Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review - The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
by Thomas M. Disch
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Related Book

Here's a sign of a bad book: I honestly cannot tell you what The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is about. It reads like the old-kilter rants of drunk man that progress down strange, incomprehensible paths and leap from subject to subject with little concern for bridging topics. It's a mashed together mess of the history of science fiction, the affect science fiction has had on culture, an overview of the genre, and critique of all of that. Disch's lack of focus means that his critiques are poorly supported and it contributes to making this book feel pointless.

Let's start with his opening chapter since it establishes a concept that Disch returns to throughout the book while establishing how shaky his reasoning is. It argues that American culture is somehow attuned more than other cultures to revere the liar; that deception is an American virtue. Now as much as that may make some people say, "Of course!" his support for this assertions is the same appreciation of tricksters, conmen, and audacity that has been evident in humanity for as long as there has been a written record. It's not an American thing to enjoy the tweaking of authority's nose by a clever person, it's a human thing.

Similarly he declares that Edgar Allen Poe was the first science fiction writer. Most of you are going to be scratching your head and saying, "Yeah, he grew out of the same gothic traditions that science fiction grew out of but he never wrote anything that could be remotely mistaken for science fiction." Disch's argument is based on Poe's place in pop culture of the time and literary style rather than the context of his stories. It's an argument that makes me wince because it could be used to justify the absorption of nearly any popular author since the nineteenth century into science fiction.

And so it goes through this book. His arguments are so ridiculous that I half suspect that Disch was making them spuriously so that people would react to them. Whether it's "The Cold Equations" as an example of how misogynistic science fiction authors were or using a self-help book based on Star Trek as the strawman for Star Trek's ideals so much of the book comes across as just wackiness. And with that first chapter dedicated to lying I have to ask if the book is a bit of a prank. Of course in the end I don't believe that; I've read enough off-the-wall literary criticism presented as reality that I can accept Disch's as genuine.

Things aren't all bad in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. When Disch gets personal the book is much more interesting. His take on the political extremes in science fiction authors is tightly focused on a few individuals that he could be addressing directly. There are times when he's discussing the context of an author or movement without getting into theorizing that kept me going. Unfortunately these only lasted a few pages before things switched up again and I never knew what I was going to get next.

I can't recommend The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of for many reasons. Top of the list is the rambling of the Disch who comes across as the Andy Rooney of science fiction. There's better histories and examinations of science fiction out there; the only reason to read this one is if you're interested in Disch's personal take on authors.