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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.
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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.
THE RIGHT TO LIE
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.
It has been said of Cretans that they were all liars, and we can assume, from its proscription in the Decalogue, that lying was not unknown in Mosaic times. What distinguishes American liars from those of earlier times and other nations is that the perfected American liar does not feel himself to be disgraced by his lies, even when he is caught in them. Indeed, the bolder the lie and the more brazenly imposed on the public, the more admiration the liar is accorded.
The first American hero to be celebrated for his wily ways is a folk spirit native to the continent, Coyote. Among his lineal descendants in the realm of fiction one may number Joel Chandler Harris's Br'er Rabbit, Herman Melville's Confidence Man, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the Puritain maiden whose lies give rise to the Salem witch trials. What sets such American tricksters apart from those of other cultures is the degree to which they solicit our admiration. I can remember my father's reading aloud the opening chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the delight we shared at the way Tom hustles his friends into whitewashing a thirty-yard-long, nine-foot-high board fence.
Before addressing the SF component of this issue, let me offer a short anthology of righteous lies from the past forty years of American history by way of suggesting the dimensions of the nation's Great White Fence. The first great lie of the post-World War II era, and the foundational whopper of the Cold War, was President Eisenhower's scout's-honor insistence, in 1960, that the U-2 shot down over the Soviet Union was not on a spying mission. That pro forma diplomatic fiction became a booby trap when the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, whom Eisenhower had presumed dead, was produced alive and stood trial for spying. Sisela Bok declares that "this lie was one of the crucial turning points in the spiraling loss of confidence by U.S. citizens in the word of their leaders."
The Vietnam War offered Americans a more extensive lesson in their government's complacent disregard for inconvenient truths. In The First Casualty, his history of war reporting, Phillip Knightley writes, concerning Vietnam:
In the early years of the American involvement, the administration misled Washington correspondents to such an extent that many an editor, unable to reconcile what his man in Saigon was reporting with what his man in Washington told him, preferred to use the official version. John Shaw, a Time correspondent in Vietnam ... says, "for years the press corps in Vietnam was undermined by the White House and the Pentagon .... Yet the Pentagon Papers proved to the hilt that what the correspondents in Saigon had been sending was true?
Knightley contends that compared to earlier wars of the modern era, the press (though not the government) had a good track record for honesty. "But," he admits, "this is not saying a lot.... With a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year."
But it was Watergate that made clear even to the most trusting and credulous of citizens that Presidents, their advisers, and anyone within distance of a bribe have as little regard for the truth as Richard III. Nixon had lied so successfully for so long about matters of such consequence that for the entire first year of the scandal, he refused to believe his robes of office would not protect him. In his steadfast denials, which he persisted in even after resigning in disgrace, he set an example of the Liarly Sublime that has never since been bettered for sheer brass.
The final establishment of lying as a right--a right that is specifically God given--was the work of Marine Corps paragon, presidential adviser, and 1994 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Oliver North. In July 1987, North had been called to testify before the Senate concerning the White House's involvement in trading arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, the diversion of those illegal funds to assist (in defiance of Congress) the contras in Nicaragua, and his own perjuries with respect to these operations, which he had superintended. North's biographer, Ben Bradlee, Jr., begins his summing up of all the lies that were Oliver North's life:
Aside from North's admitted lying to Congress about the Contras, his admitted lying to the Iranians, his admitted falsifying of the Iran initiative chronology, his admitted shredding of documents and his admitted lying to various Administration officials as the Iran-Contra affair unraveled in November of 1986, there are stories, statements or claims that he has made to various people while at the NSC [National Security Council] that are either untrue strongly denied, or unconfirmable and thought to be untrue.
Bradlee recounts a round dozen of North's wilder whoppers, which include: a variety of self-promoting tales about confidences and private prayer meetings shared with the President; a tale of derring-do concerning his rescue of wounded contra soldiers (who later died, alas) as he piloted a plane through enemy machine-gun fire; his service in Angola and in Argentina during the Falklands War, and strategic tete-a-tetes with Israel Defense Minister Ariel Sharon just before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (all three stories pure fabulation); and his dog's death by poisoning--"presumably by those whom he said had been threatening his life." (A neighbor insisted that the dog died of cancer and old age.) The list is extensive enough to suggest that North's penchant for lying exceeded the merely strategic and expedient and amounted to pathology, and this is confirmed by the testimony of even reputed friends.
So artful was North's performance before the Senate that soon a good deal of the country had adopted the same attitude. "No one has captured the American public like Ollie North," opined a Chicago restaurateur. "Even when he's not telling the truth he's beautiful. The guy is so charming." Then columnist and future presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan lauded North as "a patriotic son of the republic who, confronted with a grave moral dilemma--whether to betray his comrades and cause, or to deceive members of Congress--chose the lesser of two evils, the path of honor. It was magnificent."
There must be two parties to a successful lie: the one who tells it and the one taken in. The motive of the teller is seldom difficult to discern, though it may be complex. In North's case one can scent self-advantage, a desire for applause, a certain amount of rational fear, and, not least, an inveterate delight in his own con-artistry. Surely a good deal of North's success was due to the TV audience's collusive admiration for the man's brass. Like Buchanan, they knew he was lying, but he lied so well; it was magnificent. This was the era, after all, of a President who had been caught again and again in evasions and fabulations. But people didn't care. Indeed, they applauded both men's acting skills--the catch in the throat, the twinkle in the eye, the scout's-honor sincerity. TV critic Tom Shales favorably compared North's debut at the Senate hearings to Burt Lancaster's performance in Seven Days in May, in which Lancaster plays a general planning a military coup d'etat.
I've said America is a nation of liars. A politer way of putting it is that we are a nation of would-be actors. No other culture has ever been so drenched in make-believe. Children spend more time watching television than going to school, and most of what they watch is fiction. In school they are taught to read novels. Actors are national celebrities, and show business is widely recognized as a metaphor for the conduct of life. A smile on one's face and a shine on one's shoes are the simple prerequisites for success in a world of self-made men. We could make believe; it's only a paper moon; let's go on with the show.
So where does that leave the vast majority of us whose role is only to watch the stars, to applaud, to believe, to vote? There are, admittedly, a great many who do not succumb to the blandishments of the entertainment industry and who can distinguish between performances and principles. But by and large our media stars are admired. They are spoken of often as "role models," that is to say, templates on which we can form our own social personae. Even their sins are trend setting.
