Duncan Lawie, stalwart science fiction reviewer, this time steps up to the plate with what you might call a meta-science fiction book, Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. Considering that SF has been around as such for far shorter than many other types of literature, a book like this sounds like it may be useful in explaining its disproportionate hold on the public imagination. (Personally, I'd like to read the stuff on Heinlein.)
Thomas M. Disch was raised in Minnesota and started publishing science fiction in the early 1960s. His close involvement with the New Wave meant much of his early work was more closely associated with the UK than with the country of his birth. From the mid-1970s, he has been as well known for his poetry. Though he has not ceased to write, his increasingly large sphere of interest has reduced his science fictional output considerably, though he clearly remains in close contact with the authors and trends of the genre. His literate, intelligent approach is apparent in all he does.
The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of sets out to present a critical history of science fiction but is perhaps more interesting instead as a critical view of the American psyche. Disch's thesis is built on twin foundations -- that science fiction is an American form and that Americans believe they have a "right to lie." The first pillar is not thoroughly investigated -- at least, the argument is unlikely to convince non-Americans. The second idea is approached from almost every angle; its corollary -- and the reason for Disch's subtitle -- is that people want to believe. Disch's exploration of science fiction can decide that Edgar Allen Poe is "our embarrassing ancestor" because he has already reached the decision that SF is itself an American form. He dismisses Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a progenitor because her science is "fast talking and stage props" which serves to set the stage for classic melodrama, rather than as the real core of the book. Against this, Poe is set up as a prototypical American hoaxer and that his 'science fiction' is defined by a genuine desire to convince readers that what he writes is not mere fiction. It is thanks to this root stock that Disch feels able to discuss science fiction beyond its existence as a literary and visual form.
The book is primarily structured as a series of thematic essays, without much emphasis on timeline. Disch assumes a reasonably well-read audience, while making considerable room for those unfamiliar with his more obscure subjects. This is, of course, a necessary approach as it is often through early authors (with works unavailable to the general public) that Disch builds his background. Nevertheless, he does not rely on them to provide him with sacrificial victims; he would far rather tear pieces off the big names we are already familiar with. There is no shortage of diatribe in these pages. The invective is principally concentrated on those who have come to use the form for their own propaganda and those who present their fictions as fact. In the first camp, his principle targets are famous names who have spent the latter parts of their career attempting to reshape their work or the history of the field itself. Heinlein is an obvious target; Disch provides a good serving on this author's long march from Radical Socialist to Radical Libertarian. He has even less good to say for the "military strategist" members of Heinlein's circle and very little to the benefit of Ursula Le Guin. His concerns with Le Guin are based on her apparent attempt to mould not just science fictional histories and futures to her own ends but the history and future of science fiction. According to Disch, Le Guin has gained vertiginous regard in academic circles and is using this position to influence the manner in which SF is taught academically. A particularly tasty element of his case against Le Guin involves his Aunt Cecilia's recipe for lemon pudding -- you too can cook a footnote.
Disch prefers to see the blemishes of the field he loves than to remake it in his own image but he retains his greatest scorn for those who attempt to remake the world in the image of their own fictions. This is where SF is indeed in danger of conquering the world. The principal natures of this particular megalomania are the UFOlogists and the home-made religions. Readers familiar with Disch will know of his long-standing disgust at Whitley Strieber and can enjoy the thorough dismantling of Strieber's alien encounters. Disch returns again and again to the UFOlogists and their increasing hold on the American mind: he compares the nature of these tales with the stories of science fiction itself, he discusses the increasing complexity of the scam which constitutes the average abduction tale, he considers the place of such beliefs alongside other modern manias for recovered memory. The ability of the human mind to "entertain" belief is a vital element for the success of these alien tales. The desire to actually believe is essential to the success of the 'science fiction religions' and, Disch suggests, the most successful of these in the late twentieth century is Scientology. Like Strieber, he recalls, L. Ron Hubbard started out as a science fiction writer. Like Strieber, Hubbard wanted more. Unlike Strieber, though, Hubbard was supported -- at first -- by the SF community from which he came. His first public presentation of Dianetics was in Astounding Science Fiction, after Hubbard had apparently already suggested that "if a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be start his own religion." Disch's final position is that, amongst the many deluded minds, there are those who have realized that the best way to make money from fiction is to present it as fact, and the fiction that people most want to believe in our era are fictions of a better future -- science fiction.
The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of offers hugely entertaining detail and such incisive insight that it earns forgiveness for its inevitable moments of contrariness.
You can purchase this book at ThinkGeek, and you may want to check out Thomas M. Disch's website as well. Me: