#78 = Volume 26, Part 3 = November, 1999
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
Till We Have Interfaces
N. Katherine Hayles.
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics..
U Chicago P (fax: 773-702-9756), 1999. xiv + 336
pp. $49 cloth; $18 paper.
In my more feckless days, I just didn't get the term "postmodern." Coming to literature from history as I had, "postmodern" seemed plainly redundant; modern already said it was post-everything--post-ancient, post-classical, post-traditional, post-sacred, post-past. That is what the term modern means (so I thought). Might as well say "neo new" or "hip chic." What would be next, "post-contemporary"? It is a postmodern truth universally acknowledged that today's parody is tomorrow's reality. Duke University Press currently features a publishing line called "Post Contemporary Interventions" edited by Fredric Jameson, so this penny has finally dropped. The post-prefix is a joke on me and my kind, pedantic historical categorizers who need to name a current to tame it. Post-whatever is the bourgeois-baiting of the bohemian intelligentsia, letting us know that whatever hand-holds we rely on to balance ourselves are hopelessly passé. Yet what began as provocation ended as anxiety--anxiety that the critical language used to deconstruct any given concept will be revealed to be empty also. It is indiscriminate, this Concept-Killer. A double-edged chainsaw.
Post, as it turned out, was not necessarily intended to be a chronological marker.1 In a Moebius-strip twist of logic, post-modern, post-contemporary, post-gendered, post-democratic, etc., don't refer to historical facts-on-the ground, but to the concepts used to make them seem timeless and pure. Most post-structuralist theorists share a relentless ironic nominalism. Their basic move is to demonstrate the sleight-of-hand by which the putative real is emptied of its variety and richness by its general concepts, and then to show that these normalizing, usurping abstractions are empty also. Where the naive humanist might consider general concepts to be heuristic models for managing the chaos of empiria, postmodernist theory shows that they are merely powerful consciousness-altering names that can inspire consensual hallucinations passing for the Real.
It will be up to future historians to tally how many of these generalizing concepts so dear to humanistic thinking will have been posted in the end. From our present vantage, there's no reason why the ostensibly most solid categories should not melt into the post-past. Most of the non-materialist categories were posted long ago, when Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud invented the future. The fin-de-millénium's job has been the posting of science and materialism. In a while, matter, body, animal, gene, force, number, life, pattern, death, randomness--we'll probably see them all exposed as partisan ideologies.
The most topical of these postings in recent years, for theory in general and sf studies in particular, has been the post-human. It has developed out of the loose intersection of several distinct iconoclastic projects: deconstruction, cyborg feminism, research in Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Artificial Life, queer studies, evolutionary epistemology, nanotechnology, complexity theory, and sf. Posthumanism targets the classical humanistic paradigm in which an ideal human Self/Subject stands at the center of creation and commands all that is not made in Its image. Make that "His," of course, since this Subject/Self is the dynamo fueling every form of subjugation of a periphery by a center; hence the Self's complements are the Male, the Caucasian, the European and Euro-American, the Bourgeois, the Christian, the Heterosexual, the Able-Bodied, the Young, the Living, the Real, etc.--i.e., all the putatively ideological subject-positions of historical domination. Where posthumanism differs from most other postmodernist currents is the central role played by technology in its vision. More strictly discursive critiques have relied on rhetorical and political analyses of bourgeois humanism's claims. Posthumanism looks to the ways in which breakthroughs in information-technologies radically transform humans' ideas about their very physical being. Most varieties of posthumanism share with Harawayan cyborg theory an enthusiasm for dissolving boundaries once believed to be ontologically binding (especially between the organic and inorganic), and for alliances of human beings with nonhumans. But posthumanism is ultimately less concerned with politics, or even ethics, than with the transformation of reality when informatics is fed back into human social life at every level.
N. Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman is a complex and immensely rich historical meditation on this intellectual development from its origins in the first rigorous formalization of information by Shannon and Wiener to the full-fledged posthumanism of Artificial-Life research. In many respects, Hayles's project is the same as Donna Haraway's. Both view the posthuman linking of human bodies with intelligent machines as a potentially liberating advance over humanistic ideologies of exclusion and domination, especially for women; and both view the posthumanization process as inexorable. But unlike Haraway, whose subject is the global network of techno scientific institutions of meaning, Hayles is interested in the explicit arguments and philosophical ideas cybernetic researchers use to underpin their work. She concentrates particularly on the debates between two powerful schools of thought in the history of this research: the abstractionists, for whom information (and thus the "stuff" of intelligence, life, and consciousness) is independent of its particular manifestation in matter, and the theorists of embodiment, for whom information must be conceived in its particular incarnations, its "instantiations." Hayles is openly of the body's party, and the body in question is, for her, always, implicitly, human. Consequently How We Became Posthuman confronts some of the nagging problems of cyborg theory: how to preserve the putatively liberal conceptions of agency and choice in a posthumanist world, and how to develop an ethics that will bind the cyborg to the human good.
In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles perfects the method she developed in her previous books. She links the cultures of twentieth-century science and literature through a driving idea that appears in scientific research as a paradigmatic model, and in literature as a cultural metaphor. In earlier works these were field theory (The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century [Cornell UP, 1984]) and chaos theory (Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science [Cornell UP, 1990]). Hayles characteristically discusses the history of the scientific development of her presiding model and punctuates it with subtle readings of the fiction of writers for whom the models worked as shaping principles. This method has produced some of the finest analyses in sf studies of Borges, Pynchon, Lem, and Nabokov's Ada (1969), as well as of important writings not related to sf by Lawrence, Henry Adams, Pirsig, and Doris Lessing. In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles braids the story of the evolution of information theory with brilliant discussions of Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952), Philip K. Dick's major novels of the late 1960s, and William S. Burroughs's The Ticket that Exploded (1962); in a metacritical finale she orchestrates readings of Greg Bear's Blood Music (1985), Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992), Cole Perriman's Terminal Games (1994), and Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2 (1995).
