Saturday, August 15, 2015

Four more 1960s Thomas Disch stories

Let's read four more Thomas Disch stories from the 1960s!  These appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination and Worlds of Tomorrow; I read them in my copy of the 1971 edition of the collection One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.

"Genetic Coda" (1964)

This is one of those Oedipal time travel stories in which a guy goes back in time and has sex with his mother.  (Heinlein famously explored similar themes in 1958's "'—All You Zombies—'" and the Lazarus Long stories.)  It is written in a jocular style, and is perhaps a parody of such stories as Heinlein's; I suspect, in writing "Genetic Coda," that Disch wasn't taking the possibility of time travel and its ramifications very seriously.

Our story takes place in a future in which the world government maintains rigid control over everybody's genetic purity, and its protagonist, Sextus, is a hunchbacked freak. We first meet our hero as a clever six-year old, living in seclusion on his rich father's estate, being educated by robot tutors.  The eugenicist government, under ordinary circumstances, would castrate or execute little Sextus (and his hunchbacked father Quintus) but Quintus has bribed them and promised that no freak will ever cross the bounds of the estate.  Sextus is very lonely, only rarely seeing his freakish father, his obese, abusive, and alcoholic mother, and the lawyer who manages the estate and helps keep the World Genetic Council off the family's back.  As a young man, Sextus becomes obsessed with sex, but of course can meet no girls.  He tries to change social attitudes by self-publishing a polemic novel urging tolerance of freaks and by using his family's vast wealth to manipulate the economy; when those methods fail he spends two trying to create an artificial woman in the lab, with no success.  Finally, in his early thirties, he hits upon the idea of building a Time Machine and travelling back in time, to a period before the estate was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and armed guards.  He has sex with the first woman he encounters beyond the confines of the estate, a drunk lying in the gutter.

I am often confused by time travel stories and their paradoxes, and I was definitely confused by the twist ending of "Genetic Coda."  Sextus has sex with his mother, sure enough, but I had expected the child produced from this union to be Sextus himself. Instead, he and Mom have a daughter, whom he names Septima.  The explanation for this is, I guess, that by travelling through time, Sextus has created, or shifted to, a different "continuum"--there is a scene right before Sextus picks up his lush of a mother in which Sextus sees himself (as Quintus) and Quintus "pops out of existence."
Quintus had been; he was no more.  Not in this continuum.
Sextus brings Septima to back the future with him, and they produce twins, Octavia and Octavius, who are not hunchbacks.  So, a happy ending.

Even though I didn't really get the rules of time travel Disch is using in this story, I enjoyed it; after all it was only the last two of the tale's ten pages that had me scratching my head.  The style is light and gently amusing, and carries you pleasantly along, and some of the droll jokes are decent:
Sextus ran downstairs to the laundry room, entered the secret chamber, and found his birthday president: several bales of hundred and thousand dollar bills.  It was just what he wanted.
"Why do you go to so much trouble for me, Mr. Sterling?" Sextus asked [the lawyer] one day.
"Because you're worth millions, Sexy."  Mr. Sterling loved money more than he hated freaks.  He was a liberal in the old style.
Thumbs up!

"Dangerous Flags" (1964)

In the introduction to the collection Harry Harrison tells us that Disch informed him that "'Dangerous Flags' was written with pure delight," and Harrison recommends that readers begin with it.

Well, Disch may have enjoyed writing it, but I was groaning while I read it.  "Dangerous Flags" is one of those absurdist fables full of archetypal figures, dumb jokes, and nonsensical events; perhaps it is trying to reproduce the feeling of a whimsical children's story or an insane dream.  I don't like these kinds of stories; they are too unmoored from reality to inspire any interest or emotion, and the points they try to make always feel facile.

The plot: An evil English teacher and her stupid rich nephew are trying to destroy a Pennsylvania mining town with poisonous coal gas and a waterspout.  The Green Magician leaps to the defense of the town.  Their struggle includes riddles ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?") and magic spells activated by the recitation of poems by Longfellow and Tennyson.  Finally, the Green Magician triumphs by summoning the Snow Fairy.  

