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Our Meaning-Stuffed Dreams

Gregory Benford’s work is so widely known that it almost seems absurd to introduce him, but for any Centauri Dreams readers who have somehow missed it, I challenge you to read In the Ocean of Night and not become obsessed with reading this author’s entire output. This week has been a science fictional time for Centauri Dreams, with discussion of SF precedents to modern discoveries in the comments for stories like Marc Millis’ ‘Future History.’ So it seems appropriate to end the week with an essay Greg published yesterday on his own site, one that appealed to me so much that I immediately asked him for permission to run it again here.

In the essay, Greg takes a look at science fiction writer Thomas Disch and in particular the way his thoughts on SF illuminate not just the genre but the world we live in. It’s insightful stuff, and makes me reflect on how our ideas of the future shape our upcoming realities. I will also admit to a fascination with science fiction’s history that never wanes, a passion that is reignited whenever I see serious thought being given to the intricate machinery of modern prose.

by Gregory Benford

I recently reread The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of by my old friend Thomas Disch (Free Press, 1998, $25). Tom is now gone, but his ideas seem fresh as ever about science fiction and where it’s gone.

Here are some thoughts on the book, which still bears consideration. This sadly sardonic survey of science fiction worries its subject from many angles: historical, literary, sociological. Science fiction (sf) is perhaps the defining genre of the twentieth century, its conquering armies still camped outside the Rome of the literary citadels.

It’s an old story. Throughout this century, conventional literature persistently avoided thinking about conceptually altered tomorrows, and retreated into a realist posture of fiction of ever-smaller compass. By foregrounding personal relations, the novel of character came–especially in a classic debate around World War I between Henry James and H.G. Wells–to claim the pinnacle of orthodox fiction. James won that argument, surrendering the future to the genre that would later increasingly set the terms of social debate.

Disch underlies his wryly witty observations with poet Delmore Schwartz’s resonant title from 1938, *In Dreams Begin Responsibilities*. This “pregnant truth” is his clarion call to the genre that once fascinated him but plainly calls to him less since the mid-1980s. Sf takes up Big Ideas, but does not always treat them well. This unfulfilled promise vexes Disch, and he rummages among the cranks, fakes and crazies that often camped near the Legions of the Future. He treats us to tours of mesmerism from the time of Poe, to UFOs and their exploiters (Whitley Strieber, a flagrant example), to the huge religion invented in an sf magazine, Scientology. These unseemly neighbors of the genre betray America’s great historical trouble: high dreams, ready gullibility. Some skepticism is quite in order, particularly in the New Age.

The persistence of cranks and fools in the ranks of sf is sobering. We’ll scarcely be invited to tea if we keep such companions. This blends with Disch’s class analysis of literature.

Still, “The difference between highbrow and low — between Eliot and Poe, between mainstream and scifi–is not one that can be mapped by the conventional criteria of criticism.” He supports this by showing that Poe is more a formalist than Eliot, and less given to overt lecturing and preachiness. Instead, “The essential difference is not one of aesthetics or of some subtler metaphysical nature, but of the two writers’ antithetical social and economic positions.” Poe was a popular, market-driven writer, a “magazinist,” while Eliot was supported by a high culture with subtle patronage.

Sf is best seen as the voice of a rising class that sprang from the burgeoning American masses, hopeful middle class technological types. Their very earnestness carried their arguments and visions into the souls of the one country most responsible for our visions of the future; sf is notably an American creation, since the great era of Wells.

Predictably, its grandiose dreams lead to its worse faults. Sf’s greatest vice is lecturing. In the face of such large ideas, many authors became the “School Teacher Absolute, a fate that would befall so many later sf writers–Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Delany–that it must be considered an occupational hazard.” It can carry a writer away. Disch sees the later work of Philip K. Dick, particularly the important Valis, as “madness recollected in a state of borderline lucidity.”

Such faults go with the territory, but they do not dominate. The true strength of the genre lies in its power to convince by imagining. “A theory can be controverted; a myth persuades at gut level.”

We sf writers were often great makers of myth, some lifted from written sf and tarted up for media consumption *Star Trek* is notorious for looting the more thoughtful work of writers for their striking effects, leaving behind most of the thought and subtlety. Of the show’s huge global audience, he observes, “few audiences like to be challenged,” for after all, “it is traditionally the prelude to a duel, not to a half-hour of light entertainment. Any artist’s first order of business is not to challenge but to entice.”