In Hayles's version, the posthuman condition is inextricable from the simultaneous desacralization of the human body and consciousness (desacralization is not Hayles's word, but it is useful). In the opening pages, Hayles offers the following attributes of posthumanism: 1) it privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, viewing the biological substrate as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life; 2) it considers consciousness, traditionally regarded in Western thought as the seat of human identity, as an epiphenomenon, "a minor evolutionary sideshow" (2); 3) it considers the body to be a prosthesis, only the first in a potential series of material prostheses; 4) it configures the human body so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In sum, "In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals" (3).
Hayles is ambivalent about all this. On the one hand, the seamless suture of human being with intelligent machines liberates humans from liberal subjectivity's fantasies of control and makes them aware of their interdependence with other parts of the world. On the other hand, it fosters the illusion that the body is an insignificant appendage of human existence, and extinguishes the basis for personal agency. Without such agency and some provision for judgment, interdependence is indistinguishable from totalizing domination. Just as for Haraway, these sutures demand contestation. But for Hayles, unlike Haraway, the problem of agency and choice cannot be dissolved into a network of multiply-coded significations, perpetually mutating and recombining, since this ignores the concrete material situation of particular human beings in space and time. For most posthumanists, Hayles argues, the notion that knowledge must be embodied knowledge has been displaced by the general idea adopted by postmodern culture "that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates" (1). Rather than accepting increasingly dehumanizing fantasies that denigrate actual physical existence, Hayles offers her book as an intervention at "a critical juncture when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity" (5).
In Hayles's history, the problem of disembodiment begins with the first great novum of cybernetics, the Turing test. By positing that the representation of personal identity could be convincingly manipulated by machines, the test offered a way to redefine subjectivity in purely informational terms. This view was strengthened at every step in the career of cybernetics. How We Became Posthuman recounts that career in three stories: "how information lost its body," "how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon," and "how a historically specific construction called the human being is giving way to a different construct called the posthuman" (2; italics in original). These stories correspond to Hayles's three phases of cybernetics research: (1) the formalization of information as context-independent, without regard for the status of the observer (formalized in Claude Shannon's mathematization of information, the concept of homeostasis, and Norbert Wiener's linking of information with probability theory); (2) the introduction of reflexivity through the inclusion of the observer in the informational circuit (beginning with the systems-ecology of Gregory Bateson and culminating in Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's concept of autopoiesis); and (3) the transfer of emphasis from self-organizing information-systems as observable objects to their ability to "evolve" as self-transforming dynamic virtual systems in global programs such as Artificial Life (the open-ended simulation of organic evolution in computers).
Underlying this history of the cybernetic research-program is the gradual substitution in Western epistemology of a polarity based on presence and absence with another polarity based on pattern and randomness. Information theorists made information--which lacks physical presence and exists entirely in relations--seem essential and physical existence epiphenomenal. Consciousness, moreover, proved to be an unnecessary hypothesis for even the most humanistic cyberneticists.2 Hayles is not interested in restoring the body and consciousness to sacred status. But she argues that in order to restore agency and history, concrete, situational embodiment is of pivotal significance--not for humans acting in a vacuum, but for their relations with the different technological media they interact with to create meaning. Hayles thus also writes a second, parallel history, accounting for the postmodern changes in technologies of inscription, from tape-recording to word-processing to virtual reality.
Being of the body's party, Hayles approaches her histories, to use an unfashionable word, dialectically. Instead of a heroic (or tragic) account of the linear advance of cybernetics into posthumanism, Hayles concentrates on the debates in each phase between the ostensibly victorious abstractionists, on the one hand, and their critics who insisted that thought depends on the embodied form enacting it, on the other. These refuseniks, as in all dialectics, provided many of the ideas that propelled each successive wave of theory. Bateson, who came at the end of the first wave and built an epistemology out of the inclusion of observer into the informational circuit, has a pivotal role. (His role in the book is larger than Hayles acknowledges, as we shall see.) Francisco Varela, following his break with Maturana, is the theoretical spur to the third wave. But the most interesting figure in Hayles's telling, and the most carefully described, is Norbert Wiener. In a tour-de-force analysis of Wiener's language, Hayles shows how deeply divided he was between preserving certain cherished aspects of liberal subjectivity and following his own theoretical conclusions into models of dehumanization and disembodiment.
The implicit heart of Hayles's history is the story of the interface, a central concept adapted from physics by cybernetics and now shared by all sciences concerned with the mysteries of information-transfer across boundaries. The conquest of scientific and technological culture by information goes hand in hand with the extension of the metaphor of the interface to more and more aspects of culture. The continual reframing of the interface reflects the ways in which cybernetic scientists include increasingly comprehensive contexts in their theories of information flow. Beginning with the extremely narrow homeostatic mechanism of the first phase, reductive models like the McCullough-Pitts neuron (a "neuron" so simple and formalized that it cannot stand for the real neural body) won the day. This model was contested by its antagonists until it was, as Hayles describes it, turned "inside out" (160). By granting a role in the flow to the observer, second-wave cyberneticists like Bateson, Maturana, and Varela expanded the interface to include the entire physical-informational structure of the self-constructing system, on the one side, and the entire context of the environment, on the other. This model itself mutated topologically in the third phase, that of virtuality, when the interface is distributed as it were throughout "the world." In virtuality, according to Hayles, material reality is saturated at every level by information. In the third phase the hypothesis of the observer disappears, as action and emergence replace response and observation as defining characteristics of systems.
Dialectical this inner history may be, but Hayles also makes clear that the topological mutations of the interface are spurred by changes in technologies of human self-representation. When aspects of human communication are made manifest to the communicators, their immanence vanishes; they cease to flow (or be blocked) unconsciously, and they become problems for consciousness. Hayles shows how this problematic linking of machines that track and simulate human behavior--from the anti-aircraft gun to the tape-recorder to the computer--work symbiotically (cyborganically?) with human consciousness to create new questions about what is "naturally" human. She elaborates on this in a brilliant chapter on the way the audio tape-recorder radically undermines the naturalness of human speech, even of semi-conscious subvocalizations. The tape recorder makes the natural flow of language into a problem of the interface between the human subject and a mechanical system capable of reproducing and radically manipulating it--erasing, splicing, dubbing, overlaying, etc. This problematization inspired the experiments of Burroughs, carefully analyzed by Hayles in a reading of The Ticket That Exploded. As technologies of inscription proliferate, so do human-machine interfaces, and by extension so do the "internal" human interfaces between the psychological observer and "inner" communications now refashioned in the image of the information-processing machine.
