Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Four stories by Thomas Disch from 1966

It's time to finish up with my 1971 US edition of the Thomas Disch collection One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.  (I read and blogged about the title story back in early 2014.)  All four remaining stories first appeared in 1966.

"5 Eggs" (1966)

This one first appeared in the anthology Orbit 1, edited by Damon Knight.  It's a good one, and is a good example of what I think of when I think of a characteristic Disch story; it is full of references to Shakespeare, Ovid, and Botticelli, it includes a sentence in Latin, a broken heart and a pathetic tragedy, as well as a central ironic joke.  It is only eight pages long, but Disch constructs the story as largely a bunch of flashbacks and documents, instead of a straightforward narrative.

The plot, in linear fashion: A wealthy ornithologist meets a beautiful alien woman and they have an affair, she living with him for two months.  She is a cruel lover who deliberately hurts him psychologically and physically, but he finds her irresistible and they become engaged. She leaves him just before the start of the party he is throwing to celebrate their engagement.  He takes some consolation in the fact that she has left behind five eggs, and instructions on how to hatch them.  Presumably, these are the product of their relationship.  The cruel alien has played a trick on the ornithologist, however, contrived a way to fool the housekeeper into including the eggs in a salad which he and his friends ate at the sad party meant to celebrate his engagement to the only woman he has ever loved.

A superior piece of work, the plot, structure, style, emotional impact and economy all remarkably good.  Five stars for "Five Eggs"!

"Three Points on the Demographic Curve" (1966)

This one first saw light of day in SF Impulse, a short-lived British magazine, edited by Harry Harrison for most of its existence.

It is the year 2240!  Government and Science! have been grappling with the problem of overpopulation for ages.  People live in tiny cubicles, children are raised in government barracks manned by robots, and, like in that Genesis song, the authorities have reduced human height!  But the Earth is still running out of room.

So, the authorities don't really mind when a Dickensianly-named guy from the future appears in a time machine and starts kidnapping children by the thousands, to repopulate a future Earth depopulated by war:
Prosper Ashfield was not a happy man.
As a youth, he had dreamed, as almost every young man dreams, of being the Last Man on Earth. Unlike other young men, Prosper had the good fortune to realize this ambition.
(Again we see the understated humor I enjoyed in "Genetic Coda.")

Prosper's plans fail, because the 23rd century kids have been ill-equipped by their education to rebuild society... these kids can barely walk, much less construct a new civilization.  Having been raised by robots, they love machines, so Prosper goes back to 1790 and sells them to a Scottish businessman, who puts them to work in a factory. Disch explains that Prosper is to be credited with the sharp increase in population at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

With 1790 and 2240 as Disch's first two points, the third is in the far future, when Prosper, the last man, goes into suspended animation, instructing his robots to try to "reverse entropy" and wake him up if they succeed.  His robots managed to make a time machine, so given enough time, maybe they can accomplish this similarly audacious task.

"Three Points on the Demographic Curve" is not bad, but I felt like the plot fizzled instead of delivering any kind of emotional payoff, surprise, or funny punchline.

"Invaded by Love" (1966)

This story was first published in New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock, which is considered a sort of flagship of the New Wave.  It takes place in New York City, which of course pulls at my heartstrings!  To think that I used to live among all the places mentioned, the UN, Rockefeller Center, Tudor City, Sutton Place, St. Patrick's Cathedral. How many hours did I spend, sitting on a park bench or standing on a street corner, eating a slice of pizza or a bagel, admiring just these very buildings, watching the world go by.  That was the Technicolor period of my life, sandwiched between black and white stretches like Dorothy Gale's dream of a life of adventure in another world over the rainbow.

Enough about the Rise and Fall of MPorcius--back to "Invaded by Love."  It is the late 1970s!  An alien preacher has come to Earth, and used high tech hypnotism, the distribution of drugs (little yellow pills), and appeals to traditional Earth religious sentiments to get most of humanity to join his "Universal Brotherhood of Love."  War and violent crime essentially cease, but people also stop slaughtering cattle, fishing, and exterminating insects, leading to widespread hunger and economic crises.

