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May, 2004 : Review:

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of


In The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, to give Thomas M. Disch's important book its full title, you will find an intertwined history of both science fiction and the twentieth century, coupled with one of the most clear-sighted and significant critiques of the science fiction genre ever published. Disch's underlying argument is inherent in the book's subtitle: that science fiction, its motifs and symbolism, its aspirations and dreams, have "come to permeate our culture in ways both trivial and/or profound, obvious and/or insidious.... The influence of science fiction ... can be felt in such diverse realms as industrial design and marketing, military strategy, sexual mores, foreign policy, and practical epistemology—in other words, our basic sense of what is real and what isn't." (Disch 11-12)

When I first discovered The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of I became an almost immediate convert to Disch's work. Never, I felt, had such an open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable analysis of the field been attempted. Disch covers fandom (an important subject of several works of social studies), feminism, religion (in particular science fiction's relationship with the real life religions of Scientology, Aum Shinrikyo, and Philip K. Dick's religious writings) and the Right; each of which I shall examine in more depth. I am stating my personal bias openly: I find The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of an important—no, the important—book of science fiction criticism. That view is further encouraged by SF critic John Clute, whose words I echo:

"Tom Disch is one of the Secret Masters of science fiction. Knowing, masterful, sly, hilarious, and profound. This bible of SF insights, this devil's dictionary of sharp wisdom, is the best book on SF ever written by a practicing writer in the field." (Clute qtd. in Disch, cover blurb.)

Disch presents his book from the point of view of a working writer, a man familiar with the field and its diverse practitioners, a man speaking primarily from the inside:

"Having lived in the world of SF so long and having known so many of the players, it would be a false modesty to exclude my own personal witnessings from this account.... In my years as a Young Turk in the late '60s, I burned with the intolerance of a true faith, the New Wave, which was to elevate SF to its true potential as the heir of Joyce and Kafka, Beckett and Genet. Now, with the benefit of distance, I can afford to be tolerant—and hope to be objective." (Disch 14)

I hope to do the same.

The American Dream and The Right to Lie

There is a Kurt Vonnegut adage which I like and often use: that "practically nobody on Earth is an American." (Vonnegut 95) Yet science fiction is primarily an American phenomenon, and despite Disch's argument that it is "one of the few American industries that has never been transplanted abroad with any success" (Disch 2) it has become a global phenomenon, with significant industries and fandoms in countries as diverse as China, Japan, Israel and Cuba, the European nations (such as France, Spain and the Netherlands), countries of the former Soviet Union such as Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, and of course in the entire English-speaking world, primarily in the UK but with smaller concentrations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada (where it exists alongside the French) and South Africa. Disch, however, abstains from examining science fiction as a global phenomenon, preferring to analyse its impact on American culture alone. Of course, it could well be argued that in a world of increasing American cultural domination, such an impact must therefore filter its way into the world at large.

Disch's inherent argument, presented in the first chapter is that America celebrates lying. "America is a nation of liars," Disch says, "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." (Disch 15) He proceeds to present a historical list of national lies: Eisenhower's insistence that the U-2 shot down in the 1960s over the USSR was not a spy plane, The Vietnam war, Watergate, and finally Oliver North's testimony to the Senate regarding the Iran-Contra debacle. "So artful was North's performance before the Senate," Disch notes, that

"soon a good deal of the country had adopted the same attitude. 'No one has captured the American public like Ollie North,' opined a Chicago restaurateur. 'Even when he's not telling the truth he's beautiful. The guy is so charming.' Then columnist and future presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan lauded North as 'a patriotic son of the republic who, confronted with a grave moral dilemma—whether to betray his comrades and cause, or to deceive members of Congress—chose the lesser of two evils, the path of honor. It was magnificent.'" (Disch 17-18)

This is an intriguing argument, and is worth considering if only to argue against. While it is a fascinating view into the historical positioning of science fiction within the American subtext, it is somewhat contentious and not necessarily relevant. Likewise, in Chapter Two, sub-titled "Poe, Our Embarrassing Ancestor," Disch presents a compelling, if not entirely convincing, case for Edgar Allan Poe's prominence as the father of the science fiction genre. Isaac Asimov, for example, notes that "[British SF author and critic] Brian Aldiss considers Frankenstein, published in Great Britain in 1818, to be the first true science fiction story, and I tend to agree with him." (Asimov 19)

In Chapter Three, "From The Earth to the Moon—in 101 years," Disch himself concedes that "the honor or disgrace of being SF's primary ancestor is a debate that can never be settled finally" (Disch 57). In this chapter Disch truly enters the spirit of the book as a historiographic analysis, providing a clear, concise history tracing the works of Verne and Wells in detail, touching on the works of Clarke, Huxley and Stapleton. He notes that it is "rather a large English contingent for a genre that I would claim to be essentially American" (Disch 69). Still, his main thrust is a thoroughly enjoyable and suitably pointed examination of the symbol of the rocket ship, the "genre's primary icon." (Disch 57)

