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The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World [Paperback]

Thomas M. Disch
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 5 2000
From one of science fiction's most acclaimed novelists comes this engrossing journey through the books, movies, and television programs that have shaped our perspective of both the present and the future. In an uncompromising, often irreverent survey of the genre from Edgar Allan Poe to Philip K. Dick to Star Trek, Thomas M. Disch analyzes science fiction's impact on technological innovation, fashion, lifestyle, military strategy, the media, and much more.
An illuminating look at the art of science fiction (with a practitioner's insight into craft), as well as a work of pointed literary and cultural criticism, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of reveals how this "pulp genre" has captured the popular imagination while transforming the physical and social world in which we live.

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In The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, Thomas Disch does for science fiction what he did for poetry in The Castle of Indolence. First, he treats it not as a playground for idle dreamers, but as a branch of serious literature with significant cultural impact. Second, he brings the perspective of a seasoned practitioner to bear in separating the wheat from the chaff.

For example, if you ever wanted to know why L. Ron Hubbard managed to start a cult but Philip K. Dick didn't, Disch is your man. Beginning with Edgar Allan Poe, Disch elaborates a vision of science fiction as one of the twentieth century's most influential manifestations of America as a culture of liars. Among the frauds are the alien abduction stories of Whitley Strieber, the sadomasochistic dominance fantasies of John Norman, and the co-opting of cyberpunk by postmodern academics and avant-gardists trying to stay hip.

Disch plays very few favorites, and when ideology gets in the way of good writing, it doesn't matter what side you're on. Subliterary feminist fantasies of matriarchial utopias get slammed just as hard as subliterary conservative militaristic wet dreams. Not even one of sci-fi's most beloved Grand Masters, Robert Heinlein, is unimpeachable; Disch correctly nails Heinlein on his consistent sexism and racism, as well as his gradual descent into solipsism. One of Heinlein's last novels, The Number of the Beast, is described as "the freakout to which [Heinlein]'s entitled as a good American, whose right to lie is protected by the Constitution."

What does Disch like? For starters: Philip K. Dick, the British New Wave as exemplified by J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, and Joe Haldeman's Hugo- and Nebula-winning The Forever War, described as being "to the Vietnam War what Catch-22 was to World War II," and which he believes deserved a Pulitzer as well.

Disch may confirm your suspicions, or he may raise every last one of your hackles. But one thing this book will definitely not do is bore you. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