For many posthumanists, and not only the AI researchers, the human body becomes de-realized the more it is revealed to be a site for a variety of social inscriptions. As gender, organic physiology, life span and other "natural" givens are deconstructed, very little of bodily experience remains intact. For Hayles, by contrast, embodiment represents the particularity of existence, the point at which something like a responsible self interfaces with the world. Dominant notions of the self change with technological innovations in communications and with the location of the informational interface between systems. The subject/world interface changes as well. Emphasis on pattern and randomness as opposed to presence and absence resolves some difficulties. When, in virtuality, the interface between the human and the non-human is distributed throughout the world, the human can no longer even pretend to distinguish itself by its physical difference from the rest of creation. And yet for Hayles that embodied information-pattern capable of judging and acting for the good in its particular situation--whether it is called a self or something else--must survive or emerge. But what is it that can be preserved of the liberal human subject that is worth preserving? Given Hayles's respect for science and for ideas clear and distinct, she does hold some things worthy.
Respect for embodied knowledge is what makes literature vitally important for Hayles. It is, in a sense, the worldly counterpart of the constantly changing and yet mysteriously invariant problem of self/world interface. Fictional narratives are texts (abstract information, in a sense) and yet also self-realizing, engaged in a complex feedback/feed-forward circuit when they are read. In cybernetic terms, fictional narratives involve a very complex system of inter-inclusive analogical relations, among material texts, semiotic systems, readers, writers, the "culture at-large," etc. They can also, once they are "decoded," generate reflections on these relations at a meta-level, creating a spiraling circuit of recodings. Hayles is especially interested in texts concerned with changes in the sense of the embodiment of the interface. Exemplary sf and slipstream novels show different ways that novelists try to make sense of the displacements of the classical liberal subject when it no longer can find itself in the interfaces with the fine dust of the information-world.
Hayles's discussion of Bernard Wolfe's famously bizarre Limbo forms one part of a diptych with her analysis of Wiener. She detects in Wiener's The Human Use of Human Beings (2nd ed. 1954) a language of equivocation so erotically charged that it calls out for psychosexual analysis. She continues this analogy of cybernetics and sexual pathology into Limbo, where it is obvious at the surface level. (It seems likely that the psychoanalytic reading of Wiener was influenced by Hayles's reading of Wolfe, who was outspoken about his fascination both with Freud and Wiener.) A phantasmagoria of (barely) displaced castration-anxiety projected onto the entire male species, Limbo's action is driven by a relentless process of splitting and tenuous prosthetic repair. Hayles suggestively claims that the novel's anxiety about bodily boundaries emerged from the early 50s culture of social paranoia. The fear of fusion that inspires the prosthetic and amputational grotesques in the novel reflects Wiener's similar anxiety about abandoning the untenable balance of the machine-human for the degendered cyborg. Throughout, Hayles demonstrates that Wolfe's highly original novelistic approach embodies in the text (the body of the text) a linking of prosthesis with writing that reflects the themes of the action.
The most impressive critical performance is a long analysis of Dick's major novels of the 1960s. There has been no lack of critical writing on Dick, and it has been the most varied in all sf studies. Critics tend to take one or another approach. We have Dick the Multiple Personality, Dick the Gnostic, Dick the Psychopomp, Dick the Cultural Critic, Dick the Visionary, Dick the Psychedelic. Much to her credit, Hayles's chapter titled "Turning Reality Inside-Out: Boundary Work in the Mid-Sixties Novels of Philip K. Dick" combines psychoanalytic, religious, political, and even (essentially for the first time) feminist interpretations of Dick's oeuvre through the mediation of cybernetics theory. In its second phase, cybernetics (of which Dick clearly had a rudimentary knowledge, shown by all those homeostatic rats and taxicabs) had posed the relationship of autonomous systems to each other in a drastic way. With the introduction of the observer into the communicational circuit, Maturana and Varela proposed the concept of the self-organizing system, which creates its own, self-isolated image of the world through analogy, never direct apprehension and connection with its environment or other systems. For Maturana, the relationships between self-creating (autopoetic) systems are stabilized by an inferred natural harmony that holds all systems in a certain balance. Dick intuitively took the relations among self-organizing systems as his main theme in the 1960s. His "observers," however, are not Maturana's stable systems; they are analogous to autonomous human subjects, interested not in structural balance, but in power. Instead of Maturana's stable harmony, Dick envisaged the possibility of infinite regress among systems perpetually striving to enclose others within themselves.
The chapter demonstrates Hayles's method at its best. Different aspects and levels of reading feed back and feed forward to create a dynamic and constantly self-developing sense of meaning. It is a concrete demonstration of her thesis that narratives localize and embody theory by binding the theory to the actual condition of embodied human beings. Beginning with Dick's obsession with his twin sister, Jane, who died in infancy, Hayles traces the course of his complex sense of lack into his omnivorous fear of incorporation by women and the market world. Hayles psychoanalyzes Dick deftly, without heavy-handedness, because the psychoanalytic framework is "included" among other approaches. In fact all the "levels" of meaning ultimately inter-enclose each other in her reading. In this way, Hayles reads in Dick's career--from We Can Build You (wr. 1962; pub. 1972) to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (wr. 1966; pub.1968) and Ubik (wr. 1966; pub. 1969) on--a trajectory leading from the malevolent weakening of boundaries associated with the effect of the schizoid "dark-haired girl" on the weak schizophrenic protagonist unable to defend his self-domain, to the modest resolutions of the later novels, in which some autonomy, however meager, is attained in a system of equally autonomous beings. The overpowering sense of boundary dissolutions and ambivalence created by Dick's novels reflects the difficulty of having to live in relationships without being able to define a stable self.
