What Dreams May Come:

 Science-Fiction as Peril and Promise



Thomas M. Disch's

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: 

How Science-Fiction Conquered the World

by Guest Reviewer Jonathan Harvey


NOTE: Jon Harvey also wrote movie reviews for The Deep Blue Sea, The Sixth Sense, Dogma, Trekkies and Dune.



  In my experience, there are basically two types of readers of science-fiction. The first is ga-ga about the genre, viewing it as a bold and wondrous vision of the future of Humanity. They feel that science-fiction is a great engine of positive social change, because it stimulates the imagination to conceive astonishing possibilities. They feel about science-fiction in the unqualified way as members of MENSA do about MENSA, or graduates of EST feel about EST, or born-again Christians feel about their faith. They are riding the crest of the wave of the future.

A second type of reader feels that science-fiction at its very best explores profound questions about the nature and destiny of humanity, but that much of it is banal, bogus, and for boys who won't grow up. In terms of the examples above, this would be like someone who feels that MENSA's membership has some fascinating people but also others with high IQs but no emotional intelligence; that EST is liberating to some but makes EST-holes out of others, and some figures of Christianity are admirable but finds others are quite scary.

Thomas Disch is distinctive in that he takes the second view of science-fiction and has also written a comprehensive historical survey of science-fiction. His work is in contrast with others like Brian Aldiss' "Billion-Year Spree" which proclaims science-fiction to be the wave of the future in glowing evangelical terms.  At least three other SF novelists are critical of much published SF, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. LeGuin, and David Brin, all of whom write well. But none of them has undertaken a comprehensive history of the genre from their critical perspective.

Disch is also a science-fiction novelist who regularly attends science-fiction conventions and so he has earned a right to be critical. A famous rabbi once remarked that only he who has mastered a religious tradition has the right to criticize it. Unflattering judgment can be based on either knowledge or prejudice. Disch has well-earned the right to have his negative judgments taken quite seriously since he is also a science-fiction novelist who regularly attends science-fiction conventions.

For many fans, the great virtue of SF is its stimulus to the imagination to break out of conventional mundane thinking and entertain great cosmic ideas. For Disch, the main problem with SF as a genre is it's enormous power of deception to convince the reader of the reality of something that is mere wish-fulfillment. Fanciful ideas are not held up to hard scrutiny.  One is reminded of a dictum by Carl Sagan in his essay "The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder" that a good scientist needs two personal qualities which are apparently opposed to each other. The first is the willingness to entertain as possible what seems like improbable counter-intuitive ideas. The second is the willingness to subject these ideas to systematic experimental scrutiny to see if they hold up after close examination. The first quality is necessary since sometimes counter-intuitive ideas *are* true; for example, the Copernican theory of the solar system, Darwinian evolution, and the strange worlds of quantum and relativity physics. The second quality is necessary because some strange ideas simply do not stand up under close examination, and are only subscribed to by varieties of True Believers. There is, for example, no solid evidence of disappearances in the Bermuda triangle. Good science requires both imaginative leaps and critical scepticism. Disch's problem with science-fiction is that in spite of the presence of many bona fide scientists in the field (notably Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Michael Crichton, Gregory Benford, and even  Carl Sagan), much SF cultivates the first quality so much more than the second, and can actually lead to a *suspension* of critical thinking.

Disch makes some very insightful remarks on the links between science-fiction and bizarre religious cults. Let us contrast how Disch and SF author Harlan Ellison interpreted the Heaven's Gate cult. In 1997, all thirty-eight members of the that group committed suicide while waiting for a flying saucer to transport them back to some Utopian planet. The saucer was supposed to be hidden inside the Hale-Bopp comet. It never arrived. Members of the cult were huge fans of Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". Various pundits in the media asked about links between the popularity of science-fiction and the emergence of a cult of this type.

In response to this concern, SF author Harlan Ellison wrote a column in Newsweek which was witty but ultimately not useful. In essence, Ellison says there are two genres that get confused, which he calls "science-fiction" and "sci-fi". Science-fiction asks profound questions about the nature and destiny of Humanity, while sci-fi is silly escapism about young space cadets blowing up monsters from other planets. Ellison claims that cults like Heaven's Gate have a lot to do with sci-fi, and nothing to do with science-fiction.