"Dangerous Flags" reminded me of Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and Joanna Russ's "The Zanzibar Cat," neither of which I'm crazy about.  Even worse, while those stories seem to be trying to get across some kind of point (in Ellison's case, with a heavy hand), "Dangerous Flags" seems almost like pure surrealism.  Could Disch be pursuing revenge on an English teacher he hated in his youth?  (And who had a rich nephew?)  Is "Dangerous Flags" a hamfisted and oblique environmentalist story?  Maybe it's a derisive attack on American civic culture: there is a farcical town hall meeting; the townspeople elect the Green Magician king; and in the final lines of the story the Green Magician sings his favorite song, "America the Beautiful."  Could Disch be lampooning specific events in the early 1960s that I am ignorant of (there is a mention of the Republican Party, which Disch likens to the Ku Klux Klan, and a "Eurasian spy")?

Well, whatever is going on in "Dangerous Flags," I don't care for it.  Thumbs down!

"The Sightseers" (1965)

This is one of those stories in which the world is not what it seems, and the characters (and readers, it is hoped) are surprised to discover the true nature of things.  It is the future, and rich people, known as Sightseers, pay to have access to the "Deep Freeze."  Every evening, after a day of leisure or tourism, they are frozen, and sleep for a century.  Then they are defrosted, and emerge to see how the world has changed in their absence.  The world, however, never seems to be any different.

We follow two couples, a wheelchair bound man (appropriately named Nestor) and his sprightly female companion (Ramona), and an older woman (Myrna Balch of the Little Rock Balches) and her young virile gigolo (Jimmy).  These four white people, like all Sightseers, are served by attentive black people known as Nubians.  Jimmy wonders why centuries of time passing never seem to change anything, why the only people he ever meets are Sightseers and Nubians, and why the sterile cities they visit contain no stores or offices.  He discovers that the Nubians are robots or cyborgs, and realizes that the only human beings left in the world are the decadent Sightseers, who pursue empty, unproductive lives.  Jimmy and Ramona run off to found a colony of humans who will live real, full, lives, away from the Deep Freeze, growing their own food and starting families.  In the last scene we learn that the joke is on them: Jimmy and Ramona are not human, either, but cyborgs purchased by Nestor and Myrna, little more than advanced sex toys.

Disch adds on an extra layer of pessimism by making it clear that Myrna Balch is vapid and ignorant;  on the third page of the thirteen-page story we learn she has never even heard of Dante or Goethe.  The Earth has been inherited by a tiny elite, and not even the kind of elite that will keep alive the beauties of Western civilization.  

This story is just OK; I feel like I've encountered all its elements before, and Disch doesn't do much that is new with them.

"The Vamp" (1965)

I watched way too much TV as a kid, and all kinds of weird sounds, images and ideas are always rattling around inside my head.  Ever since I first looked at the contents page of One Hundred and Two H-Bombs I have been hearing the phrase "The Vamp" in my mind, spoken in the same emphatic yet restrained tones used by the narrators of one of my favorite Woody Woodpecker cartoons, "Under the Counter Spy," when saying "The Bat."

Anyway, this is a pedestrian humor story about a vampire that consists primarily of feeble jokes.  A guy meets his ex-wife on the street.  She's just back from Transylvania and wants to kiss him on the neck!  When he takes her home she asks him to cover the mirrors!  When he offers to make her a steak she says she would prefer to eat it raw!  When she finds he has seasoned the steak with garlic she flees from the house!

This material feels old and tired.  Disch tries to liven it up by setting it in Hollywood and having the man and his ex-wife be washed up silent film stars, and filling the story with (authentic-sounding but I believe bogus) references to Old Hollywood, but it doesn't help very much.

Not good.


I gotta say, this batch of stories was kind of disappointing.  There was certainly nothing as fine as "The Return of the Medusae" or "The Demi-Urge," though I liked "Genetic Coda."  Well, there are fourteen stories in the US edition of One Hundred and Two H-Bombs, I guess you have to expect a few clunkers and failed experiments.

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