I recently reread THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF by my old friend Thomas Disch (Free Press, 1998, $25). Tom is now gone, but his ideas seem fresh as ever about science fiction and where it’s gone.
Here are some thoughts on the book, which still bears consideration. This sadly sardonic survey of science fiction worries its subject from many angles: historical, literary, sociological. Science fiction (sf) is perhaps the defining genre of the twentieth century, its conquering armies still camped outside the Rome of the literary citadels.
It’s an old story. Throughout this century, conventional literature persistently avoided thinking about conceptually altered tomorrows, and retreated into a realist posture of fiction of ever-smaller compass. By foregrounding personal relations, the novel of character came–especially in a classic debate around World War I between Henry James and H.G. Wells–to claim the pinnacle of orthodox fiction. James won that argument, surrendering the future to the genre that would later increasingly set the terms of social debate.
Disch underlies his wryly witty observations with poet Delmore Schwartz’s resonant title from 1938, *In Dreams Begin Responsibilities*. This “pregnant truth” is his clarion call to the genre that once fascinated him but plainly calls to him less since the mid-1980s. Sf takes up Big Ideas, but does not always treat them well. This 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 invented in an sf magazine, Scientology. These unseemly neighbors of the genre betray America’s great historical trouble: high dreams, ready gullibility. Some skepticism is quite in order, particularly in the New Age.
The persistence of cranks and fools in the ranks of sf is sobering. We’ll scarcely be invited to tea if we keep such companions. This blends with Disch’s class analysis of literature.
Still, “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. 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 patronage.
Sf is best seen as 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 visions of the future; sf is notably an American creation, since the great era of Wells.
Predictably, its grandiose dreams lead to its worse faults. Sf’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 sf 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.”
Such faults go with the territory, but they do not dominate. The true strength of the genre lies in its power to convince by imagining. “A theory can be controverted; a myth persuades at gut level.”
We sf writers were often great makers of myth, some lifted from written sf and tarted up for 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, he observes, “few audiences like to be challenged,” for after all, “it 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 any TV show from a fashion angle: actors in pajamas. Their starship looks much like an office from the inside, with lookalike uniforms: “the 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 horror (the Alien series, etc.).
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 meet proved so boring: “Blandness and repetition can be comforting, and comfort is a major deseratum in bedtime stories.” Alas, the genre set out to do more than rock us to sleep.
The market now mirrors his 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 and Michael Crichton clones, not actual sf at all. Only one true sf novel I can recall from the 1990s made the lists for long, Arthur Clarke’s 3001, a media-driven sequel to a sequel to a sequel. Instead, fantasy reigns supreme.
Indeed, Disch believes that once space travel, sf’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 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 sf’s Golden Age, yet also the crucible of Scientology and crank ideas like the infamous Dean Drive).
This retreat from the observable fact–that the moon in indeed a harsh mistress–to Disch signals the end of sf’s best days. Though he scorns the Heinlein-Pournelle wing of hard sf (“Space is like Texas, only larger.”) he confesses a fondness for that seminal work of physical exploration, Hal Clement’s Heavy Planet.
Certainly, “hardness” in the sense of scrupulous concern for the facts and methods of science remains for many the core of the field, and its always hopeful promise. Hardness has been appropriated by some for political hard-nosed analysis, often with a libertarian bias, sometimes even for a conservative one — a seeming contradiction, for a “literature of change.”
Clement’s seminal world-building took us to far exotica, to meet the strange face to face. Indeed, aliens are the most pointed sf motif. “If God can’t be coerced into breaking his silence, at least he can send emissaries,” a neat compression of science’s failure to reveal the holy, and sf’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 sf’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. Such bemusements can be the glory of sf (as of the deductive mystery, another genre poorly served by film)” and we see it seldom in the torrent of special effects circuses 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 sf in the arena by which it is increasingly judged, the visual.
I believe this to be the great challenge to the genre: to use its insights and methods to reach the great potential audience with more than simple spectacle. The western made such a transition in the 1950s, producing its highest works (High Noon, The Searchers, Shane) before running out of conceptual gas.
Written sf may have lesser prospects. Media tie-in work fills a (thankfully) separate section of the sf division in the larger book stores. In the rising tide of media spinoff novels and “sharecropping” of imaginative territories pioneered by early greats, Disch seen the genre’s probable fate: “more of the same and more of the sameness.”
Need this be so? I find the quantity of fine written sf 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. 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: genres, from the hardboiled detective to cutting-edge sf to wispy, traditional fantasy.
In the end, Disch seems saddened because the promise 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, raising the net in the genre’s perpetual tennis match between conventional literature’s subtle, stylish stamina versus sf’s blunt, intellectual energies. True, Disch’s fellow marchers have largely fallen silent, but the advance of hard sf after them used weaponry they had devised. From Clement’s beginning, hard sf has fashioned a whole armament of methods, some of which mainstream mavens like Tom Clancy, and savvy insiders like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, have built rich provinces of their own. Neal Stephenson’s cultural insights and technoriffs too have found a huge audience.
Genres are best seen as constrained conversations, and sf is the leader and innovator in this. Constraint is essential, defining the rules and assumptions open to an author. If hard sf occupies the center of science fiction, that is probably because hardness gives the firmest boundary.
Genres are also like immense discussions, with ideas developed, traded, and variations spun down through time. Players ring changes on each other–a steppin’-out jazz band, not a solo concert in a plush auditorium. Contrast “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 the central draw of sf, but because he has been so isolated from it for so long, his expedition never reaches the core. Genre pleasures are many, but the quality of shared values within an on-going 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.
Disch does deplore the recent razoring of literature by critics–the tribes of structuralists, post-modernists, deconstructionists. To many sf writers, “post-modern” 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 sf, imagination. 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 sf types find this attack on empiricism a worn old song with new lyrics, quite retro.
At the core of sf 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 a contradictory or self-contained internal differences in texts, rather than their link to reality, often merely leads to literature seen as empty word games.
Sf 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. Sf 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. Thes 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 this, 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.