The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of:
How Science Fiction Conquered the World
By Thomas Disch
The Free Press, 2000
The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of has such a wonderful title that I'm never sure if the main title or the subtitle is most indicative of the book itself. The subtitle, "How Science Fiction Conquered the World," offers a clear, direct statement of author Thomas Disch's goal: he is setting out to show how science fiction, a genre maligned as escapist and marginalized for its juvenile qualities, permeated and transformed the larger culture. Clear, direct, functional, check.
But the main title, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, is simply lovely. Here, Disch takes the famous lines from Shakespeare's Tempest, "We are such stuff / As dreams are made of." The lines come from late in the play, when the aging wizard Prospero is reassuring Ferdinand about the nature of all he's seen while on Prospero's island. This might be a comment from Disch on himself and his own art, as he is a science fiction writer of a mature age—and this book dips into the ongoing debate on the history of science fiction, which has from time to time claimed Shakespeare as a distant branch on the genre's family tree.
However, the lineage for this line has already been complicated several times. A modernized/simplified version of it comes at the end of The Maltese Falcon, when Sam Spade refers to the statue that everyone's been chasing as "the stuff that dreams are made of," suggesting that all the lust, greed, and violence that has driven the book is as ephemeral as Prospero's inventions . . . and perhaps this implies that genre fiction and magic should be grouped together. Carly Simon reused the line and added love back into the mix in her song "The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of," on her 1987 album Coming Around Again.
Disch complicates the situation by reversing the line, referring to "the dreams our stuff is made of." This at once is a commentary on the information, especially virtual reality and cyberspace (where you're reading this), and on the fundamental role of science fiction in our society. This reversal foreshadows Disch's argument, and some of his method, throughout the book: science fiction is the foundational dream of contemporary society, but we must sometimes reverse that which is traditionally said to fully understand it.
Is this making too much of the title? Perhaps, but it's such a lovely synecdoche for the entire book. Throughout this lively, lovely book—part critical study and history, part personal and professional memoir—Disch manages to be extremely readable, and to produce a book that pulls the reader along, urging one to race through it at a fierce clip, while at the same time casually tossing off time delayed observational hand grenades to detonate at leisure.
To state my perspective on this book as clearly as Disch's subtitle: read this book. It is both a pleasure and an education. It is not perfect (more on that below) and it doesn't fulfill some parts of its potential (again, more below), but what is here is richly productive: it should generate both critical responses and story ideas.
After an introduction that reviews some of the more familiar issues related to science fiction (defining it, relating the "sense of wonder" to biological theories and cultural observations) and reviews Disch's own extensive experience with the genre, he opens the wonderscope via a first chapter with a bold premise. Namely, that science fiction is particularly American because the right to lie is central to American culture. While I would have preferred he explored this idea (and several others) at greater length, Disch does present a number of examples to support his claim, ranging from literary forerunners from Twain, the tall tale, and the Native American trickster figure Coyote to historical examples like the Salem witch trials and the respect given to political liars such as Oliver North. Disch also discusses how hoaxes, deception, and self-deception are interwoven with science fiction via beliefs in UFOs, aliens among us, and invented religions such as Scientology.
He then turns his eye to more familiar explorations, such as the father of science fiction (Disch argues for Poe) and the genre's early history. As he does so, he doesn't limit himself to arguing for the internal history of the genre, but instead points out the contributing cultural forces pouring into the genre from without and how early science fiction writers (Poe, Verne, Wells) influenced the outside world.
While these chapters are solid and useful, they aren't as interesting as those that follow, largely because they review familiar ground. It's when Disch moves on to riskier material that he is most interesting; the flair in these areas comes from a lively mix of fresh insights and abrupt honesty. He does a good job of explaining the popularity and social function of Star Trek and is hysterical when deconstructing science fiction as religion.
However, fun as those chapters are, taking pot shots at Mary Baker Eddy and contemporary cultists is really a waste of Disch's chutzpah—those folks can't fight back. But when Disch turns his critical eye on science fiction, militarism, and nationalism, and points identifying fingers at both subliminal meanings and the authors that promote the genre's dim and violent tendencies, the sparks really fly. Again, Disch anchors his analysis with a discussion of the role of extrapolation in military fiction, but the most interesting points are made about living authors such as Jerry Pournelle. Here, Disch makes his strongest arguments for science fiction influencing political reality through shaping the thought and rhetoric of right-wing politicians.
Disch's discussion of the alien as representative of the Third World, and of the slippery nature of cyberspace, are just as pointed and he makes a convincing case for cyberpunk as not radical in any way, shape, or form, but instead as a natural and logical commodification of the American right and need to lie, and of science fiction's followers' need to see themselves as distinct from and superior to the mass of humanity. For all that the creators and fans of The Matrix might see their work as offering humanity "the red pill" of insight and revolution, Disch's theoretical frame makes it impossible to see the film and the genre as anything but one big blue pill.
As I mentioned earlier, this book isn't perfect, and there are two reasons. First, there are times when Disch mistakes his personal response for a more generally applicable one. This is most clearly the case in his chapter on feminism and science fiction. His points about politically correct anthologies are painfully accurate, but his treatment of individual authors is simply off. The clearest example of this is when he writes, "Respectability has its price. One does not read LeGuin for fun, or excitement, or wild ideas, nor yet for what is accounted SF's raison d'etre, a sense of wonder." I beg to differ. Yes, LeGuin can become both theoretical and preachy at times; those are flaws common to those who would change the world. However, I for one do read LeGuin for those reasons. I return to the honest "utopia" of The Dispossessed, or the loveliness of the Earthsea books, time and again for sheer pleasure, for fun and for wonder. Tastes differ, and aesthetics are interwoven with other factors; I expect a critic as learned as Disch to take this into account.
The other weakness to The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is also an opportunity in disguise: Disch shares observations, theories, and perspectives at a rapid clip in this book, covering the history of science fiction, its cultural implications and a fistful of individual themes in just over 220 pages. His conversational pace makes the book move even more quickly and the result is a feeling of haste—of wonders barely glimpsed in passing. As one example, take the opening line of his chapter on SF and the military: "Science fiction seldom ventures to speculate about the future of democratic politics." By the time I had the chance to say, "Really?" Disch had provided examples of the dominant lens through which politics are viewed in science fiction: easy, almost automatic government a la Star Trek, neo-feudalism (my term, not Disch's), and simplified hierarchies. Here Disch lists Dune and Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, but he might well have listed hosts of others. The result is that one is left asking, "Why?" and, "Does this simplification and falsification of politics relate to the American need to lie?"
That is but one example. Disch makes similarly challenging and fruitful observations about ideology, the presentation of emotion in science fiction, the nature of the alien other and dozens more topics. Each deserves an independent essay or anthology in response, exploring implications and offering alternatives. I can't say that many books do that, and for that reason, I strongly urge you all to pick up a copy of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.