At the end of How We Became Posthuman, Hayles applies a self-adapted version of the Greimasian semantic rectangle to four novels, "tutor texts" that she believes represent the main possible combinations for imagining narratives of virtuality. In each, the border contest between human embodiment and computer inscription is played out differently. In Bear's Blood Music, nanotechnological noocytes absorb and then discard the human body, ostensibly in an evolutionary leap forward. Set across the diagram is Perriman's Terminal Games, in which an AI program treats human embodiment as part of its VR program. At the poles of the intersecting axis, Hayles locates Stephenson's Snow Crash and Powers's Galatea 2.2. In a subtle reading of Powers's oversubtle novel, Hayles's identifies the view that even artificial intelligence must acquire a sense of embodiment. At the other end of the line, Hayles offers a graceful reading of a novel that I had previously treated only as a parody of Gibson. For Stephenson, humans and computers already are equivalent, shown by the virus of the title which crosses from computers to the human brain. In the novel's vision, human rationality, so much a part of the liberal subject, acts as a higher level coding allowing humanity to escape from the ultimate dehumanization that the identification of machine and computer presages.
I wrote earlier that Hayles does not wish to revive the body's or consciousness's sacredness. She never deviates from the discourse of materialism into religious or spiritualistic language. Nowhere in How We Became Posthuman does she openly reject posthumanist assumptions. It is striking, nonetheless, how deeply Hayles's version of the critique of posthumanism emphasizes the value of limitation and finitude--i.e., mortality and boundedness. She writes:
If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information-technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life as embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival. (5)
Now, mortality and boundedness are not posthumanists' favorite concepts; in fact antagonism to them might be considered the raison d'être of posthumanism. They smack of the need for transcendence. Cyborg theory associates transcendence with ideological boundaries: the cyborg's transgression of boundaries and rejection of essences is above all a refusal to believe in the givenness of things, in necessity. Brian McHale treats postmodernism as a cultural obsession with ontology, a suspicion of the putative boundaries of being and life. Every posthumanist writer must needs reflect on the questions of mortality, if only because technology comes closer and closer to promising extraordinary longevity, and even deathlessness.3 Hayles, however, implies that boundaries, even if they are not essential, should be treated with respect. Without boundaries, there are no patterns, there are no interfaces.
It is remarkable and refreshing to read a book about the embodiment problem in posthumanist culture whose tutelary genius is not Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Haraway, or the other demi-oracles of postmodernism. Hayles's inspiration comes rather from Bateson, a profoundly original thinker inexplicably neglected by postmodernist writers. It's not clear, in fact, whether Hayles is aware how much she shares with Bateson. How We Became Posthuman cites only two of Bateson's own writings--one essay from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and another from A Sacred Unity (1991); Hayles relies instead on accounts by his daughter, Mary Catherine, of her father's views in Our Own Metaphor (1972). I find this tactic odd, since Hayles carefully reads the original works of Wiener, Maturana, and Varela. It may, however, only be a tactic, since often in the book she approaches her subjects from the flank, through the points of view of surprising observers. The first cyberneticists, for example, take the stage via a close reading of the transcripts of the Macy Conferences, a series of elite gatherings of the illuminati of cybernetics research held in the early 1950s. Approached in this way, cybernetics is seen, not as a pure emergence, but as a contest between different voices--including even the "silent voice" of the only woman involved in the conference, the recording secretary Jane Freed. So perhaps there's method in recounting Bateson's notion of analogy as the basis for a system's self-construction through his daughter's reflections.
Yet I can't help but think Hayles loses something by neglecting to elaborate on Bateson's writings. Her reading of Dick, for example, rich as it is, misses an important opportunity by not seeing the link between Bateson's theory of the double-bind and Dick's worldview. That theory, which was well-known in the San Francisco Bay Area culture in the 1960s, when Dick lived in Marin County, deeply influenced contemporary discourse about schizophrenia, drug-addiction therapy, and the popular notions of mental illness as an alternate reality proposed by Bateson's friend R.D. Laing. In several essays, Bateson and his associates proposed that schizophrenia was a communicational pathology, caused by a pattern of double-binding in a family system. A child would be given direct messages that would be routinely contradicted by the contexts (often non-verbal meta-messages) in which they were emplaced. The child would have to cope with the contradiction; sometimes it would choose to ignore the context, sometimes the message, but in any case he or she would have to deny some key knowledge about the communication. Since these double-binds always involved deep affectional relationships, the child was placed in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation that he or she would be utterly unable to resolve. Bateson considered the double-bind theory to be the cornerstone of a new epistemology which was based on the relationships of different levels of communication. He perceived them not only in human relationships, but in living nature as a whole, linking ecology with human communication.4
Most human problems could be seen as pathologies of co-ordinating messages and contexts, albeit terrifically charged with emotion and need.
The significance of this theory for Dick cannot be underestimated, in my view, for Dick considered both his own personal existence and the historical condition of the human species as a double-bind on such a grand scale that the very substance of reality was deranged by it. This is not the place to elaborate on the point, but it does call into question what Hayles perceives as a resolution of the autonomy/containment problem in Dick's novels. While it is true that the late 60s novels strive for a modest balance among autonomous systems, we have only to look at A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977, for proof that Dick believed his resolutions would always fail, precisely because human truths are embedded in hostile cosmic contexts. In Do Androids Dream, the Mercer-surrogate tells Deckard:
"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe." (§15:156)
Nine years later, in Scanner, Donna, the undercover narcotics agent who is on her way to deliver the degenerated Bob Arctor to the New-Path rehab center, thinks similar thoughts:
It requires the greatest kind of wisdom, she thought, to know when to apply injustice. How can justice fall victim, ever, to what is right? How can this happen? She thought, Because there is a curse on this world, and all this proves it; this is the proof right here. Somewhere, at the deepest level possible, the mechanism, the construction of things, fell apart, and up from what remained swam the need to do all the various sort of unclear wrongs the wisest choice has made us act out. It must have started thousands of years ago. By now it's infiltrated into the nature of everything. (§13:236)
Dick's Manichean anguish projects Bateson's double bind into the universe. Not even the messages of VALIS can contain the antagonistic context.
