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The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
Thomas M. Disch
Simon and Shuster, 320 pages

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
Thomas M. Disch
Thomas M. Disch was born in Des Moines, Iowa, at the beginning of World War II. Within months of finishing high school he was in New York where he worked as a checkroom attendant, a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera, in offices and bookstores and night-shifts on a newspaper. He wrote his first published story called "The Double Timer" for Fantastic Stories. He has written 12 novels (the most recent being The Priest: A Gothic Romance), 5 collections of short stories, 7 volumes of poetry, and essays, reviews and incidental pieces too numerous to count. Thomas Disch has won two O. Henry Prizes for short stories, the W. Campbell Memorial Award and the British Science Fiction Award. A recent move has been to Williamsburg, Virginia, to teach at William and Mary.

ISFDB Bibliography
Review: The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
H. Bruce Franklin Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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This book is as clever as its moniker in explaining (a bit hyperbolically, perhaps, but fittingly for the genre) its somewhat misleading subtitle of "How Science Fiction Conquered the World." This isn't a tome about the ways SF back in the 40s and 50s predicted today's technology (even if it was as often wide of the mark for all the times it hit a bullseye), although there is some reference to this phenomenon. Of far more interest, Thomas Disch points out how popular culture has inculcated SF metaphors (often not the particularly sophisticated ones) to the point where some folks (UFO abductees, Scientologists, Heaven's Gate suicides, jurors in Star Trek uniforms) can't tell the difference between the real and the made up.

The author himself was one of the Young Turks of the New Wave, so you also get an insider's look at many of the personalities that helped perpetrate the cultural crimes and misdemeanors Disch charges to SF. I suspect I share with many my excitement in seeing Disch returning to SF, even if in a work of non-fiction (since the early 80s he's published mostly poetry, gothic horror and criticism, as well as plays and interactive software). For those needing a bit of background, however, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, Groiler CD version) has this to say:

"His virtual departure from SF may be not unconnected to the nature of the field's response to him. Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, [Disch] has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers."
That wit (though it doesn't strike me as cruel, unless in the sense that the truth hurts) is in fair abundance here. Chapters with titles such as "When You Wish Upon a Star -- Science Fiction as Religion," "Star Trek, or the Future as Lifestyle" and "Republicans on Mars -- Science Fiction as Military Strategy" all crack jokes while expressing astonishment over the extent to which certain SF conceits are taken seriously by the mainstream.

Though Disch claims he did not set out to write a history of SF, it nonetheless provides a handy overview, albeit with Disch's pointed emphasis on the commercial, as opposed to literary, works which he believes have had the most cultural impact. For this reason, Disch makes a most persuasive case for Edgar Allan Poe -- not the more erudite Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- as the source from which contemporary SF springs. It also buttresses his arguments that SF, with a few obvious exceptions (Verne, Wells), is a distinctly American phenomenon in which many of the major practitioners are still alive (Bradbury, Bova) or relatively recently deceased (Asimov, Heinlein). Disch does, however, discuss two movements that have had significant popular repercussions despite being more literary forms: the 60s' couterculturism of the New Wave and the concurrent emergence of Feminist SF. And although Disch was in the thick of this fray, there is little insider "dirt," although there are hints that Disch has some to dish out, but refrains out of respect for the still living or the memory of the dearly departed. The most intimate description Disch provides is that of J.G. Ballard, "genius in residence" of the New Wave, while he has some fun at the expense of Ursula Le Guin's political correctness (I suspect the two probably avoid each other at parties).

His most pointed words, however, are reserved for hacks, the L. Ron Hubbards and Whitley Streibers (although categorized as "non-fiction," Disch thinks his books more rightly belong to SF), whose lack of craft is secondary to their inspiration of pseudo-religious cults. Conversely, Disch's admiration for genuine storytelling talent overcomes his disdain for an author's religious or political beliefs, as is the case with Orson Scott Card or, most notably, SF Grandmaster Robert Heinlein, who has captured the attention of disparate zanies from Charles Manson to Newt Gingrich.

Although Disch is concerned primarily with written SF, he concedes that by far the most influential form is visual (yes, Virginia, incredible as it sounds, some people really do think Star Trek is science fiction). The impact of the visual poses a dilemma for the future of the commercial SF book industry, which today is mostly TV/movie spin-offs and serializations. Disch argues that this has led not only to a restricted market for worthwhile new SF, but the backlist deletion of many major books (indeed, Disch's own seminal works, Camp Concentration and 334, are currently out-of-print). The one glimmer of hope he sees is cyberpunk and its various offshoots, which he terms the "one significant evolutionary event in the field in the past 15 years."

These dire straits notwithstanding, Disch believes that science fiction, for good or bad, remains the best venue in which to dissect the peculiarities of our modern culture:

"Delmore Schwartz had half of it right: in dreams begin responsibilities. But it is no less true that in dreams begin irresponsibilities. The menu, in terms of our possibilities in both these respects, is well-nigh infinite. Science fiction is that menu."
Let me add that it would certainly help improve our taste if that menu were to offer some new Disch sometime soon.


A digression: Disch cites a number of SF critics in developing his argument, one of whom was responsible for re-igniting my boyhood fascination with the genre when as a graduate student I took his science fiction seminar. H. Bruce Franklin shares Disch's interest in how SF reflects and influences popular culture. Unfortunately, Franklin's Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, which Disch references, is out-of-print (although I'll bet any one of the book search services available on the Web could turn up a volume, and no, my personal copy is not for sale). Franklin can be as funny and incisive as Disch, so if you like The Dream Our Stuff is Made Of, I'd recommend you also check out the following:
War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination reviews the fiction and non-fiction that repeatedly offered false faith in new weapons of mass destruction to end war and institute a Pax Americana, from the invention of the submarine and the gatling gun up to, of course, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race.
MIA: Mythmaking in America, although not about SF, explores how American popular culture embraced and propagandized the POW/MIA political hoax; Franklin's research in debunking the notion that Vietnam still holds American prisoners is widely regarded as impeccable.
Future Perfect is a compilation of Franklin's essays on a collection of American 19th century SF from authors you might expect (Poe, Hawthorne) to the more obscure (Fitz-James O'Brien, William Harben).

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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