Book Review: The Genocides, Thomas M. Disch (1965)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

Thomas M. Disch’s The Genocides (1965) is an incendiary assault on our senses and expectations of trope and genre. In the face of apocalyptic annihilation at the hands of a vast alien Plant spread across the Earth, biblical stories of redemption and (re)birth are subversively recast as either delusions or decrepit meaningless patterns. Disch conjures a frontier landscapes inhabited by the sinful. Apocalypse cannot lead to rebirth.

The New Land of Milk and Honey

A billion spores, “invisible to all but the most powerful microscopes,” sown by an invisible sower over the entire Earth create a veritable carpet of greenery across even the most inhospitable geographies (15). Within seven years the alien trees or Plants, six-hundred feet tall with leaves the size of billboards, threaten to annihilate the last bastions of humanity. The narrative follows the inhabitants of a small town named Tassel–under the dictatorial sway of the preacher/mayor Anderson and his “Colt Python .357” (17)–and their attempts to survive on the new frontier.

Anderson’s adult sons Neil and Buddy work hard days cutting the Plant and feeding its juices to their small plot of corn. Buddy despises Neil and all he represents. Neil relies on his brutish strength and status as first-born to enforce the brutal whims of their father. He imagines himself the next leader. Soon two outsiders, the nurse Alice Nemerov and Jeremiah Orville, join the ranks after the townsfolk capture a roving band of marauders. Buddy finds himself immediately drawn to the intellectual Orville, who seems unshaken by the depravations and humiliations he has experienced and strangely fascinated by the collapse. Little does Buddy know that Orville is plotting revenge on Anderson and his family for the death of his partner: “he was surprised to find himself dwelling so exclusively on one theme: Anderson’s death. Anderson’s agony. Anderson’s humiliation” (46). Orville wants to insert himself into the power structure, undermine the family dynamics, and to savor every “drop of agony” extracted from them (47).

The entire 250 survivors spend the winter, according to Orville far colder than normal due to the increased CO2consumption of the Plants (59), crammed into a single building. Like some disturbed Bosch tableau, a disquieting mimicry of Thanksgiving transpires in which the community consumes the dead marauders in the form of a solitary sausage on every plate: “the moment everyone had been waiting for–the dreadful moment of the main course–could be put off no longer” (51). Orville, aware that he might be consuming the flesh of his dead partner, chortles in delight: “You are a marvelous cook. How do you do it?” (52). Buddy struggles to contain his lusts in the “presence of so much flesh” that “displayed itself [..] stank in his nostrils” (60). The plot moves in its most nightmarish manner when the alien fire spheres appear, tasked with rooting out the remnants. Flushed from their refuge, they flee to the only safe place left — the vast hollow roots and trunks of the Plant.

The dark and damp interior, a veritable womb filled with a “powerful sweetness, like the odor of rotting fruit,” (78) is an alien circulatory system filled with strange wonders: a new land of milk and honey. Not only is that the warmer it becomes the deeper they go into the plant (73) but the walls are comprised of the Plant’s fruit, “crisp, like an Idaho potato, and juicy” (79). Their malnourished bodies crave more… Buddy finds himself increasingly drawn to his resourceful yet meek wife. Neil finds his position as first born challenged. Orville makes himself indispensable, needed, and even loved. But the interior of the Plant is an alien womb and the humans within are but parasites soon to be expelled as soon as spring arrives.

Adam and Eve and other Biblical Delusions

Biblical stories of redemption (the Parable of the Prodigal Son) and (re)birth (Noah and Adam and Eve) are subversively recast as either delusions or decrepit meaningless patterns. Buddy explicitly takes on the role of the younger Prodigal Son who returns home from his sojourn in the city after the appearance of the Plant. But Buddy does not show true contrition. He loathes the way of life embodied by his older half-brother Neil–“the hick, the hayseed, the dumb cluck” (11)–and the hard theocratic violence of his father. He harbors a deep sadness that Neil married Greta, his teenage love. He has no one to talk to (11). The quiet adoration of his wife does not smother his lust for Greta.

