Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thomas M. Disch's "Problems of Creativeness" and "Death of Socrates"

My copy of 334
In 1967 Thomas M. Disch's story "Problems of Creativeness" was first published. In 1972 a revised version of the story, entitled "Death of Socrates" appeared in 334.  Yesterday I read both versions of the story, curious as to what was different about them, and why Tom Shippey, editor of the 1992 anthology The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, might chose to publish the earlier version.   

"Problems of Creativeness" (1967)

"Problems of Creativeness," published in 1967, is the story of Birdie Ludd, college student and resident of a 21st century New York City full of public housing projects.  (Could his name be a reference to Ned Lud, the mythical leader of the Luddites, Georgian artisans who turned to violence in response to the technological advances that were threatening their livelihoods?)  Birdie is a dolt and an ignoramus who claims he does badly on one test because he was nervous (it was Friday the 13th!), is proud of getting the modal score on a physical fitness test, and thinks David's Death of Socrates is a Greek painting.

Birdie's lack of intelligence and any interest in art or literature is a problem because under the current eugenicist regime he will be forbidden to marry and have children unless he can pass some kind of intelligence test or earn a BA.  He's already failed the IQ tests, so college is just about his last chance to earn the right to reproduce.  He wants to reproduce because he is in love with his girlfriend, and she will leave him for someone else if he can't marry her and father her children.

In the cradle to grave welfare state of the 21st century a college education is the right of every American citizen, so there is nothing stopping Birdie from getting into college, and college is so easy even Birdie is able to maintain a C average.  But then Birdie starts skipping classes, and even loses track of the time and misses a major test, so is expelled.  His next chance is to produce a work of art or literature or give a performance that will convince the government that he has superior talents which don't show up on IQ tests or college exams.

The government provides Birdie with a stipend to live on and three months to produce his work of art (he chooses to write).   He sits in a public library cubicle with a screen which offers access to all the books in the major libraries of the United States and Europe.  Birdie, for the first time in his life, actually does some serious reading, and he is inspired.  The world, to him, suddenly, is a beautiful fascinating place!  Ecstatically he drafts his essay, redrafts it several times, then sends it off.

The essay, entitled "Problems of Creativeness," is laugh out loud bad, being full of stupid mistakes (Birdie refers to "Wolfgang Amadeus Goethe," for example) and making no sense.  Birdie has failed another test, and now his only hope of being given permission to reproduce is to show great bravery on the battlefield.  The story ends as Birdie joins the U.S. Marines, fated to participate in a war in Southeast Asia.

Disch is a very good writer and this is a very good story; Birdie seems like a real person, and the jokes are actually pretty funny.  But what is Disch trying to say; what is his attitude towards the society he presents in "Problems of Creativeness?"  In some ways, the government in this story seems to be very generous, a sort of left wing dream, with the government guaranteeing food and shelter and access to culture and education.  On the other hand there is the eugenics program, and the war in Southeast Asia, and suggestions that the public housing, food and education are not so good.  There are hints that Disch thinks that family and love are what are really important in life, and that the intrusive and generous government depicted in the story obstructs such things, at least for people of below average intelligence.  The fact that Birdie is so stupid and so lacking in discipline and character (he cheats on the girlfriend he keeps saying he loves, and expresses an irrational hatred of old people) muddies the issues; would a person this incompetent succeed in any society?  Maybe Disch's point is that government programs that ostensibly are meant to help the more vulnerable and underprivileged fail to do so, and destroy the ancient institutions (like the family) that in the past such people have relied on? 

"Death of Socrates" (1972)        
I'm calling this the "Hubba Hubba edition"
In 1972 334, a collection of Disch stories, sometimes called a novel, was published, and one of its component parts was a revised version of "Problems of Creativeness," now called "Death of Socrates."  In my edition of 334, the 1987 Carrol & Graf paperback, "Death of Socrates" is the first story.  I read the story yesterday after finishing "Problems of Creativeness," curious as to what changes Disch had made.

Additional scenes added in "Death of Socrates" make Disch's point of view a little more clear.  During a classroom discussion of Dante, a minor character argues that it is wrong for people to be punished for the circumstances of their birth.  A few pages later in this version of the story we learn that Birdie passed one of his tests, but then, when it was discovered by the eugenics people that Birdie's father had diabetes, Birdie's score was lowered.  Birdie is also penalized for his father's long stretches of unemployment.  (The government in this version seems less generous.)  On the plus side of the ledger, Birdie is given a few extra points for being black (or "a Negro," as the story puts it.)

A theme evident in much of Disch's work is the idea that we do not control our own destinies, and these changes make the story of Birdie Ludd fit right in with stories like "Assassin and Son" or "Slaves."  In "Problems of Creativeness" we watch as Birdie's stupidity and irresponsibility doom him, despite the chances the government gives him.  In this new version of the story we see that Birdie's fate is largely determined by things he has no control over, like his race, genetic predisposition to diseases, and his father's behavior.

Birdie is a somewhat different character in this version.  I don't think he was black in "Problems of Creativeness;" at least there was no evidence that he was, and other characters who were black were specifically described as "Negroes."  One such Negro in "Problems of Creativeness" was a thirteen-year-old girl whose ass twenty-year-old Birdie ogled.  There is no thirteen-year-old girl in "Death of Socrates."  Birdie is more violent in "Death of Socrates," and his antisemitism is also more obvious.

The 1974 version of the story is more explicit in several ways, with the words "fuck" and "cunt" making an appearance, and scenes of Birdie masturbating.  Maybe these scenes, as well as the implicit criticism of affirmative action and implications of African-American antisemitism, are why "Problems of Creativeness" was included in the 1992 Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories instead of "Death of Socrates?"  Or maybe legal issues regarding copyright were the reason.  Or maybe Tom Shippey just preferred the earlier version; I think I may prefer the earlier version myself.  The Birdie in 1967's "Problems of Creativeness" is more sympathetic, and the jokes in the story are funnier.  Disch even took out the "Wolfgang Amadeus Goethe" joke!


  1. I love the variety of spec fic on this site! From pulp to Thomas Disch!

    I couldn't help but notice in another post that Gene Wolfe is one of, if not your favorite author. Are you planning on reviewing any of his books, or perhaps copying over any review of his you might have previously posted elsewhere?

  2. I'm glad you enjoy the site. I enjoy a broad range of things - yesterday I watched the old Americanized version of "Gappa" ("Monster from a Prehistoric Planet") on youtube while I was doing housework and I thought it was really good!

    I'll definitely write about anything I read by Gene Wolfe. I haven't yet read Castleview,, and I have also been thinking of rereading The Wizard Knight or Peace which I have only read once.

    When I was writing reviews on Amazon I mostly just wrote reviews of books that nobody had reviewed, or wrote deliberately iconoclastic reviews, so I never reviewed any books by Wolfe.