Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

1965: The Genocides (Disch, Thomas M.)

Human and external forces sculpt roles and reactions (4/5)

Cover: Richard Powers (1965)
Having never read Disch before, yet having his books on my to-buy list for nearly six years, I forget my initial choice in deciding to read a selection of his books (possibly because of his death in 2008), which include The Genocides (1965), Camp Concentration (1968), and the collection 334 (1972). Without reason, Disch is a name I associate with “intelligence” and “sophistication”. While picking up The Genocides at the bookstore, I silently revered my finding one of Disch’s books, which I delicately places among the growing heap of $1 paperback novels that grew to become 43 books (a sizable purchase anyone must admit). When it came time for me to endure another 22 hours of trans-Pacific flight, I needed to choose one book from the stack to follow my reading of Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata (2012); my eyes instantly sprang to Disch. Obviously, my expectations were high.

On a more academic note, Disch is one of the intelligentsia which nursed the New Wave science fiction movement from science fiction’s juvenile ineptness and mere playful ideas to a literary genre of human emotion and social progress. Though the term “New Wave” was coined in 1966, Disch was notable for this novel The Genocides in 1965.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Catastrophe in Green

Now the earth was covered with what they called “THE PLANT”—a fantastic growth of green which smothered all other forms of vegetation. Often the plant soared to heights of over 600 feet. As the plant grew and grew and grew, mankind found itself gradually being stifled by the omnivorous curtain of green…

The cities of the world lay deserted—civilization had come to a halt. Then came the “Incinerators,” and the fires took over…

Then the remaining citizens of Tassel took final refuge in the heart of the Plant itself—a sanctuary that was to reveal to them what was to be the future of man on earth…”


After only seven years, the Plants, which have mysteriously appeared around the globe, dominate the landscape and habitats where people live. Absorbing water and nutrients, the parasitic alien Plants also dominate every other life form in the same environment; crops perish, species become extinct, and man daily welfare struggles without nature’s sustenance.

Were the Plants themselves invaders? No, no—they were only Plants. One had to suppose that the real invaders … wanted the Earth for no other reasons than to grow their damn Plants. Was Earth, then, their farm? If so, why had there been no harvest? (70)

Civilization floundering, only hermetic nodes of humanity can be found dotting the countryside, whose very existence is perilous amid the nomadic scavengers, pillagers, and murders. Thus, they too become murders for their own survival. As the Plants siphon the very life from the earth, so too do the remaining humans draw aliment and ceremony from the bodies of the infiltrators, descending into canabalism:

They were afraid to call it by its name …. Beyond necessity, explanations grew elaborate and rather metaphysical. Thus, metaphysically, in this meal the community was united by a complex bond, the chief of whose elements was complicity in murder, but this complicity was achieved by a ritual as solemn and mysterious as the kiss by which Judas betrayed Christ; it was a sacrament. Mere horror was subsumed into tragedy, and the town’s Thanksgiving dinner was the crime and the atonement. (52)

In the countryside of Minnesota, one enclave of humans support themselves with an ever less productive methods of farming. The commune is headed by the heavy patriarchal hand of Mr. Anderson with assistance from his god-fearing religious diatribes and his two sons, Buddy and Neil. Neil, with the same intelligence of the steer he cares for, blindly follows the law and rule of this father while Buddy, having previously left the family in search for education and a meaningful existence in the city, is more critical of his father’s words. The two brother secretly vie for superiority in their father’s eyes so that they will be succeed him in command of the enclave. However, life on the farm isn’t as steady as it used to be with critical accidents destroying livelihood as well as morale.

An accident, not by their hands, furthers strips away the remaining morale both the community and Anderson have left; Anderson’s youngest son, Jimmie, is reduced to a pile of ash next to his large herd of cattle in the middle of a field. The cause of the immolation is, at the time, mysterious, but further jaunts outside of their hold reveal a level of destruction unimagined; the cities had been razed by roving spheres of devastation, sentinels of the unseen alien force sent to wipe out the monumental obstructions and artifacts of the troublesome local population. The loss of the cattle is exacerbated by Neil’s erroneous handling of a calving, further steeping his father in anger. Sadly, Anderson and his enclave are soon to fall victim to the narrowing blight of the nefarious spheres as they enter his hold and murder his people.

