The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas M. Disch

Free Press, 1998, 256 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-82405-1

Don’t bother reading The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of if you don’t really know your Science-Fiction. I mean it.

Good, serious, knowledgeable critical studies of Science-Fiction aren’t exactly common. (recently, only David Hartwell’s revised edition of Age of Wonders and the John Clute collection of reviews Look at the Evidence come to mind) So it wasn’t a surprise if Dreams‘s reputation preceded its arrival in my reading stack. For a book as opinionated as Dreams, it’s a wonder the whole work wasn’t spoiled well beforehand.

Thomas M. Disch isn’t exactly a superstar of SF nowadays, but he has published a variety of deeply impressive stories since the sixties, as well as several “classic” novels like Camp Concentration and 334. He has also published widely out of the SF genre, including a volume of poetry criticism. Part unfamiliar figure, part seasoned veteran, Disch is uniquely positioned to comment on the genre with a view that’s both sympathetic and iconoclastic.

Books like Dreams are written to slaughter sacred cows. And SF has more than a herd of those. Disch spends pages explaining why Heinlein was racist and sexist, then turns around and mows down Ursula K. LeGuin. As if that wasn’t enough, he moves on to easier targets like new-age wackoes, UFO true believers and scientologists only to drive the point home by stating than for better of for worse, these weirdoes were created and are sustained by SF. Many will blush.

Other highlights include an intriguing treatise on why Edgar Allan Poe is the true father of SF, not Mary Shelley, Wells or Verne. While the argumentation isn’t flawless, it’s interesting. Also worth reading is the effect of SF on the cold war, the argument that dreams entail responsibility and Disch’s views on televised SF, Star Trek in particular.

And yet, despite these juicy bits, The Dreams our Stuff is Made of seems curiously tame, almost as if Disch pulls his punches. Call me a bloody ungrateful bastard, but I wanted more. I wanted Disch to spend more time on the Fringe/SF connection, the disappearing place of SF in a society more and more influenced by SF, the effect of contemporary fantasy on SF and the effect of SF on politics. But then again, I also wanted him to name the writers whose output was affected by drugs instead of getting away with such hints as “read between the lines of those senior writers who once seemed so wonderful and who now, so noticeably, are not. The reason, when it isn’t booze, is probably pot.” [P. 114]

The other major flaw of Dreams is more serious. While Disch tries to paint a picture of a whole genre, his examples of written SF are from before 1985, at the shocking exceptions of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, Whitley Streiber’s alien contact “non-fiction” and The Forstein/Gingrinch “collaboration” 1945. He does talk at length, however about INDEPENDENCE DAY while mentioning THE FIFTH ELEMENT, CONTACT and THE LOST WORLD… Is Disch trying to say that written SF isn’t as relevant to the genre? Even though he’s essentially saying this, it might lead some readers to suspect that there’s almost fifteen years of SF that Disch is deliberately ignoring.

Finally, the book doesn’t really prove its own proposition (“How SF conquered the world”), instead presenting a series of thoughts about the genre. It might be more appropriate to call this an essay collection.

Oh; Page 10: Wasn’t Del Rey books named after Judy-Lynn Del Rey?

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Dreams is the way I wasn’t shocked by Disch’s argumentation. As mentioned, this is a bit of a disappointment. But it might also be a measure of Disch’s ambiguous success, with a book of criticism that’s recapitulative but not definitive, rough but not heretical, less impressive than expected but still commendable.

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