Who can really get a handle on the oeuvre of Thomas M. Disch? Most pocket summaries of his life and times tell you that he was a leader of the New Wave movement in science fiction, but that gives you only the most limited view of Disch's expansive talent. I first knew of his work as a poet before discovering his fiction—and he was an outstanding poet, although he is rarely given much recognition for his efforts in that field. But others have discovered Disch through his work as a critic, or as a computer game designer, or a dramatist, or literary historian, or mastermind behind an innovative Disney animated film.
But even when limiting our assessment to Disch's published fiction, the range of his imagination is striking. Almost anything can happen in a Thomas Disch story. A toaster might come to life. Phiilp K. Dick might hold court in hell. The ghost of poet John Berryman might help a dead woman get revenge on her murderer. Disch's writing style and tone proved equally diverse and embraced, as the need arose, everything from Joycean stream-of-consciousness to biting satire to fabulistic fantasy.
In short, I have come to expect the unexpected from Dish. But with The Genocides, his Nebula-nominated sci-fi novel from 1965, Disch surprised even me. I never anticipated that this flighty and extravagant talent would construct a taut, quasi- Biblical narrative infused with the dramatic tension of a Russian psychological novel. The Genocides is typically labelled as New Wave sci-fi, but it's far closer to The Book of Job than to any of the books of Ballard, Aldiss, Ellison, Moorcock and company. Among 20th century US novels, its closest counterparts come from outside the sci-fi field—I'm thinking of works such as The Grapes of Wrath and Elmer Gantry, where social conflicts and clashing moral codes drive an Americana-tinged plot filled with homespun characters.
Even so, The Genocides is definitely science fiction. Disch provides a new twist on the 'first contact with aliens' tale. But since the aliens keep out of sight during this story, they might as well be a wrathful deity or the Moirai, those dangerous three Fates of Greek mythology who dictate the destinies of hapless mortals. In Disch's novel, these cosmic forces are perceived solely through a new kind of vegetation sweeping over the land. These hardy trees—or 'the Plants' as they are called by the humans who battle against them—displace all other life forms, as they spread across continents. They prove immune to all predators, and destroy the ecological balance supporting other forms of animal and plant life. The Plants appear to have come from an extraterrestrial source, but might just as well be God's punishment for the sins of the children of Adam and Eve.
Disch focuses on the travails of a small cadre of survivors in Minnesota who have abandoned the cities, and are struggling to establish a farm- and hunting- based way of life in the face of the encroaching Plants. These stragglers are ruled by a maniacal visionary named Anderson, who has developed a few primitive techniques for holding off the advance of the alien vegetation. He mixes agricultural methods with Calvinist theology, and badgers and bullies the other community members into submission to his harsh ministry. Another group of survivors stumble by chance into Anderson's domain, but most are killed—and turned into sausages!—by the farmers, except for a nurse and mining engineer, who are spared because their talents are viewed as potentially useful to the community. The mining engineer, Jeremiah, vows to take revenge on Anderson for his murderous tyranny, but decides to keep his intentions secret until the right moment for retaliation arrives.
Over the course of 150 tightly-written pages, Disch develops several conflicts, of which the battle between aliens and humans, the centerpiece of so many sci-fi tales, is hardly the most prominent. We follow the machinations of Jeremiah as he plots revenge against Anderson. We watch as Anderson's sons Neil and Buddy jockey for power and influence. We see Anderson's daughter Blossom court disapproval by pursuing a forbidden romance with a man outside the community and old enough to be her father. In time, the sci-fi elements of the story take center stage, but Disch has already made clear that he hardly needs futuristic concepts or alien life forms to propel his narrative. His sense of human drama is sufficient to maintain our interest and fuel his imagination.
In truth, many of the transgressive elements of the New Wave movement appear in The Genocides. We have incest, cannibalism and lots of other taboos violated in the course of these pages, but they never seem forced or gratuitous here, as they sometimes do in other genre works of the period. Every new development in the plot is plausible, even when our author is at his most horrifying, and this very true-to-life quality sets The Genocides apart from so many other works of New Wave sci-fi, even much of Disch's own oeuvre.
The payoff comes when Disch raises the ante in the final pages of his novel. Living up to the promise (threat?) of his title, he puts the survival of the human species itself into the balance, and the reader is forced to ponder the possibility that this story might conclude without a single combatant left standing. In most science fiction novels of Armageddon, the writers sacrifice realism for grandiose effects, and achieve, at best, a kind of comic book catharsis, good for special effects in the film adaptation, but drained of psychological depth. Disch achieves the opposite here, presenting his view of final days with such intimacy, that we feel as if the pulp fiction constraints of sci-fi have now been left far behind, and instead we are listening to a prophetic monologue.
And, then, finally we see a sly wink from the author, who finds a way of bringing a powerful irony to bear on the conclusion of his book—an irony that comes as a shock after the austere, quasi-Biblical narrative of the preceding pages. And if the image of an apple comes to the fore here, that too reminds us of the resonance of scripture, and of the very first curse that came from that symbolically-rich fruit. In truth, it isn't such a big leap from Genesis to The Genocides. Indeed, to some extent each work is a mirror of the other.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.