With pungency and wit, Disch (The Castle of Indolence) explores the enormous cultural impact that SF has had over the past century, placing it in the tradition of tall tales and lying, arguing that SF "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." He argues for Edgar Allan Poe as the father of SF and devotes a chapter to what he calls "our embarrassing ancestor," whose many stories anticipate themes common in later SF. Space travel, nuclear holocausts, Star Trek, drugs, sex and feminism, religion, politics, imperialism in space, and race relations are among the topics Disch trenchantly investigates in stories by many of the field's best-known figures, past and present. Their admirers are likely to be uncomfortable or enraged by some of his comments, which reflect a thorough knowledge of SF both as an insider and an outsider (Disch largely ceased writing SF two decades ago) and of the wider world in which it developed. His concluding chapter, "The Future of an Illusion?SF Beyond the Year 2000," offers a bleak perspective. More than half the top 10 grossing films of all time have been SF, but the economics of filmmaking dictate action-adventure and dumb plots, contends Disch. Similarly, the economics of book publishing favor undemanding series. Retailers should encourage SF buffs to buy this provocative account but should also encourage them to supplement it with two valuable companions: Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree (1986) and Edward James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1996).
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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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. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Recipe for Apoplexy Nov. 2 2002
There are only a few published books that treat science fiction as something worthy of notice and critical evaluation. This book attempts to go even further by trying to prove a hypothesis that science fiction has become so invidiously entangled in the everyday world that is now a given, an everyday component that shapes many of the cultural tropes and the thought processes of Joe Everyman.
Disch starts by examining the beginnings of science fiction as a separate literary genre, starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He does an excellent job of examining the themes and ideas that Poe originated, making a strong case that Poe should be considered the ancestor of SF, rather than the more commonly cited Shelley. But in his examination of Shelley Disch displays the first evidence that this is not a work of critical evaluation of the first rank, as he dismisses her book merely because "An unread author is no one's intellectual ancestor", ignoring both the possible influence on other writers some seminal works have, commonly read or not, and the fact that Shelley is far from an 'unread author'.
This same sloppiness is exhibited in some of his research on other authors, most notably Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin. While he correctly presents the oddity that Heinlein, normally considered a strong conservative, at one point in his life ran on the Democratic ticket for a California State Assembly seat and was heavily involved with EPIC, the socialistic movement championed by Upton Sinclair, he repeats (in multiple places) the gossip that Charles Manson was a Heinlein disciple, something easily disprovable by examining the court records of Manson's trial.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Personal Impressions of Science Fiction June 21 2002
By A Customer
Disch has written an immensely fun book, a welcome addition to the tiny library of worthwhile sci fi criticism. It is not really a history or even an organized study of the genre, but a romp through a series of topics that interest Mr. Disch. For a seasoned reader, it is fun, infuriating, and thought provoking. It is not a balanced or neutral book, but is as personal and unfair as a letter to the editor of a newspaper. If you like s.f., you will find much enlightening here, and you will find things so annoying you will want to shred the book into little, tiny pieces.
Disch uses a lot of ad hominem comments and personal recollections to spice up his narrative, and this can be both the best and the worst of it. Unlike some other reviewers, I certainly don't find any "left wing" biases in Disch, but that shows you how personal this book is. His views are his own, and follow his momentary inclinations, rather than any fixed program.
That may be the problem: in the title and in his opening remarks, Disch addresses a fascinating question: how has s.f. affected the way we (Americans in particular) see the world? To what extent is it the dreams our stuff is made of? How did Science Fiction conquer the world? For my taste, he abandons that theme way too early and goes off on random fishing expeditions after feminists, strategic gaming s.f., and the Great White Whale, Robert Heinlein. That is why I give this book 3 stars.
"Dreams" clearly reflects science fiction as it stood around 1990, which is when much of this book was written, I believe. I feel that some of its concerns are a little parochial, in terms of time, nationality (we are not all Americans), and personality. Clearly poor Ursula K.
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4.0 out of 5 stars tough love Sept. 30 2002
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.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars An Opinionated, Page-Turning Romp Through Science Fiction
Let me begin by stating that I have read very little science fiction in my life. I picked up Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" primarily because I had read... Read more
Published on April 18 2002 by "botatoe"
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative discussion of the history of SF
Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of" is an intensely personal and opinionated exploration of the SF genre and its connection with popular culture. Read more
Published on Dec 28 2001 by "jackaroe"
4.0 out of 5 stars Much needed perspective to a group of adulating adolescents
Although I don't agree with everthing Mr. Disch has to say, I did enjoy the book as a wonderfully critical perspesctive of how science fiction became ubiquitous with pop culture... Read more
Published on Nov. 9 2001 by Erik J. Larsen
4.0 out of 5 stars A Must for Sci-Fi Houndogs, Too
C'mon people -- the reason experienced sci-fans will love this item is the steaming heaps of delicious gossip! Group sex with Theodore Sturgeon! Read more
Published on June 15 2001 by Milo Miles
5.0 out of 5 stars Disch is Brilliant
Reading this made me want to read SF books (not randomly but selectively). I assume this was Mr. Disch's goal. I have always enjoyed SF movies but was never a big SF book fan. Read more
Published on May 16 2001 by Eric Gelber
4.0 out of 5 stars An Opinionated, Page-Turning Romp Through Science Fiction
Let me begin by stating that I have read very little science fiction in my life. I picked up Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" primarily because I had read and... Read more
Published on April 25 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars More Fun Than a Barrel of Space Monkeys
The first thing to say about Thomas M. Disch's The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of (How Science Fiction Conquered the World) is just how flat out entertaining this crazy quilt history... Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2001 by Ricky Hunter
2.0 out of 5 stars Serious errors of fact mar this book
None of the reviews here have pointed out the serious mistakes Disch makes in trying to defend his thesis that SF began with books from an American man, not a British woman. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2001
3.0 out of 5 stars Too narrow a perspective
At the outset I must say that I enjoyed reading this book. Its lively style and thoughtful content make it valuable, but it is heavily US-biassed. Read more
Published on Jan. 5 2001 by A. G. Plumb
4.0 out of 5 stars An Engrossing Critique Of A Much-Maligned Genre
One of the few volumes of literary criticism I've come across that's actually FUN to read, Disch does an excellent job of disecting the genre's major lietmotifs in this... Read more
Published on Sept. 5 2000 by Art Turner
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