And so, if Reagan and North may lie with impunity, why shouldn't we all be allowed the same latitude? Few private citizens can take refuge behind "national security" as an all-purpose excuse for self-aggrandizement, but there are any number of worthy causes that an expedient lie can take shelter in. Take the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed, late in 1987, to have been attacked and sexually abused for four days by a gang of white cops, including (according to statements later made by her attorneys, Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason), an assistant district attorney and another local law officer, Harry Crist, Jr., who had committed suicide shortly after Brawley's story hit the news and so could not deny the lawyers' allegations. Brawley was taken up as a martyr by black activists. She and her mother, who had colluded in her fabrications, became proteges of the black demagogue Rev. Al Sharpton, who took them out of state and beyond the summons of the grand jury investigating her alleged rape--and thereby spared the hard choice between perjury and admitting to the shameful truth; to wit, that she had fabricated the whole story, smearing herself with dog feces, scrawling "Nigger" and "KKK" on her body with charcoal, and scorching the crotch of the jeans she'd been wearing. Yet to this day, nine years later, despite a grand jury report that presents the great mass of evidence that shows Tawana was lying, the Rev. Al Sharpton equivocates about her probity, on the grounds that even if this particular crime did not take place, others like it have.
Since Tawana's time, allegations of sexual abuse have become epidemic, but later liars have learned from Tawana's example not to tell lies that can so easily be disproved. Of great usefulness in this regard has been the Recovered Memory Syndrome, in either its simple form or in combination with fantasies of ritual satanic abuse. A catalogue of only the most celebrated cases of recent years would take pages and would be a work of supererogation, since most large bookstores now have entire sections devoted to the phenomenon.
That child sexual abuse occurs cannot be denied, but even when it is reported shortly after it is alleged to have happened, a certain skepticism is called for. The supposition that children are more likely to be truthful than their elders is unwarranted, especially in a culture of liars. One cautionary tale was a recent case in Chicago, in which three sisters, ages ten, eleven, and twelve, alleged that they had been the victims, at their father's hands, of four years of sexual assault, beatings, drug injections, and meals of fried rats and boiled roaches. The last detail secured the case national attention, but it probably was the fatal, over-the-top flaw that saved the girls' parents from prosecution.
Generally children are held as little accountable for their lies as for their more overt misdemeanors and felonies. In theory they are innocents a priori. Many grown-ups feel that they are entitled to similar license, and for them the Recovered Memory movement has been a godsend. Are you obese? Underweight? Anxious? Frigid? Sexually hyperactive? Then, according to countless self-help books, you were probably a victim of childhood sexual abuse but have repressed the memory of it. These memories are to be recovered by means of group therapy, hypnosis, and massage.
How this process enables those making allegations and even those falsely accused to fabricate scenarios and then believe in their own inventions has been described by Lawrence Wright in Remembering Satan (1994), the stranger-than-fiction account of a man railroaded into prison after his daughters had charged him with ritual satanic abuse. Not only were the two daughters and his wife able to "recover" memories of sins that had never been committed, even their victim cooperated in producing more specious "memories." As to the psychological theories that are the foundation of the movement, Frederick Crews has done a most thorough demolition job in two essays originally published in the New York Review of Books and reprinted, along with the outraged correspondence they provoked, in The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute (1996). Crews contends that there is as little intellectual and evidentiary substance in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis as in the most blatantly fantastical claims of believers in ritual satanic abuse. Indeed, the latter, Crews urges, is the devolved and declasse descendant of the former.
I would agree with Crews, with this further suggestion: that science fiction has been an essential element in the transmission of Freud's original theories and their adaptation to the needs of today's talk show audiences. There were actually two separate SF conduits. The first was the debased Freudianism of SF writer L. Ron Hubbard, who introduced the pseudoscience of Dianetics (aka the "religion" of Scientology) in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The second and more direct route is that typified by Whitley Strieber, a writer of horror novels who claims to have been abducted and sexually abused by aliens at periodic intervals throughout his life, a fate subsequently shared by his son, then age seven. Strieber's books on this subject, Communion: A True Story and Transformation: The Breakthrough, remain notable for being the only such books by an already established professional author, for which distinction Strieber received a whopping million-dollar advance for Communion.
The symptomatic relationship between L. Ron Hubbard and science fiction will be examined at greater length in Chapter 7, on SF and religion. Strieber's and other "abductees'" memoirs of their UFO experiences might also be considered from that higher vantage--had they been received by the media and the general public with the solemnity and immunity from skeptical examination that is tacitly accorded to officially recognized religions. Happily, though Strieber had a commercial success with Communion, his effort to form a quasi-religious cult of alien abductees did not attain orbital velocity, and so more than a decade after his alleged abduction on the night after Christmas 1985, Communion has become a part of the history of pop culture, not of religion.
Whitley was not the first UFO hoaxer, though he has been, to date, the most audacious and has turned the best profit from his fancies. The first rash of purported sightings was the Great Airship Mystery of 1896, when an armada of cigar-shaped airships with winglike sails crossed the skies of America. These protodirigibles clearly were an expression of imaginative enthusiasm for the dawning era of heavier-than-air flight, and once that era had commenced in fact, such fictions disappeared.
Then, at the dawn of the atomic era, came the flying saucers. In 1947 Kenneth Arnold reported nine disk-shaped objects sporting about Mount Rainier, and before the year was out, 850 other "flying saucer" sightings had been reported in the press. From the first, those who credited flying saucer sightings assumed them to be of extraterrestrial origin--which is another way of saying that they were the progeny of science fiction. Orson Welles's radio dramatization of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds had provoked a panic among credulous listeners in 1938---proof, if any were needed, of a large audience of potential believers.
But strange lights in the night sky are not enough. Contact was inevitable, and on November 20, 1952, George Adamski, a penny-ante guru already in the flying saucer business, lecturing on the subject and selling his own UFO photos, had his first tete-a-tete with a Venusian named Orthon, who explained by dumb show and telepathy that his saucer was powered by Earth's magnetism. After some brief instruction in English, Orthon was able to express ("Boom, boom!") the alarm of peace-loving extraterrestrials at atomic testing and the prospect of nuclear war. (Only a year earlier in the 1951 sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C., to deliver the same message. A coincidence?)
Adamski's ghost-written account of his contact with Orthon, Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) and its sequels, Inside the Spaceships (1955) and Flying Saucers Farewell (1961), had already fallen into disfavor among saucer buffs by the time of his death in 1965. Adamski's style of fakery and his narrative gifts were too primitive for the new breed of UFOlogists, and he had alienated even the faithful readers of his Cosmic Bulletin, as his emphasis shifted to mysticism and psychic phenomena. Originally Adamski had declared psychics to be in cahoots with the world banking interests, the "Silence Group," which acted to suppress information about UFOs. Now he seemed to be saying that his contacts with the space people and his trips to the dark side of the moon might be nothing but visionary experiences.
Adamski's equivocations in this regard were to become a regular feature of the more high-toned UFO "abductees" and their chroniclers of a later generation. Well before Strieber hit the scene, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, dubbed by Newsweek as "the Galileo of UFOlogy," gave grudging credence to the first abductee narrative, that of Betty and Barney Hill. But by 1982 Hynek was backing away from the received wisdom that UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin: "The enigma to which [Hynek] had dedicated his career remained inscrutable and unacceptable to the scientific community. Hynek submitted that perhaps UFOs were part of a parallel reality, slipping in and out of sequence with our own. This was a hypothesis that obviously pained him as an empirical scientist. Yet, after thirty years of interviewing witnesses and investigating sighting reports, radar contacts, and physical traces of saucer landings no other hypothesis seemed to make sense to him."
Parallel universes are another trope borrowed from the repertory of science fiction. They are a marvelous convenience for authors who want to fantasticate at a high rpm without having to offer a rational explanation for the wonders they evoke. In a parallel universe, magic is usually the operative technology, as per SF fandorns' motto, "Reality is a crutch." Well before Hynek had adopted this all-purpose escape clause, dozens of SF writers had proposed the same explanation for the persistent unverifiability of all UFO phenomena. The cleverest such confection has been Miracle Visitors (1978) by British SF writer Ian Watson.
Unverifiability is for UFOlogists what deniability was for Nixon and the Watergate conspirators. Without it, they would be attested perjurers. Accordingly, Strieber and Dr. John E. Mack (the Harvard Medical School Professor who drew flack from his colleagues for his UFOlogical "research") carefully lard their abduction narratives with canny disclaimers. Not for them Adamski's crudely faked photos of UFOs and his footprint castings of aliens who always manage to elude the camera's lens, despite decades of "close encounters." No, the aliens are ineffable and unknowable, and their caprices are no more to be questioned than the koans of a Zen master. In one of his many declarations of independence from rational scrutiny, Strieber declares:
Whomever or whatever the visitors are, their activities go far beyond a mere study of mankind. They are involved with us on very deep levels, playing in the band of dream, weaving imagination and reality together until they begin to seem what they probably are--different aspects of a single continuum. To really begin to perceive the visitors adequately it is going to be necessary to invent a new discipline of vision, one that combines the mystic's freedom of imagination with the substantial intellectual rigor of the scientist.
In a culture of liars, it is considered bad form to call to account lies reckoned to be harmless. In a telephone survey conducted by the Leo Burnett ad agency, 91 percent of 505 people surveyed confessed that they regularly don't tell the truth. "People," the New York Times writer explained, "are more accepting than ever of exaggerations, falsifications, fabrications, misstatements, misrepresentations, gloss-overs, quibbles, concoctions, equivocations, shuffles, prevarications, trims and truth colored and varnished. They even encourage their children to do it by praising them for using their imaginations."
The Times itself evinced a similar delicacy when it had to deal with Communion in its Sunday book review section, urging its reviewer, Gregory Benford, to adopt a more respectful and accommodating tone. Benford, a noted physicist and an accomplished SF writer, bit his tongue and trimmed his first draft. And so, despite protests over its appearance on the "Non-Fiction" side of the Times' best-seller list, Communion was accorded respectful attention in the nation's main journal of record, where Strieber is quoted to this effect: "I cannot say, in all truth, that I am certain the visitors are present as entities entirely independent of their observers. Nor can I say that I do not think they are here at all." He cannot say that for a very good reason: if he did, he wouldn't have a book contract.
I reviewed Communion for the Nation, where I was not under the dueling-code restraints imposed by the Times and could freely express my opinion of Strieber's enterprise. Better than that, I was in possession of a smoking gun, for Strieber makes much of his own naivete regarding earlier UFO testimonies: "I did not believe in UFOs before this happened. And I would have laughed in the face of anybody who claimed contact." He maintained that until he'd been impelled by his own experience to examine other UFO literature, he had taken no interest in such matters. If he had read widely in the literature, the striking resemblance between his own UFO experiences and that recorded by others could be ascribed to imitation. But if, as he claimed, he was innocent of such knowledge, then such a correspondence must be seen as a confirmation that Something Is Happening.
Whitley, as it turned out, had left a significant paper trail in this regard: a story, "Pain," that appeared in a 1986 hardcover antholoy, of horror stories, Cutting Edge. "Pain" is a remarkable prefiguration of Communion's distinctive addition of S&M themes to the traditional UFO mixture-as-before. Here is the moment in Communion when Strieber reveals how he was raped by aliens:
[Aboard the saucer] the next thing I knew I was being shown an enormous and extremely ugly object, gray and scaly, with a sort of network of wires on the end. It was a least a foot long, narrow and triangular in structure. They inserted this thing into my rectum. It seemed to swarm into me as if it had a life of its own. Apparently its purpose was to take samples, possibly of fecal matter, but at the time I had the impression that I was being raped, and for the first time I felt anger.
In "Pain" the narrator, a novelist like Strieber, tells of his besotted passion for a professional dominatrix, who belongs to an ancient, alien race that had fed on human pain throughout history. They were in charge of the Roman Empire, arranged the Holocaust, assassinated Kennedy, and now their agent, cruel Janet O'Reilly, puts Strieber's hero through a standard bondage-and-domination scenario.
The textual parallels between "Pain" and Communion are extensive. Could it be that Strieber, having made the imaginative equation between the "archetypal abduction experience" and the ritual protocols of bondage and domination, realized he'd hit a vein of ore untapped by previous UFOlogists? Strieber's alternative explanation is that the story represents the first surfacing of memories repressed by the aliens, who had given Strieber a similar hazing only days before "Pain" was written.
Strieber's reponses to those who dare to regard his UFO testimonies as other than hard fact or celestial vision have been so passionate that many skeptics are inclined to suppose him sincerely self-deluded. Philip J. Klass, our leading UFO debunker, maintains that Strieber probably suffers from TLE, temporal lobe epilepsy, "a transient phenomenon of the temporal lobe of the brain that causes "vivid hallucinations that are often associated with powerful odors [which Strieber reports during some of his UFOnaut encounters] .... People with [TLE] tend to be verbal and philosophical and to lack a sense of humor." If Klass is correct, Strieber believes his own lies. But while Betty and Barney Hill (who let five years lapse between their "abduction" and as-told-to publication) may have been sincerely deluded, Strieber has too visibly and systematically worked to cover his own tracks for such a charitable interpretation to be accepted.
Ever resourceful, Strieber has resorted to another SF trope to explain his penchant for telling lies. His aliens, when they are not probing his nether orifices, have been implanting false memories. In an interview with Paul Gagne, Strieber described how he'd almost been a victim of the multiple murderer Charles Whitman, when he opened fire from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas. In Whitley's anguished words,
I was right in the middle of it. I ended up hiding under a little retaining wall about 2 1/2' high with another person. Everyone near us was shot--not all killed, but shot. As I lay under that wall with this other man right there, a woman suddenly began to scream about ten feet away from us. She was terribly injured. She had been shot in the stomach and she was wailing and bellowing, scrabbling along the ground with blood coming out of her. I was going to run to her when this other man jumped up, and the moment he did, Whitman shot the top of his head off. He had, of course, shot the woman in the stomach for the purpose of getting us to come out from where we were hiding. He was just waiting there with this gun. I didn't move. That has haunted me all my life.
Yet in Communion Whitley declares that "for years I have told of being present when Charles Whitman went on his shooting spree from the tower in 1966. But I wasn't there."
Those who've seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) will be familiar with the notion of implanted memories. Although Whitley's book antedates that movie, the Philip Dick story on which it was based, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," appeared in 1966, and his classic novel Time Out of Joint (1959) deploys essentially the same idea. And what a convenience that idea is for any UFO abductee who might find himself mired in provable untruths. This, even more than his equation of abduction with the frissons of sadomasochism, has been Strieber's greatest legacy to the traditions of UFOlogy: nothing one has said or written can be used in evidence against one's obviously heartfelt testimony, for the past is infinitely elastic.
In our present, imperfectly postmodern world, where most information still takes the potentially embarrassing form of printed matter lurking in archives, liars still must position themselves so that the historical record may not easily gainsay them. In that regard, UFOs have the advantage of goblins and ghosts, entities known to be capricious, elusive, unverifiable in their very nature, whose existence is strictly a function of our willingness to credit the testimony of those who choose to tell such tales.
There are two regions that liars head for by preference: periods of convenient isolation and the remote past. Strieber was abducted from the bedroom of a rustic cabin in the Catskills, and other abductees have usually been similarly circumstanced. Another, grander kind of liar rewrites history on a cosmic scale, telling lies not about himself but about the entire planet from literally the day of creation. The great-granddaddy of such liars was Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), a man whose once-flourishing fame has withered to the size of a few footnotes in out-of-the-way scholarly texts. Donnelly wrote three SF novels, one of which, Caesar's Column (1889), was a best-seller in its day (and will be considered in Chapter 9, as a prototype of the Star Wars techno-thriller), but his true talent, his genius, was for hoaxing. He imposed on the credulity of the public on three separate occasions, and all three inventions, in mutated form, are still in circulation.
His first and most imitated fabrication was a work of pseudo-archaelogy, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), in which he argued "that the description of this island given by Plato is not, as has been long supposed, fable, but veritable history," that it was "the region where man first rose from a state of barbarism to civilization, ... from whose overflowings the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, the Amazon, the Pacific coast of South America, the Mediterranean, the west coast of Europe and Africa, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian were populated by civlized nations." In short, all recorded history is in error, except for Plato and the the Book of Genesis. (Even in 1882, Donnelly knew that the best way to pitch a flaky theory is to connect it with a tenet of fundamentalist faith. If you can believe in Noah's ark, why not Atlantis?)
Already in the nineteenth century, for a hoax to succeed, there had to be some semblance of "science" in the mix, and Donnelly cited evidence from the then infant science of archaeology: "Among the Romans, the Chinese, the Abyssinians, and the Indians of Canada the singular custom prevails of lifting the bride over the door-step of her husband's home." How to account for this? The only explanation must be these cultures' common source in the customs of Atlantis. For linguistic evidence there's this: "How can we, without Atlantis, explain the presence of the Basques in Europe, who have no lingual affinities with any other race on the continent of Europe, but whose language is similar to the languages of America?" The book is one great pinata of such specious correspondences between the alphabets, mythologies, folkways, and architectural artifacts of all civilizations. Whatever had glintingly caught Donnelly's magpie attention became another proof of our Atlantean origins.
From Donnelly's Atlantis has sprung a vast progeny of SF-flavored pseudohistories, the most popular of which has been Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? (1968). Von Daniken would have it that
dim, as yet undefinable ages ago an unknown spaceship discovered our planet. The crew of the spaceship soon found out that the earth had all the prerequisites for intelligent life to develop .... The spacemen artificially fertilized some female members of this species, put them into a deep sleep, so ancient legends say, and departed. Thousands of years later the space travelers returned and found scattered specimens of the genus homo sapiens. They repeated their breeding experiment several times until finally they produced a creature intelligent enough to have the rules of society imparted to it. The people of that age were still barbaric. Because there was a danger that they might retrogress and mate with animals again, the space travelers destroyed the unsuccessful specimens or took them with them to settle them on other continents. The first communities and the first skills came into being; rock faces and cave walls were painted, pottery was discovered, and the first attempts at architecture were made.
With this unsavory amalgam of Darwin, the Old Testament, and the eugenic fantasies of the Third Reich, von Daniken scored a huge publishing success. "Over 4,000,000 copies in print" brags the cover of the thirty-fifth paperback printing from 1978. Although Donnelly lived before the age of UFO mythology and paperbacks, there is nothing in Chariots that cannot be found already fully developed in Atlantis and in Donnelly's successor hoax, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), which explains how a long-ago comet had almost collided with the Earth, sinking Atlantis and wreaking assorted other havocs. This rather modest astronomical fantasy, which does for Newton what Donnelly had already done for Darwin, prefigures the work of Immanuel Velikovsky (e.g., Worlds in Collision), another redneck archaeologist who also offers the litter of ancient civilizations as proof of his ditzy theory that the solar system is like a game of croquet played by vengeful gods.
No doubt many of the readers of Strieber, von Daniken, and Velikovsky approach their books in the same playful spirit they would bring to an SF story, asking only to be amused. Their books offer larger servings of the campy pleasures available in supermarket tabloids that show photos of Clinton shaking hands with an alien. For such readers, "Far out!" "Weird!" and "What next?" are expressions of appreciation, and belief is not really at issue. Even most of the great mass of those who tell pollsters they believe in UFOs can best be understood to be "entertaining" that belief, partly because aliens are a nifty idea, as long as they never directly impinge on one's life, and partly because to profess such belief has become a way of giving the finger to know-it-all intellectual snobs.
A certain class of reader values bizarre and paranoid theories precisely because they are bizarre and paranoid. In the lates '70s the SF writer Robert Anton Wilson brought out a series of books under the umbrella title of Illuminatus! that aspired to be a Summa of all conspiracy, occult, and UFO theories. Some of the books were offered as fiction, some as nonfiction. For Wilson and his fans, veridity was never an issue. I saw him once, after a book signing in Los Angeles, gravely romancing a would-be true believer, throwing out dark hints, then lapsing into winks and giggles. Did he experience cognitive dissonance? I wondered at the time. Does Oliver Stone when he films egregious distortions of the historical record as though he were recreating actual events? To both questions the answer is: probably not. They must see themselves not as liars, or even romancers, but as poets, in the sense that Sir Philip Sidney intended when he wrote in his "Defense of Poetry" of 1595, "Only the poet... lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were."
The license that "poets" assume in rewriting ancient history to suit their own fancy and sense of cosmic justice is not always without unhappy consequences in the real world. Witness the effect that such fabulation has had on school and university programs throughout the country, where "African-American Baseline Essays" has been used as a text to teach students that ancient Egyptians (who were black) developed the theory of evolution long before Darwin, understood quantum mechanics, flew gliders, could predict auspicious days by astrology, and could foresee the future by their psychic powers. This information is passed off as science. Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena (1987), would have us believe that Greek civilization was either borrowed or stolen from Egypt. Other Afrocentrists claim that Aristotle stole his philosophy from books in the Library at Alexandria (a city that did not exist in his lifetime); that Socrates and Cleopatra were black (a fact of which their many detractors made no mention). Commenting on these matters in the New York Review of Books, Jasper Griffin says: "These assertions and the persistence with which they are made in the face of refutation form a fascinating study in morbid collective psychology.... But the implications are worrying. Some academics now say, and others think, that it does not matter whether these assertions are based on evidence or not, or whether they do or do not stand up to dispassionate scrutiny."