And there are other biblical delusions. As leader of Tassel, Anderson crafts a thesis justifying his draconian ways that “like Noah, he was having the last laugh” as the world drowns under the vegetal ocean (15). His last pregnant cow will create an entire new herd of cattle. His community, surrounding the last church, will sail through the chaos and create a new society of elect. And like the frontiersman, he would tame the Plant, a manifestation of nature uncontrolled and pre-creation matter: “But, by God, he’d win it back. Every square inch. If he had to root out every Plant with his two bare hands” (15). But his eldest son accidentally strangles the cow. And the male calf no longer has a mother. Its blood and flesh will nourish momentarily. But there are no more cows…

The story of Adam and Eve weaves its way through The Genocides. This is a common trope in post-apocalyptic SF scenarios. For most authors who deploy it, the biblical pattern provides a template of what could happen again. Their stories often explore the new moral landscape traversed by the final couple: in Wallace West’s “Eddie For Short” (1953) the last lonely mother yearns to create a new family with her son; in Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952) the last man discovers his dead wife has taught his daughters to be the new Eves; and in Richard Wilson’s later “Mother to the World” (1968) the last man, possessed by the cosmic duty to repopulate, must rationalize impregnating an Eve with the “mentality of an eight-year-old.”

In The Genocides the story of Adam and Eve serves as a signifier of fantasy and the stark reality that the world has ended. In Disch’s fragmented formulations it’s all a pathetic charade of lust and the last skeletal movements as it all comes to a close. The thirteen-year-old Blossom, caught up in her fantasies of the older Orville, imagines them as Adam and Eve (re)mapping lost knowledge: we could “think of new names for all the animals” (113). Until she realizes that there’s nothing left of the world. Greta, found by Maryann obese with the fruit of the Plant and unable to move, parrots the story as a realization of her desire for Buddy: “—shill lub you. I wan oo be yours. Forgib me. We can begin all over again—like Adamb and Ebe—jus us oo” she manages to gurgle (135). Playing with the trope, Disch even has Maryann tease her husband (before he realizes the extent of Greta’s affliction) about the new sexual landscape that could emerge: “if you want to make her your second wife, I won’t stop you… if that’s what you want” (135). But Buddy runs back to Maryann.

The novel ends with the survivors (Buddy and Maryann, Blossom and Orville) arrayed across a landscape straight from a painting: “the nearest three figures, in the middle distance, comprised a sort of Holy Family” (142). And as the omniscient narration narrows in like a roving eye over a painting, the details add another color. Rather than the joy at the promise of generative profusion and birth, “once could not help but note that their features were touched by some other emotion” (143) for the third figure is a skeleton of a child. And further in the distance Adam and Eve (Blossom and Orville) stand “nude, hand in hand, smiling” (145). The narration assures us: “certainly these were Adam and Eve before the Fall” (145). But the eye catches the detail. They are thin. And the new crop of green that surrounds them, that’s what will survive.

Final Incisions as We Stumble From Our Vegetal Womb

At first glance, The Genocides functions as one of a legion of SF narratives of survival on a new post-apocalyptic frontier. Martha A. Bartter, in “Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal” (1986), identifies a deep perversity beating from within American science fiction’s vast corpus of future cataclysm stories—the “secret salvation” from the sinful city that lies in rebuilding after the disaster [Note 1]. She argues that American culture canonizes the frontiersman, who, “untrammeled by law and undisturbed by neighbors, carves a living from the virgin land” [Note 1]. And by referencing the American past, science fiction authors “subtly assures [the reader] that we will survive again, as we demonstrably did before” [Note 1]. While The Genocides does not deploy nuclear war, the alien-caused apocalyptic event–the Plant and the exterminating spheres that root out the survivors among its trunks and hollows–is similarly transformative.

The ecological degradations of the Plant creates a new frontier in our backyards and farms and ruined cities. Orville’s Machiavellian character embodies the ambivalence of holocaust Bartter identifies: “Orville pretended to hate the invasion […], but secretly he relished it, he gloried in it, he wanted nothing else” (36). It jolted him out of his middle age suburban malaise. He could enact the roles of the pulp heroes of his youth (36). He could even play the villains (36). He had found love in the ruins. Most importantly, “he was alive again” (36)! The survival of the group is never on his mind. Disch transforms Heinlein’s competent man into an agent of destruction.

In Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont’s survey of the scholarship on the idea of the frontier in the literature on the Old West and its relevancy to science fiction’s colonization of space, they note that the frontiersman (or space explorer) must penetrate a “passive, and feminized” wilderness [note 2]. The post-nuclear landscape is nature “at her most unruly” [note 2]. Disch takes this formulation in extreme directions parroting copulation (the forced entry into the Plant), gestation (eating the fruit and sleeping in the moist interiors), and birth (forced evacuation as the fruit is harvest). However, the frontiersmen and women in this manifestation of the trope have no agency. They are but parasites caught within nature’s womb. Nature has not been conquered.

The Genocides is an adept conjuration of profound unease that operates as a commentary on the common tropes of survival present in so many nuclear gloom tales of the day. The competent man who wants only revenge. Adam and Eve tales that can never be realized. Disch believes the city is no more sinful than the small town. The apocalyptic destruction of society will not lead to its rebirth and refashioning. Rather, the survivors will grasp hold of their mythologies and attempt to ward of the inevitable. I found myself reminded of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To…. (1976). Russ’ novel follows a group of space crash survivors and lays bare the delusions of colonization, the creation of utopia, and the patriarchal forces that consider women little more than walking wombs.