In more general terms, it is a discussion of Mind and Nature (1979) that I miss most. In that work Bateson articulates the philosophy that lies closest to Hayles's own purposes--though it is clear that Bateson makes a fundamental, essential distinction between the world of the living and the nonliving that Hayles is no longer willing to make, adopting Jung's Gnostic vocabulary for them, creatura and pleroma (terms very familiar to Dick). It is there that Bateson develops the notion that morphological development and narrative are cognate, i.e., that physical embodiment and narrative follow the same constraints (as do also play, humor, and learning). It is there that he describes the universe as a stochastic process, a dialectic of pattern and randomness. It is there that Bateson fully describes his axiom of double descriptions, i.e., that all learning is a product of relationships between two creatures, and "a relationship is always a product of double descriptions."5 I believe this tenet is what inspires Hayles throughout How We Became Posthuman, and indeed her career as a whole. To capture the peculiar knowledge of posthumanism, Hayles combines the very different patterns of scientific understanding and fictional narrative. Double descriptions are required because they are in the nature of the subject: technology and emotion, inscription and embodiment, pattern and randomness, presence and absence. They are all "doubly fractionated" (another of Bateson's terms) simply because they are context-creating relationships of our culture.
How We Became Posthuman is a brilliant book. But like most books engaged in the posthumanist project, it seems to end in anxiety. That we have had good riddance of the liberal subject of possessive individualism is one thing; what will replace "man" is another, and the brilliance of deconstructive analysis does not leave much behind to rely upon. The dissemination of virtualizing technologies, the gist of the third phase of information theory, makes the human-machine interface appear to posthumanists to be the only game in town. In this implosion of attention to the relationship between human beings and their own constructs, the relationships between humans and any other domain appear to be subsumed. It may be naive to wish for a return to Bateson's distinction between the pleroma and creatura. Yet the inability to see any fundamental distinctions in nature, an inevitable result of the ideology of information-theory and de-essentializing cultural criticism, appears so far to have led to little thinking about the place of human activity in an already complex and barely explored given world. There are other stories. Perhaps mortality itself, the great enemy of many posthumanist technophiles, may not be such a great evil, and worldviews in which human death has a significant role in the nature of things may not be useless atavisms. I can't help but hope that How We Became Posthuman presages a new, fourth phase of cybernetics, in which virtuality will have to relate to a sophisticated acceptance of natural creation. Without a renewed respect--and responsibility--for what VR engineers used to disparage as "vanilla reality," Hayles's desire for an embodied but distributed subjectivity seems doomed to failure, with posthuman simulations extending into every important aspect of human life. The naturalist's world is completely absent from Hayles's story. Until we have interfaces with that world and the sense of aesthetic pattern it inspires, there seems to be no reason why the virtual body will not consume as much of the natural as it is able, leaving us not only post-gendered and post-contemporary, but post-alive, post-here, and post-now.
1. Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Metheun, 1987), 5. Back
2. One need only look to Hans Moravec's notion, in Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), of consciousness as a database downloadable to a disk, like the Dixie Flatline in William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), to the prophetic projections of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking, 1999), or to the various cyborg constructions in Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire (1996), Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994), all three of Gibson's cyberspace trilogy, etc.--not to mention the extravagant promises of nanotechnology. I am grateful to Ross Farnell's doctoral dissertation for a synthetic discussion of these posthumanist visions. Back
3. McHale, 10-11. Back
4. The basic texts are "Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia" and "The Group Dynamics of Schizophrenia," in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972) 201-227, 228-270; and "The Birth of a Matrix or Double Bind and Epistemology," in Beyond the Double Bind, ed. Milton M. Berger (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978), 41-64. Back
5. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979), 147. Back
Lies, Damned Lies, and Science Fiction: Thomas M. Disch and the Culture of Mendacity
Thomas M. Disch
The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World.
Free Press (212-698-7000), 1998. 256 pp. $25 cloth.
Thomas M. Disch has published little or no science fiction in recent years, and he never published much–not, at least, by the standards of the genre, where prolific outputs tend to be routine. Still, he is the author of at least two novels–Camp Concentration (1968) and 334 (1972)–that by themselves establish him as one of the indispensable science fiction writers of the modern era. Among his generational cohort, he has earned a place somewhat inferior to, but just as secure as, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, and Joanna Russ. Of course, Disch has distinguished himself in many fields outside of sf as well, particularly horror fiction, poetry, drama, and children’s literature. He has also been a critic of note; I particularly admired the theater reviews he used to contribute to The Nation, reviews that revealed him to be one of the most intelligent observers the New York stage has attracted in some time. In nearly all his work, Disch has appeared as a man passionately interested in ideas and comfortably at home among them.
Given this background, the first thing that has to be said about his recent (and brilliantly titled) critical book, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, is that it is, on balance, a huge disappointment. I do not mean that it is worthless. On the contrary, in places it is smart, erudite, witty, and incisive, and it is consistently written in a lively, readable style–all qualities that one would expect from Disch. But in many other places, unfortunately, it is sloppy, ignorant, obtuse, and offensive, and it is often written in a tone of such insistent grumpiness that Disch almost seems to be campaigning to be recognized as the Rush Limbaugh of science fiction. Reviewing The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is thus a delicate and difficult task, for there are relatively few generalizations about the whole book that cannot be refuted by numerous passages. One of the first necessities is simply to explain what Disch seems to be trying to do.
Even this, however, is far from a straightforward job, for the volume is very loosely organized. Not only is the book a collection of related but miscellaneous essays (as are many, perhaps most, of the best critical books), but the individual essays tend to be meandering and digressive. Sometimes the effect is rather like that of a man talking about whatever happens to pop into his head. The digressions contain some of the best things in the volume, but sticking to the point is not, here, one of Disch’s strengths. This general looseness is especially noticeable with regard to the central category of the whole project: science fiction. No analytic or literary-critical definition of the term is ever offered–indeed, no explicit definition at all. Often, Disch seems to be assuming a marketing definition–that is, science fiction is whatever publishing houses or film studios or television networks say is science fiction, including everything from Ballard’s Crash (1973) to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) to the old Captain Video TV programs. But even this problematic usage is not consistent. Sometimes science fiction seems to include horror fiction, and even fantasy. Sometimes Disch refers to works of science fiction with clear literary approbation, but he can also flatly aver that science fiction "isn’t about literature" (109). At one point Disch celebrates the durability of Wells’s sf, and at another he proclaims that sf "is in its nature an ephemeral literature" (110).
