Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, January 27, 2014

1976: The Star Diaries (Lem, Stanislaw)

Absurdity, satire, philosophy, time-travel, blah blah blah (3/5)

I would never have guessed that the Stanislaw Lem who wrote Solaris (1961) would be the very same Stanislaw Lem who wrote The Cyberiad (1965). Picking up The Star Diaries, my expectations were as nebulous as… a gaseous nebula (?). The book’s own synopsis sounded like a mixture of themes: zany jaunts of a deranged voyager and the literary reflections of a thoughtful scholar. With no recourse, I openly agreed to the book’s adjectives: bizarre, unpredictable, frantic.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Cosmonaut, time-traveller and battered hero of The Futurological Congress, Ijon Tichy makes his triumphant return, recording a dazzling array of voyages in time and space. Caught in a time-warp, pleading a shakiy case for humanity as the intergalactic United Nations, spying ineptly on a planet whose robot inhabitants speak a grubby version of Chaucerian English, Tichy’s diaries are bizarre, unpredictable, frantic and sometime deeply disturbing.”

The reader should be aware of Michael Kadel’s Translator’s Note (274-275) which declares:

[T]he numbering of the Voyages conceals their true chronology: the Seventh appeared in 1964, the Fourteenth in 1957, the Eighteenth in 1971, the Twenty-second in 1954, and so on. Lem does not intend these adventures of Ijon Richy to be read in the order in which they were written. That order however—22, 23, 25, 11, 12, 13, 14, 7, 8, 28, 20, 21does reflect his development as a writer. (274)

The reader should not mind the gaps in the Voyages. These Voyages either never took place (never written), never could have taken place (due to Ijon’s strange timeline), or were entirely edited out of this edition (as is the “Twenty-Sixth Voyage” [1956], “a cold war satire, which the author later discarded, more for esthetic reasons than political reasons” [275] and in which “Tichy lands in a big American city in the early 1950s - the apogeum of the Cold War” [citation]).


The Seventh Voyage (1964, shortstory) – 5/5 – On a solo voyage “cruising in the vicinity of Betelgeuse” (1), Ijon Tichy develops a rudder problem which takes two men to fix. Unable to functionally navigate, he heads into an area of space infested with 147 temporal vortices. The future and past versions of himself seem unable to cooperate; he argues with his selves, assaults his selves, and eventually relies on his distant future selves to organize. 18 pages ------ Dysfunctionally brilliant! Serving as an introduction to the mannerisms of Ijon, the reader is exposed to the maladaptive attitudes which motivate Ijon through his career as a journeyman of the stars. With a smile plastered on your face, laud in the ill-logic of meeting temporally different versions of yourself: having the knowledge of what your future self will experience with its earlier selves, yet being so stubborn that you ignore all intuitions; having a serious dilemma ignored by your inability to cooperate with your numerous selves. One can’t help but shake one’s head and feel sorry for Ijon yet aso laugh at his bumbling conundrum.

The Eighth Voyage (1966, shortstory) – 4/5 – Ijon has the honor of representing all of mankind in its bid to become part of the United Planets; however, with the patronage of the robotic Rhohch race, this honor soon becomes an unforeseen annoyance and hazard. The delegation of the United Planets, when hearing the case for humanity, remarks upon their disdain for the Neanderthals, their craving for flesh, and their curious primordial origins. 19 pages ------ You should not be proud of who you represent, but also be impeccably prepared to defend who you represent… this is not the case of Ijon, who was thrust into the scenario with all abandon to represent humanity with an idiot as equally as bumbling as he. When the accusations begin to fly, Ijon half understands each argument and meekly agrees to each thrust of denouncement. The meeting turns ugly for Ijon, and humanity, when a long held truth is exposed that frames humanity in an unappealing light—our origins.