He views this most persistent of any TV show from a fashion angle: actors in pajamas. Their starship looks much like an office from the inside, with lookalike uniforms: “the same parables of success-through-team effort that can be found on such later workplace-centered sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Designing Women.”

Trek was thus the prophet of the politically correct multicultural future just ahead of us, with workplace equality conspicuously displayed. Disch wrings much humor from this insight, yet surely the crucial nature of both Star Trek and Star Wars lies in their invocation of family. The strangeness of outer space futures had before been so daunting for audiences that typically it is the backdrop of horror (the Alien series, etc.).

Star Trek’s insight lay in the promise of going to the stars together, with well defined stereotypes who could supply the emotional frame for the potentially jarring truths of these distant places. That is why the cultures they meet proved so boring: “Blandness and repetition can be comforting, and comfort is a major deseratum in bedtime stories.” Alas, the genre set out to do more than rock us to sleep.

The market now mirrors his withering analysis. Despite his assertion that “three or four slots on the best-seller lists are occupied by SF titles” in fact their occupants are fantasy tomes and Michael Crichton clones, not actual sf at all. Only one true sf novel I can recall from the 1990s made the lists for long, Arthur Clarke’s 3001, a media-driven sequel to a sequel to a sequel. Instead, fantasy reigns supreme.

Indeed, Disch believes that once space travel, sf’s grand metaphor, proved to mean long voyages to inhospitable places, the genre reverted to fantasy-like motifs. There is truth in this, both in the rise of genre fantasy in books (now plagued with a numbing sameness and endless trilogies) and in the Joseph Campbell (savant of the mythic archetype theory of storytelling, as used by George Lucas in Star Wars) over John W. Campbell (tough-minded editor of Astounding magazine, the font of sf’s Golden Age, yet also the crucible of Scientology and crank ideas like the infamous Dean Drive).

This retreat from the observable fact–that the moon in indeed a harsh mistress–to Disch signals the end of sf’s best days. Though he scorns the Heinlein-Pournelle wing of hard sf (“Space is like Texas, only larger.”) he confesses a fondness for that seminal work of physical exploration, Hal Clement’s Heavy Planet.

Certainly, “hardness” in the sense of scrupulous concern for the facts and methods of science remains for many the core of the field, and its always hopeful promise. Hardness has been appropriated by some for political hard-nosed analysis, often with a libertarian bias, sometimes even for a conservative one — a seeming contradiction, for a “literature of change.”

Clement’s seminal world-building took us to far exotica, to meet the strange face to face. Indeed, aliens are the most pointed sf motif. “If God can’t be coerced into breaking his silence, at least he can send emissaries,” a neat compression of science’s failure to reveal the holy, and sf’s literary attempt to find it metaphorically in the alien. Aliens are only passingly interesting to see; what one wants to do is talk to them, sense the strangeness of another mind.

Yet this is not the focus of the movies and TV, which have turned sf’s aliens into horror shows or neat parables. “Screenwriters do not have the luxury that novelists enjoy of taking the time to explain things, to pose riddles and work them out, to think. Such bemusements can be the glory of sf (as of the deductive mystery, another genre poorly served by film)” and we see it seldom in the torrent of special effects circuses pouring from our screens.

In the late 1990s we have entered an era when special effects can show us just about anything, sometimes at surprisingly little cost. This could liberate sf in the arena by which it is increasingly judged, the visual.

I believe this to be the great challenge to the genre: to use its insights and methods to reach the great potential audience with more than simple spectacle. The western made such a transition in the 1950s, producing its highest works (High Noon, The Searchers, Shane) before running out of conceptual gas.

Written sf may have lesser prospects. Media tie-in work fills a (thankfully) separate section of the sf division in the larger book stores. In the rising tide of media spinoff novels and “sharecropping” of imaginative territories pioneered by early greats, Disch seen the genre’s probable fate: “more of the same and more of the sameness.”

Need this be so? I find the quantity of fine written sf has never been higher, counter-balancing the media tie-in clones. This goes little noticed in the windy passageways of the literary castles, for the division of that Wells-James debate persists. There is a curious mismatch between the reviewing media and the reading public. One would expect an efficient market to shape book reviewing to the great strengths of contemporary America: genres, from the hardboiled detective to cutting-edge sf to wispy, traditional fantasy.

In the end, Disch seems saddened because the promise of the New Wave, just breaking when he entered the field in the 1960s, hissed away into the sands of time. But the legacy of his generation is deeper, raising the net in the genre’s perpetual tennis match between conventional literature’s subtle, stylish stamina versus sf’s blunt, intellectual energies. True, Disch’s fellow marchers have largely fallen silent, but the advance of hard sf after them used weaponry they had devised. From Clement’s beginning, hard sf has fashioned a whole armament of methods, some of which mainstream mavens like Tom Clancy, and savvy insiders like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, have built rich provinces of their own. Neal Stephenson’s cultural insights and technoriffs too have found a huge audience.

Genres are best seen as constrained conversations, and sf is the leader and innovator in this. Constraint is essential, defining the rules and assumptions open to an author. If hard sf occupies the center of science fiction, that is probably because hardness gives the firmest boundary.

Genres are also like immense discussions, with ideas developed, traded, and variations spun down through time. Players ring changes on each other–a steppin’-out jazz band, not a solo concert in a plush auditorium. Contrast “serious” fiction–more accurately described, I believe, as merely self-consciously solemn–which proceeds from canonical classics that supposedly stand outside of time, deserving awe, looming great and intact by themselves.

Disch seems to sense the central draw of sf, but because he has been so isolated from it for so long, his expedition never reaches the core. Genre pleasures are many, but the quality of shared values within an on-going discussion may be the most powerful, enlisting lifelong devotion in its fans. In contrast to the Grand Canon view, genre reading satisfactions are a striking facet of modern democratic (“pop”) culture.

Disch does deplore the recent razoring of literature by critics–the tribes of structuralists, post-modernists, deconstructionists. To many sf writers, “post-modern” is simply a signature of exhaustion. Its typical apparatus–self-reference, heavy dollops of obligatory irony, self-conscious use of older genre devices, pastiche and parody–betrays lack of invention, of the crucial coin of sf, imagination. Some deconstructionists have attacked science itself as mere rhetoric, not an ordering of nature, seeking to reduce it to the status of the ultimately arbitrary humanities. Most sf types find this attack on empiricism a worn old song with new lyrics, quite retro.

At the core of sf lies the experience of science. This makes the genre finally hostile to such fashions in criticism, for it values its empirical ground. Deconstructionism’s stress on a contradictory or self-contained internal differences in texts, rather than their link to reality, often merely leads to literature seen as empty word games.

Sf novels give us worlds which are not to be taken as metaphors, but as real. We are asked to participate in wrenchingly strange events, not merely watch them for clues to what they’re really talking about. Sf pursues a “realism of the future” and so does not take its surrealism neat, unlike much avant-garde work which is easily confused with it. Thes followers of James have yet to fathom this. The Mars and stars and digital deserts of our best novels are, finally, to be taken as real, as if to say: life isn’t like this, it is this.

The best journeys can go to fresh places, not merely return us to ourselves. Despite Disch’s sad eulogy for the genre’s past, which he considers its high point, I suspect there are great trips yet to be taken.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Greg January 6, 2012, 11:45

    Excellent, excellent article. I can’t agree more. I think one of problems of SF is that they’ve tried to make it main-stream. Shows like the modern version of Battle-Star Galactica, a drama that uses SF as a wrapper to deliver a story, sidelining it. What we have maybe is just a failure of imagination, some writers are after all so consumed in making things realistic we forget to tell a good story anymore.

  • jkittle January 6, 2012, 11:51

    The truly novel concepts in literature are hard to constrain to genre.. and like poetry, it is the constraint and its release that drives the art. I see it very difficult to include good genetic and genomic science into the present Sci Fi forms, ( With apologies to both bear and brin) but that is also a reason to celebrate. There is the possibility of going beyond just pouring the new ideas into the old beakers, but inventing new forms that are both visual and literate. Again, we live in exciting times. Thanks for the great article Greg. and for re posting it , Paul

  • Bob January 6, 2012, 14:00

    “UFOs and their exploiters (Whitley Strieber, a flagrant example),”

    Sounds like a selective moral judgment. Are not all writers exploiters if not for money then at least recognition? Are you suggesting there are places writers should just not go regardless of their beliefs?

