Thomas Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (1998) might have received praise from the likes of Harold Bloom and John Clute, but other scholars have been far less kind. Carl Freedman’s review “Lies, Damned Lies, and Science Fiction: Thomas M. Disch and the Culture of Mendacity” (Science Fiction Studies #78) voices many of my problems with Disch’s study, though not all of them. For one, the title is misleading; Disch never even mentions Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Strugatsky, and thus ignores their large influence on western science fiction, nor does he pay any attention to authors outside of the United States and England except for Jules Verne and Capek. This is not about how science fiction conquered the world, just the Anglo-Saxon one, and the United States in particular.
Disch’s myopia could be forgiven if it was only cultural and geographical (actually, it wouldn’t be, but for the sake of not stopping the article here, let’s suppose so). He continues the great tradition of Hans Joachim Alpers by taking a supremely ignorant pot shot at fantasy:
In published SF, the product has diversified to fill various new marketing niches as they became evident to the marketers. The first significant marketing subgenre was that of sword-and-sorcery, which budded off the main body of SF in the mid-‘60’s, spurred by the success of Ace Books’ unauthorized edition of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien imitators were easier to mass-produce and to market than SF, since what readers of sword-and-sorcery wanted was another ride on the same merry-go-round rather than novelty. Sameness is what marketers want us to want. (210-211)
Disch’s spurious use of the term “sword-and-sorcery” is only the beginning. The subgenre of sword & sorcery came out of the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s, as a specific kind of fantasy. Few would describe The Lord of the Rings as Sword & Sorcery, neither was it the first fantasy novel to hit the field—modern secondary-world fantasy traces back to the mid-nineteenth century, and emerges from a tradition stretching back even further. But even then, Disch dismisses all fantasy as derivative, formulaic, conservative tosh. As if Mervyn Peake, Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, Lloyd Alexander, Guy Gavriel Kay, and a whole host of important and original fantasy writers never existed; or else authors that he mentions in a sf context (Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, or Michael Moorcock) who are well-recognized as fantasists never wrote fantasy at all.
Truth be told, this was exactly what led me to me to write “Spaceship, Blaster, and Science (!)” earlier this year. Disch regurgitates elements from Alpers’s essay: that heroic fantasy emerges directly from sf as an inferior, regressive form of literature worthy of scorn. Science fiction’s Other. While “Loincloth, Double-Ax and Magic” has faded from memory, the ideas within about heroic fantasy live on in books such as this one.
That out of the way, Disch also has a bizarre fixation on Ursula K. Le Guin, painting her as some sort of feminist Satan. He devotes an entire chapter (titled, Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing SF) to whinging about her sneaky feminist ideology, attempting a poorly structured character assassination. Observe:
Le Guin’s feminism is less overtly phobic of the male sex than that of Andrea Dworkin, but it is no less absolute. She requires nothing less…than the abolition of Western civilization as we’ve known it and the (re)institution of a benevolent, holistic, shamanistic matriarchy. (125)
Funny, I could have sworn I would have noticed such a thing in my readings of Le Guin. But please, do go on.
Ideology breeds nonsense, and, in the second and third generation, pernicious nonsense. In the course of the two decades since the publication of her most accomplished novel, The Dispossessed (1974), while Le Guin’s work has undergone a gradual PC ossification, her reputation among feminist critics has increased by inverse proportion. (127)
Oh, perish the thought! Disch then goes on to call feminist literary criticism “Orwellian duckspeak” (128), insults Jessica Amanda Salmonson for being trangendered, and dives headlong into sexist rhetoric that would have likely earned a punch from Robert E. Howard.
If this really was the best sf criticism had to offer (as some of the cover blurbs enthusiastically claim), we’d be in a sorry state indeed. Fortunately, we can put it on the shelf with Wizardry and Wild Romance as another faux-academic work by an author who really should have just stayed away from sf criticism altogether.