The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World

Reviewer: Katherine Ray

Author: Thomas M. Disch

Published: 1998

Reviewed: 2010-10-14

Publisher: Touchstone

This isn't exactly our normal fare on this site. It's not science
fiction, it's a book about science fiction, and as it is a non-fiction
book, there is no such thing as a spoiler.

By the end of this book, I did not feel that I knew how science
fiction dreams turned into "our stuff," nor did I feel that I knew
"how science fiction conquered the world," but I did have a nice
history of the interweavings of science fiction and American culture
and history from the early 1900's to 1997.

Disch starts out with two arguments, first that lying in America is
more respected than almost anywhere else, and second that Edgar Allen
Poe is the father of science fiction. The argument about lying is
primarily illustrated with a brief history of UFO sightings and alien
abductions. Disch claims that the more audacious the lie, the more
the American public likes it, and this is why science fiction is very
American. For Poe, he argues that Poe was writing trashy literature
for the masses, and science fiction is trashy literature for the
masses, with redeeming qualities of vision. That chapter has a lot of
information on Poe and several quotes, including mention of a story
where the narrator narrates how her head is chopped off by the minute
hand of a gigantic clock. Which was gross.

Next he moves into a more historical mode. He covers the period from
Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" to the landing on the moon, the
period from after Hiroshima to the test-bomb treaty in 1963, the
period of the New Wave and drug use, and the period when women entered
science fiction in numbers.

H.G. Wells gets most of the attention for the moon chapter, along with
mention of Carl Sagan's founding of SETI. Heinlein's "The Puppet
Masters" and Farnham's Freehold" and the majority of Philip K. Dick's
works are used to illustrate "nuclear dread": the absolute terror of
being wiped out by an atom bomb at any time. I liked how Disch
described Dick's attitude towards nuclear dread in his books: "Okay,
he seems to be saying, so we're all going to be incinerated the day
after tomorrow. That's unfortunate. But, _meanwhile_, have you heard
the one about the Martian and the Whore of Babylon?" The New Wave
section covered Star Trek, J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock.

According to Disch, Ballard is the utter genius that got the movement
respect, and Moorcock is the editor who welcomed everyone to join.
The chapter titled "Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing SF" begins with
how the Supreme Court decision in 1959 that "Lady Chatterly's Lover"
wasn't pornographic unleashed sex in science fiction in the form of
the Gor books, "Stranger in a Strange Land," and "Friday." Which, I
suppose, fits under that chapter heading because women are showing up
in the literature as sex objects instead of being completely ignored?
Or because he had to mention it somewhere and it just didn't fit with
the New Wave? At any rate, he spends the vast majority of the chapter
venting about Ursula K. Le Guin's politics and how she entirely
misrepresented male science fiction authors in the Norton Anthology of
Science Fiction. Since he was one of the authors who was thus
misrepresented, he may have cause to complain, but I was disappointed
that he used all of 3 sentences to talk about C.J. Cherryh and Lois
McMaster Bujold, and went around disparaging matriarchal utopia
fantasies as unrealistic (whereas Godzilla is totally real) and only
praised Joanna Russ's work because it took the mold of "hero bashes
monster" and turned it into "heroine bashes monster" with very few
changes. (He mentions Anne McCaffrey's girl-and-her-horse, but with
dragons! books, and that description is entirely fair).

He spends the next three chapters talking about SF as religion, SF as
it relates to the military and how aliens are used in SF. The chapter
on religion is fascinating. It covers Scientology Dick's visions at
the end of his life, and a few cults. The chapter on military talks
about Heinlein and Pournelle and other writers who write about war, as
well as Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the Challenger
disaster, and science fiction writer's support (or not). The aliens
chapter argues that most aliens are a recognizable group of people
that one could not write about in the same way if you didn't use alien
symbolism. For example, Heinlein uses aliens to have something about
which his characters can say "kill them all" without offending most
readers. Disch uses this chapter to talk about Orson Scott Card (and
note that the Alvin Maker series is based off the life of Joseph Smith
and Wagner's Ring cycle), Octavia Butler, and Heinlein again. He
finishes by giving an example of an alien that is not a human in
disguise, but rather an excercise in what a real alien might actually
be. That account makes me wish I'd been at MITSFS in time to actually
meet Hal Clement.

The book finishes with a vision of SF of the future. Which includes
cyberpunk, and possibly interactive, electronic books written by a
team of authors.

Disch mentioned a few books I found interesting. The first Ignatius
Donnelly's (1831-1901) "Atlantis: The Antediluvian World" which may be
the book that defined the myth of Atlantis as it is today. The next
was H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine" which Disch describes as a
"nightmarish vision of the existing British class system." The next
were Dick's "Time Out of Joint", "Man in the High Castle", and "The
Penultimate Truth" from the section about nuclear dread. I was amused
to see a book ("The Story of O") described as a high-class version of
the Gor books, which makes me want to read the cover blurb of that
book. Finally, Hal Clement's "Mission of Gravity" which describes a
methane based life form interacting with a human probe.