  • Abelard Lindsey January 6, 2012, 14:27

    There just isn’t much good hard SF these days. All of the recent hard SF I’ve read in the past 10 years has come from only three writers; Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, and Paul McAuley (the “Quiet War” novels). Greg Bear wrote what I considered to be the most plausible depiction of future history about 20 years ago. These were the “Queen of Angels” and “Moving Mars” novels.

  • Abelard Lindsey January 6, 2012, 14:29

    BTW, I’ve never been a fan of visual SF (i.e. Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.), nor do I consider these any reasonable depiction of future possibilities. As I said before, I think Greg Bear’s “Queen of Angels” and “Moving Mars” (but without the funky physics in the latter part of the novel) are the best depictions of the future.

  • James D. Stilwell January 6, 2012, 14:54

    Dear Gregory Benford:
    Your comprehensiveness reminds me of the Singularity.
    Are you sure you’re not Connected already? One thing’s for sure:
    Alvin is now out of the Central Computer to enjoy his second 1,000 year stint. No telling what global apple carts he’ll overturn. Maybe his destiny is a mystery even to himself. Maybe so.
    James D. Stilwell

  • James Benford January 6, 2012, 19:17

    I’ve been reading Greg’s writing since he started in the early 50’s with awful stories that thankfully never saw print. This beautifully densely written piece is one of his best. Maybe even his very best.

  • Joy January 6, 2012, 20:26

    Regarding Moore’s re-imagined BSG, could not disagree more. I consider it to be not only the most important SF work (in any format) of the 21st century thus far, but the most significant work of art and philosophy. Interspersed with the CGI and formula melodramas are serious meditations on the purpose of life and the place of humanity in the universe which are the equal of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Aristotle.

    There were no aliens per se, yet the entire story arc was driven by agents of a power so vast and mysterious as to be possibly divine. Most of the central characters at some point were so gripped by such existential despair as to contemplate suicide. One completely human character returned following physical death.

    The conclusion of BSG is the crowning glory of the saga. The colonial refugees and skin job cylon survivors elect to renounce their Promethean dreams and discard their technological tools to live simple mortal lives. Yes, it is a modern heresy to suggest that humility (with a hope of transcendence) is preferable to striving for the Singularity. The hubristic colonials had to be driven to the brink of extinction to accept such a path. Perhaps so shall we.

  • Paul Gilster January 6, 2012, 20:40

    James Benford writes:

    I’ve been reading Greg’s writing since he started in the early 50′s with awful stories that thankfully never saw print. This beautifully densely written piece is one of his best. Maybe even his very best.

    Jim, I don’t go back as far with your brother as you do (obviously!) but last night I made a comment much like this to my wife. This is elegant, incisive prose, a real model for those of us who labor in the thickets of non-fiction.

  • Adam Crowl January 6, 2012, 21:44

    Hi Paul & Greg
    Absolute gems roll of your pen and keyboard as usual Greg. As Jim said, a keeper.
    One thought is that SF suffered a serious blow when none of the near planets lived up to their much-hyped place in the collective SF psyche. No aliens, no ecologies, not even struggling Arean lichens. There might be cryptic biospheres of microbes, even subterranean Arean equivalents of Gaia as per your own novel on the idea, but nothing we can spy from afar. All the planets and moons we’ve visited have proven to be quite at odds with the tales we spun to ourselves before we went looking. Maybe Europa’s sub-glacial ocean will surprise us yet, but the current perception is that Life, even as we don’t know it, is damned hard to kick off. Thus a whole bunch of SF tropes and hopes went into the flames of history and the collective shock of that threw the genre into fantasy or virtual reality. Maybe the ever growing discovery of real exoplanets and real planets in habitable zones will respark our dreams of cosmic wandering based on science we know.

  • ljk January 6, 2012, 23:08

    Joy said on January 6, 2012 at 20:26:

    “The conclusion of BSG is the crowning glory of the saga. The colonial refugees and skin job cylon survivors elect to renounce their Promethean dreams and discard their technological tools to live simple mortal lives. Yes, it is a modern heresy to suggest that humility (with a hope of transcendence) is preferable to striving for the Singularity. The hubristic colonials had to be driven to the brink of extinction to accept such a path. Perhaps so shall we.”