Ellison's analysis is confusing and false for basically two reasons. First what Ellison calls science-fiction and sci-fi surely lie on two ends of a spectrum with many works lying somewhere in the middle. In this respect, his distinction is much like Gloria Steinem's distinction between erotica and pornography. I think almost all would agree that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" is erotica and "Hustler" is pornography, but which exactly is the film "Red Shoe Diaries"? Is it slightly cheesy erotica, or really good soft-core pornography? It, of course, has elements of both. Likewise, the moronic films "Independence Day" and "Godzilla" and "Battle Beyond the Stars" surely fit Ellison's definition of sci-fi, while "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Planet of the Apes" surely fit his definition of science-fiction. But what of Lucas' "Star Wars"?? C.S. Lewis once described Disney's "Snow White" as a "remarkable mixture of genius and vulgarity" and I think personally the same phrase aptly describes the "Star Wars" films. They draw thoughtfully on the writings of Joseph Campbell and various mythologies, have a brilliant visual sense, have ridiculous dialogue and an interesting but ultimately trite moral sense. They are utterly charming and beguilingly fun, and ultimately shallow. Is "Star Wars" science-fiction or sci-fi? Ellison, of course, hates "Star Wars" and would find this question easy to answer. He thinks it is sci-fi all the way. I think it partakes of elements of both, and is in the middle of a spectrum. Naturally, the favorite film of the Heaven's Gate cult, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is classed by Ellison as sci-fi, though it has been highly praised as many cuts above most SF films by no less than Ray Bradbury.

The 2nd problem in Ellison's analysis, I think, emerges when we see that *other* cults have often organized their actions around indisputably great works of literature. The Japanese Aum cult that gassed the Tokyo subways is 1995 took a great deal of its inspiration from nothing less than Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, widely hailed as one of the greatest SF series ever written, and which Ellison (a close friend of Asimov's) would surely classify as science-fiction, not sci-fi. This is deeply ironic, since as Disch has points out

"Amoung the SF writers of his generation, few others have a more consistent track record than Asimov for upholding liberal causes and championing common sense against New Age charlatanry."

Similarly, Charles Manson was deeply taken by Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", another work that Ellison would easily label as of high pedigree, not to mention Manson's appropriation of Beatle's songs as containing apocalyptic prophecies. Similarly, the bizarre nature of some Christian cults should not lead us to conclude that the Bible is a bad book, nor should we impugn Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" for the death of John Lennon, nor blame Wagner's "Ring of the Nibuling" for the holocaust. Ultimately, Ellison's claim that we should blame the Heaven's Gate cult on sci-fi, but not science-fiction is hollow.

Thomas Disch's discussion of the links between SF (both good and bad) and religious cults are  much more prescient. His discussion of the lamentable history of Scientology is one of the best I've read. So also is his discussion of the science-fiction elements in Theosophy and Christian Science. In essence, he states that even the very best SF contains strong elements of dream and wish-fulfillment. Even when such dreams are a vehicle of profound thought and high morals, they can mislead us, distort our vision, and be abused by the immature and unstable. The opening paragraph of Disch's Chapter 1 and the closing paragraph of his final chapter say it quite well.

"America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend to believe."

"Delmore Schwartz had half of it right: in dreams begin responsibilities. But it's no less true that in dreams begin irresponsibilities. The menu, in terms of our possibilities, in both those respects, is well-nigh infinite. Science fiction is that menu."

Throughout the work, Disch berates SF enthusiasts for the religious zeal with which they uncritically adulate both many specific works and the genre, while acknowledging his own enchantment with much SF himself.  His final chapter is entitled "The Future of an Illusion: Science Fiction beyond 2000". The first half of that title is also the name of Sigmund Freud's famous work about the prospects of Judeo-Christian life in the coming centuries.



Most historians of science-fiction trace its ancestry to two figures, one English, the other French. The first is, of course, H.G. Wells, also an active socialist and literatus who hob-nobbed with George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and others. The other is Jules Verne, an accomplished engineer, and more socially conservative figure than Wells. (Verne was a practicing Roman Catholic.) The two of them are often credited with the twin sub-genres of SF, so-called "soft" science-fiction and "hard" science-fiction. The distinction generally means that soft science-fiction is not necessarily scientifically accurate, but has a high level of human interest, while 'hard' science-fiction is rooted solidly in real science, but may be lacking in human depth. Indeed, Well's "Time Machine" has a riveting view of humanity's future while its science is fanciful, while Verne's  "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" correctly forecasts many aspects of submarine design while it is somewhat triter as a drama. The 20th century's master of "hard" SF is surely Arthur C. Clarke, and my favorite work of "soft" SF is Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles".

Disch, however, sees SF as having three ancestors, Wells, Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Disch believes that Poe is the ancestor of much of what is most lamentable is SF. In Harlan Ellison's terminology, if Wells and Verne invented what Ellison calls "science-fiction", then Poe invented what Ellison calls "sci-fi". Disch is quick to quote some remarks that T. S. Eliot had to make about Poe, though he later qualifies them making it clear that he half agrees and half disagrees.

"That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable, but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty. The forms of his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights: wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and cyphers, puzzles and mazes, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation. The variety and ardour of his curiosity delight and dazzle: yet in the end the eccentricity and lack of coherence of his interests tire."

Disch immediately follows this up by remarking much the same could be said of science-fiction, but qualifies this by saying that Poe is sometimes awful, but sometimes a great artist. He points out that although Poe was disdained by T.S. Eliot, he held a tremendous fascination for Dostoyevsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Baudelaire, so Poe cannot be without his virtue. Disch believes what is distinctive about Poe was that his writing was market-driven, in that he catered to an audience's appetite for sensationalism. Poe wanted to be an editor of a magazine that would specialize in his sort of fiction. His ideal publication would have as Disch puts it "combined the best of the New Yorker with the worst of National Enquirer". Poe had an artistic sense but also catered to an "audience's need to be informed that its hopes and fears were well-founded." Disch suggests that in this respect Poe put his stamp on science fiction the genre that "conforms to this template of prophesying to the converted and assisting in thee deceptions of the self-deceived." Disch sees Poe as having anticipated the whole genre of SF in 7 ways:

1. Use of hypnotism- still the preferred MO for folks who want desperately to believe in UFOs, past lives, child abuse- a "license for liars"

2. A dreams-come-true mentality

3. A chip-on-the-shoulder mentality characteristic of True Believers

4. Genuine visionary power

5. Great special effects

6. Sophomoric humor

7. Madness as a door to the divine

Disch's picture of early SF is not entirely bleak. (He is an SF novelist after all.) Wells and Verne get a much higher rating than Poe, and indeed Disch ranks H.G. Wells as "the greatest SF novelist of all time". Wells is also the first author to really grapple with the implications of Darwinian evolution. Wells was a student of T.H. Huxley, Darwin's best-known champion, and coiner of the term "agnosticism". As Disch points out: 

"Darwin's theory of evolution remains the essential fracture line in 'modern' culture. At it was Wells, much more than his mentor Huxley, who tipped the balance in favor of the acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis by creating myths sturdy enough to persist into our own time. A theory can be controverted, a myth persuades at the gut level....Evolution evokes images of cavemen and dinosaurs-creatures of millennia past. Rocket ships and astronauts are emblematic of the future. And yet there is a common link between them, and that link can be most clearly discerned in thee work of H.G. Wells who realized they were complementary images, representing equidistant points from the present on an evolutionary continuum. The anxieties provoked by Darwinian nature, in which mankind is only a superior kind of ape, are dispelled by the vistas of outer space, through which the whilom ape can soar in his new aspect as a 'superman', a word coined by George Bernard Shaw in 1903 as a translation of  Nietzsche's ubermensch....Almost all of Well's best SF has an evolutionary sub-text."

Other chapters of Disch's books deal with how SF has grappled with specific modern issues. There is an entire chapter on how SF has dealt with anxieties about the A-bomb. Another chapter is on science-fiction and misunderstood aliens, another on feminist science-fiction, and yet another on utopian SF about ideal and cozy futures of which Disch focusses primarily on "Star Trek".

One thing I particularly like about Disch is that he is equally critical of both left-wing and right-wing fantasies, and is uncomfortable with using SF as a vehicle for either one. The most well-known writer of SF using it as left-wing propaganda is famed feminist Ursula K. LeGuin, daughter of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who housed the Native American Ishi in his home for nearly 20 years as recounted in "Ishi: The Last of His Tribe". The most well-known writer of SF right-wing propaganda along the lines of Ayn Rand is Robert Heinlein. The latter has often, as Disch points out, "compelled the admiration not only of fandom but of critics who deplore his views and lament his influence". Disch is both admiring and highly critical of both LeGuin and Heinlein. This has a special personal irony for me. My friend, Jim Terman, and I often think very much alike. One of a few exceptions is that I have always more or less liked LeGuin and generally disliked Heinlein, and he is the other way around. Disch dislikes Heinlein for precisely the reasons I do, and dislikes LeGuin for precisely the reason friend Terman does.


