Thursday, August 13, 2015

Five 1963 stories by Thomas M. Disch

Long-time readers of this here blog will perhaps recall my praise of Thomas Disch's novel On Wings of Song, his fix-up novel 334, and some of his short stories.  Followers of my twitter feed may remember that earlier this month, in South Carolina, a thousand miles away by Toyota Corolla from my Midwestern HQ, I purchased a 1971 copy of Disch's 1967 collection One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.

Besides the fine cover painting (presumably by Paul Lehr) this edition has an intro by Harry Harrison of Stainless Steel Rat and Eden fame.  Harrison describes Disch's physical appearance in the early '60s, and gives a little capsule history of the "New Wave," which he says is a poor label for the phenomenon.  As Harrison tells it, the science fiction field was in a "grey period" in the early '60s, but then a bunch of new writers, writers who had read widely of mainstream literature and travelled around the world (Disch and Harrison both spent time in London, Harrison reminds us) appeared on the scene.  These new writers were a breath of fresh air that shook the old dinosaurs of SF, whom Harrison declines to name.  According to Harrison, Disch is "about the best of this pack," a man who writes in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess, producing works that are "comic," but don't try to make you laugh out loud.

I think Disch is an exciting, challenging writer (I like his irreverent criticism as well as his fiction) and so I have really been looking forward to tackling some stories from One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.  This week I read five stories from the collection, all of which appeared in 1963, in either Amazing Stories or Fantastic Stories of Imagination

"Final Audit"

"Final Audit" appeared first in the July issue of Fantastic.

This is an ingenious and absurd fantasy story, set in the late nineteenth century, starring a bank auditor who has access to very specific but trivial occult information; inexplicably, he can see the figures he will write in one of his ledgers (the one covering the bank's postal expenses) 30 days before he writes them.  He tries to use this very minor predictive ability to his advantage, but with no luck.  In fact, focusing so much on this ledger stultifies his career and social life. When the ledger actually does provide valuable information (that the bank will burn down) the auditor is too obtuse to benefit by it, and, in a somewhat predictable twist ending, he causes the conflagration himself.

"False Audit" is well-written and well-constructed, and an effective spoof of or homage to stories about the ability to predict the future.  Because the story is set in a bank Disch is able to include numerous attacks on the bourgeoisie of the kind that we find so often in fiction: the stockmarket is no better than gambling, businesspeople are all callous, corrupt, and greedy, etc.

I liked it.  

"The Return of the Medusae"

"The Return of the Medusae" appeared with "The Princess's Carillon" and a third story by Disch in the August issue of Fantastic; isfdb lists all three together as components of the "Fables of the Past and Future series."

This is a clever story, less than two pages in length, that speculates on how the survivors would react if suddenly and unexpectedly everyone awake was turned to stone.  Which statues would be left intact, even decorated with flowers by grieving relatives?  Which would be smashed because they were ugly or simply in the way (think of people turned to stone while in the middle of a bowel movement)?  Would artists chisel away at the doomed, trying to improve their looks, change their expressions?  The story is convincingly written in the voice of an historian or art critic, living long after the event.


"The Princess' Carillon"

This is a farcical satire of welfare state liberalism, or of fears of welfare state liberalism, or both.  A nine-year old white princess, an orphan, is physically and psychologically abused by the regent, her uncle, but the legislature supports the regent because of his well-administered welfare program.  The little princess is sent to an integrated school, where she fears the black kids will kill her ("or worse.")  A black boy tells her he is really a prince, and will return to his "proper form and color" if the princess kisses him.  She kisses him, and he becomes a frog, whom she marries.

I tend to not like absurd satires, and I'm not getting much out of this one; there is no character or plot, no human feeling, and no point that I can really discern.  It is only two and a half pages, so I can't really argue it is a waste of time, but I'm not willing to tell you that time reading it was well spent, either.

"The Demi-Urge"

There are words that I learned at one point, but, because they don't come up very often, whose meaning I tend to forget, so that every few years, when they do come up, I have to look up.  "Defenestration" is one, and "demiurge" is another.  Maybe this story will permanently imbed "demiurge" in my porous brain.

This story, three pages long, consists of two messages, each sent by a member of a survey team from a Galactic Empire back to HQ; this team is examining our solar system, during a time when Earthlings have colonized the entire system and are preparing to travel to the stars.  One of the messages laments that the Terrans have become slaves to their Machines, and requests permission to liberate the Earth people by destroying all the Machines.  The second message is from a dissenting member of the survey team.  He asserts that those his comrades believe to be Machines are in fact the native Terrans, and those they wish to liberate the true Machines.  This mistake has been made because the Galactic Empire itself is populated by Machines, created by a race long extinct, a fact forgotten for millennia and only now evident because the Empire has stumbled upon true living beings for the first time in recorded history.  The revelation that the citizens of the Empire are not natural entities, but artificial constructions of an earlier natural race, will cause an inferiority complex that will shake the Empire's foundations.

Pretty good.  "The Demi-Urge" first appeared in the June issue of Amazing and is now available at

"Utopia? Never!"

Utopias and utopianism are common topics in science fiction--during the life of this blog I have read stories by Theodore Sturgeon and Edgar Pangborn which present utopias, as well as stories by Clare Winger Harris, R. A. Lafferty, and Tanith Lee that express skepticism of utopianism.  I was intrigued by the title of this three-page story, curious to see how Disch would engage with the idea of Utopia in this short format.

I was a little disappointed; this is an entertaining story, but little more than a twist-ending thriller kind of thing.  The planet of New Katanga (the name is a clue to what is going on), called "Utopia" by its inhabitants, has great wealth, because it exports the finest fleece in the galaxy.  Due to a secret process, the "gobblers" raised on New Katanga have much better fleece than gobblers raised on other planets.  This monopoly produces enough money for the Utopians to live lives of ease, dining on the finest cuisine in the galaxy, surrounded by beautiful architecture.

The overt theme of the story is voiced by a tourist visiting the planet, who declares that a utopia is impossible: "'There's always a fly in the ointment...Injustice is a part of human nature.  A society can't do without it.'"  This is the kind of pessimism we have every right to expect from the author of 334!   Despite his skepticism, the tourist is enjoying his visit, and jumps at the chance to become a citizen of New Katanga.  Then it is revealed how the Utopians produce such fine gobbler fleece--immigrants are fed alive to the gobblers!  It is a diet of human flesh which makes the gobbler fleece of New Katanga so fine.  The evil behind New Katanga is made explicit when we (and the tourist) discover that the gobblers are fed in a Roman-style arena, before rapt crowds of spectators.

Presumably this is yet another literary attack on successful businesspeople; the Katangans make their profits and finance their high lifestyle through monopoly and murder.  It also reminded me of the dream sequence in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which scenes of a utopia are followed by a vision of human sacrifice.
An acceptable entertainment.  "Utopia? Never!" first appeared in Amazing's August issue.


A pretty good selection; 1963 was evidently a good year for Disch and his fans.  "The Return of the Medusae" and "The Demi-Urge," in particular, are models of good "short-shorts;" they offer striking ideas and are imbued with emotional content and psychological insight.  "Final Audit" and "Utopia? Never!" are well-put-together and entertaining.  As for "The Princess' Carillon," well, you can't win them all.

More stories from One Hundred and Two H-Bombs in our next episode!

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