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|"So are you done with that book yet? I want to read it."
I looked up with mild surprise at my wife, who generally shuns nonfiction. "Not yet," I replied. "Just about. Why?"
"Well, the title's clever - The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of," she said. "If you think about the Internet and microwave ovens and so on, we're really living in a world that's almost sci-fi in its own right. So how has science fiction shaped America's culture? It's not something I've thought about a lot... But it sounds fascinating."
"It probably is."
"Oh, it's an interesting read, all right," said I, looking at the blurb on the cover skeptically, "But if you're looking to discover, um - 'How Science Fiction Conquered The World' - then you're in for a disappointment. It's a fairly straightforward history of how culture shapes science fiction, not the other way around."
"So instead of seeing how Robert Heinlein influenced, say, sixties counterculture...."
"...We see how the sudden freedom of the sixties counterculture allowed Heinlein to write heavily-sexual books like Stranger In A Strange Land. Likewise, there's much discussion of how the public's reaction to the nuclear threat was reflected in the day's science-fiction — Disch explains how the blasted wastelands of Bradbury's post-Hiroshima short stories reflected the newly-felt terror of possible world obliteration, how the paranoia of the Cold War was most keenly felt in Philip Dick's novels, and how the final, cathartic bellylaugh of Dr. Strangelove may or may not have helped people finally come to terms with the war — but if you're looking to see how, say, the Twilight Zone's 'Time Enough At Last' sold bomb shelters, you're out of luck.
"So it's not about how sci-fi shaped the world, but about how the world shaped sci-fi."
"Precisely." I turned the page.
"But is it any good?"
"Oh, it's got its strong points," I allowed. "But most of it is old hat to the sci-fi geeks who'd buy the book in the first place. Still, Disch has some really interesting observations; his take on Star Trek as the utopian office of the future is spot-on, and his extensive ruminations on how science fiction intermeshes uncomfortably with political correctness definitely opened my eyes. You know, I'd never noticed how many science-fiction novels deal with total race harmony as a fait accompli - and Disch explains why...
"Furthermore," I continued, "When he compares L. Ron Hubbard, a huckstering blowhard who established his own religion, to Philip K. Dick, a deeply religious author who almost started his own religion accidentally, it really illuminates how cults are formed and by what people... And he uses that as a basis to delve into the roots of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, seeing how science-fiction influenced their outlook."
"You're contradicting yourself, darling," said my wife patiently. "Between the Shinrikyo cult and Dr. Strangelove's effects on the sixties, it sounds like Disch does discuss sci-fi's impact on the world."
"Maybe," I said, chewing ruminatively. "But those moments are buried in so many other anecdotes that you tend to forget about them. Mostly, Disch spends a lot of time justifying his opinions on his favorite authors; you'll get an entire chapter devoted to how Poe is the first real sci-fi author, another chapter on how Ursula Le Guin is polluting serious sci-fi with the Norton Anthology — and his love/hate relationship with Heinlein takes up almost three chapters when you add them together.
"The problem is that this book lacks a central focus; it skips from author to author without much connection — and even when he's devoting an entire chapter to, say, sci-fi as military strategy, there's no central thesis that ties everything together."
"So is it good?" she asked impatiently.
"It's not bad," I said. "As a history of science fiction, it's definitely a fun romp. And Disch's observations of sci-fi authors as a sci-fi author are worth your while. But it really doesn't live up to the promise on the cover."
"Oh," my wife said.
"So do you want me to keep it for you?" I asked.
"No," she said. "I've got better things to read."
William Steinmetz, MCSE and A+-certified, worked as a chainwide buyer for Waldenbooks for five years, picking out only the best computer books to send into malls across America. He currently works as a freelance writer, doing reviews for Amazon.com and editing various websites. He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.