In one paragraph, Disch just barely glosses on an important aspect of science-fiction which deserved a lot more attention than he gave. That is the degree to which in many censorious environments, SF has often been remarkably free from censorship on the assumption by the would-be protectors of the public that only weird eccentrics are reading SF anyway. Disch mentions in one paragraph that in the McCarthy period of America, SF writers were often free to express pro-Marxist sentiments denied to writers in any other genre. His example is Philip Dick. I would also point to the forays into SF of Howard Fast, author of "Spartacus".

Isaac Asimov was among the first to point out that in Soviet Russia during Stalin's rule, SF publications got away with all sorts of fairly obvious anti-Communist propaganda that would have earned their authors a long stay in Siberia if their sentiments had been expressed in any other venue. Asimov (himself of Russian-Jewish descent) edited an entire anthology of "Soviet science-fiction" illustrating his point.

Similarly, it is no accident that the 3 most thought-provoking television shows of the 1960s were all SF, to wit, "The Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits" and "Star Trek", the last of which Disch maligns smartly, but overmuch. TV executives in the '60s were frightened of any controversial content about issues of race-relations or war and peace, the two hot-button issues of the 60s the decade of Martin Luther King and Vietnam. Except for the occasional appearance of Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers, the only TV shows of that era which raised questions about racism and the ethics of war in any form whatsoever were "Zone", "Limits", and "Trek".  Two of them had creators who admitted later that they moved to SF to escape the enormous pressure to be bland that would have been imposed in any other field of television. Thomas Disch is correct that "Star Trek" is simplistically utopian with problems resolved too neatly and tidily, but nonetheless, "Trek" had TV's first interracial kiss (a white man and a black woman), and TV's first use of a black woman as a lead character, which is the late 60s would have been impossible on TV outside the SF genre. The best-selling movie "Gone With the Wind" had the first screen use of the word "damn". "Star Trek" had the first use on TV of the word "hell". (Both "Wind" and "Trek" used these taboo words in the closing line of the story.) The TV censors let the word "hell" be used on "Star Trek" because "no one is really watching this show, anyway".

Finally, since Disch's book was written in 1995 when "Babylon 5" was just getting attention, it is unfortunate that this best of all SF television shows gets no attention from him.

Perhaps these shows command more significance to a historian of TV than to a historian of SF, but I still wish Disch had spent more time on the general degree to which SF has always enjoyed a peculiar freedom from censorship. At the beginning of his book, Disch says SF is quintessentially American because America is a "nation of liars". SF's remarkable ability to stay free from censorship might be another and more positive reason for declaring it quintessentially American.


Agree or disagree? Let me or Jon know.


Tom Disch (!) wrote us on July 18, 2001:

... I've just read your long review of DREAMS and thought I'd drop you a note of appreciation. Of course I tend to agree with most of it (except the exceptions you take). ... I discovered your review as a link on my own homepage, which was put together by English elves while I slept. Talk about the kindness of strangers!

Best regards, Tom Disch


Mr. Disch mentioned this review in an interview he gave at Strange Horizons:

"The nicest compliment I had was in a review that I just read on Frank Wu's website, where the author said that for years he and a friend of his had been arguing about Le Guin and Heinlein, and that in my book I had made all of the arguments against Heinlein that he makes to his friend, and also made all the arguments against Le Guin that his friend makes to him; and that he realized, simply, that I was right. And that's what I like to think I did. I like to think that I just made pretty unarguable cases when I was insisting on something. I suppose the weakest areas of the book are the things that I ignore, but I think that's probably a good policy in writing a book that has a polemical side to it."


MOVIE REVIEWS: Austin Powers (References), Being John Malkovich, Blah Witch Project, Deep Blue Sea, Dogma, Dune, eXistenZ, Iron Giant, The Matrix, The Mummy, Princess Mononoke, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, Smallville, Star Trek IX: Indigestion, Star Wars: The Turgid Menace, Thirteenth Floor, Toy Story 2, Trekkies, Vile Vile West, The World Is Not Enough

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