Our main character is the head of the UN, who, like in so many SF stories, is some kind of world chief executive, the commander in chief of a hegemonic military (in this story the UN has a moonbase with an arsenal of nuclear missiles.)  I feel like during my entire life (I was born in 1971) that Americans have considered the UN a sort of debating society attached to a charity, an institution we take about as seriously as the Red Cross or the YMCA, but in these SF stories Americans are always willingly relinquishing their independence and power to some foreigner (in this story an Australian) because he's UN Secretary General.

The Australian UN guy, Seneca Traquair, is one of the few people to refuse to take the little yellow pill, and he resists the alien's demand that Earth immediately disarm.  The alien tries to hypnotize him, then kidnaps his son, but Traquair continues to resist, to the point of gunning down the alien in his office and nuking his orbiting space ship. But resistance is futile; the single alien missionary with one ship is replaced by an army of aliens with an armada of ships, and humanity is overwhelmed by their hypnotic power:
From the moment the invaders landed, the converts ceased to have wills of their own, lives of their own.  They were absorbed in the Ground of All Being and obeyed the Universal Will.     
Even Traquair succumbs, and rushes to embrace and obey Earth's new arachnid ruler.

I feel like I've read or seen a million of these SF stories in which "peace-loving" aliens put the screws to the Earth and make us violent humans behave; the film The Day the Earth Stood Still and the novels Hero's Walk (by Robert Crane) and The Killer Thing (by Kate Wilhelm) come to mind, as do Cosmic Rape / To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, which actually have the same "collective consciousness" angle that Disch hints at here in "Invaded by Love." Those five works all seem to be cheerleading for the human race to be dominated by an alien empire, but Disch, by likening the aliens to missionaries (like most SF writers, Disch is hostile to religion) and drug pushers, stressing the Big Brother aspects ("He [Traquair in the final pages of the story] loved his Father and did what he was told") and the starvation caused by the alien's love cult, appears to be more skeptical of alien imperialism.  While Clarke and the rest denounce Western imperialism by engaging in a somewhat hypocritical wish fulfillment fantasy in which extraterrestrial imperialism of the Earth is good, Disch (similar to how I think Wells does in War of the Worlds) denounces Western imperialism by having Earth stand in for the colonized and aliens stand in for the colonizer.  Going further than all these writers, the pessimistic Disch has the Earth be conquered and human freedom eliminated without whitewashing (or celebrating) this tragedy.

Not bad.

"Bone of Contention" (1966)

This story first was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

In the future, apparently related to a revival of interest in the culture of Ancient Egypt, many Americans cease interring their dead relatives and instead have them preserved in lifelike poses and leave them sitting around the house.  An older couple has over half a dozen such preserved corpses in the house, and the husband is getting sick of it; he'd like to sit in the rocking chair in the den currently occupied by Uncle Maurice, who died twenty years ago!  The wife loves her (currently bloodless) blood relatives more than she loves her husband, it turns out, and murders him when he tries to have Maurice carted off to a (in this future society, gauche and declasse) Christian cemetery.  A forgiving soul, she does have her husband preserved and sat in a new armchair right next to Maurice.

This story is OK.  I guess it suits the tone of macabre jocularity cultivated by Hitchcock in his TV appearances.


British 1967 edition of the collection,
which does not include "5 Eggs" or
"Three Points on the Demographic Curve"
So, I've read every story from the 1971 edition of One Hundred and One H-Bombs.  It is a worthwhile collection, and the Harry Harrison introduction is also of interest.  But this exploration of SF history was not without its costs.  In the course of reading my copy, the dried glue of the spine gave up the ghost and my 160 page book now consists of a cover and 80 loose sheets, which I will have to entomb in one of those clear plastic baggies.  Rest In Peace, One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.    

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