The Eleventh Voyage (1961, novelette) – 4/5 – Lost for decades, a ship is eventually found orbiting a planet but the computer which ran the ship had gone haywire and subsumed two databanks into its personage: psychopathology and archaic lexiology. The sad case of the planet, its robotic denizens, and its wicked/insane computer despot comes to the attention of Ijon, who personally takes the assignment with the human hating robots and psychopathic computer, all. 35 pages ------ Not many personalities can eclipse Ijon in uniqueness or absurdity, but the computer which abandoned its craft (inflicted with dichotomia profundia psychogenes electorcutiva alternans) and established its reputed robot colony takes the idiomatic cake. Suffused with random, bizarre data, the information it holds molds its colony into a strange, strange anti-wonderland of olde English and a prevalent hatred for Earth humans. Ijon mission into this very world shows the reader a craftier, more logic-oriented person aside from his normal bumbling self… but also exposes mankind’s sense of fear and ability to follow the herd.

The Twelfth Voyage (1957, shortstory) – 5/5 – Professor Tarantoga invents a dilator or retarder of time yet our eager explorer Ijon finds very little use for it until the same professor has data concerning the Gypsonians on the planet Amauropia. The device, also a time accelerator, allows Ijon to track the progressing civilization of the Gypsonians while fumbling into their mythology and religion. A broken knob has our hero scrambling for relief. 10 pages ------ Ijon has the prime opportunity to witness a civilizations fluctuation of rise and fall; instead, he predictably stumbles into the same civilization’s path of destiny, skewing its innate cultural direction with his influence. Ijon becomes honored, well respected, idolized, and immortalized before his own ineptness causes him to grown younger and younger. Scrambling for his ship, the knee-high Ijon reaches a precarious state.

The Thirteenth Voyage (1957, shortstory) – 5/5 – An individual known as Master Oh is renowned for his wisdom and knack for resolving social issues on a planetary scale. Ijon endeavors to meet the myth but, on the way to Fatamiasma, is held by the state of the Free Aquatica of Pinta who blindly follow their king’s decreed of aquatic evolution. Once free of those bonds, Ijon is then held prisoner by Free Angelica of Panta, a uniform yet interesting place. 19 pages ------ While Ijon is banally unique, Master Oh is exultingly unique and his presence would only be tainted by the bumbling likes of Ijon. Ijon’s ham-fisted extrasolar jaunting lands him, first, on Pinta which is at a mental battle with itself, straining between accepting the obvious and accepting a hierarchical edict: the man-made floods are an indicator of our future aquatic destiny. Then, the scenario on the monotonous planet Panta shucks off Ijon’s ignorance in favor of his philosophical side, debating individuality with personal function in society.

The Fourteenth Voyage (1957, novelette) – 3/5 – Ijon has wanderlust but his ship’s brain, cracking jokes the whole way to Enteropia, drives him a bit batty prior to his entry to the planet; unfortunately, he only brought along the encyclopedia for Enteroptica. Without his referential reassurance, Ijon has no concrete ideas about the planet’s machets, squamps, whackers, the obligatory body doubles or the most important cultural item—the prevalent yet unspeakable scrupt. 23 pages ------ A victim of his own ignorance and suffering a bout of accidental ignorance, Ijon attempts to explore the habits and customs of the people inhabiting Enteropia but lacks any direction on what each culturally important item actually is. Haphazardly, he involves himself in a series of extravagant feats and perplexing dead-ends; some experiences prove worthy of the trip, yet others grate his sense of comfort and logic.

The Twentieth Voyage (1971, novelette) – 4/5 – Ijon is contacted by this future 27th century self so that he may accept a position which regulates the past. The position, General Director of the Project, heads the vast temporal organization known as the Teleotelechronistic Historical Engineering to Optimize the Hyperputerized Implementation of Paleological Programming and Interplanetary Planning (THEOHIPPIP). When accepted the world’s social, evolutional, and solar troubles plague him. 41 pages ------ Another one of those chronologically counter-intuitive experiences of Ijon; his future self needs to convince to take a post from which his future self comes from. Eventually succumbing to inevitability, Ijon then gets to work making the past more uniform, only to find his entire more as inept as he is, thereby wreaking havoc  across time and space, the result of which we see ourselves today.

The Twenty-First Voyage (1971, novella) – 2/5 – The Laws of Trash, of Noise, and of Spots apply to all civilizations except that which inhabits the planet Cichotica, which, of course, Ijon simply must visit. