans are, in general, gullible simpletons who believe in UFO’s, Scientology, and other silly things, calling them “the SF faithful” or “true believers.” Surely there is that segment of fandom out there; but to use it as a general stereotype of SF fans, as Disch seems to do here repeatedly, is simply ridiculous.

The book strayed off-topic quite a bit, and Disch comes across as bitter, or annoyed, or amused, or dismissive, at various times — and, to be fair, intelligent and thoughtful at other times. I think what I found most interesting were the little tidbits of his experiences scattered through the book. Such as the flaky characters he met at a writer’s workshop. Or the very unusual invitation Disch once received from Theodore Sturgeon and his wife. I don’t think this book succeeds at its intended purpose, or represents a well-rounded look at the genre; but it is, nevertheless, an interesting read from one of SF’s recently departed voices.


2 responses to “Disch on dreams and stuff

  1. Got this one in the pile. Ive been going through Blish’s SF criticism lately. Did you notice whether or not DIsch in this book commented on Barry Maltzberg’s Engines of the Night (aka Breakfast in the Ruins? If so, did he savage it?

  2. No, he didn’t mention it, nor any other critical works, as far as I recall.

    He did, however, have some rather harsh things to say about Ursula Le Guin.

    Whenever you read and review this, I’ll be interested to see what you think. I’m sure you’ll review it in far greater depth than I did here.

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