Nonetheless, Disch’s Introduction and the first essay following, "The Right to Lie," do announce a fairly clear thesis, to which portions of the remaining nine chapters return. Briefly, it is as follows. Science fiction, particularly in its mass-cultural forms, has "conquered the world" in the sense of exercising a huge impact on the most characteristic value systems and images in modern America. Indeed, Disch goes so far as to claim 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" (12), and he offers diverse examples that range from Oliver North’s perjuries to Sinead O’Connor’s haircut. As even these two examples may suggest, however, the influence of science fiction, as Disch sees it, has not been generally benign. On the contrary, the presence of science fiction in modern America is closely connected to the fact that "America is a nation of liars" (15). We lie constantly, we support a culture of lying, and we tend to admire liars with sufficient flair and dramatic punch. Tom Sawyer, bamboozling his friends into whitewashing a fence, is a quintessentially American figure, as is Dwight Eisenhower, earnestly lying about just what Francis Gary Powers was doing in the skies above the USSR. Active liars today (many of whom manage to convince themselves of their own lies) include, according to Disch, UFO cultists and the quacks of the Recovered Memory movement; the supporters of Tawana Brawley and the officials of L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology; the pseudo-scholars of Afrocentrism and the film director Oliver Stone; and many, many more. Though not all of these liars may seem to have a direct connection to science fiction, on the whole sf is, in Disch’s view, "the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe" (16).
Clearly, there is a potentially interesting case to be engaged here. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is, however, disabled from arguing its case convincingly, not only by its extremely loose organization but also, beyond that, by an intellectual shoddiness that appears again and again at many levels of the text. On the simplest level, the book is disfigured by unusually frequent typographical errors as well as by a few curious instances in which Disch repeats, or almost repeats, an earlier sentence without apparent awareness that he has said the same thing before. Doubtless such matters are, in themselves, unimportant. But they work to create an atmosphere in which it becomes less and less surprising to find all manner of factual mistakes and breezy, unsupportable generalizations. I stated above that the book is frequently ignorant. I would not dare to apply that adjective to the author himself, and my own guess is that Disch’s slips result mainly from carelessness and haste, though sometimes I do suspect a willingness to fudge facts in order to advance an agenda. Whatever the causes, here is a very partial list of the book’s gaffes and errors:
- that Mary Shelley is "[a]n unread author" (33). (The American version of Books in Print currently lists more than 50 editions of Frankenstein alone.)
- that George Eliot and Tolstoi are among the nineteenth-century writers who express "Christian sentiments" (41) in their work but not full-fledged Christian belief. (Eliot was an open, unashamed skeptic who had little use even for Christian sentiments, while the depth and sincerity of Tolstoi’s Christian faith has, so far as I know, never been seriously questioned.)
- that Jules Verne is an author "that no one reads, at least in English" (60). (Books in Print
lists well over 200 editions of his work, most of them in English. Would that
all of us were as "unread" as Verne or Mary Shelley!)
- that the film of Dr. Strangelove (1963), like that of Seven Days in May (1964), involves "a military coup d’état" (84). (General Jack D. Ripper certainly "exceeds his authority," as another character comments, when he tries to start World War III, but his aim is to force the hand of the civilian government, not to overthrow it.)
- that George Orwell was "attacking socialism" (91) in his last two books. (Orwell stated clearly and emphatically that he was doing nothing of the sort. One can indeed argue, as I and other critics have done, that Animal Farm  and 1984  subtextually subvert the socialist intentions of the author, but that is a quite different matter.)
- that the assassin in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) is an "Italian hit man" (92). (He is Swiss, probably German-Swiss, and this is crucial to the plot.)
- that the deep ecologists are "radical leftists" (144). (Deep ecology is not exactly right-wing in the usual way, but it is anti-leftist in every definable sense.)
- that Augustine "declared that he believed in Christianity precisely because it was absurd" (162; emphasis in original). (Disch is probably thinking of Tertullian, who claimed to believe Christianity quia impossibile est, "because it is impossible.")
- that Octavia Butler is sf’s "only prominent black writer who has chosen to focus on racial concerns" (199). (Racial concerns are the focus of much of Delany’s work.)
And so on and so on. There are other dubious statements that are harder to call flatly wrong, because of the degree to which they involve interpretation and opinion, but that are seriously misleading nonetheless. For example, Disch maintains that William S. Burroughs was of interest to the writers of British New Wave sf simply because "his name was a synonym for drugs" (111), and that Burroughs exercised no stylistic influence on the New Wave. Really? The general understanding, surely, is that Burroughs’s influence on Ballard was considerable; Disch may disagree with this critical commonplace, but, if so, we would like to hear the reason why–and none is offered. Even more astonishing, though, is Disch’s estimation of Le Guin: "One does not read Le Guin for fun, or excitement, or wild ideas, nor yet for ... a sense of wonder" (125). I rub my eyes and read the sentence again. If Disch had been content to say that he, personally, does not find fun, excitement, and so forth in Le Guin, that would be one thing–though, again, it would be interesting to hear the reasons for such a strange opinion. But by saying that one does not read, etc., Disch in effect denies the plain fact that a great many of us do read Le Guin for precisely those qualities.
This extraordinary derogation of Le Guin is found in Disch’s chapter on women’s science fiction, betrayingly entitled "Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing SF." Of all the essays in the book, it is in this one that intellectual shoddiness takes its worst toll. Here the comparison I suggested above between Disch and Rush Limbaugh is most appropriate. Disch uses terms like "ideology" and "politically correct" in just the same (non)senses that Limbaugh does, and his general view of feminists is essentially that of Limbaugh and other right-wing propagandists: namely, that they are a bunch of ignorant, authoritarian, humorless killjoys. Though Disch does not actually use Limbaugh’s despicable coinage, "feminazi," it would not seem particularly out of place here.