In Chapter Four: "How Science Fiction Defused the Bomb", Disch examines another important science fictional—as well as historical—icon, the nuclear bomb. "There, in a single gestalt that will be repeated in movie after movie for the rest of the century—from Godzilla in 1954 to Jurassic Park of 1993 and its sequel, The Lost World, of 1997—is the meaning of the Bomb stripped of all theory and science. The Bomb is simply the greatest of all Monsters from the Id" (Disch 81). The bomb, in its effect on Hiroshima and its creation of the cold war, is a potent symbol that, as Disch notes, has permeated the popular consciousness. It is also a significant myth for science fiction writers. As Asimov notes,

"Once uranium was discovered, a nuclear bomb was an easy extrapolation, and through the World War II years, the science fiction stories dealing with nuclear bombs nestled as thickly as snowflakes in the pages of the science fiction magazines. One of them, "Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill ... came so close to the actual facts that both the author and the editor of the magazine were interviewed by suspicious intelligence agents." (Asimov 85)

Thus, the bomb becomes significant not only as pop-cultural icon, but as a symbol of science fiction's prophetic role: the ability to predict the future. Indeed, Asimov furthers the myth in his memoirs:

"In one of my talks with Campbell, he had told me of the discovery of uranium fission and of the obvious conclusion that a chain reaction could be set up, that energy could be delivered at such a rate as to produce an unprecedentedly cataclysmic explosion.... that was the first hint I had of an atomic bomb and what it could do, and this was in February 1941. I promptly incorporated what I had learned about it in my story "Super-Neutron."" (Asimov, 1980. p 300)

Disch understands that need of science fiction to justify itself, yet when discussing author Philip K. Dick later in the chapter, he observes that "better than any other SF writer of his time, Dick understood that science fiction is not about predicting the future but examining the present." (Disch 91, my italics) In this chapter, the history of the bomb and its expression in popular form is discussed in depth, from Heinlein to Dick to Kubrick. It is worth reading and marks a transition within the volume to unique analytical work.

A Social History of Science Fiction: The Future as a Lifestyle

If the first part of the book is a historical analysis, the second is a cultural one, concentrating on fandom, gender, religion and politics. First of these is the cultural phenomenon of fandom. In Chapter Five: "Star Trek, or the Future as a Lifestyle," Disch examines the relationship between television and the written world of science fiction, the aspirations of the genre, and portrays an intimate history of the New Wave, science fiction's own 60s counter-culture offensive of which Disch himself was part. "Before Star Trek," Disch notes, "the SF in the movies, comics and TV offered two possibilities: either one dressed like real astronauts, in cumbersome spacesuits; or, like characters in Buck Rogers, one's wardrobe conflated all periods of history.... Star Trek's solution to this dilemma was pajamas." (Disch 101) The deck of the Enterprise, Disch argues, was a very real interpretation of the viewer's own future:

"Dress everyone in suits instead of pajamas, and it's clear that the starship Enterprise is actually an office disguised as the future. What other future, after all, is a likelier destination for most of the younger viewers who will graduate to the Enterprise from schoolrooms that are also visual analogs to the show's sets?" (Disch 101)

An important part of the book, Chapter Six: "Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing SF," examines gender as portrayed and exhibited within the genre. He examines the early SF stories such as Tom Godwin's classic "The Cold Equations" which, Disch argues, "illustrates what is likely to happen to girls when they trespass into the boys' club of Outer Space." (Disch 116) In the story a young stowaway girl on a spaceship must be ejected because her extra weight means the ship would otherwise not have enough fuel to land. He examines the sexual revolution as exhibited by SF in the early work of J.G. Ballard, the tantalizing S&M novels of John Norman (the "Gor" series) and Robert Heinlein's many sexploitation novels, from the 60s cult novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" to the notorious rape scene in the 1982 novel Friday, which is worth quoting (in the novel Friday, a professional killer, explains how she survived gang rape by pretending to enjoy it: "I worked on all of them—method acting, of course—reluctant, have to be forced, then gradually your passion overcomes you; you just can't help yourself. Any man will believe that routine, they are suckers for it." (Heinlein qtd. in Disch 121) Friday, Disch argues, can be seen as Heinlein's response to feminism: the book is dedicated to "Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre, Ursula Le Guin, and twenty-eight other women (identified by first names only), all of them SF professionals or the spouses thereof." (Disch 121)

When Michael Moorcock discusses the "Gor" books, he takes a less objective view to such work: "This stuff," he says,

