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Mr. Disch, a well regarded science fiction writer, poet, playwright, and critic, here gives us a critical history of the scifi genre that resembles nothing so much as a drive-by shooting.  When he's done, the field is lettered with the shattered reputations of the field's hacks (from John Norman to Newt Gingrich), quacks (from L. Ron Hubbard to Whitley Streiber), feminists (Ursula K. LeGuin & company), fascists (Robert Heinlein), technophiles (Greg Egan), proselytizers (Orson Scott Card), and so forth and so on.   Among the offenses cited, besides bad writing, are a tendency to pander to the sexual fantasies of young men, a willingness to exploit things like UFO crazes and apocalyptic beliefs, extreme right-wing politics, extreme left-wing politics, dumbing down for the mass audience, jargoning up for the academic crowd, employing ludicrous science, jingoism, racism, sexism, speciesism, etc.  Hardly anyone comes off well--himself, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Iain M. Banks, Joe Haldeman and a very few more, plus Edgar Allan Poe gets an ambivalent nod, given credit not only for inventing science fiction but for embodying it entire in his work, both its good and its bad aspects.

Mr. Disch is particularly drawn to Poe as perpetrator of  hoaxes, a talent he think central to science fiction.  In fact, he believes lying to be central to our national character:

    America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature,
    as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe.

In Mr. Disch's view, Poe and his successors mastered the art of telling people what they want to believe.  And in stories like Mesmeric Revelation and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, he finds Poe to have anticipated nearly every theme that would be developed by subsequent writers:

    1. Mesmerism

    2. Dreams come true

    3. Chip-on-the-shoulder superiority

    4. Genuine visionary power

    5. Great special effects

    6. Sophomoric humor

    7. Divine madness

Over the course of the book he shows how these themes have been employed for good and ill, by various writers, the overwhelming majority of whom he believes have exploited their readers dreams without living up to the admonition that forms the title of Delmore Schwartz's first collection of poems, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, which Mr. Disch alludes to in the title of this book.  Too often he finds his subjects dodging responsibility in favor of popularity, easy money, fadishness, and personal political predilections.

Inevitably the folks who come off worst here are the fans who let authors get away with this stuff.  At best Mr. Disch portrays them as kind of reminiscent of the guys from your high school's A.V. club, with delusions of superpowered children, women who want to be dominated and alien races just waiting to be wiped out.  At worst, they're militiamen like those from the Oklahoma City bombing or the members of the Heaven's Gate or Aum Shinrikyo cults.  That is, they're totally gullible, susceptible to either homicidal or suicidal suggestion.  And always they're the oft-caricatured geeky losers who attend Star Trek conventions.

As you can tell by now, this is a very dark vision of science fiction--one of the rare bright spots (according to Mr. Disch anyway) coming when it helped us learn to live with the atom bomb. Equally bleak is his prediction for the future, when movies and television, now that their effects can match our imaginations, take over from books.  In the end what keeps us reading, even as he's telling us that most of what we're reading about is junk, is the quality of Mr. Disch's analysis and the sheer bravado with which he attacks his own peers, predecessors, and heirs.  There's something here to alienate just about every reader, but the very equal opportunity nature of the drubbings he administers makes it hard to stay mad.  If he's laying into an author you like or a political philosophy you admire, have no fear, on the next page he'll have moved on to authors and ideas you loathe.  One admires the high moral seriousness to which he summons science fiction, but despairs as he says it's not happened in the past and isn't going to happen in the future.  He kind of reminds you of the American colonel in Vietnam who opined: "We had to destroy the village to save it", except that Mr. Disch adds that the village is doomed anyway.  This may be too upsetting for scifi fanatics but for the casual fan or the merely curious reader it's an enjoyable performance to behold.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)

  

Websites:

Thomas Disch Links:
-TRIBUTE: Remembering Thomas M. Disch: In his many dark, satirical, heretical books, the pioneering science fiction author contemplated death with elegant despair (Elizabeth Hand, Jul. 11, 2008, Salon) -Interview: Thomas M. Disch (David Horwich, 30 July 2001, Strange Horizons)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Featured Author: Thomas M. Disch:  With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
    -LETTER: What a relief to read Christopher Hitchens. (Thomas M. Disch, The Nation)
    -NOVELLA: Understanding Human Behavior (Thomas M. Disch, 7/30/01, Strange Horizons)
    -SHORT STORY: After Postville (NY Press)
    -SHORT STORY: PAINTING EGGPLANTS  (Thomas M. Disch, NY Press)
    -SHORT STORY: The Discovery of the NuIlitron:  Results of an Experiment Conducted by Thomas M. Disch and John T. Sladek
    -SHORT STORY: Descending (Thomas M. Disch, 1964, SciFi.com)
    -SHORT STORY: Fun With Your New Head (Thomas M. Disch, 1968)
    -POEM : A Sabbath Prayer (Tom Disch, Theology Today)
    -POEM : Morning Prayer (Tom Disch, Theology Today)
    -POEM: Mahler's 8th  (Tom Disch, Theology Today)
    -POEM: Landscape with Tempietto  (Tom Disch, Theology Today)
    -POEM: Memoirs of a Primrose (Tom Disch, Poetry, April 2001)
    -POEM: Everyday Life in the Dutch Republic (Tom Disch, Partisan Review)
    -POEM: A Bookmark (Tom Disch, Writer's Almanac)
    -POEM: Ode to a Blizzard  (Tom Disch, Poetry Magazine)
    -POEM: Color in American History  (Tom Disch, Poetry Magazine)
    -POEM: Convalescing in London (Thomas Disch)
    -POEM: Ballade of the New God (Thomas M. Disch, Strange Horizons)
    -POEM: Clouds  (Thomas M. Disch, Strange Horizons)
    -POEM: The Rapist's Villanelle (Tom Disch)
    -POEM: Entropic Villanelle (Tom Disch)
    -POEM: Waking Early New Year's Day, Without a Hangover (Tom Disch)
    -Sermonettes (Thomas M. Disch)
    -LIBRETTO: FRANKENSTEIN: An opera in three acts (music by Greg Sandow, libretto by Thomas M. Disch)
    -TRANSLATION : The Brave Little Toaster (1980) in Spanish: El valiente tostadorcito (traducción de: José Luis López Angón)
    -REVIEW: of Macbeth (Thomas M. Disch, February 19, 1990, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Later Auden  By Edward Mendelson (Thomas M. Disch, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Robert Creeley: A Biography  by Ekbert Faas (Thomas M. Disch, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Present by Alfred Corn (Thomas M. Disch, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ARTHUR C. CLARKE  By Arthur C. Clarke (Thomas M. Disch, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 'The Difference Engine' (Thomas M. Disch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible  By Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder (Tom Disch, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs (Thomas M. Disch, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Thomas M. Disch (David Horwich, 7/30/01, Strange Horizons)
    -INTERVIEW: What is American About American Poetry? (Tom Disch, American Poetry Society)
    -INTERVIEW: Tom Disch (David Lehman, September 1999, Cortland Review)
    -CHAT: Thomas M. Disch on June 17, 1999 (Event Horizon)
    -PROGRAM NOTES: Ben-Hur by Thomas M. Disch
    -PROFILE: "Thomas M. Disch" (Charles Platt,  June 1980)
    -PROFILE: The Dish on Thomas Disch (Tom Heacox, william & Mary)
    -BIO: Thomas M(ichael) DISCH 1940- (Globe Books)
    -BIO: Thomas M. Disch (b 1940) (Amazon.com)
    -ARTICLE: Archdiocese Orders Play to Vacate Church (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, September 20, 1990, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE : Inspectors Try to Close Play Opposed by Church  (RONALD SULLIVAN, October 16, 1990, NY Times)
    -SPEECH : "Literature, Bowling, and the Labor Day Group" (George R.R. Martin,  Delivered at LASFS Showcase, Los Angeles, CA, May 2, 1981)
    -LETTER: from Phillip K. Dick to the FBI "informing" on Disch (October 28, 1972)
    -SCHROEDINGER'S CAKE: Thomas M. Disch Website - Novelist, Poet, Critic
    -ARCHIVES: "thomas  disch" (Find articles)
    -ARCHIVES: Thomas M. Disch (Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of by Thomas M. Disch (Alexander Star, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (John Leonard, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Gregory Benford, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of ( Frank McConnell, San Jose Mercury News)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (John Clute, SciFi.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Brian Doherty, The American Enterprise)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of ( L.D. Meagher, CNN)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (David Pringle, infinity Plus)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Jonathan Harvey)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Russell Bell)
    -REVIEW: of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Duncan Lawie, SlashDot)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : Fun with Your New (Vintage) Disch (Fred Bush, 7/30/01, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW: of Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Craig E. Engler, SciFi.com)
    -REVIEW: of 334 by Thomas M. Disch (Brooks Peck, SciFi.com)
    -REVIEW: of 334 by Thomas M. Disch (Strange Words)
    -REVIEW: of Clara Reeve (LAURIE STONE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Getting Into Death by Thomas M. Disch (EDMUND WHITE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch (GERALD JONAS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Neighboring Lives (ANTHONY BURGESS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Brave Little Toaster (Anna Quindlen, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Businessman (Marion Zimmer Bradley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The M.D. (GAHAN WILSON, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Sub by Thomas M. Disch (SCOTT SUTHERLAND, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Priest (TERRY TEACHOUT, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Priest (Tom DeHaven, Entertainment Weekly)

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