To put it another way, Afrocentric mythologizers have the right to lie. Not only that but to controvert or ridicule their spurious scholarship is an act of racism. Ten years ago it was Tawana Brawley's self-serving charges of being raped that were at issue; now it is Western civilization tout court. Those who are inclined to shrug must suppose that no one is harmed by such fantasies, which may serve, after all, as a valuable source of self-esteem for black students. Real harm is done by such charlatanry, however. Those bamboozled into believing palpable untruths that are recognized as such by the larger community are likely in time to develop an attitude of truculent resentment and outright paranoia rather than self-esteem. James Wolcott, reviewing a recent tome of UFO lore in the New Yorker, describes his own close encounters with "abductees":
They bugged me. I came to feel that I was dealing with a quasi-cult of deluded cranks. The abductees I interviewed, far from being people plucked out of the ordinary workday, had browsed the entire New Age boutique of reincarnation, channeling, auras, and healing crystals .... For them the aliens were agents of spiritual growth [but beneath that] was a pinched righteousness; the ones I met tended to be classic pills of passive aggression. Anger and distrust brooded beneath the surface.
Not all the aggression of UFO believers can be counted on to be passive, however. On June 14, 1996, three men on Long Island--one the president of the Long Island UFO Network, and the other two members of the organization--were arrested for plotting to assassinate Suffolk County officials and seize control of county government. What had spurred them to this act was the refusal of those officials to recognize the clear and present danger posed by the UFOs that had set brush fires on Long Island the previous summer.
The potential for such fanaticism is always present when people insist that their self-delusions, dreams, and lies must be taken at face value by the world at large. The world, alas, often refuses. The gentlemen on Long Island certainly made the wrong move in trying to resolve the tension inherent in that situation. Had they been wiser, and a little more patient, they would have done what other gifted liars have done, sometimes with wonderful success: they would have started their own religion.
Or, if they lacked that degree of grandiosity, they could have followed the career path blazed for them by American's first SF writer and one of our most accomplished liars, Edgar Allan Poe.
|1||The Right to Lie||15|
|2||Poe, Our Embarrassing Ancestor||32|
|3||From the Earth to the Moon - In 101 Years||57|
|4||How Science Fiction Defused the Bomb||78|
|5||Star Trek, or the Future as a Lifestyle||97|
|6||Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing Science Fiction||115|
|7||When You Wish Upon a Star - Science Fiction as a Religion||137|
|8||Republicans on Mars - Science Fiction as Military Strategy||163|
|9||The Third World and Other Alien Nations||185|
|10||The Future of an Illusion - Science Fiction Beyond the Year 2000||208|
|Notes and References||227|
Introduction There used to be a truism -- I heard it first from my then agent Terry Carr in 1964 -- that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, the age we begin to read SF and are wonderstruck. That truism is no longer true, for science fiction has come to permeate our culture to such a degree that its basic repertory of images -- rocket ships and robots, aliens and dinosaurs -- are standard items in the fantasy life of any preschooler. As for the twelve-year-olds of our own era, nothing science-fictional is alien to them.
Admittedly, theirs is not the science fiction of the printed page, for today's twelve-year-olds have been warped away from the Guttenberg galaxy. Instead of graduating from comic books to pulp magazines, as Terry and I did, the brighter children of the 1990s transfer their attention from the TV screen to the computer monitor as they mature. In both media, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between science fiction and assorted neighboring realities. The dinosaurs in the movies look as real as elephants or camels; toddlers' toys morph into weapons; grown-ups on talk shows discuss their UFO abductions, while on the next channel a dull documentary recounts the history of space exploration. One has to be sent to school to begin to sort out what's real and what's Hollywood.
Science fiction is one of the few American industries that has never been transplanted abroad with any success. Japan may have zapped Detroit, but most sci fi still bears the label "Made in America," and the future represented by SF writers continues to be an American future. It isn't only Oz that is Kansas in disguise; the whole GalacticImperium is simply the American Dream (or Nightmare) writ large. British SF writers decorated their stories with American slang just as their rock stars imitated American accents. When French film directors like Truffaut and Besson make SF movies, they set them in American cities.
The American SF dream first began to coalesce, as an institution and an industry, some seventy years ago, with the appearance of Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine specializing in "scientifiction," as Hugo Gernsback christened the then nameless genre. From its inception, American SF has been a naive, ungainly hybrid, full of inconsistencies and obvious absurdities, written to appeal to an audience of adolescent boys by writers only slightly older. Although its manufacture would eventually command the most sophisticated resources of the entertainment industry, SF's essential appeal and target audience have not changed. The SF movies that have been most successful -- such Top Ten moneymakers as E.T., the Star Wars trilogy, Terminator 2, and Independence Day -- have been those that have most scrupulously honored the Boys' Own Adventure formulas of the genre's humble beginnings.
This fact alone does not account for science fiction's position for so long as the leper of literary genres. That can be explained in part by a quick survey of typical SF movie posters of the '50s and '60s, when SF meant low-budget drive-in movies designed to attract male adolescents conflicted about their sexual appetites who thrilled to imagine themselves metamorphosed into teenage werewolves, lustful robots, and other beings with strange kinds of skin, the very sight of whom would cause young starlets to scream and run. For many years, such monster movies were what people had in mind when they dimissed science fiction, with a knowing smile, as the intellectual equivalent of acne -- a disfiguring but temporary affliction.
Even today, the schoolmarms among us tend to look down their noses at anything bearing the stigmata of sci fi, though now it would be Star Trek they would condescend to. Even then, their contempt would be hedged by a sense that SF is sometimes respectable, for its basic modus operandi has spread through the intellectual environment like a computer virus. Among mainstream writers of both middle- and highbrow who have recently published science-fiction novels, one may cite Doris Lessing, Gore Vidal, Margaret Atwood, Peter Ackroyd, Ira Levin, P. D. James, Paul Theroux, and, preeminently, Michael Crichton.
Since the publication of The Andromeda Strain in 1969 until today, as The Lost World sets new box office records, Crichton has been, in a commercial sense, the most consistently successful SF writer of the late twentieth century. In large part this is because he has not been labeled as an SF writer, and thus unworthy of adult attention. The plots of his best-sellers have featured viral plagues from outer space, lost tribes in darkest Africa, electronic behavioral control, berserk robots, UFOs crashed in the ocean, and dinosaurs terrorizing modern cities -- all venerable SF tropes, but somehow not SF when Crichton handles them. Why is this? Because they aren't set on spaceships or other planets but in a plausible present, modified in only the one particular the book focuses on. Even then the novelty he offers is something his audience already half-believes in. When the film of Jurassic Park first appeared, all the media hype was designed to make it seem that science was on the brink of resurrecting dinosaurs, for Crichton, and the marketing machinery behind him, realizes that telling a whopper is not enough. People want to believe such fictions. Hence, the authenticating "science" in the compound "science fiction," with its implicit guarantee that this dream might come true, as against the surreal or supernatural events of fantasy and fable.