Sometimes, for example, Disch seems to think that, when discussing women authors, it is more important to describe their figures than their ideas. Thus, he finds space to tell us that Anne McCaffrey is "of robust build" (122), though he never mentions the bodies of any of the numerous male authors discussed. On the other hand, when attacking Marleen Barr–a necessary move for any anti-feminist screed on sf, since Barr invented the feminist analysis of science fiction and remains one of its most accomplished practitioners–he pokes nasty fun at one of her essays without bothering to say what the argument of the essay is or why he thinks it is wrong.
Then there is Disch’s obsession with Le Guin, one sample of which I have already quoted. Her feminism is, he finds, essentially similar to that of Andrea Dworkin, though "less overtly phobic of the male sex" (125; emphasis added). She advocates "the abolition of Western civilization as we’ve known it" (125), especially in her work of the last two decades, when her writing "has undergone a gradual PC [sic] ossification" (127). She speaks out of "a sense of grievance," as is "characteristic of feminism in its more territorial moments" (128). Now, there is no good reason that Le Guin’s feminism should be immune from criticism; one can imagine a searching, rigorous critique that would find in it elements of essentialism and naïveté. But what Disch offers is less criticism than mere snorts of disgust. Unsurprisingly, he is at his most ferocious when he takes on The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993), of which Le Guin is senior editor. The Norton Book is intensely controversial, and serious criticism of it would be welcome. But it is hard to take Disch on the Norton seriously, especially when he goes so far in his denigration of Le Guin as to suggest that she has deliberately stuffed the anthology with inferior work. She has, says Disch, chosen "relatively feeble or ephemeral stories by older big-name male writers" (130), evidently to embarrass the latter and to make men in general look bad. Would any editor this side of clinical paranoia adopt such a ridiculous and self-defeating strategy? And, when one realizes that the "feeble" stories to which Disch refers include, for instance, such masterpieces as Frederik Pohl’s "Day Million" (1966), arguably the best brief treatment of future sex in the genre, and Theodore Sturgeon’s "Tandy’s Story" (1961), one of the most closely observed fictional treatments of childhood in any genre, it seems fairly clear that Disch is willing to say anything at all about Le Guin so long as it is bad.
Unlike Limbaugh, however, Disch–whose current political views on matters other than gender seem, to judge from this volume, to incline toward a mild liberalism–is not altogether happy to be known as a sexist. But he can be at his most offensive when straining most toward "moderation"–as, for instance, when he expresses Olympian disdain for both "radical feminists and die-hard male chauvinists" (136; emphasis in original). This, of course, exactly mimics the tone and ideological strategy of those "moderate" Southern politicians of the 1950s who, speaking on the race issue, piously denounced "extremists on both sides"–that is, the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet feminism must, I suppose, look extreme to anyone who, like Disch, believes that feminists are finally fighting against nature itself. "While there are two sexes, one can expect them to be in contention" (133), he says; the dichotomy that leads to "the war of the sexes" is "ageless, deep, and inescapable" (136). Though Disch indulges in some fashionable Freud-bashing here and there throughout the volume (even to the point of referring respectfully to the appalling Frederick Crews), he is at one with Freud’s worst mistake: the notion that anatomy is destiny.
Disch on feminism, in sum, is Disch at his worst. But, as I have indicated, there are also moments in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of that represent Disch at far from his worst. It is only just to give some indication of the good things to be found in the volume, though here too the examples I will adduce amount to only a partial list. In the first place, although the announced thesis of the volume is more cultural and political than strictly literary, there are some excellent patches of literary criticism scattered throughout. Like many of us, Disch tends to be best on the authors he most admires. He is especially good on Wells, whom he calls "the greatest science fiction writer of them all" (61), and he shrewdly stresses the importance for Wells of Darwinian theory–not only in such fairly obvious instances as The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) but also in The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon (1901). He is almost as good on Philip K. Dick; though hardly the first to read Dick as a "laureate of nuclear dread" (87), Disch pursues the theme skillfully. There is also an incisive brief reading of Karel
Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920) as an allegory of class resentment, and some intriguing remarks on the cultural impact of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Disch is less persuasive but still interesting on Poe, to whom he devotes an entire essay and whom he sees as the "embarrassing ancestor" (32) of much in American mass culture today.
In a more general way, Disch offers a brilliant revelation of the automobile as the hermeneutic truth of the rocketship as popularly imagined in postwar America, provides some acute comments on how the overwhelmingly visual character of television as a form must be understood, and advances an excellent analysis of the way that the extraterrestrial alien functions as a distorted image of the Third World alien. In a more personal vein, we get some interesting memoiristic reflections on life in the British New Wave scene of the 1960s (with which Disch was more closely associated than perhaps any other important American author). Finally, the most thoroughly admirable dimension of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of may well be Disch’s consistent debunking of various sorts of popular irrationalism. He is motivated, plainly, by a clear-sighted, Enlightenment-style hatred of superstition and religion in all forms; I only wish he were a bit more forthcoming about the really major purveyors of the irrational–like Islam or the Roman Catholic Church–instead of confining himself, as he usually does, to such more vulnerable but less consequential targets as Mary Baker Eddy and the Scientologists.
It is a mark of just how divided and uneven the book is that, as several of my examples above have suggested, strong points and weak points can often be found on the same page, or even in the same paragraph. Furthermore, some of the best things in the volume bear a tangential relationship–at most–to Disch’s announced overall theme regarding science fiction, lying, and American culture. It is now time to revisit that theme and briefly discuss it. Given the generally (though not invariably) disappointing nature of Disch’s own expository performance, the pertinent question may be framed thus: does Disch’s thesis deserve a more rigorous treatment than Disch himself manages to give it?