Jeremiah Orville, “a very civilized man” (112), was interloper, the last of a band which entered Anderson’s farmland, many of whom were killed and ground into sausage casings. Orville’s loving wife was among the killed but his own life was spared for unknown reasons. Lucky for the enclave, Orville is a man rich in knowledge, leadership, and direction. Where old man Anderson used to be the driving force behind innovation and progress on the farm, the patriarch takes a liking to Orville who brings his own worthy ideas of change. Orville’s intellectual proximity to their father sends waves of jealousy through both Neil and Buddy yet morphs into a tense acceptance of his capable prowess. Eventually accepted into the community, unbeknownst to all, Orville has a passionate plan of reprisal upon Anderson… one in which a quick death would be more desirable. His avuncular interest in Anderson’s 13-year-olf daughter, Blossom, is corrupted by his sense of revenge; his plan is strictly his, awaiting the time when his punishment will reap fully. Shucking off his civilized interiors, Orville enters a new phase of existence; “[E]vents had taught him to desire the consummation of his revenge above his own happiness and safety” (112).

As the spheres attack the enclave and murder by the dozen, Anderson and Orville lead the survivors to from the farm and into the inheritantly dangerous grounds of the forest, where scavengers may roam and where the sphere may venture. Blossom, relying on her juvenile memory, leads the surviving band to a vaguely-recollected cave on the old shore of Lake Superior, a shore which has now disappeared further seaward as the Plants use Earth’s abundance of water. Once in the cave, a Plant’s root is found to have penetrated the cavern from ceiling to floor, as if a broad fibrous stalactite had meet its lower counterpart. The interior of the root is found to be hollow, the descent of which is forked with further passages reaching into Earth’s interior and upwards to other Plants.

Fear is a contagion which strikes Anderson’s band. Though the destruction has passed, their fear keeps them prisoner: “To have come to sanctuary after a disaster did not erase the memory of the disaster” (79). Encapsulated in the roots’ subterranean darkness, they spend the winter in the hollow tuberous roots filled with edible fibers and fruit. The roots succulently sweet offerings and mixture of atmosphere propels them into sybaritic inactivity, only occasionally lifting their heads from the lotus-eating haze to explore the root system further. But, like life on the farm, life in the root did not remain stable; Anderson’s health fails and he is burdened by choosing his successor: the responsible yet distant son Buddy, the loyal yet intellectually stunted Neil or his new confidant, Orville the outsider yet Orville the wise, whom he also permits to marry his young daughter. Meanwhile, Neil remains a poor choice for leadership; “the primordial was very close to the surface of his mind. It seemed to grow closer all the time” (119).

The tense situation of Anderson’s death sends Neil into incoherent rage at which the more reasonable of the band flee from within the root system. Neil, in his own feeble way, has grand plans for his father’s homeless flock and excludes Buddy and Orville in his vision of the future, but more sharper wits of the both men, and an unexpected change of heart, parry Neil’s unscrupulous plans.

Spring nears: a natural omen for humankind’s own change or another step toward the faceless alien agenda of human extinction?


The seasons set the tone for The Genocides; winter is lifeless, bleak and stagnant. However, stagnation would have been preferable to the characters rather than the tumult in which they found themselves. Regardless, death and frigid air surround them on a daily basis so each person copes with the strain of their new environment. The way they cope, consciously or unconsciously, is by finding roles or mannerisms to accept their new environment. Their roles aren’t penned to suit the novel, rather, the roles are naturally assigned to the cast through their circumstances; these seven years of hardship under the looming umbra of the Plants where much of the suffering goes unseen by the reader but hinted at through shifting points of view within the novel.

In this vein, I agree with Judith Merril’s observation:

Without twisting the behavior of his characters to conform to his own pre-conceptions of right-and-wrong, the author does manage to say a great deal about his concepts of morality, especially as applied to the nature of survival and the struggle for existence. (F&SF, June 1966)

Major points of view come from the aforementioned sons Neil and Buddy and the knowledgeable outsider Jeremiah Orville, an interesting trio of first-person perspective because all three vie unspoken for the eventual role of leader after Anderson’s passing. The narratives aren’t blatant about their sordid plans for usurping power from Anderson, but the reader only glimpses motivational factors within the thoughts, hints at what plans may come to fruition. The narrative perspective occasionally switches to an omniscient viewpoint: the heartless details of the colonization spilled forth by an anonymous alien (31-32), recurring third-person omniscient perspective from within the group (e.g. 67-76), and third-person omniscient of the plot (141-143).