I am eager to dive in to more of Thomas M. Disch’s early SF novels: Mankind Under the Leash (1966), Echo Round His Bones (1967), and maybe even reread Camp Concentration (1968) which I never managed to review.

Highly recommended for fans of radical 60s science fiction.


Notes

Note [1]: Martha A. Bartter’s “Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (July 1986): 148-158. I will feature this article in my Exploration Log series.

Note [2]: In Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont’s Judith Merril: A Critical Study (2012), 11-24. I found this to be an indispensable survey of texts and sources that I’ll be returning to later this year.


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28 thoughts on “Book Review: The Genocides, Thomas M. Disch (1965)

    • Thank you. I’ve been sitting on this book since November and finally got around to reviewing it. The Genocides would have featured at the top of my favorite reads of 2022.

      This is a far more focused and disturbing novel than Hothouse. As hopefully my review made clear. I think this is the superior work.

  1. I greatly admire Disch’s short fiction, and his novels CAMP CONCENTRATION and 334. MANKIND UNDER THE LEASH, less so, though I think it’s worth reading. But for whatever reason I have not yet got to either THE GENOCIDES or ON WINGS OF SONG. (To say nothing of his later quasi-horror novels such as THE BUSINESSMAN, nor his hard to find serial “The Troll of Surewould Forest”.) I really do need to remedy that!

    • I remember enjoying Camp Concentration immensely and I always find his short fiction intriguing — and often brilliant. I had had forgotten about 334… thank you for the reminder. Like so many works, I’ve been meaning to read it for many years!

      I hope my review highlights how he creates a commentary on genre and common narrative patterns. I probably should have included a reference to Damon Knight’s “Not With a Bang” (1950) that also parodies the Adam and Eve template of post-disaster rebirth…

    • Rich Horton: But for whatever reason I have not yet got to … ON WINGS OF SONG. (To say nothing of his later quasi-horror novels such as THE BUSINESSMAN, nor his hard to find serial “The Troll of Surewould Forest”.)

      Do read ON WINGS OF SONG. IMO, that and 334 are Disch’s best novels (though, as previously mentioned, I harbor fond memories of his pseudonymous gothic CLARA REEVE).

      As for the THE BUSINESSMAN and THE MD, and so forth, I personally found them tedious. My sense was that after ON WINGS OF SONG, Disch went off, alhough I did enjoy his late non-fiction effort, THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF.

  2. I’ve read his on “Wings of Song”, which I didn’t like, and “Camp Concentration”, which was an excellent novel for most of it’s length, but seemed to decline as I remember, in power and intensity for about the last quarter of the novel. Needless to say, I haven’t really got on well with reading his stuff, but I think I was misled into thinking that these were his best novels because they were more “new wave”, when it seems that this earlier one however is probably better.

    He is [was] a fine writer though, despite my mixed feelings about him, and is worth encountering. I’ve read one short story in an anthology by him, called “Downtown”, which I did like. Perhaps the one you’ve just reviewed should be the next one to read, even though I think it’s probably better to go for his short stories.

    The book I’ve just read, is “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges.

    • This novel is quite short so it doesn’t have any unnecessary elements in my view. It’s certainly not some bloated modern tome setting the stage for thirteen more volumes! muahahah. I don’t remember exactly what you thought about Hothouse but I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like this one if you enjoyed the Aldiss. Although Disch is a bit more concerned with sin (which doesn’t only exist in the city) and all of its manifestations……

      I am eager to read more of his short fiction.

      I’ve read all of Borges’ short fictions. I have the omnibus editions of his fiction and non-fiction. He’s always been a favorite of mine. I even created an entire art project on his Viking-related poems for a medieval Icelandic and Nordic Epic Literature class in college….

      • I didn’t like “Hothouse”, Aldiss’s “Greybeard” was much better. I can’t help feeling though that Disch’s novel is better than “Hothouse”, and even preferred the other two I read by him to that one. Yes, sounds something like nemesis, that they’re getting what they deserve.

        It’s pieces are intellectually challenging, as you’ll know and would expect from him, although they can pay rich dividends of a sort if you can penetrate the mysteries and meaning beneath them. I preferred the other books I’ve read by him, “Dr Brodie’s Report” and “Labyrinths”, which as I recall, are written in a clearer, more transparent prose technique. I think the next one I want to read by him, is “The Book of Sands”. Your project for him sounds as though it was really good,

    • Ah! Borges! what a romp through the mirror! I have been consumed by Borges for years… he offers words, like images from a first love, never seem to leave me… Borges’ non-fiction / essays are equally compelling and brilliant!

