02 May 2006

On SF by Thomas M. Disch

I spent a few hours tonight reading through On SF, a grab-bag collection of reviews and essays by Thomas M. Disch that I picked up at a library a couple weeks ago but hadn't yet had a chance to look at.

Anyone familiar with Disch's previous study of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, is unlikely to be surprised by such pronouncements as "science fiction is a branch of children's literature", but it does require a certain amount of masochism on the part of anyone who has spent a lot of time reading SF to read Disch's critical writing with pleasure, because unless you enjoy seeing someone beat up myths and idols you may not have even realized you felt protective toward, this book is likely to make you grit your teeth and howl at least once every five pages or so.

On SF seems to me to be a better book than I remember The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of being (I don't have a copy at hand), because Disch's strengths are more those of an epigrammatist than a systematizer, and the short reviews that fill most of this book are a good medium for his talents. He is a better hater than lover, a better drive-by assassin than obsessive stalker, and the persona that radiates from these pieces is that of someone it might be fun to hear a lecture from, but who would likely be insufferable at dinner.

Having a certain penchant toward intellectual masochism (as well as schadenfreude), I most enjoyed On SF whenever I encountered a passage where I thought, "No, I couldn't have read what I just did." For instance, the following, from a review of various "Best of the Year" anthologies from 1979, a year when Edward Bryant's story "giANTS" won a Nebula Award:
It is no longer enough to speak of the walls of the ghetto: now there's a dome, and (on the evidence of most of these stories) communications with the outside have ceased. For a writers' organization to give an award to such a story as "giANTS" is tantamount to erecting a sign at the airlock, saying, "Science Fiction -- abandon all taste, ye who enter here." Indeed, I've heard it argued that sf transcends, in its nature, the canons of mundane literary taste. How often, though, what seems like transcendence from one point of view looks like a lack of plumbing from another.

This is not to suggest that sf, in its institutional aspects, should be disbanded. Conventions are fun, and trophies decorate the den like nothing else. But for writers (or readers) to frame a standard of excellence based on purely intramural criteria, and to make it their conscious goal to win an award, is to confuse literature with bowling.
SF fans love to grumble and scream at the good and bad stories they read, they love to argue with awards and lists and anthologies, but Disch goes one step further and unpacks the dirty laundry, the ignoble motivations, the self-degrading actions of everything he perceives to be an embarrassment within the community of SF readers.

"Embarrassment" is a word Disch often uses -- the first essay in the book is titled "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction". To be embarrassed, you must be self-conscious and have a sense of an audience, of someone to be embarrassed in front of, someone who is judging what you do and who you are. For Disch, the creature to be embarrassed in front of is Literature. In the paragraphs I quoted above, the "outside" that the ghetto has sealed itself off from is the world of non-SF fiction. He praises Judith Merrill's Best SF anthologies for including "writers who weren't dues-paying members of the club" and notes that, "In their honorable mention lists at the back of their books neither Carr nor Dozois cites any stories from non-genre magazines or anthologies."

This is where Disch's sledgehammer approach seems particularly questionable to me, because I agree with many of his conclusions, but would want to add footnotes and amendments before signing on -- for instance, I admire Merril's Best SF anthologies more than any other such series, but I don't see anything particularly wrong with "intramural" anthologies, either, because done well they can be quite satisfying books. Also, while the "we need different standards" plea usually sounds like a whine to my ears, anybody who wants to judge popular fiction by the same criteria as they judge Proust really shouldn't bother reading any popular fiction. Disch's views would have been strengthened if he had advocated more carefully and strenuously for why anybody should care about standards of excellence based on something other than intramural criteria -- aren't all standards, from a distant enough view, those of a small group? A good case can be made for general historical and cultural aesthetic standards (the test of time, etc.) being worth consideration, but all such criteria rely on subjective and ever-changing judgments that are as far from universal as I am from Alpha Centauri.

Disch may be an embarrassed member of the SF community, but he is a member, and his point of view is valuable in part because of his insider knowledge. His hatred and scorn for so much of what he encounters in SF is the hatred and scorn of a disappointed believer, of someone who knows that the occasional work of SF can live up to very high standards, and who wishes that more people kept their standards high. Immediately following the paragraphs I quoted come these sentences about Gregory Benford's Timescape: "Not only does Timescape accomplish the specific task of science fiction ... but it also clears the hurdles of the mainstream novel with strength, grace, and intellectual distinction."

The popularity of writers Disch considers to be meretricious hacks particularly aggravates him, because he seems to hold onto a last glimmering utopian hope that were more readers able to appreciate great writing, the world might be a less aggravating place. He especially loathes Ray Bradbury's work, for instance, and his reviews of Bradbury are some of his most delightfully nasty: "His dry-ice machine covers the bare stage of his story with a fog of breathy approximations. He means to be evocative and incantatory; he achieves vagueness and prolixity." In fact, it is in a review of Bradbury that I found my single favorite sentence in On SF: "He is an artist only in the sense that he is not a hydraulic engineer."

The coruscating, caustic concision of that sentence may be a particularly fine example of what Disch can do, but there are similarly impressive, sharp, and iconoclastic sentences throughout the book, making it an ideal counterweight to the all-too-often tepid reviewing and criticism that fills not just the SF field, but the literary world in general.

9 comments:

  1. Wow. My mental image of Disch looks nothing at all like the guy on the cover of that book.

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  2. Such profundity from one so young.

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  3. The problem of considering writing based only on intramural criteria:

    http://www.voraphile.com/print/

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  4. Disch has a livejournal now.

    http://tomsdisch.livejournal.com/

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  5. Bradbury has written some marvelous short stories. Read "Heavy Set" for a good example. Sharp, nasty, and scary.
    Ellen Datlow

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  6. Nick, why do you do these things to us?

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  7. Disch's relationship with sf doesn't sound so different from his relationship with the Catholic Church and the Midwest: the anger of someone who broke out (or tried to break out) and remembers all the misdeeds vividly. Indeed, I thought "Stuff" was most convincing when it was attacking the White Male-ness of classic sf. As for the rest, I enjoyeded it as I enjoy John Gardner's "On Moral Fiction"--a talented writer's polemic. (Compared to Aldiss's similar attacks, at any rate.)

    Also see Lem's even more dismissive "Science-Fiction: A Hopeless Case (with Exceptions."

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  8. Wow, Tom Disch, tireless advocate of the importance of Literary Standards, is now self-publishing his poetry on a blog.

    Yep.

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  9. Disch probably considers himself the Jacopo Belbo of SF, without realizing that Umberto Eco has in fact written SF, did love comic books, and had his most formative experience during a soccer match.

    Also, I've decided to link you to Aesthetigasm, my new site, under the "Books" heading. Thank you for the great reviews!

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