The idea that America is a nation of liars–and, correlatively, of credulous believers in lies–is not wholly original, but it is always interesting and, I think, clearly valid. Though probably no nation is distinguished by a truly scrupulous regard for the truth, America is the place where the confidence trickster and the raconteur of tall tales have become folk heroes. Though Disch does not consider the matter, it is probably no coincidence that America has always been (by Old World standards) a highly mobile country of people from many different cultural and ethnic heritages, for it is always easiest to lie when among those who know little of your past or background. Whether lying has become more endemic in modern times–as many observers, though not Disch, have suggested–seems to me more dubious. Admittedly, it was not too long ago that we overwhelmingly voted for Lyndon Johnson, who said that his great-great-grandfather died at the Alamo, and for Richard Nixon, who said that his wife was born on Saint Patrick’s Day–not to mention the more politically serious lies of those two worthy statesmen. But it was in 1840 that we elected William Henry Harrison, a man of absolutely no governmental experience, partly because his paid liars inflated the massacre of a Shawnee village by professional soldiers into a glorious military victory. Even Honest Abe, the sainted Lincoln himself, got to the White House partly because of campaign propaganda that placed great stress on the dirt-floored cabin of his childhood and his onetime prowess at splitting rails, while distracting attention from the rather more pertinent fact that he had become one of the most successful attorneys in Illinois. Arguably the shrewdest politician in American history–and certainly one of the most ambitious–Abe successfully sold himself to the voters and to posterity as a kind of holy fool. The typical American, wrote H.L. Mencken (another heir of the Enlightenment), is distinguished by "a stupendous capacity for believing, and especially for believing in what is palpably not true."
But what of the more original half of Disch’s thesis–the idea that science fiction is the literature most suited to our national culture of lying? One problem here is the complex theoretical relationship between lying and fictionality as such–an issue that Disch acknowledges in passing but that he never really engages. He quotes (in a somewhat misleading way) from Sir Philip Sidney’s famous discussion of the matter in An Apology for Poetry (1595), but, surprisingly, never mentions the work sometimes taken to be the inaugural essay of modern English criticism, Oscar Wilde’s wonderful "The Decay of Lying" (1889). Whereas Sidney had claimed that the poet (i.e., the author of fiction) was the only writer who never lied, because the poet never affirmed anything to be factually true, Wilde happily identifies creative fiction with lying. Of course, Oscar was doing his best to shock the then-dominant Victorian canons of realism and moralism, but he was also, like Sidney himself, making a serious case for the autonomy and integrity of fictionality, which cannot, he insists, be judged by any straightforward standards of "truth." And yet it is also the case that practically everyone who has ever valued fiction at all–including Sidney and even, in the end, Wilde–has believed that the worth of imaginative literature does at least partly inhere in its relations to the truth, however complex, subtle, and indirect those relations may be. Few would flatly deny that the stronger works of fiction tend to be those that are in some sense or senses "truer" than the weaker works–though the phrase I have italicized covers an enormous amount of complicated theoretical controversy.
Since Disch, however, never produces a literary-critical concept of science fiction (or of literary value), he is unable to distinguish with any rigor between strong and weak sf. This is particularly unfortunate because it might be possible to support Disch’s general thesis by an argument that science fiction of the weaker sort does indeed tend to function in collusion with mendacity. We might agree, at least for this purpose, to define relatively weak sf as that which tends to elide or minimize the intrinsic difficulties of its cognitive projects, while strong sf would encompass those works that intentionally make things hard for themselves by facing such difficulties with honesty and complex intelligence. Compare, for example, all those pulp or pulpish representations of galactic civilizations in which communication is assumed to require nothing more, in effect, than very good cell phones with Delany’s awesomely ambitious attempt, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), to imagine some of the serious communicative problems posed by the co-existence of thousands of intelligent species. Contrast Stanislaw Lem’s painstaking representation, in Solaris (1961), of the attempt to establish relations with a radically alien lifeform with the routine "first contact" stories that effortlessly equate contact with mere physical meeting. For that matter, consider the difference between the imbecile Star Trek convention that aliens everywhere speak English (though not always with an Iowa accent) with the elaborate account, in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), of Ransom’s struggles to learn the Martian language. If sf undertakes more intrinsically ambitious and complex imaginings than perhaps any other form of literature, then it may well be that sf which makes things too easy for itself, which oversimplifies the complicated and denies or omits the crucial, does indeed amount to an especially insidious form of lying that is connected to the general national culture of lying in the USA. The toxic oversimplification is quite arguably the most damnably effective form of lying that there is.
Seen in this light, even some of Disch’s examples of lying that do not, at first, seem to have much to do with sf may support his general thesis after all. Is it an accident that an admitted perjurer like Oliver North found numerous fans to adore him among the populace that thrilled to the portrayal of ethical and political struggle offered by the Star Wars films? Did merchants of mendacity like Bob Dole and William Bennett profess their admiration for so crude a celebration of xenophobia and cheap individualism as Independence Day (1996) only because, as Disch notes, the movie features the death of a character based on Hillary Clinton? On the spiritual front, there are quite obvious filiations between sf and Scientology, the UFO cults, and the Aum Shinrikyo murderers of Japan. But is it just a coincidence that it is in America, the effective homeland of science fiction, that the "mainstream" churches are, as Disch says, "exempt from criticism or hostile comment" (149)–to a degree, we might add, not remotely approached anywhere else in the developed world? Disch’s book, alas, provides only a feeble beginning to the consideration of questions like these. But a beginning is necessary, and even a feeble beginning may be useful. Certainly we all owe Disch a debt of gratitude for suggesting that we think about the insidious dreams that so much of our stuff is made of.
What, finally, should the overall evaluation of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of be? John Clute is quoted on the back of the dust jacket as proclaiming it "the best book on sf ever written by a practicing writer in the field." This judgment is, of course, ludicrous, perhaps more ludicrous than even the worst things in the book itself, and it would still be preposterously wide of the mark even if it were not for the critical books by Delany–who remains probably the only major novelist to have produced really first-rate sf criticism. To me, the general impression that the book suggests is that of a highly intelligent man on an extremely bad day. There are much worse things that you could read.
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