Thomas M. Disch has had a remarkably wide ranging career as a theater critic, poet, poetry reviewer, horror novelist and science fiction writer and commentator. Despite his range and impressive body of work, he tends to be undervalued within the SF community. Until he recently won a Hugo for his book of SF criticism, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, his work was neglected by fans; Disch no longer wrote SF and most of his work in the genre languished out of print. His more recent novels are horror, a genre in which he has achieved some commercial success. Upon reflection it seems clear to me that Disch’s work is undervalued in SF circles because of his relatively bleak vision of the world, science and humanity. There is a long tradition, especially in America, that science fiction should be optimistic about technology, science and the future, ideally with a problem solving protagonist, a view championed by many influential figures in modern SF such as Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell.1
Disch’s work exemplifies a divergent strand within SF’s metanarrative, one always present but never dominant, skeptical about science and technology, concerned with literary value and pessimistic about the future.2 Disch entered this alternate tradition via the New Wave particularly with two recently reissued landmark novels Camp Concentration and The Genocides.
Originally serialized in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, Camp Concentration was, like much of the New Wave work of the time, a product of rebellion. Camp Concentration depicts a near future America at war in Malaysia, a conflict loosely based on Vietnam (which was ongoing when the novel was written), albeit a Vietnam in which America uses tactical nukes and has degenerated into a police state as a reaction to homeland biological attacks — a realistic premise if you consider the reaction to 911. Disch extrapolates social tendencies to create an exaggerated portrayal of aspects of America that the Left objected to in the 60s.
The narrator Louis Sacchetti is an American poet and jailed conscientious objector to the draft, perhaps modeled on Disch who is a poet and politically leftist. The novel takes place in a prison where an unnamed corporation and the military run experiments on increasing human intelligence with the drug Pallidine, which increases IQ but kills its user in about 9 months. The title contains the double edged meaning that the prison is a concentration camp and it increases the inmates’ intellect.
Louie Sacchetti – like the narrator of Flowers For Algernon — writes the novel in the form of a diary. Initially he struggles to write or concentrate in prison, battling the limitations of his talent and mind, but as his intellect expands he finds himself writing faster and more effectively. The steady increase of the narrator’s intelligence is signified by the more complex vocabulary and denser prose of the novel’s later sections.
Genius stands out as a significant theme for science fiction, especially among the fans, who identify themselves with the hyper intelligent: from the slans of the Golden age to the more recent rapture of the nerds. The novel criticizes that mentality, portraying the limitations of high intelligence.
The army prison Camp Archimedes houses the experimental subjects of Pallidine, mostly AWOL or insubordinate soldiers who experience several months of brilliance while physically deteriorating and dying. Mordecai Washington, the leader of the prisoners, requested that Louis Sacchetti be transferred to the prison. He went to high school with Sacchetti, who ignored him because of his limited intellect, in Mordecai’s own words he was a “dumb son of a bitch” (34). Now Pallidine has transformed Mordecai into a genius with an impressive vocabulary and memory.
Despite Mordecai’s startling intellect he bears out the comment of Dr. Busk, one of the project’s scientists, who claims that maximized intelligence makes people poorly socialized and often of questionable utility to society. Mordecai and his followers waste their time studying alchemy rather than a legitimate science out of the forlorn hope that they can discover the elixir of long life and save themselves from the Pallidine.
One central episode dramatizes Mordecai’s alchemical experiment with the Magnum Opus, the alchemical great work which supposedly grants immortality. The camp’s warden is a buffoon who bases important decisions on astrology and mysticism and fully supports Mordecai’s work. During the experiment, the Pallidine enhanced prisoners give Mordecai and the warden an elixir of eternal life, chant a prayer and hook them to a machine which supposedly magnifies the elixir’s power. After drinking the potion, the warden leaps up and announces that he feels immortal, but Mordecai collapses from an embolism — the elixir and the experiment have made a fool of the warden and a dead man of Mordecai, whose high intelligence seems to have led him in a bizarre and useless direction.
The novel’s attitude toward science is skeptical. The project’s scientists boost intelligence by infecting their patients with a mutation of the syphilis organism that is immune to penicillin. After years of infecting rabbits with the mutation, army scientists have discovered that the animals grow smarter, learning for example how to escape their cages. The novel’s science bases itself on speculation that geniuses who suffered from syphilis such as Nietzsche benefited from it intellectually before dying, thus making high intelligence, disease and madness closely connected. One of the project’s scientists paraphrases Koestler’s claim that genius “is simply the bringing together of two hitherto distinct spheres of reference . . . a talent for juxtapositions” (53), occurring when “the mind disintegrates, and the old, distinct categories are for a little while fluid and capable of reformation” (53). Both the genius and madman witness categories disintegrating, but the genius makes positive use of this destruction whereas a madman merely falls apart.
The idea that madness and genius are closely connected is an old cultural construct more characteristic of romantic poetry than rational science fiction. Disch uses that cultural construct as the basis of the novel’s science, allowing him to combine his mainstream interests in poetry and literature with SF, returning us to the genre’s roots and the Romantic writer Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with its scientific skepticism.