"is read primarily by adolescent boys who might be as frightened sexually as the author seems to be.... I find such writers feeble-minded at best. At worst they are frighteningly dangerous—for this is, like much present-day fiction, so unimaginative, so seedy in its brutal attitudes towards human beings (especially women), so aggressively sterile, so hypocritical and ambiguous in its moral and social values, that one can only mourn for the tree which was cut down to make the paper on which it was printed." (Moorcock 92)

Disch rightly identifies Moorcock as the person who—in his capacity as editor of New Worlds magazine in the 60s—was primarily responsible for the New Wave movement in SF. Disch notably discusses the controversy of Ursula Le Guin's editing of the influential Norton Anthology of Science Fiction, arguing that she restricted or eliminated all authors with whom she did not share a political ground (such as, for example, Moorcock): "Both," says Disch,

"are set forth in the collection's subtitle, North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990. The first geographical limitation both allows Margaret Atwood and some few other Canadians in and, more significant, keeps out all English writers, though 1960 through 1990 were the years in which British SF came into its own.... The exclusion of SF stories written before 1960 debars an even wider host of Le Guin's ideological enemies and professional rivals. The Norton Book excludes, by definition, the classic short fictions of Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein ... and it limits the work of other writers prominent in the bonanza years of the 1950s to stories that show their imaginative powers in decline.... These exclusions facilitate Le Guin's aim to create an anthology that is a one-volume affirmative action campaign." (Disch 130)

Highlighting two opposing extremes—overt political correctness on the one, pallid sexploitation on the other—is, I would argue, an important part of the book, and makes for a worthwhile discussion.

Also of much interest is Chapter Seven, dealing with religion—both of science fiction as a religion and the actual religions that were formed of science fiction. This is a fascinating account of the social history of fandom and of scientology, but it also makes the connection between the Japanese doomsday cult of Aum Shinrikyo and the Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov—just as China Mieville would note, a few years later:

"The term "Al-Qaeda" seems to have no political precedent in Arabic, and has therefore been something of a conundrum to the experts, until someone pointed out that a very popular book in the Arab world, Arabs apparently being big readers of translated sf, is Asimov's Foundation, the title of which is translated as "Al-Qaeda". Unlikely as it sounds, this is the only theory anyone can come up with." (qtd. in Langford)

Indeed, it seems Asimov's work seems destined to become a basis for new "foundations!"

Chapter Eight, "Republicans on Mars—Science Fiction as Military Strategy", concentrates mainly on expressions of right-wing sympathies within SF—notably in the works of Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle—although again it makes an unexpected connection with the world outside fiction—in this instance exploring the links between politician Newt Gingrich and the works of Pournelle. In Chapter Nine, "The Third World and Other Alien Nations," Disch argues that "if the rocket ship is the basic icon of science fiction, the genre's primal scene is first contact with an alien," (Disch 185) and continues to explore the abduction fantasies of author Whitley Strieber, cultural relativism, Mormons, Heinlein again, and ethnicity and real life "aliens".

Finally, Chapter Ten, "The Future of an Illusion—SF Beyond the Year 2000", concludes the book with an examination of the possible future of science fiction. It is again interesting, examining SF as an industry, suggesting the possible failure of the "literature of ideas", yet seeing a positive side to television and movies and their failure to "eradicate" the book. I would like to conclude with Disch's own words, which reflect the way I, and many of his readers, feel about this unique, if occasionally unruly, industry and brand of fiction, SF:

"Delmore Schwartz had half of it right: in dreams begin responsibilities. But it's no less true that in dreams begin irresponsibilities. The menu, in terms of our possibilities in both those respects, is well-nigh infinite.
"Science fiction is that menu." (Disch 226)

Works Referenced

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov on Science Fiction. London: Granada, 1983.

———. In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954. New York: Avon 1980.

Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: The Free Press, 1998.

Langford, Dave. Ed. Ansible No. 172 (Nov. 2001). (Online.)

Moorcock, Michael. Wizardry and Wild Romance. London: Victor Gollancz 1987.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986.

Copyright © 2004, Lavie Tidhar. All Rights Reserved.

About Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, lived in Israel and South Africa, travelled widely in Africa and Asia, and currently lives in London. He is the winner of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize (awarded by the European Space Agency), was the editor of Michael Marshall Smith: The Annotated Bibliography (PS Publishing 2004) and the anthology A Dick & Jane Primer for Adults (The British Fantasy Society, forthcoming 2006), and is the author of the recently-released novella An Occupation of Angels (Pendragon Press, Dec. 2005), a supernatural cold war thriller which Adam Roberts called a "powerfully phantasmagoric fantasy... Sharp, witty, violent and liable to haunt your dreams." His stories appear in Sci Fiction, Chizine, Postscripts, Nemonymous, Infinity Plus, Aeon, The Book of Dark Wisdom, Fortean Bureau and many others, and in translation in seven languages. His non-fiction appeared in Locus, Foundation, Interzone and IROSF.