Rocket ships are SF and magic carpets are fantasy, even though those who ride them might be similarly costumed and having almost the same adventures. Stories of time travel are accounted SF, as are tales of telepathy and other psychic powers -- this despite the fact that time travel is almost surely an impossibility, and psychic powers belong to the realm of imposture and not science. A few SF writers of a rationalistic bent -- so-called hard-core SF writers -- have tried to define the genre in such a way as to exclude stories that traffic in scientific impossibilities, but even these writers finally give in to fiction's need for flying carpets in the form of faster-than-light rocket ships, without which SF could not freely venture beyond our own solar system.
Is it then the case that SF is entirely a matter of labeling rather than content? It often would seem so. Some years ago at a PEN Conference in New York City, I was approached by the writer and academic Morris Dickstein, who asked me, in a puzzled way, whether I considered George Orwell's 1984 a work of science fiction -- a heresy he'd just encountered. When I assured him that I did, he wrinkled his nose, as though taking a pinch of invisible snuff, and said, "Really!" To Dickstein, an accredited intellectual of Orwell's magnitude could not, by definition, have written science fiction. Never mind that Orwell was writing about a future England, drastically transformed from the England of 1948 but logically extrapolated from existing historical trends, with an appropriate new technology (interactive television). If Orwell wrote it, it was literature, and could not therefore be called science fiction.
It can be galling, for those who have dwelled within the ghetto walls, to be reminded, as Dickstein that day reminded me, that they are not first-class citizens, but there are associated benefits. Just as laboratory rats who are never fed to satiety tend to live longer (albeit hungrier) lives, so science fiction writers, unheeded beyond the ghetto walls, are often uncommonly productive. Survival, for genre writers, depends on productivity -- at least a book a year. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein continued at that pace, or better, to the brinks of their graves, and Frederik Pohl and Arthur Clarke, both in their late seventies, are still certifiable workaholics. Those who can't hold to that pace lose their place on the assembly line and are forgotten.
Often, as I came up through the ranks of SF professionals, I had the instructive experience of meeting the SF equivalent of Norma Desmond -- once-idolized writers no longer productive but still haunting SF conventions for the sake of the recognition to be wrung from those who could remember reading their books. The late Alfred Bester was the most minatory example. In the '50s he'd written two books, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, that had secured for him a reputation as the most literary SF writer of his time. Then Bester graduated to a mainstream job as an editor for Holiday magazine. His fiction dwindled and lost its edge; at last, after an attempted comeback had come to nothing, he retreated from Manhattan to the boonies. When he died in 1987, he named his bartender the heir to his home and his literary estate.
Bester's mistake was growing up. If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, it follows that SF writers will be successful in proportion as they can maintain the clarity and innocence of wise children. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony, and Orson Scott Card all owe a good part of their popularity to their Peter Pannishness. Characteristically, their stories do not pay much heed to those matters of family and career that are the usual concern of mature, responsible adults and the mature, responsible novelists who write for them, like John Updike and Anne Tyler. Many classic novels and stories of the genre are about children of exceptional wisdom and power: A. E. Van Vogt's Slan, Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, Orson Card's Ender's Game. In my own golden age, such tales did wonders for my self-esteem, and when I became an SF writer myself, I passed along the torch in more than one book that featured children or youths of preternatural ability.
"Neoteny" is what biologists call it: the retention of larval or immature characteristics in adulthood. It is an essential element of the creative process across the board. Think of the abstract expressionists smearing their giant canvases with oozy oil paints, like divinely inspired kindergartners. Rock stars turning temper tantrums into song. Dancers cavorting in tights and tutus. Art is a kind of play, and those who forget how to be playful are likely to produce art that is ever more mature and responsible and ponderous. Science fiction did not invent the wise-child protagonist. Dickens, Twain, Cather, and Salinger have all produced classics in the same vein. The difference is that for SF that vein has become a main artery. Even when a tale's protagonist is not a legal minor, his or her attitudes, actions, and audience appeal are more likely to be in the spirit of Captain Marvel than of Andrew Marvell.
Science fiction can be neoteric in many ways, from the immortal dopiness of a Flash Gordon movie serial or Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space to the superb dioramas of Arthur Clarke's sagas of the exploration of the solar system, with their detailed depictions of technologies not yet invented and landscapes no man has ever seen. Reading Clarke's SF of the '50s and '60s was like going to a natural history museum that featured spaceships instead of dinosaurs, the future instead of the past. Children and adolescents also have their own distinctive ideas concerning humor, sex, politics, and prose, and their tastes in these matters may strike older readers as sophomoric, gauche, ill informed, or just dead wrong. Conversely, the young have a way of noticing that good manners can be oppressive, that the past is often irrelevant, and that emperors are sometimes naked. In short, the young are not lesser beings; they're just different.
One of the most salient differences is their relationship to the past and the future. Grown-ups have experienced at least a bit of the past; children must imagine it just as they (and grown-ups, too) must imagine the future. A few years can make a profound difference in one's zeitgeist, our sense of how the present meshes with history. I was born in 1940 and remained unconscious of the greatest event of the century as it was happening. Anyone only a few years older would have incorporated the terrors and triumphs of World War II into their soul's fiber. By the same token, for those born after 1970, Hiroshima and the Apollo moon landing are not epochal events but ancient history.
For the young, all history is ancient, something that must be learned in school, like the multiplication tables. It is the warehouse in which the culture stores its myths, and while some of the figures in these myths -- cowboys, knights in armor, pirates, and other violent offenders with distinctive wardrobes -- are exciting enough not to require enforced attendance, as at Sunday school, most historical personages have been so thoroughly denatured and sanitized that the past presented to us in the classroom is justly regarded with indifference or suspicion. The story about George Washington and the cherry tree was not only an invention, it was a plagiarism, borrowed by Washington's biographer, Parson Weems, from an earlier work of cheap fiction. History, as Henry Ford observed, is bunk.
The future is another matter entirely. The past by definition is over and done with, a photo album filled with pictures of dead people and buildings that have been torn down. The future, however, like Christmas, is waiting for us to arrive. The young know they're going to go there, and so they furnish it with their wishes. In the 1920s and 1930s, when American SF was aborning, its menu of future wonders was a national letter to Santa Claus listing the toys that boys like best -- invincible weapons and impressive means of transportation. When the future began to arrive, in the '50s and '60s -- that is, when the dreams of the SF magazines began to be translated into the physical realities of the mature consumer culture by a generation of designers and engineers who'd come of age in the pulp SF era -- cars were streamlined to resemble rocket ships. In fact, the car was revealed as the secret meaning of the rocket ship -- a symbol, at gut level, of absolute physical autonomy.