The novel relies heavily on allusions, an example of the New Wave focus on bringing more literary elements into SF. The most prominent allusion is to Faustus and the theme of selling one’s soul for knowledge. The Pallidine enhanced prisoners perform a version of the play Faustus and the narrator writes a review of their performance, a reference to Disch’s interest in theater criticism. The nuclear physicist Skilliman best represents the Faustus theme; he and his students willingly take the Pallidine, trading their lives for a period of augmented intelligence. Skilliman spends his months as a genius trying to invent a bomb that would destroy continents, which would outdo previous nuclear physicists, who invented bombs that merely destroyed cities.
Skilliman is a Dr. Strangelove-esque character who parodies the National Security state and the mentality of Cold Warriors. While talking to Louie, Skilliman pushes the Cold War policy of mutual assured destruction to the point of nihilism:
The exciting thing, you know, is that it’s altogether possible [to destroy the world]. It’s possible to make weapons of absolutely god-like power. We can blow this little world apart the way we used to explode tomatoes with firecrackers. We only have to make the weapons and give them to our dear governments. They can be counted to carry the ball from there (138).
Skilliman has learned to love the bomb; his lust for destruction exemplifies the New Wave theme of entropy. Skilliman longs for the heat death of the universe and can contribute modestly to that long process by helping destroy the human race.
The important New Wave theme of entropy stands out as a prominent concern. As the hyper intelligent characters physically deteriorate and die, they attempt to stave off entropy, to create something worthwhile from life before death or to create a cure for Pallidine’s ill effects. Their efforts ultimately seem futile in the face of death and the winding down of the universe.
The pulp-like disappointing conclusion reverses the effect of the earlier chapters: whereas most of the novel displays the helplessness of intelligence to stave off entropy, at the end the prisoners escape death through the chicanery of the alchemical experiments.
In the final chapter the narrator Louie discovers that the alchemical discussions between Mordecai and the other prisoners are a secret code allowing them to communicate despite the warden and the guards recording their conversations. As Mordecai points out: “Once this language [the alchemical code] had been established several researches [at escaping death from Pallidine] were undertaken, but the most promising proved [to be] . . . mechanical brainwave duplications and storage. . . . The consideration that had stopped us had been how to get the brain-thing out of storage? The only sensible container for it would be another human body” (156).
During the experiment in the Magnum Opus the machine actually switched Mordecai’s consciousness into the warden’s body and vice versa. After that the prisoners one by one transferred their minds into the guard’s bodies. Instead of Mordecai’s alchemical researches being a sign of madness, they masked his true purpose and enabled the prisoners to escape death.
The novel’s conclusion presages the rapture of the nerds with the hyper intelligent characters creating a machine that duplicates their consciousness and downloads it into different bodies. The narrator points out that Mordecai and his followers developed a mind “reciprocator” that could record and play back a mind at the same time, managing to develop the machine while maintaining the illusion of the Magnum Opus: “the most powerful testimony that I have yet seen to the power of Pallidine” (156).
So what to make of a novel that appears to parody hyper intelligent slans then shows them triumphing at the end? I view the ending as the novel’s weakest section where Disch does not fully embrace the bleakness of his themes and vision. I suspect — although I have no proof — that the publisher may have required the optimistic ending. A number of New Wave writers were forced to tack on “optimistic” endings to get their novels published.
The questions Disch asks are more interesting than the conclusion. After all, can genius conquer entropy and death? That is what fans desire when they dream of becoming slans, computers or disembodied AIs. Are genius and madness closely connected, sometimes making genius unstable and socially useless? What about the political madness, the degeneration into a police state? The ending avoids rather than resolves these issues, reading more as deus ex machina or wish fulfillment.
However, despite the disappointing end, the novel is a brilliantly written, under read classic that engages the roots of SF: both its pulp past and the new wave. It brings literary element to SF with its attention to writing style and allusions.
A bleaker novel even then Camp Concentration, Disch’s The Genocides engages and reinterprets many SF tropes, cynically deconstructing significant themes such as the Campbellian hero, science, progress and humanity’s importance in the universe.
Earth has been invaded, but we never see the aliens: we see their giant plants, and their automated flame throwing machines exterminate native life forms. The aliens have seeded the earth with plants which sometimes reach heights of 600 feet, spread faster than they can be destroyed, develop immunities to poisons, and crowd out the indigenous vegetation and wildlife.
In the first chapter, the novel appears to pit one man’s strong will against the aliens. Anderson, an unremitting Prophet who views the plants as a curse from an angry and vengeful god, holds together the small community of Tassel by inventing clever ways for them to survive such as draining the plants’ sap and feeding it to their crops, which kills the plants and feeds the corn. Anderson appears to be a traditional SF character: a brilliant problem solver who attempts to defeat the technologically superior aliens through will power. This type of character served as a fixture partly because of John W. Campbell’s dictum that aliens should never defeat humans. Since Astounding was SF’s best paying market Campbell’s dictates held sway. However, Disch destroys any notion that this novel fits into that tradition by the end of chapter one when the alien’s flame throwing machines kill the town’s cows and Anderson’s youngest son. This tragedy shows us we are in for a bleak vision, and there is no guarantee humans will triumph in the end regardless of the survivors’ ingenuity or will.
