[Editor's note: Strange Horizons would like to thank Ken Duffin, who agreed to allow his work to be reprinted here for a limited time in conjunction with this essay. Unfortunately, as of the time of publication, we have not been able to secure permission to reprint Thomas Disch's award-winning poem. The winners of the 1981 Rhysling awards were:
- "On Science Fiction," by Thomas M. Disch (Long Poem)
- "Meeting Place," by Ken Duffin (Short Poem)
1981 saw two poems awarded the Rhysling, poems at the opposite end of the speculative poetry spectrum, or better, at opposite ends of several speculative poetry spectrums: length, accessibility, and most notably attitude and relation to the genre. In fact, the two poems are so different in the final aspect that it is rather stunning that both could be honored in the same year. Such a selection suggests that speculative poetry lacks a unified aesthetic, or, more positively, that its practitioners are sufficiently open-minded to honor quality wherever they find it.
This last cannot have been easy with the long poem winner, Thomas Disch's "On Science Fiction"—but hold that thought for a moment while the short poem winner is addressed. Ken Duffin's "Meeting Place" is a lovely little piece and might be used as an example of how speculative themes can be made accessible to a more general readership. It's also quite an economical poem. Duffin sets the stage immediately, with the first line: "Not in my lifetime, nor that of my sun;" we are millions of years in the future. The first half of that first stanza spins out images of that final end, when the sun burns out. He makes "the final collapse" at once dark, homey, and scientific. This world is defined by chronological terms of entropy: "final," "collapse," "last," "static," "slowly." These terms are interwoven with images that make the end of all accessible: the universe (or solar system) is "ashes," and proteins are "clinkered," a phrase that refers to dark industrial waste produced by fuels like coal and that in a single swipe manages to remind readers of the burning out of the sun, of human technology's use of fossil fuels, and that metabolisms also "burn" fuels.
Those "clinkered proteins bleed," as if our very molecular structures were wounded and dying by the death of the sun, but then, through the second half of this first stanza, the line changes meaning. These proteins aren't bleeding to death, as this line, taken alone, would indicate, but instead are bleeding outward through the cracks in "the next cosmic egg." The references to time that marked each line of the first half of the stanza continue, but they shift emphasis, indicating either continuity, "then," the presence of a future tense, "will spin," or more simply a "future," or, finally, the existence of a "tiny helix" that is "eternally recurring." While I assume this helix is DNA reborn, it is one of many phrases in the poem that carry multiple connotations. This could be time's helix returned, and the size a measure of just how small a focus on the human race's extinction would be on a galactic scale.
This helix becomes a variation on the great wheel of karma in the second stanza, when the narrative voice shifts from a distant, almost abstract recitation of the death of the sun to a direct address, suggesting, "Perhaps we'll meet? / Say yes; / say . . . an eon from now," and goes on to invite the listener to meet near "the gently sloping banks/of the gene pool." The poem closes by suggesting the invitee appear as he or she used to, and indicates that the speaker will "bring the wine." Taken together, the poem creates images—dead sun/clinker/cosmic egg/life reborn/new planet and folks meeting in a new (implied, scientific equivalent of) Eden. Readers can take pleasure in the clarity of the image sequence, and the skill with which Duffin's meaning turns and turns again (a "tiny helix" in itself). They can also enjoy the vision of the human race (or again, an equivalent) surviving the death of its sun, and not just surviving, but flourishing so easily that they can choose their appearances and meet for a drink that is most likely a romantic tryst. Duffin's narrator offers wine, but this little poem itself offers a kind of intoxication: the promise of knowledge, of life beyond death, of love beyond the sun. All of these promises offer the listener transforming power, and who would not want to be able to live on after death, or know a love so powerful it outlives the sun? Such promises of power are intoxicating in themselves.
It is precisely this intoxication that Thomas Disch examines and seeks to complicate in his "On Science Fiction." The title indicates that the poem is a meditation on science fiction. It was published outside the genre in a special theme issue of Triquarterly devoted to science fiction; publishing such a critique in a mainstream journal positions Disch as an outsider. However, the first line places him directly amidst the discussion: "We are all cripples. First admit that." Juxtaposing such a sweeping claim—that we "are all" this way—with a title that focuses on a specific genre creates a fine and immediate ambiguity: is Disch talking about a common human condition? Or is he slamming science fiction? The remainder of the first stanza paints a picture of us "lying in our beds" and telling stories to cheer ourselves up, assuring us that there is "no uncommon shame" in doing so.
The second stanza expands on the theme of being crippled, and on the fundamental limitations that we all share, but does so without resolving the initial question of how inclusive the poem's judgments are meant to be. At some points Disch seems to be speaking for all humanity. Other times, he seems to be saying that the tales that make up science fiction are generated by the crippled status of the tellers. One can imagine science fiction readers flaring in anger at such labels and Disch re-igniting the SF/mainstream wars.
The third stanza opens by evoking again not one, but two science fictional tropes: "There is another world we all imagine where/Our handicaps become the means of grace." The first line is a universal truth of science fiction—almost a definition—while the second is at the core of its dark fantasies: those things which make us outcasts will be the salvation of _____ (insert your favorite cause here: the Fremen, the Jedi, the Foundation, etc.). That Disch is specifically referring to these power fantasies is indicated through the stanza's final line, which indicates that each dreamer's smile contains "a cover by Frazetta," whose wonderfully lurid fantasy paintings featuring over-muscled figures provided cover illustrations for everyone from Buck Rogers to Tarzan. And of course, for some readers of science fiction, the genre fills all positions in the equation. It provides the worlds we dream of. It provides the promise of grace. It provides, in some cases, the handicap, as we bind ourselves to fragmented, isolated communities.
Membership in this community is indicated in the fourth stanza, which refers to the dreamers' pride in "ability to move/At high velocity among our many self-delusions." Ah! What a brilliant, bitter truth. I hated reading that line even as I nodded in agreement, flashing back to, say, my teenaged rereading of Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (in which a select few members of the human race outlive the universe, surfing the matter-energy waves of the Big Crunch and onto a new Big Bang).
References to science fictional commonplaces continue throughout this stanza—Disch evokes "the Luna of our dreams"—and in almost every stanza thereafter. Disch brings in utopias, psychic powers, travel by mind, mirror images of the self in which qualities are reversed, transcendence, and teaching the outside before closing with another specific reference to Burroughs's Barsoom. Along the way, Disch interweaves not one but three complex related narratives.
The first is the relationship of the dreamer and the other. Is the dreamer the proud visionary, as the cripples in this poem insist? If so, the non-dreamer is the mundane in whose eyes you will see "that genteel poverty of imagination." Despite the limits of the dreamer, in this narrative the non-dreamer is to be pitied. On the other hand, Disch's sixth stanza shows the non-dreamer voluntarily entering the fantasy "as a father may enter/The house inhabited by his daughter's dolls." Such play includes not just a temporary condescension due to age difference but also a gender difference. The father never was the daughter; he's playing clumsily, and with a fundamental lack of understanding that is likely to not disguise his sense that even as play, this isn't as important as, say, sports. Each of these judgments shifts the judgment of dreamers a bit. Where earlier in the poem Disch struck a note that seemed purely negative, he is now slowly but methodically transforming those judgments. He undercuts the supposed mainstream a bit more with each image, and finds ways to show the value in dreaming.
This leads smoothly into the second linked narrative: the relationship between the science fiction community and the real world. Here science fiction is the little girl, somehow less masculine than realism, but it is also more honest. In the middle and later stanzas of Disch's poem, the science fiction community dreams, yes—but they know they are dreaming. The eleventh stanza opens with "Do we deceive ourselves? Assuredly." Later, Disch evokes "the sneers/And hasty aversions of those who recognize/In our deformities the mirror-image of their own." A striking image, made more so by the poem's opening line. If we are all cripples, each and everyone one of us, then those who claim not to be cripples are at best deceived, at worst dishonest. They turn away because they recognize themselves in us. They claim to be both realistic and whole, but in the end are neither.
And this leads to the final related narrative. The entire poem weaves together a complex story about humanity's relationship to the world, and, though more nuanced than the stories Disch critiques, it is considerably more familiar than the earlier stanzas might suggest. The eleventh stanza closes by echoing Tolkien's well-known response to charges that fantasy was escapist: only jailors object to escape. Disch states it more assertively and expands the claim, saying, "The antidote/to shame is arrogance; to prison, an escape."
What Disch is offering here, finally, is an escape in several positive senses. He is offering an escape from the false pride of normalcy. If we are all cripples, then let us embrace it. Such self-knowledge leads us to know that when we try to escape, "all attempts must fail." We know that the dream will end, and that we will find ourselves "back within/Our irremediable skin," in a "World where every doorknob's out of reach." Greek drama warned against hubris, that overweening pride that leads humans to overreach their proper position. It is the source of all tragic flaws and falls—but is it hubris if you know that things are out of your reach but you keep reaching and dreaming? I'd say Disch is saying no, it isn't. It is instead accepting that to be human is to be flawed and dream of transcendence. Such a definition includes both those labeled as crippled and those who are labeled as normal; there is no fundamental difference between dreams except what they seek to transcend, and that is a matter of details, not fundamental essence.
"On Science Fiction" closes by inviting some unnamed "Stranger" to join the "confraternity" of crippled dreamers, reminding him or her of the rules, and to then "Help us conquer the galaxy." What are we to make of such an upbeat ending? This ending is unlikely, but it works. By challenging how we define not just normalcy but humanity, Disch creates a more inclusive and more pleasant reality, which is, after all, one of the benefits of good science fiction in general. Such benefits are too often forgotten in the power fantasies that dominate science fiction bestseller lists, but they are possible, and Disch shows us how to provide them: striking imagery, a dedication to a common humanity, and a rigorous honesty about one's home genre, even if it hurts.