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If science fiction is a ghetto, we all live there...

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of
by Thomas Disch

Simon & Schuster, $25

Review by L.D. Meagher

Web posted on: Tuesday, June 16, 1998 4:47:44 PM EDT

(CNN) -- It has long been an article of faith that science fiction is a literary ghetto. The image has allowed those outside the genre to scoff at it and those inside the genre to consider themselves a breed apart. The fact is, if science fiction is a ghetto, we all live there.

Thomas Disch examines the pervasive influence of science fiction in "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of". While he professes not to be exploring the literary history of the genre, he does offer some historical perspective on how it came to be arguably the most pervasive form of literary expression in the 20th century.

Disch offers an insider's insights. He was a celebrated member of the class of SF authors that emerged in the late 1960s and was called, variously, The New Wave and The Young Turks. His work is prominently displayed in "Again, Dangerous Visions", Harlan Ellison's anthology that lionizes "the ones who are taking our carefully-nurtured ideas and turning them inside out to show us visions we never dreamed ourselves." Disch's books include "Camp Concentration" and "The Brave Little Toaster". As he admits in the books introduction, Disch knows, or has known, virtually all the authors who have contributed to science fiction's vast popularity.

If anyone wants to dismiss the genre as inconsequential, Disch directs attention to the latest bestseller list, or the list of all-time box office champions. Both are littered with examples of SF, though not necessarily the best examples. That science fiction pervades popular culture is evident by how easily recognizable its icons have become. The mainstays of the genre are rocket ships, robots, and aliens. You may never have heard the name Isaac Asimov, but your dictionary contains a word he coined: robotics. And your car was probably built using robot labor. You may have slept on a waterbed, or ridden a people mover through an urban airport. Robert Heinlein conceived both. The communications satellites that carry your phone calls, and bring you, among other things, Cable News Network, were first described by Arthur C. Clarke. They and other pioneers of the genre imagined a future of technological marvels. We're living in it.

Disch examines where some of these ideas came from, and traces their influences to such diverse endpoints as New Age religion and the politics of Newt Gingrich. His book focuses much more on the people than the hardware they envision, on the dreamers rather than their dreams.

Finding the headwater of science fiction is a favorite pursuit among those who cast an academic eye on the genre. Modern American SF was born in 1926, when Hugo Gernsbach published the first science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. But the pulp fiction it engendered had its roots in an older literary tradition. There was H.G. Wells, of course, and Jules Verne. But the seeds of their fantasy fiction can be found in even earlier works. Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" is often cited as the first true work of science fiction. But Disch dismisses that novel as a one-of-a-kind, not the beginning of a tradition. He makes a compelling argument that the progenitor of the genre was Edgar Allen Poe. From him, Disch sees a lineage of confabulists and dreamers who would populate science fiction's pantheon in the 20th century.

As Disch scrutinizes the iconography of SF, he seeks to deflate it. He contrasts the trip to the moon envisioned by H.G. Wells to the actual voyages made by the Apollo astronauts. He finds the real thing much less interesting than the fiction. He suggests the rocket ships of SF have less in common with true space capsules than they do with automobiles. He sees robots as less a prediction of a mechanized future than as a way for a particularly American genre to deal with the issue of keeping servants. Aliens, he posits, are a device for addressing our cultures innate xenophobia.

There's a simple reason why these icons became pervasive in American Culture: they were on television, the most pervasive of all media. One TV show in particular ingrained rocket ships, robots and aliens into the national subconscious: "Star Trek". Disch examines the popularity of the series, and dismisses most of the reasons that have been offered for it. He argues that it doesn't really offer a bold, revolutionary vision of the future. Instead, he sees it instilling in its young audience the values most treasured by the Establishment. They are teamwork, and conformity. "Where in real life," he writes, "would one be likeliest to encounter an environment so brightly and blankly geometric and uniformly lighted? Dress everyone in suits instead of pajamas, and its 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 shows sets?"

The best part of the book may be its chapter titles. "When You Wish Upon a Star: Science Fiction as Religion"; "Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing Science Fiction"; and my personal favorite, "Republicans on Mars: Science Fiction as Military Strategy". Along the way, Disch manages to dish some SF dirt. Heinlein, he reveals, was a 1930s leftist who later hid his political roots behind jingoistic militarism. Phillip K. Dick, he explains, spent the final years of his life trying to understand why he was receiving vast, detailed mental communications from an entity he called Valis. He savages Ursula Le Guin for what he perceives as a feminist polemical bias in a textbook that she edited. And he delights in telling of the science fiction authors who help Newt Gingrich write his books (and, apparently, some of his policies).

Disch covers a lot of ground in "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of". He seems to delight in turning some of the conventional wisdom about the genre on its ear. He disparages the current state of publishing, which seems to have no place for a new author, except in turning out another installment in a "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" tie-in series. He chides the Golden Age writers for failing to predict the impact personal computers would have on daily life. (Perhaps he hasn't read "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov.) He presents some intriguing arguments for re-thinking the assumptions that have been the foundation of the genre.

In the end, though, Disch doesn't seem too optimistic about science fiction, its future or its past. His iconoclasm begins to sound a bit whiny. He focuses on the weaknesses of SF, and dismisses its strengths. He seems profoundly disappointed that the genre, which enticed him as a boy with its revolutionary visions of the future, is and always has been, firmly rooted in the Establishment. Perhaps it is a shame. But its also the way life usually works. Utopia can only be found in the pages of science fiction.

L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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