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Issue #129 - May 2006

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Ideas out of Time

By Cheryl Morgan

Having visited John Clute on several occasions I am well used to one of his favorite complaints about books — lack of clarity (and even accuracy) in references. Not being an enyclopedist, I worry less about such things, but I am about to embark on an extended Clute rant.

The book in question is On SF, by Thomas M. Disch. It is full of interesting ideas about the not-a-genre, and some entertaining reviews, but it is badly in need of some framing and context.

There clearly has been some attempt to organize the material in the book, because it is divided into six sections. The material in each section appears to have some commonality, but it would have been useful to have had an introduction that talked about how and why the material was so organized.

Much more importantly, however, there is no attempt to set the material in temporal context. The material in the book ranges in date at least from 1976 to 1995. And I say at least because, while all of the origins of the articles are listed, many of them are not dated. Articles are simply described as having appeared in Foundation, or in the New York Times Book Review, or wherever.

Why is this important? Because without this dating the book presents itself as a single, supposedly coherent view of SF presented by Disch today, whereas actually in represents an evolution of his views over twenty years, during which time SF has changed considerably.

Take the opening article, for example. It is titled "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction", and it was first published in 1976. The core argument of the article is that SF is a literature for children, and it contains quotes like this:

No less an authority than Kingsley Amis has pronounced sex and love as being outside the sphere of interest proper to science fiction. Other subjects commonly dealt with by mainstream writers are also presumed not to be of interest to sf readers, such as the nature of the class system and the real exercise of power within that system. Although there is no intrinsic reason (except difficulty) that sf should not venture into such areas, sf writers have characteristically preferred imaginary worlds in which, to quote Sprague de Camp, "all men are mighty, all women beautiful, all problems simple, and all life adventuresome."

Someone coming to that quote today is liable to find her jaw dropping and assuming that Disch knows nothing whatsoever about SF. But of course it was written in or before 1976, when no one had heard of Ken MacLeod or China Miéville. SF has come a long way since then.

Another good example is presented by the (undated) Foundation article, "Science Fiction as a Church". Disch describes his realization that the behavior of science fiction fans was a lot like that of Pentecostal Christians whose worship he had witnessed.

That is the parallel that I observed [at a convention] in Minneapolis. Blessed was the text they preached; blessed are those who read sf for they shall inherit the future. There were also hints of powers that some few people possess, and hints that these secret mental powers of various sorts are observably related to one’s reading of science fiction. Such powers are not uncommonly associated with religious experience. There is also the promise made to Noah. Like Noah, many sf writers and their fans feel they have the inside track on the approaching catastrophe, whatever is may be, and they’re counting on being among the happy few who survive it. Need I cite chapter and verse?

Again, if you attend a convention today, you are unlikely to see anything like what Disch describes. If you see worship of any sort, it will probably be adulation of celebrities, especially at media conventions. But Disch’s description is spot on if applied to the "fans are slans" attitude that prevailed in fandom 30 years ago.

Reading Disch’s article made it clear to me why long-time fans hate the New Wave so much. What it represented for them was a betrayal of the slannish ideal, a shameful abandoning of the idea of the SF community as the coming master race, and a hateful concentration on the wholly irrelevant idea of trying to create literature. It would have been like a church turning its back on religion and concentrating instead on selling music recorded by the choir and organist. It may also explain the whole Trufen nonsense. Fans abandoned science fiction and became "fans of fandom", not because they had lost interest in the ideas and stories, but because they felt that science fiction had abandoned them. If their god had retired, they’d just have to carry on the church without him.

Meanwhile, back with the book.

Disch’s criticism is interesting, incisive and, as good criticism probably should be, occasionally annoying. Disch doesn’t go in for the same flights of language as Clute: his prose is elegant but always clear. On the other hand, while Clute always sounds as if he knows more than anyone else, he rarely sounds like he is talking down to people. Disch, unfortunately, often cannot hide his contempt for some of his fellow authors, and for the more daft enthusiasms of fandom. There are times when this is very valuable. Disch’s excoriation of Jerry Pournelle and the campaign to sell Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program to SF readers is a joy to behold. But the average SF fan, reading what Disch has to say, may well come away with a feeling of, "this man thinks I’m an idiot and despises me." That may indeed be how Disch feels, but it won’t earn him many friends.

Of course it is much more acceptable to vent your ire on individual works of fiction rather than on the industry in general. Disch is a master of the destructive review, and many of his targets probably deserve the opprobrium he heaps upon them. Here he is on Stephen Donaldson.

What I object to in White Gold Wielder is rather that neither in its moment-to-moment depiction of psychological experience nor in the broader operation of the plot at an allegorical level does it offer effective insights into the miserablisme it celebrates. Simply put, it wallows in self-pity, and the diffuse fogginess of language provides a kind of smoke-screen that allows naïve readers to wallow along without the discomfort of self-awareness.

There are mistakes, of course. No one can write reviews on a regular basis without coming a cropper, mainly because you don’t have time to read the book as deeply as you might like. And of course we are all prone to the odd fannish enthusiasm. I’m sure that in years to come people will point to my enjoyment of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books as evidence that I am completely lacking in literary taste and that therefore nothing else I have written is of any value.

The only real howler I spotted is that, like many other people, Disch assumes that the bridge on which the squatters live in William Gibson’s Virtual Light is the Golden Gate. It is a bit like the way that Americans always assume that "London Bridge" is the thing with turrets and the lift-up bed — it is the only bridge in the city that they know. Besides, Disch may have been working from a copy of the book that some idiot publisher had adorned with a picture of the Golden Gate. In addition, Disch, unaccountably, thinks that Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday is a wonderful novel. I won’t complain, because he knows really good SF when he sees it. Here he is on The Book of the New Sun.

Rarely has there been a work of genre fiction in which the import of the story is so elusive, to say nothing of the bare facts. Such was its appeal to the literary detective in me that halfway through the last volume I could resist no longer and phoned up my old friend and fellow Wolfe-enthusiast, John Clute, to suggest that we not wait a dozen or so years that even a masterpiece is supposed to age in the cask but set about at once to edit a volume of interpretive essays, supplemented with a glossary and other suitable rites of scholarship.

Little did Disch know that, after Citadel of the Autarch, there were another eight books to come before the series would be finished.

As an enthusiastic devourer of works of science fiction criticism I would certainly recommend On SF to like-minded folks. As I said earlier, Disch will annoy you occasionally, but he will also give you plenty to think about. The most important thing is to remember to read the book in context. Think about when the articles were written, and you’ll discover a lot about the development of SF. Treat the book as a single chunk of thought dating from 2005, which is how it is presented, and you will reach a whole lot of very wrong conclusions.

On SF - Thomas M. Disch - University of Michigan Press - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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