The town of Tassel maintains discipline by publicly whipping malefactors. The whip, which takes on symbolic significance, probably refers to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, keeping the novel well within SF’s metanarrative. In Heinlein the whip and discipline maintain order in the military and society and ultimately help mankind conquer the aliens. In Genoicides corporal punishment also maintains order, but that discipline proves futile against the encroaching plants, displaying humanity’s insignificance in the universe.
Unable to accept the meaninglessness of Earth’s devastation, Anderson believes that a vengeful god punishes humankind, but eventually he starts to realize the truth — significantly after the alien’s automated flamethrowers destroy the last Bible by burning a building — “the process of their annihilation was something quite mechanical: that mankind’s destroyers were not . . . fighting a war but merely spraying the garden” (70-71). To the superior aliens, humanity’s genocide contains no more meaning than the fumigation of insects. To Anderson mankind is important enough for God to destroy the world to punish him, but in reality humanity is utterly insignificant.
The novel’s conclusion emphasizes humanity’s insignificance. Five humans survive at the end: Anderson’s surviving son Buddy, his wife Maryann and their child, as well as his sister Blossom and her lover Orville. The four managed to survive by retreating into the subterranean root system of the giant plants like insects. The description of them at the end is devastating:
Just as a worm passing through an apple may suppose that the apple, its substance and quality consists merely of those few elements which have passed through his own meager body, while in fact his whole being is enveloped in the fruit and his passage has scarcely diminished it, so Buddy and Maryann and their child, Blossom and Orville, emerging from the earth after a long passage through the labyrinthine windings of their own, purely human evils, were not aware of the all-pervading presence of the larger evil that lies without, which we call reality. There is evil everywhere, but we can only see what is in front of our noses, only remember what has passed through our bellies (141).
The apple represents the vast evil of the universe outside humanity’s control and understanding. The last living humans — the worms — believe that they have escaped danger, can bear children and perpetuate the human race. They see the immediate dangers, but do not realize that the malign universe will destroy them, a bleak vision that makes Anderson’s Calvinism reassuring.
The novel parodies religion, a tendency Disch has displayed throughout his career, for example, his horror novel The Priest so antagonized Catholics that the Church denounced it. In The Genocides the community of Tassel is bound together via a perverse Eucharist. Marauders occasionally show up in the community to steal or beg for food. Since the community barely has enough food to feed themselves, they kill the marauders; after all, kindness invites more beggars. After killing the marauders, the community grinds them into sausage and eats them to supplement their desperately spare diet of meat and protein. Anderson insists on this act, which becomes a Eucharist uniting the community in murder and cannibalism.
Although Disch incorporates a number of ambitious ideas into the short work, he fails to fully develop and dramatize the characters. Take this description of Anderson’s youngest daughter Blossom: All through these last, long days of her father’s dying, and even before, Blossom had been too much alone. She had felt that there was something he wanted to say to her but that he wouldn’t let himself say it. This restraint humiliated her. She had thought that he did not want her to see him dying, and she had forced herself to stay away. Alice and Maryann, with whom she would customarily have passed her time, had no concern now but the baby. Blossom wanted to help them, but she was too young. She was at that age when one is uncomfortable in the presence of either birth or death (103-104). This passage describes an interesting character that is not stock or clichéd But Disch needs more dramatized scenes between Blossom, her father, Alice and Maryann showing rather than telling the reader about these characters, thus bringing them more to life.
Despite the occasional flaws, both novels are the creation of a unique writer whose sharp satirical vision has failed to make him popular with genre audiences. Genocides and Camp Concentration remain two of the first SF works to question the genre’s insistence on optimism and the notion that humanity should always defeat the alien — thus increasing the number of themes and concepts available for writers. Disch creates meaning by referring to SF’s megatext, reinterpreting the genre’s history and common tropes. The novels stand out as excellent examples of the New Wave attempt to bring literary values into genre SF incorporating allusion, a poetic writing style, symbolism and many other literary techniques more common to mainstream fiction. I feel these challenging works, that question many traditional preconceptions, deserve a broader readership.
1.   Hugo Gernsback started the first pulp SF magazines Air Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories. His purpose was didactic: to promote an understanding of science, thus his publications stressed an optimistic view of the future of science and technology. John W. Campbell was a more complex figure who favored a problem solving protagonists and a positive view of science but did at times publish darker fiction that showed awareness of the possibility of technological disaster. I am not advocating pessimism as superior to optimism, but I do object to arbitrary editorial dictates that limit creativity, and SF editorial dictates have tended to demand an optimistic view of science and the future. [Back]
2. I want to emphasis that throughout the 20th century there has always been alternative ways of writing SF regardless of what form dominated. For example, the English scientific romances of H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon and S Fowler Wright contained a great deal of traditional literary merit and could not be simplistically characterized as either optimistic or pessimistic, and a great deal of their work was written around the time that Gernsback’s pulps dominated the American market. [Back]