Tag Archives: Thomas M. Disch

The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970’s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.

Disch presents a ruinous anthology

While most of us listened, enraptured by the siren-songs of Technology, they [the authors included in this volume] have never ceased to warn of the reefs awaiting us on the other side of the song.

Title: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future
Editor: Thomas M. Disch
Year: 1971
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

ruinsofearthThe stories in this rather dark anthology were chosen for their relevance to its central theme. That theme is the catastrophic consequences of human behavior; it is the idea that through our own stupidity, we might have a very negative impact on our world, and possibly bring ourselves to ruin. In his introductory essay, “On Saving the World,” Disch presented some of his own observations of the foreboding changes in the human world during his lifetime:

One learned to live with the bombs largely by looking the other way, by concentrating on the daytime, suburban side of existence. [….] Now, in 1971, it isn’t possible to look the other way. It is the daytime, suburban side of existence that has become our nightmare. In effect the bombs are already dropping — as more carbon monoxide pollutes the air, as mercury poisons our waters, our fish, and ourselves, and as one by one our technology extinguishes the forms of life upon which our own life on this planet depends. These are not catastrophes of the imagination — they are what’s happening.

The sixteen stories herein are largely concerned with problems such as growing separation from nature, increasing industrialization and urbanization, overpopulation, pollution, and similar issues. Disch divided the anthology into four sections: The Way It Is, Why It Is the Way It Is, How It Could Get Worse, and Unfortunate Solutions. I was sometimes unsure why a particular story was put in a certain section, but I do like the overall structure. I also like the way Disch prefaced each story with a snippet of some real-life news or journal article or other scholarly work relating to the story’s subject.

The stories included in this volume are:

“Deer in the Works” — Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“Three Million Square Miles” — Gene Wolfe
“Closing with Nature” — Norman Rush
“The Plot to Save the World” — Michael Brownstein
“Autofac” — Philip K. Dick
“Roommate” — Harry Harrison
“Groaning Hinges of the World” — R. A. Lafferty
“Gas Mask” — James D. Houston
“Wednesday, November 15, 1967” — George Alec Effinger
“The Cage of Sand” — J. G. Ballard
“Accident Vertigo” — Kenward Elmslie
“The Birds” — Daphne du Maurier
“Do It for Mama!” — Jerrold J. Mundis
“The Dreadful Has Already Happened” — Norman Kagan
“The Shaker Revival” — Gerald Jonas
“America the Beautiful” — Fritz Leiber

As with any collection or anthology, there is quite a range of quality here. Let me mention what I consider to be the successful stories. Houston’s “Gas Mask” is about the modern phenomenon of the traffic jam, and about how far people will go for their love of those hunks of metal called automobiles. Brownstein’s “The Plot to Save the World” is a neatly efficient encapsulation of how people can’t resist the allure of “progress,” even if that progress ends up destroying them. Philip Dick’s “Autofac” (for “automated factory”) is about the disastrous consequences of turning too much power over to machines. “Do It for Mama!” by Mundis looks at urban crowding — not only crowding of people, but of pets as well. “Roommates” is the basis for Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room!, and is a dismal portrayal of overpopulation. Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” was also of interest, combining several related issues — distance from nature, out-of-control industrialization, and the displacement of ordinary human values in favor of corporate values.

Some of the remaining stories fall into a middle area of mediocrity. Some had interesting points to make, but were poorly written. Others were written with adequate skill, but lacked any point I could discern. And then, finally, a few of these stories were downright horrible; one I would even label “unreadable.”

The whole thing averages out to an average anthology, with both highs and lows of quality. But that’s how most anthologies work out, in my experience. I did like the overall theme and structure of this one, and count it as a satisfactory reading experience.

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.