    LJK replies:

    I wonder how many of those 38,000-plus Colonials enjoyed being on a camping trip in ancient Africa for the rest of their lives after having come from a technological society and spent most of the last few years aboard starships? I wonder how many of them survived with no modern medicine and other conveniences?

    Arrogance is one thing, but using one’s technology and knowledge to progress the species is not hubris. It is the choice between life and extinction for an intelligent, evolving species. Everyone thinks going back to nature is the cure-all, but not when you have 7 billion people on a finite planet, unless you want mass genocide to result.

  • NS January 7, 2012, 4:24

    My problem with SF is that it overrates the impact of technology on peoples’ PERCEPTION of life. I would miss both the internet and cellphones if they suddenly became unavailable, but the majority (so far) of my life was lived prior to the advent of both and at the time I was not conscious of any deprivation. I can read “Tom Jones” (1749) much more easily than I can read “The Canterbury Tales” (c. 1400) but the technological difference between those times was far less than either compared to now. The cultural changes that truly alter human experience don’t map easily to technological ones.

  • Alex Tolley January 7, 2012, 13:36

    The cultural changes that truly alter human experience don’t map easily to technological ones.

    Really? How about the invention of the contraceptive pill? AFAICT, the cultural changes map quite well to that invention.

  • Ole Burde January 8, 2012, 16:09

    Some of the most influential SF films has been strangely absent from this general SF talking session . The “Metrix” series , the “Terminator” series , and ” twelve monkeys ” are among the most important SF work , even if they dont deal too much with spaceships . Theese films and a few others have managed to reach a broader audience , and they have done it without any politically correct mumbo-jumbo as was the sad case of “Avatar” . Of the hundreds of milions of people who saw them , thousands of young people have taken up the reading of more serious SF works . At least thats what I have experienced among my 4 sons and their numorous friends . A similar thing can be said about the “Ender” series , which have not even been made a film yet.

  • NS January 8, 2012, 16:15

    My reading and conversations with people who were adults before “The Pill” was available convince me that it did not alter actual human behavior nearly as much as many of us think it did. But what I was getting at in my post is that many truly amazing technological changes don’t seem to have much impact on peoples’ perception of life. We all know that in Henry James’ time (c. 1900) even the wealthy died of diseases that today could be prevented or cured by a trip to the doctor’s office. But does literature reflect any awareness of this? Should it? Or does technology for the most part just “set the stage” for the human drama, which changes far more slowly (and for other reasons) than technology does?

  • Alex Tolley January 8, 2012, 22:55

    @NS. My reading and conversations with people who were adults before “The Pill” was available convince me that it did not alter actual human behavior nearly as much as many of us think it did.

    I lived at that time. There was a reason the 1960’s included the “sexual revolution”. The pill was a major contributing factor to changing sexual mores.

  • Greg January 9, 2012, 10:24

    @Joy, Don’t get me wrong BSG was a good show, and had some deep meanings to it. Most of the plot though could have taken place here on earth, the fact that they were on star-ships in space felt incidental, a wrapping of SF is the best I could call it. Even my wife who cannot stand SF loved the show, because as she said “she could over look where they were and enjoy the drama”

  • ljk January 11, 2012, 13:08

    A take on science fiction as literature from a Royal Society of Britain blog post from November of 2011 here:


  • coolstar January 12, 2012, 19:15

    Concerning the new incarnation of BSG: A) the authors and producers have publicly said they tried to be true to the spirit of the original. Presumably, though it’s hard to believe, that was said with a straight face and
    B) the “survivors” would certainly get what they deserved: within 2-3 years they’d mostly be killing and eating each other with stone knives.

  • ljk January 13, 2012, 11:23

    coolstar said on January 12, 2012 at 19:15:

    “Concerning the new incarnation of BSG: A) the authors and producers have publicly said they tried to be true to the spirit of the original. Presumably, though it’s hard to believe, that was said with a straight face and
    B) the “survivors” would certainly get what they deserved: within 2-3 years they’d mostly be killing and eating each other with stone knives.”

    LJK replies:

    And if they didn’t do themselves in, the natives they and we saw would probably reduce their numbers considerably in due order.

    As I said above, people who think we can just throw off the trappings of our technological civilization and live in some kind of Garden of Eden are in for a rude surprise. Just wait until the toothpaste and toilet paper run out, to say nothing of the medicines and ammunition.