Sunday, February 9, 2014

Three SF stories by Thomas M. Disch

As Joachim Boaz reminded us via twitter, Thomas M. Disch’s birthday was this month. I recently enjoyed some of Disch’s art criticism, and his fine novel, On Wings of Song, so I decided to read (and reread) some stories from the 1980 Bantam collection Fundamental Disch. I’m not crazy about the cover (a pun on “mental,” I guess) but a cover with a rocket ship or a sexy girl or a slavering monster wouldn’t really make sense, and maybe by 1980 the days of abstract Richard Powers covers were coming to a close.  Maybe a picture of the New York City skyline would have made sense.

The three stories I read today all fit into the conventional definition of “science fiction;” they all include telepathy, and two of them are about the future.

“102 H-Bombs” (1965)

This is the title story from an earlier Disch collection, and is, in part, a sort of satire of the United States military and the Cold War as well as an anti-war story. (Disch served briefly in the U S Army in the late 1950s; things didn’t work out.) It also seems like a faint reference to Isaac Asimov’s famous idea of “psycho-history.”

For decades the world has been gripped in a dreadful low intensity war following a political crisis around the year 2000, when much of New York City was bombed into rubble. Fortunately the Empire State Building was one of the few surviving buildings; now NYC (population three million) is mostly covered in federally-owned hydroponic agricultural facilities, leaving the ESB the last privately-owned building in town.

Charlie is the smartest member of a 28-boy-strong company of ten-year-old orphans, training in the MidWest under Drillmaster Grist. Charlie and Grist get an opportunity to go to New York, where Charlie and 101 other ten-year-old geniuses have been gathered by the firm that owns the ESB. Charlie becomes part of a complicated time-travelling conspiracy: robot agents of the inhabitants of the peaceful world of 3652 AD have come back in time to fix all the screwups that occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the ESB is their home base.

This is a good story. It includes many of the themes we see in Disch’s work; the MidWesterner who leaves his stifling home to find freedom and beauty in New York, the genius being used by the government to help the war effort, the way inexplicable outside forces manipulate our lives. This one has an essentially happy ending, though.

“Assassin and Son” (1964)

This is a quite good story, a pivotal day in the life of a young man living on an alien planet. Disch economically develops an intricate and vivid milieu, a planet inhabited by monarchical blob people which is used by the Earth as a sort of penal colony. The blobs have a powerful taboo against murder, but are approximately as corrupt as humans, and so the humans on the blob planet are employed as assassins in the blobs’ many personal and political disputes. In this short tale Disch manages to get across his common themes about how religion is a scam and how our lives are out of our control, while also delivering good characters and a solid plot about family relationships and cross-cultural and cross-class relationships. I read this years ago, and reread it yesterday; I really like it.

“The Roaches” (1965)

This story is good, another I have read before. I think this is one of Disch’s more famous stories, widely anthologized in horror collections.

A young woman from the MidWest moves to Manhattan where things don’t go so well for her. She wages a ceaseless war against the roaches in her apartment, until finally realizing she can telepathically communicate with the insects; the roaches fall in love with her and are eager to follow her commands. She becomes their queen and (with no family, no boyfriend, no friends even) she returns their love! The final image the story leaves you with is of all the roaches in the city converging on a single apartment building to be with their beloved ruler.

I probably like the “life in NYC” aspects of the story more than the SF/horror elements. I’ve lived in four different Manhattan apartments and one apartment in Queens, and I have fought my own wars with roaches.


So, a very good story and two good stories.  Tomorrow I will read more stories from Fundamental Disch

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