Mr. Disch, a well regarded science fiction writer, poet, playwright, and critic, here gives us a critical history of the scifi genre that resembles nothing so much as a drive-by shooting. When he's done, the field is lettered with the shattered reputations of the field's hacks (from John Norman to Newt Gingrich), quacks (from L. Ron Hubbard to Whitley Streiber), feminists (Ursula K. LeGuin & company), fascists (Robert Heinlein), technophiles (Greg Egan), proselytizers (Orson Scott Card), and so forth and so on. Among the offenses cited, besides bad writing, are a tendency to pander to the ... fantasies of young men, a willingness to exploit things like UFO crazes and apocalyptic beliefs, extreme right-wing politics, extreme left-wing politics, dumbing down for the mass audience, jargoning up for the academic crowd, employing ludicrous science, jingoism, racism, ... speciesism, etc. Hardly anyone comes off well--himself, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Iain M. Banks, Joe Haldeman and a very few more, plus Edgar Allan Poe gets an ambivalent nod, given credit not only for inventing science fiction but for embodying it entire in his work, both its good and its bad aspects.
Mr. Disch is particularly drawn to Poe as perpetrator of hoaxes, a talent he think central to science fiction. In fact, he believes lying to be central to our national character:
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 we believe.
In Mr. Disch's view, Poe and his successors mastered the art of telling people what they want to believe. And in stories like Mesmeric Revelation and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, he finds Poe to have anticipated nearly every theme that would be developed by subsequent writers:
2. Dreams come true
3. Chip-on-the-shoulder superiority
4. Genuine visionary power
5. Great special effects
6. Sophomoric humor
7. Divine madness
Over the course of the book he shows how these themes have been employed for good and ill, by various writers, the overwhelming majority of whom he believes have exploited their readers dreams without living up to the admonition that forms the title of Delmore Schwartz's first collection of poems, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, which Mr. Disch alludes to in the title of this book. Too often he finds his subjects dodging responsibility in favor of popularity, easy money, fadishness, and personal political predilections.
Inevitably the folks who come off worst here are the fans who let authors get away with this stuff. At best Mr. Disch portrays them as kind of reminiscent of the guys from your high school's A.V. club, with delusions of superpowered children, women who want to be dominated and alien races just waiting to be wiped out. At worst, they're militiamen like those from the Oklahoma City bombing or the members of the Heaven's Gate or Aum Shinrikyo cults. That is, they're totally gullible, susceptible to either homicidal or suicidal suggestion. And always they're the oft-caricatured geeky losers who attend Star Trek conventions.
As you can tell by now, this is a very dark vision of science fiction--one of the rare bright spots (according to Mr. Disch anyway) coming when it helped us learn to live with the atom bomb. Equally bleak is his prediction for the future, when movies and television, now that their effects can match our imaginations, take over from books. In the end what keeps us reading, even as he's telling us that most of what we're reading about is junk, is the quality of Mr. Disch's analysis and the sheer bravado with which he attacks his own peers, predecessors, and heirs. There's something here to alienate just about every reader, but the very equal opportunity nature of the drubbings he administers makes it hard to stay mad. If he's laying into an author you like or a political philosophy you admire, have no fear, on the next page he'll have moved on to authors and ideas you loathe. One admires the high moral seriousness to which he summons science fiction, but despairs as he says it's not happened in the past and isn't going to happen in the future. He kind of reminds you of the American colonel in Vietnam who opined: "We had to destroy the village to save it", except that Mr. Disch adds that the village is doomed anyway. This may be too upsetting for scifi fanatics but for the casual fan or the merely curious reader it's an enjoyable performance to behold.