Aside from the obvious friction between the trio, two other human-driven chasms of anxiety form due to the precarious position where Orville stands among the enclave: the budding relationship between the innocence of Blossom and the prudence of Orville; the seemingly productive relationship Orville’s mind of scientific reasoning with that of Anderson’s mind of reasoning by faith. The tension of both scenarios is downplayed, much like the secretive narratives, but cast a feel of foreshadowing tumultuous circumstances to come (whether they actualize is, again, a matter of tension).

“Bleak”, as mentioned in the first paragraph of the analysis, is a good adjective to describe the general ambiance of The Genocides. Disch is of the New Wave persuasion, a fact brought up in the introduction, a movement in science fiction which delves into sorrow and hardship in human life, a sort of morbid excursion into our pitiful existence; these pitiful circumstances, like in The Genocides, are partly formed by external forces (e.g. the faceless aliens’ Plants) but also my internal human nature forces (e.g. Orville’s book-learned wisdom versus Anderson’s  faith-learned wisdom).

To counter my own praise and that of Merril’s, there then is the criticism of Algis Budrys from the December 1966 issue of Galaxy: Disch had produced a novel of "unrelieved trash, ineptly written, pretentious, inconsistent and sophomoric," populated by a cast of "dumb, resigned victims." Perhaps harsh words for an author’s freshman novel, but the novel wasn’t immature or poorly formed; rather, it was skillfully composed and followed through beautifully. To call it “pretentious, inconsistent” is going a bit far. As with Merril’s observation, the circumstances are driven by the extreme conditions the enclave find themselves in rather than being moved like pawns by the author’s very hand. Furthermore, the inconsistencies of the novel arise from the shifting first-person perspective of human nature: people change their minds and are sometimes motivated by unseen intrinsic or extrinsic forces.

Lastly, don’t think the threat of the Plants is anything as obvious as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). Wyndham’s arborous invaders were mobile and aggressive; Disch’s fibrous sentinels are innate and visually passive, yet unseeingly seeping the vitality away from the earth and the people, definitely not packing as much as a visual impact as Wyndham’s marauding bands of green death, but even more sinister with their hidden ill intent.


For all my praise, half the novel takes place in the subterranean root system, leading to repetitive observations of the environment. Whether the darkness adds to their hardship, adds another bleak dimension to the plot or shutters the visual sense from the characters, the monotonous ambiance slackens the tempo of the restive human element.

An excellent first read from a new author for me. Camp Concentration and 334 will remain on my to-buy list, but with the addition of Echo Round his Bones (1967). Too bad this author isn’t more accessible.


  1. I think Algis Budrys' inane critique heightens my already substantial dislike for him... I've only read The Falling Torch but it was rather awful -- and shall I say, painfully simplistic.

    This sounds fantastic! And definitely my cup of tea.

    1. I've recently bought Budrys' Rouge Moon (1960), which I hope not to regret because it seems to be a popular work of his.

    2. Likewise, I too have found Budrys' critiques not always to parallel my own opinion. I've read enough of his short fiction to know that the man is at least capable of writing science fiction that is beyond pulp and able to provoke one or two thoughts beyond the text. However, I'm not yet able to identify his perspective of what "good" science fiction is - because certainly it is a single perspective. Like Paul McAuley, Budrys has a narrow view of what is good in the field, negative criticism the result of anything not on his agenda. There have been moments I agree with this agenda, but in general I take his thoughts with more than a few grains of salt.

      Perhaps Rogue Moon or Who? will shed some light...

    3. Last night finishing Budrys' Who? I remembered our brief exchange above and I had to come back and comment. Who? is brilliant. Way ahead of its time.

      So, I think it's time you read Rogue Moon and let me know if Who? is an exception or the rule. :)

  2. Sure, I can bump it up (way up, actually) after I finish the 1,300+ page Hamilton finale, The Naked God.