On SF, Tom Disch

University of Michigan Press, 2005, 271 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-472-06896-2

There may be two Tom Disches.

The first is the one I (very) briefly met in person at Readercon in July 2006. A gentle giant teddy bear of a man, erudite and polite, a shining example of a literary intellectual who has aged well. Look at the back of On SF, and you will find his picture. (One that, I hasten to add, has an eerie resemblance to another person I know, a senior bureaucrat in the Canadian federal public service for whom I served: That may explain my instinctive trust in Disch from the first moment I saw him.) This is the same Disch whose LiveJournal blog features poetry and anguish at the state of the world.

But this is not the Tom Disch who wrote this collection of critical essays on Science Fiction. No, that Tom Disch is on the front cover of On SF: Full dark beard, mean stare, tattooed arms crossed in defiance. Disch as a hell-raiser, as someone who’s not going to play by the overly permissive rules of genre criticism. The book’s subtitle raises the stakes: “A last judgement on the genre from science fiction’s foremost critic.” The book’s first essay (“The embarrassments of Science Fiction”) further drive home the point: SF, argues Disch, is a branch of children’s literature.

And bang: we’re off.

Later on, he offers the following statement of intention, which I can’t help but quote at length:

Ideological silliness is an affliction more tolerable in the young, and, for reasons I’ve tried to lay out, exactly the same may be said of a taste for science fiction. This is not meant to be my way of abjuring the field or declaring that I am not now nor have I ever been a science fiction writer. I have been and I continue to be. I will even go on reading and reviewing the stuff, as long as some small portion of what is published continues to suit my taste. But I won’t act as a booster for the genre as a whole, which has become, as a publishing phenomenon, one of the major symptoms or, if not a causal agent in, the dumbing-down of the younger generation and the lowering of the lowest common denominator. [P.36]

Yes. Yes, even if I’m in that SF-afflicted generation. It’s good to have perspective. I’m willing to consider the idea: SF as a dumbed down branch of children’s literature? Please tell me more.

And Disch does. Coming from a more literary sensibility than many of SF’s authors and critics, Disch pulls no punches and can rely on an impressive set of references to make his point. Having written a number of now-classic SF novels, Disch has the credibility and the knowledge to criticize the genre as an insider. His take-downs are merciless and insightful: The two-part evisceration of Whitley Strieber’s “Alien Abduction” books may be taking on an easy target, but the quality of the argumentation is astonishing. One sometimes get the impression that he’s slumming by using his vast intellect to dissect inconsequential subjects. His overview of the early-eighties horror field, “The King and his Minions”, exemplifies overkill.

But my problems with the book have more to do with what’s omitted than what’s included. Sure, Disch overuses the unfamiliar expression “hugger-mugger” a few times in close proximity, but that not’s nearly as annoying as a lack of references for when the reviews were written. A partial list of acknowledgements at the very end of the book provides a number of dates, but not for all pieces. It takes away part of the pleasure of the book: As every piece begins, we have to guess the historical context and make sense of the references. Hopefully, readers will have a good memory of the eighties…

I’m not necessarily saying that the book is dated: Disch’s criticism is solid and can be enjoyed even when his subjects have practically vanished from culture. But his pieces should have been grounded with easy date-and-publication credentials: the context would have helped the flow of the pieces.

Still, that’s a minor issue: even with it, we’re left with an uncompromising book of SF criticism. Like his once-classmate John Clute, Disch understands the genre like few others and doesn’t pull any punches. The next time I meet him, I’ll know the truth: There’s really only one Tom Disch, and he’s not going to be satisfied with children’s literature or easy excuses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *