Tag Archives: Thomas Disch

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. 😆

Going to camp, thinking deep thoughts, and reading some Disch

I usually don’t pay much attention to those quotes on the covers of books; you know the ones, the dripping-with-honey praise from other authors for the particular book in question. I mean, all books have those, and it seems easy enough to find someone to praise just about anything. In this case, though, I admit I was struck by the quotes on this Bantam paperback edition of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration. First, Samuel Delany calls it “one of the three best speculative novels of the decade” — high praise indeed from someone widely considered one of sf’s true intellectuals. And Ursula Le Guin says it’s “brilliant… a work of imagination controlled by real moral responsibility…. a work of art.” Since Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, naturally her opinion is worth listening to. So I started this novel thinking there had to be something to it; and even if I’m not sure I can appreciate it as much as Delany and Le Guin do, I must say it’s well worth reading.

In one sense this is an anti-war novel. It takes place in a near future when the U.S. is involved in a drawn-out, senseless war which may or may not be a continuation of Vietnam, but in any case is modeled on and strongly invokes that war (not surprising as the novel is from that period, published in 1972). This future America is led by President McNamara (as in, presumably, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam). The novel’s main character is a poet who is in prison as a conscientious objector, or “conchie.” Soon he is yanked out of one prison and put into another of a very different kind, a secret facility known as Camp Archimedes.

And this is where one of the book’s other major themes comes into play, one of the other ugly things governments engage in besides self-serving wars: the quest for power through any means, even by experimenting on their own citizens. Camp Archimedes is a military facility running biological experiments on prisoners. Specifically, these experiments involve Palladine, a strain of bacteria related to the one that causes syphilis. Palladine’s effects are an extreme extrapolation on the old idea that many luminaries of the past had syphilis and that a heightened intellect was one of its effects. Palladine produces outright geniuses, but at a steep cost: while their minds soar at a superhuman level, their bodies are ravaged, leading to death in around nine months. Our poet is brought in, against his will, to keep a journal documenting the subjects’ mental accomplishments; only later does he learn that he, too, has been infected.

The sad thing is that there’s not much about this that’s really fictional. The U.S. government, in the form of the military, the CIA, or various other agencies, has a long history of experiments on its own people, experiments of many kinds (biological, radiological, chemical, pharmaceutical), with various levels of consent of the subjects — meaning, in the worst cases, no consent at all. I’m assuming Disch drew heavily for this novel from the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service allowed several hundred illiterate black sharecroppers infected with the disease to go untreated, and unaware of what disease they had, for many years so the effects could be studied. This atrocity was made public in 1972, around the same time Disch was writing this book. And one of the book’s other major characters, a sort of spokesman for the infected, is a black man, possibly a nod to the Tuskegee victims.

But it’s not only governments that are indicted here. Some of the criticism also rubs off on scientists and doctors who go along with these unethical practices. Then, also, some of the Palladine subjects volunteer to be exposed to it, and that’s another of the book’s themes: the Faustian bargains people are willing to make in order to acquire something they desire, in this case knowledge, or insight, or enlightenment.

This is an extremely dark novel. I mean, you kinda get that idea from passages like this one:

“And isn’t everybody, after all?”
“A prisoner? I often get that feeling — yes.”
“No, I meant marked for slaughter. The difference is I’ve had the bad luck to sneak a look at the execution orders, while most people walk off to the ovens thinking they’re going to take a shower.” He laughed harshly [….] “It isn’t just Germany,” he said. “And it isn’t just Camp Archimedes. It’s the whole universe. The whole god-damned universe is a fucking concentration camp.”

This bitterly bleak outlook on life is evident throughout the book. It can even be seen in Palladine’s nine-month duration; it can’t be a coincidence that it equals the human gestation period. Disch seems to be equating life with death. We’re headed for the grave from the moment we’re born. Shit happens. Life’s a bitch, then you die.

This is a deep book with a lot to say. The only problem I had was that a lot of what it had to say went right over my head. The sheer density of literary, artistic, and theological references is a bit much to handle; about half the time, at least, I had no idea what they were even about. I’m not sure if it’s fair of me to classify this as a criticism. More likely, Disch was an utterly brilliant writer, and any failure to grasp the full depth of the novel is probably my own damn fault. Still, this did detract from my enjoyment somewhat. Maybe the book is just a bit too intelligent for it’s own good… maybe.

Speaking of intelligence, I think the cover art on this edition is the most perfect representation of a book’s contents I’ve ever seen. Rodin’s The Thinker with barbed wire through the head — brilliant!