Lavie's web site is at


May 21, 15:50 by John Frost
Comments on Lavie's review of Disch.
May 21, 18:40 by Thomas Reeves
I'm still glad I didn't read this book. I'd heard some quotes from it before, and that the man is wrong on most things seems even clearer to me. Yet after reading this review it sounds like it was clear to him too. It sounds like he was just having fun with whatever odd theory he threw out, not intending a genuine or plausible history of SF.

Still "The Cold Equations" as a story of punishing girls for going on spaceships? That strikes me as a tad goofy. Godwin might have purposely chosen a girl, but that was likely to evoke more sympathy. Judging from my Dad's era if a boy did something stupid they were just dang dummies who caused their own problems. At the very least they were expected to be "big boys" and bravely accept that the rules of science required them to die. Women were allowed to be a bit more "irrational", being upset at your own death isn't all that irrational to me mind you, so if he purposely chose a girl that'd probably be why. Dumping off a male stowaway would be less drama.
May 21, 19:08 by Chris Dodson
Gotta agree with Camden on this one. Far from being "clear-sighted and significant," I thought the book was riddled with contradictions and filled with some of the most crackpot ideas I've ever seen in a work of criticism. The rocket ship is the genre's primary icon? The starship Enterprise as schoolroom and office?

About the only thing I do agree with is his evaluation of John Norman, although I wouldn't go so far as to call his books "dangerous." Seedy and unimaginative, yes; frighteningly dangerous, no. That section reminded me a little of those folks who blamed the Columbine massacre on Marilyn Manson and The Matrix.
May 21, 20:07 by Thomas Reeves
I don't read John Norman, but in a sense I might actually agree he is dangerous. Not in the "he'll collapse civilization way" more in the Turner Diaries way.

I've had no contact with this on a personal level, but it seems there really are Gor fans who prey on women who hate themselves and then make out whatever dehumanizing fantasy the books helped formulate for them. Now likely they would've done some twisted violent thing of their own initiative, but I think in some cases a book can be an instruction manual on doing violence more effectively. I don't know enough about Norman to judge on that.
May 22, 06:49 by Marissa Lingen
Was there anything about this book the reviewer didn't find just absolutely wonderful? For example, when Disch decided that Octavia Butler was essentially John Norman, did that make total sense to you? Did you find it absolutely necessary to hear snarky personal gossip about Theodore Sturgeon and his wife? It's always dangerous to swallow someone else's literary theories whole. Even Clute said in his review of the book that Disch was playing with elliptical billiard balls.
May 22, 12:14 by David Bratman
Camden and ChrisDodson are correct - "The Cold Equations" isn't an object lesson to women. It's supposed to be a tragedy, and the more innocent the innocent victim is, the greater the tragedy. As the other character, the pilot, says, if the stowaway had been a big tough man he'd have ejected him without a second thought. Making her a young girl is intended to make her less expendable, not more.

David G. Hartwell has written that if you don't understand this story, you don't understand SF, and in that case there are a lot of self-proclaimed SF experts who don't understand it, starting with Disch and with the late Damon Knight, who entertained himself making a list of objects on the spacecraft that could have been ejected for weight rather than a passenger. Knight may have proven Godwin a sloppy writer, but he's oblivious to the story's point.
May 22, 15:40 by Camden
Damon Knight, who entertained himself making a list of objects on the spacecraft that could have been ejected for weight rather than a passenger.

Thomas R: Well I can almost see that. In least in a tongue in cheek way that's kind of a point. The anti-girl thing just struck me as goofy. Plus there's plenty of overt sexism of SF in that age, even Susan Calvin has to give up men to have a career, so you don't have to go hunting for subtle sexism.
May 24, 22:55 by Mike Brotherton
I was telling a friend of mine that I'd met Godwin's daughter at a convention one time.

My friend asked me how much she weighed.

[True story!]
May 25, 13:17 by David Gardner
I thought the book was riddled with contradictions and filled with some of the most crackpot ideas I've ever seen in a work of criticism.

Having survived both a BA and an MA in English, and having been subjected to tons of the garbage that goes under the general title of "criticism," I'm largely forced to agree with you here. On the other hand, I think the value of most of this stuff, if it's reasonable well thought out, is that it makes one think about the topic in ways that perhaps don't usually occur.

I had a professor during my BA who very proudly announced on the first night of an SF Lit class that he was "a card carrying member of the American Communist Party," and that anyone who disagreed with him was "unlikely to get an A."

I had thought that class was going to be a blow-off; I'd been reading SF for decades. Instead, it was one of the hardest classes I had, harder even than most of my MA classes, because I chose to challenge him, and to do that I had to challenge myself. It was a valuable experience.

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