      • Yes, he’s been an major influence on “new wave” and more radical SF authors too. As far as I know, he’s also been influenced by some of it’s authors.

        • I’m not so sure about the Borges influence. Ficciones appeared translated in the US in 1963 and in the UK in 1965… nothing else — to the best of my knowledge — existed in translation at that moment. I feel like Burroughs and company are just more obvious and influential inspirations. Maybe there’s some evidence of an individual author but the dates don’t suggest the movement as a whole — at least its earlier incarnations.

          • I agree that writers like Burroughs were more influential than Borges on the New Wave. Borges is a personal favorite of mine — a remarkable writer, one of the greatest — but he got to a position in some ways (but not stylistically!) resembling the New Wave from a completely different direction, I’d say.

            There were Borges stories available in translation pre-1963, just not collected. For one thing, LABYRINTHS was publsihed in 1962, which doesn’t move the clock much! Two other import short stories appeared even earlier: notably, Anthony Boucher translated “The Garden of Forking Paths” for EQMM in 1948. Anthony Kerrigan’s translation of “Death and the Compass” appeared (in the New Mexico Quarterly) in 1954.

            I don’t think those minor adjustments change the story much, though.

            • Ah, yeah, I did not know about the earlier translations. Thank you for the correction!

              At one point I thought that Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities MUST have influenced the first half of Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972)… but Invisible Cities was published the same year and received an English translation two years later. Once again, another example of coming at a similar concept from different angles.

          • Brian Aldiss [with David Wingrove] writes more than a page about Borges in his SF history “Trillion Year Spree”, and says that “writers like Robert Silverberg have openly stated the influence Borges had on them, in making them look again at commonplace genre materials.” He also says earlier, that Borges was influenced by SF, which might put it into a better context. Yes, I know that Burroughs was an influence on Ballard for instance.

  3. Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg both mentioned being influenced by Borges. Silverberg specifically mentioned that his 1963 story – To See the Invisible Man – was based on a reference made in a prior Borges’ short story.

  4. I’m glad you finally got around to reading The Genocides. It’s the Disch novel that made me a fan of his and an underrated classic of new wave SF. 334 and Camp Concentration are my next favorites after that one. Unbelievable to think this is the same man who’d go on to write The Brave Little Toaster!

    One part that struck me about The Genocides were the aliens. We never see what they look like and the only POV we get from them is a very dry monotonous report about when the genocide of humanity takes place. They see us as pests for the most part and you never get any indicator of spite or contempt toward our species. The indifference makes them scarier than any other alien invader.

    • I need to read 334. I have a copy but haven’t picked it up yet. I know it’ll be something that I adore.

      Yeah, you get the sense — a deliberate parallel on Aldiss part — that the aliens treat humans as little more than insects that have to be eradicated to make way for a monoculture plant culture.

  5. I have read neither this nor Hothouse, but both sounds very intriguing from your reviews.
    Another one also working with the “overgrown Earth”-scenario is Doris Piserchias Earth in Twilinght, which is (unsurprisingly for Piserchia) super weird, but probably closest to Hothouse, as it deals with an extremely alien far far far future Earth, where humans are a whole new species and have no recollection of their origin. Genocides sounds more Ballard-like, with survivors of a global catastrophe are trying to deal with a traumatic new reality.

    • I have read two Piserchia novels (both reviewed on my site) in the earliest years of my website. I’m not sure what I’d think now of her strange brand of fiction. I should give that one a read.

      • Doris Piserchia is a favorite of mine, I actually think that was how I found your blog – looking for Piserchia reviews. I’d say few other writers have captured the same feeling of utter dream logic, but I guess that is not for everyone.

        I don’t rate Earth in Twilight as one of her best, but it would be an interesting addition to Hothouse and Genocides.

  6. Solid review. Disch’s work is somewhat neglected, imo. Though much of the best of it is rather grim.

    334 and On Wings of Song are distinctive and complex dystopias—the first rather dry, the second, on the surface at least, more conventional—both very much worth the read. The Genocides is, as you recount, one of the grimmest, most cynical novels anyone ever wrote. It’s magnificent in its relentlessness (I think of Alien3, which has a similar single-mindedness).

    Of his shorter work, I especially recommend Descending (among the best of his Kafkaesque nightmares) and Fun With Your New Head. The latter is the title story from a key anthology of his work, a superb short-short sf tale that can be found online. It casually conjures, as backstory, one of the most nightmarish future scenarios in the literature.

    Enjoy!
    8^)

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