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9 Disch, II Thomas M. Disch’s stories emanate from an extraordinarily contemporary mind. Some are science fiction. Some are fantasy. Some are very much of the here and now—mundane (from the Latin mundus, meaning “the world”) fiction, what a few of us oriented toward science fiction have taken to calling the writing most people mean when they say “traditional, ordinary fiction.” Each of the three types has its own excellences and delights. Disch also writes poems in which he displays developed craft, passion, and wit. But that’s another essay. Analyses of fiction commonly tend toward the grandiose statement about this or that writer’s universal importance (or lack of it), bolstered by a number of abstract arguments that often sidestep the questions To whom is the writing important? and Why is it necessary to these people that writing be important for these reasons and not for others? Often we forget that, for a work to become or remain important, a certain number of people must sit down with it every so often, read it, and have certain reactions—which they happen to be in a position to articulate. If the number of readers and readings falls off, if the proper reactions do not occur, or if the means of articulation is withdrawn, then eventually that work will fall away from consideration. Chance has always played with writers’ reputations.1 But as the liter1 . It is sobering to realize that Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Franz Kafka all died almost or completely unpublished. The odd fire, or someone’s throwing out a carton full of old papers, or, more important, the least bit of laziness among persons who were not necessarily great or even good writers themselves might have stolen these writers from us. It is equally sobering to run one’s eye down the list of Nobel Prize winners in literature , since Rudyard Kipling became the first Nobel laureate in 1907. Harry Martinson? Selma Lagerlof? Gabriela Mistral? The instability of literary reputations that at one time seemed established beyond doubt is likewise worth a pause. But to read at all in the history of art is to see it happen to Meyerbeer, Otway, Moore: giants in their day, they are now only footnotes in the lives of other artists. 128 starboard wine ate field expands, as the number of writers grows with the number of readers, and as the idea of a single form of education with a classic canon of important writers appropriate for all readers begins to seem a rather romantic, if not downright eccentric, notion, the chance factor (i.e., which readers happen to run into, be struck by, and talk about, what writers) becomes particularly problematic. SF writers—at least those who spend a considerable portion of their writing energy writing science fiction—are especially aware of this phenomenon : not only do the reputations of writers change, but the reputations of entire practices of writing change also, carrying whole groups of writers along with them. People have begun to look at science fiction very differently from the way they did twenty or twenty-five years ago. They are prepared to take it more seriously, to examine it more carefully . In the first half of this century, when E. M. Forster, the highly respected English author of such novels as A Passage to India and Howards End, put together his short-story collections, he included some of his SF stories, such as “The Machine Stops,” very much with the air of the serious man revealing his lighter side. It is probably fair to say that if Disch had not achieved the extraordinarily high reputation he has within the science fiction field since he began publishing in 1962 (within the field, he is very much considered a writer’s writer), his publishers would likely not have been so ready to include his mundane tales in his various collections, such as Getting Into Death or Fundamental Disch. But the mundane tales in no way represent “the serious side of a light man,” as one might suppose if Forster’s half of the century were taken as the norm. No, the status of the two writing modes has simply shifted. They have by no means reversed. But they will probably go on shifting for some time. To enjoy Disch’s collection, Fundamental Disch, say, as a whole demands that the three modes (fantasy, SF, and mundane) be taken equally seriously. A good deal of this essay...


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