“For the future to be interesting your desires, or your fears, must have a home there.” – Tom Disch, from On Wings of Song
On the SF Signal Podcast this week Scott Cupp, Jules Sherred, Patrick Hester and I talked about books that changed our lives. While that sounds rather dramatic, it took me no time to realize what book I wanted to discuss. My choice was Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song, his 1979 novel of life in the American near-future. I talked briefly about what the book did for me, why I felt it was life changing, but after listening to the podcast I realized that I have much more to say about it. While other books have had a profound effect on me, On Wings of Song provoked me to examine my desires, and my fears, for my future.
I read the book in the fall of 1982 as a junior in high school. As I noted on the podcast, it was the first serious SF novel I had ever read. Before I was given it I had read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter books, a few Heinlein juveniles, most of the Doc Savage novels and a fair amount of sword-and-sorcery, and had just for the first time finished reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My American History teacher, Mr. Cahoon, had seen me carrying a copy of Heinlein’s Space Cadet (which, when seen by other students, immediately became my new nickname, which I appreciated more than “Professor Whale”) and offered to give me more reading material since he was well aware of the poverty of fantastic literature in our small school library.
He started me off with a few more Heinlein works, and then decided to drop something heavier in my lap. I never found out why he chose On Wings of Song, but it turned out to be an excellent choice. At first, I disliked it immensely. It was in so many ways the opposite of my preferred SF reading to that point: satirical, anti-escapist, complex, outlandish, and woven together with anger and an appreciation for life’s combination of unfairness, absurdity, and opportunity for satisfaction. Of course, at that time, my response was perplexity; why was I reading this? What did it have in common with the thrilling stories I had been devouring for the past few years? I kept at it because I wanted to see when the action started, but it didn’t, not in the form that I was expecting. Yet I read on; there was something about the book that drew me to it, even in moments that startled or repulsed me.
What drew me in were qualities that I had not seen in my other reading. As much as I was taken aback by the travails of Daniel Weinreb’s existence, it felt more like life than many of the other books I read. This was a book that showed life to be messy, even in the future, and Daniel’s struggles and missteps began to make sense to me. The promise of escape via flying was dangled before the reader and personified in Boa, and Daniel’s relationship with her became a metaphor that reflected on my own life. Through planetary adventures and secondary world fantasy I was trying as hard as I could to escape my life, but in the end I was always here. I could look at these stories and characters I loved and see their freedom from my perspective, but I could not attain it myself.
It’s an open question as to whether Daniel does or does not fly at the end of the book, but while that bugged me at first, I soon accepted it, and that was the moment when I realized that literature was much more than distraction, and that life was more than the sum of its difficulties and disappointments. Escape only comes at the end of our journey, and even then only if we come to understand that the purpose of the journey was not to escape. That may sound obtuse, but the lesson I learned from that was to not move towards a goal of release from life. Life is what we do every day, what we try to build and rebuild and demolish to use the materials for something new. When you do what Boa does, leave this life for some idea of a pure experience, you lose you humanity. When your body is just a shell and the life around it an inhibition, you lose sight of what life is about.
Until that unavoidable end our lives are in progress, and if we spend all of our time and energy trying to escape we miss out on both the joys and the responsibilities that surround us. Life is difficult and strange and it can wear away at you. You have to understand that dreaming has a price, as Daniel finds out, and that success has a price, and that being who you are not has a price. Everything has a price; no one can escape the high cost of living, although they can try to ignore or defer it.
Despite some of the broad strokes Disch drew in the world he created, there was something real that arose from the text. I felt real discomfort at Daniel’s color-change, with the gay sexuality, and a bit with the presentation of both the undergoders and urban decadents in general. It was a discomfort that arose directly from my own circumstances as a teen figuring out sex after a childhood of abuse, searching for an identity that did not leave me feeling mired in sadness or alone, and a radical, sudden shift in my ontology. from devoted Christian fundamentalist to virtual agnostic. Shortly before entering high school I had lived on the east Florida coast in a small Baptist congregation where my father was an evangelist and I was a child preacher. Due to a scandal we had been ejected from the church and my father had bitterly turned his and our backs on the faith. The change was dizzying, and I latched onto fantastic fiction as a perverse (to me that the time) sanctuary as I realized that many things I had believed in were untrue or, worse, things I had not believed in but had gone along with for other reasons.
The undergoders are often seen as stereotypes to readers of the book, but to me there was some resonance to their beliefs because they closely mirrored the ones I had been taught and emulated in my intense religious life. I did not like them, but I felt I understood them, and I found them more human towards the end of the book. And yet, I realized through reading On Wings of Song that “unbelievers” were people too, in a way that I had not really gotten from some of the literature I was reading in school at the time. While my peers constantly hurled homophobic slurs at me because I couldn’t get a date, I began to realize that gay people weren’t bad, they were feared for some reason, and that perhaps what I had been taught about them was incorrect (a position that was enlarged when I found that that Disch, Samuel R. Delany, and Graham Chapman were all gay). This was a big revelation to a former fundamentalist and high school outcast. This is one way in which the hyperbole of Disch’s future created a distanced vista for looking at the world from a different angle, one that parodied labels such as “gay” but that thorough them bitterly pointed out the foibles of all human life too.
The story’s slight science-fictionality shifted my perspective of it, whether through a mild estrangement or by its quirked re-lensing of contemporary American divisions. At first I had been upset because it undermined many things I had come to expect from my science fiction: straightforward narrative, a progression to triumph (or at least satisfaction), and a strong central hero who overcame all obstacles and made the reader feel powerful too. None of those things were present in Disch’s book, and in fact I realized that the story was undermining those ideas. After some thought, and some comparison to my personal experience with life, I found that while this disturbed me, I kind of liked the disturbance. On Wings of Song not only planted some seeds of contemplation about life, it jarred me out of my complacency and my unreflective thrill-seeking in SF, and made me wonder what else SF books were capable of. On Wings of Song opened up worlds of literature to me, and helped me to think more insightfully about my own life and the stories of reality that surrounded me.