The complex equation of car and rocket ship epitomizes the relationship between SF and the surrounding culture. There is no more persuasive example of the power of "creative visualization" than the way the rocket-ship daydreams of the early twentieth century evolved into NASA's hardware. Between them, the SF pulps and such kindred publications as Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated, in which the new technologies of the burgeoning industrial state were set forth in terms any bright twelve-year-old could understand, produced the blueprints for the building of the land of Oz and the home of Ozzie and Harriet.
Inevitably there will be discrepancies between any set of blueprints and what finally gets built. Some preliminary sketches are transparent fictions, which the architect never intended to be taken seriously. There won't be a heliport on every skyscraper, despite all the great illustrations in the old pulps and the set designs in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. The traffic control problems would be too great. On the other hand, within a single generation, between 1950 and 1970, jumbo jets did supplant trains and buses in providing long-distance mass transportation, so that at least in an allegorical sense, anyone who keeps track of Frequent Flyer bonuses does have a home heliport.
This "allegorical" sense is often SF's acutest receptor. SF writers often score prophetic bull's-eyes while getting all the details wrong, as Orwell did in 1984. They can also be uncannily accurate at microprediction and still miss the big picture. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World seems more prophetic every decade. Technology keeps getting closer to creating true test tube babies, and human cloning looms ahead. Today's blockbuster movies are as mindless, thrilling, and overtly pornographic as his feelies. The Deltas and Gammas of the lower classes are sustained by sex, sports, and drugs, just as in his novel. But in our reality drugs are illegal, the streets are dangerous, and human nature has managed to defeat most efforts at social programming. The hedonic utopia that Huxley saw latent in the America of the 1930s remains a latency.
This book provides a key to the allegories of science fiction and chronicles the genre's impact on American, and, eventually, global, culture. That impact is not always so straightforwardly causal, as in the case of the rocket ship. Some of SF's most enduring and recurrent images, such as its obsession with robots that run amok, have been very wide of the prophetic mark. We live in a world swarming with robots, which we generally take for granted or are blind to. They pilot planes, operate elevators, cook dinner, build cars, record TV shows when we can't do it ourselves, and rarely run amok, though they may misfunction. These "robotic" by-products of the computer age, although they have transformed our lives in myriad ways, lack the anthropomorphic robot glamour of "iron men," the pathos of being intelligent but soulless, and the high drama of rebellion against one's creator. The natural penchant of any storyteller for high drama over mere logic led even such capable extrapolators as Isaac Asimov to write about robots that were "almost human" and thereby to fail to foresee the cybernetic future until it was already upon them.
This does not mean, however, that SF's long-time preoccupation with robots amounts to no more than a failure of foresight. The robots of the sci-fi imagination have a different significance, which can be seen in their first appearance on the literary stage, in the 1920 play R.U.R. by Czech author Karel Capek. Capek coined the word robot, from a Czech root meaning "serf labor." His robots are a nightmare vision of the proletariat seen through middle-class eyes at the historical moment of the first Bolshevik success in Russia. They are manufactured, and therefore property (as Russian's serfs had been). Being the cheapest possible source of labor, they allow the privileged humans of the play to enjoy lives of sybaritic splendor until the moment the robots, realizing their own strength, rebel and wipe out their manufacturers. Capek's sympathies waver between indignation on behalf of the exploited robots (which sometimes seem to have souls) and fear of the impending day of judgment that will bring middle-class privilege to an end. The SF device of substituting robots for human workers allowed Capek to express, in the telegraphy of allegory, the moral truth that the industrial system treated human laborers as though they were machines, sowing thereby the seeds of an inevitable and just rebellion.
Many plays and novels and tracts have been written to express the truth that the working class are people just like "us": Emile Zola's Germinal, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and others. What R.U.R. is able to communicate that none of those other works can permit themselves to suggest is the ethically incorrect horror of a proletarian revolution that would put the rabble in charge. Capek is telling us something about ourselves we would rather not know: that deep down we don't believe in the humanity of those whose labor we exploit. And not just the proles in sweatshops and factories, for in Capek's time virtually every middle-class household had its own staff of "robots" in the form of cooks, maids, and scullions.
This vision of the essential inequity of all servant-master relationships eventually supplanted a more familiar and benign view of the nineteenth century: that servants, because they lived in the same house and shared some of its comforts, felt a family-like loyalty to those they served. This is the myth embodied in Gone with the Wind, in the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, and in P. G. Wodehouse's fables of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. The myth can be controverted without resorting to the distancing devices of SF, but usually in such countermyths the servant enjoys an underdog victory, as in Beaumarchais' Figaro plays or and J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, in which a butler, shipwrecked on a desert island with his employers, becomes their overlord by virtue of his greater native endowments. Only if workers and servants can be shown to be something other than human is it possible to express, guiltlessly, a disdain for, as milord would have it, the canaille.
This uneasiness with regard to keeping servants, and keeping them in their place, became especially acute in the United States, both because it was, from its inception, a democracy in which all men were supposed to be equal, and because at the very dawn of the modern industrial era, it went through the traumatizing experience of the Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery. R.U.R. appeared on Broadway in 1922, only two years after its Czech premiere, and America at once assimilated the idea of the robot. Only a few years later, the poet Kenneth Fearing was filled with identical forebodings:
Only Steve the side-show robot, knows content; only Steve, the mechanical man in love with a photo-electric beam remains aloof; only Steve, who sits and smokes or stands in salute, is secure;
Steve, whose shoebutton eyes are blind to terror, whose painted ears are deaf to appeal, whose welded breast will never be slashed by bullets, whose armature soul can hold no fear.
The most terrible fears are often those we are not allowed to express and which must therefore be displaced to a permitted bogey. The witch who enslaves and imprisons Hansel and Gretel is not, heaven forfend, their mother, or even their wicked stepmother, but an Other. And the Steve whom Fearing fears is not some stevedore working the New York docks (for Fearing accounted himself a leftist and first won recognition in the pages of magazines like New Masses); rather he is an Other, not human, a robot whose blind eyes and deaf ears even a leftist might regard with consternation.
The robot has been employed for as wide a variety of dramatic purposes as there are Others to be worried about. We will encounter many other Others in these pages: aliens with green skin instead of green cards; body-snatching aliens inhabiting our neighbors' borrowed flesh; androids and cyborgs (robots in disguise); Artificial Intelligences, or AIs (robots who have shuffled off all mortal coils, metal and flesh); assorted gods and demigods (most notably Valentine Michael Smith, the hero of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Charles Manson's fatal role model); and, last but not least, those most Significant Others, women.
Women were usually neglected by SF writers of the earliest era, except when there was a need for their Lois Lane capacity as damsels in distress. However, ever since R.U.R., there have been some notable female robots. Lester del Rey, a minor SF writer who would later give his name to a major SF imprint, wrote a story in 1938, "Helen O'Loy," that is a classic example of "Golden Age" (i.e., prepubescent) sexual psychology, in which two chums share the love of a mail-order, ready-to-assemble mechanical bride. "She was beautiful, a dream in spun plastics and metals, something Keats might have seen dimly when he wrote his sonnet." Further, "Helen was a good cook; in fact she was a genius, with all the good points of a woman and a mech combined." That's about it, in terms of characterization, but the seed had been planted that would become, in 1972, Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, and, in 1974, a classic movie that put a feminist spin on del Rey's basic equation, Housewife = Robot.
Housewives are, after all, the last domestic servants -- or so it seemed in the early '70s, at the zenith of the American consumer culture, when every kitchen had its little battalion of labor-saving appliances. The Stepford wives were not scullions but rather, like del Rey's Helen O'Loy, succubae catering to the hedonist requirements of their lords and masters. Like Helen, they could pass as human. Their robot nature was a secret they shared with their husbands -- at least, until the movie made their name a byword for marriage as the most intimate form of alienation.
From the start, science fiction has had a double nature. At its crudest it is the ringmaster for monsters from the Id, bubbling with crude wish-fulfilling fantasies, as in "Helen O'Loy." But such fantasies can be very potent. They will capture the attention not only of a naive audience but of all those alert to such fiction's primal meaning: to grown-up writers like Ira Levin or Margaret Atwood who can recognize their own features in the comic book grotesqueries of naive sci fi and who then do their own sophisticated recensions of the crude originals.
This dialogic process has been going on so long, among so many different writers, that the confusion of realms between highbrow and low, between naive and knowing, has become a cultural fait accompli. The machineries of Hollywood pour millions of dollars into creating ever more artful re-creations of comic book heroes, from Superman to Caspar the Friendly Ghost, while the hacks who write Star Trek tie-ins and Marvel Comics take their cues, as often as not, from the writings of Michel Foucault and Camille Paglia. Newt Gingrich has a stable of collaborators for both his fiction and nonfiction who are seasoned sci-fi professionals.
In short, science fiction has come to permeate our culture in ways both trivial and/or profound, obvious and/or insidious. And its effects have not been limited to the sphere of "culture," in the narrow sense of one art form's influencing others. The influence of science fiction, as we shall witness abundantly in the pages ahead, can be felt in such diverse realms as industrial design and marketing, military strategy, sexual mores, foreign policy, and practical epistemology -- in other words, our basic sense of what is real and what isn't.
It is my contention that some of the most remarkable features of the present historical moment have their roots in a way of thinking that we have learned from science fiction -- to wit: the razing of the Berlin wall; the rise of millennial cults with homicidal agendas; Oliver North's testimony before Congress and his campaign for a Senate seat; Madonna's wardrobe and Sinead O'Connor's hair style; celebrity murder trials; compassion "burnout" for refugees in Rwanda; the deaths of the Challenger astronauts; toxic waste cover-ups; and much too much more.
In 1938, the year that "Helen O'Loy" appeared, the poet Delmore Schwartz, age twenty-four (two years younger than Lester del Rey), published his first collection, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. That title alone secured his immortality. This book is an amplification of that pregnant truth.
A few words about my own connections with SF.
If American science fiction begins with the first issue of Hugo Gernsbach's Amazing Stories in 1926, then I have been a professional science-fiction writer for just about half the time the genre has been in existence, and I've been reading the stuff for two-thirds of that time.
Of the one hundred to two hundred writers of the genre whose by-lines are likely to register among avid readers of SF, I have met a majority. In 1980 and 1983 the British SF writer Charles Platt brought out two anthologies of interviews with well-known SF writers, Dream Makers and Dream Makers, Vol. II. Of the thirty writers in the first book, I'd met all but two; of the twenty-eight in Volume II, I'd met nineteen. I'd roomed with some, dined with most, had business dealings with many, reviewed their work and been reviewed by them, debated with some in public, and gossiped with all of them about the others.
In my experience moving from one literary frogpond to another, I have never encountered a group of writers so intensely and intricately interconnected as the SF community. Poetry comes closest, but poetry is balkanized into dozens of hostile or indifferent clans. The various bands of the multicultural rainbow tend to be separatist both socially and aesthetically. When old and young do intermingle, it is in the institutional setting of a classroom or a summer workshop. But the chief difference is this: poets have a few centuries of other poets' work to catch up on. A poet can avoid reading contemporaries altogether and still read widely, deeply, and relevantly.
By contrast, most of the science fiction that is worth reading has been written by the writers I've met -- some of whom, like Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein, began publishing in the late '30s. As recently as 1981, when I wrote a foreword for the SF volume of Gale's Dictionary of Literary Biography, I could declare that all the great SF writers were essentially contemporaneous, alive and well, and merrily cross-pollinating across the usual gaps of age, gender, and ideology. Since then, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and nine more of the sixty SF writers Platt interviewed have died. Even so, there are few other fields of endeavor -- quantum mechanics, computer design, genetic engineering -- in which so large a proportion of its most illustrious figures still figure in reference books with only a single date in the parentheses after their name. And there are even fewer fields that have had so brief a history in proportion to the extent of their cultural impact.
This book is about that impact. It is not a literary history. Some of the science fiction I value most highly as literature -- books by John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, and Paul Park -- is dealt with only in passing, because the impact has been slight. These works are admired by discerning readers within the field, but being inimitable, they have not been imitated. By contrast, some of the most influential and widely imitated writers in the field -- Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Pournelle, Card -- vaunt themselves on their artlessness and lack of literary polish, or at least that is the John-Wayne persona they affect. They are simple "tellers of tales."
I also have no intention of "debunking" science fiction, though I'm sure I will give offense to many of the writers discussed (and their admirers) -- and even graver offense to those not discussed at all. That much SF is written for the very young and/or the uninstructed is a fact of publishing demographics. Indeed, the SF that reaches the largest audiences -- earns the biggest grosses, and establishes its archetypes most firmly in the collective mind not just of the nation but of the globe -- is not published at all; it is broadcast over TV and screened in movie theaters. One could dismiss such work as being aimed at the "lowest common denominator," but one could dismiss the Gospels on the same grounds. Blessed are the poor in spirit? Well, then, blessed are the Trekkies, too. Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Having lived in the world of SF so long and having known so many of the players, it would be a false modesty to exclude my own personal witnessings from this account. That said, I must add that this book is not a memoir, nor an apologia for some one set of aesthetic principles, my own. Indeed, there is no such set, for my taste in SF has been indiscriminate. At one time or another I loved it all. I have doted on E.C. comic books; on Asimov serials in Astounding(which inspired my own first space opera plots, scribbled on nickel tablets at age twelve); on the satirical novels of Kornbluth and Pohl (role models for my first, unfinished SF novel, begun and aborted when I was twenty-three); by hundreds of other writers, arrant hacks and unsung geniuses. As time went on, some of those enthusiasms diminished, some held steady, and others formed. In my years as a Young Turk in the late '60s, I burned with the intolerance of a true faith, the New Wave, which was to elevate SF to its true potential as the heir of Joyce and Kafka, Beckett and Genet. Now, with the benefit of distance, I can afford to be tolerant -- and hope to be objective.
Copyright © 1998 by Thomas M. Disch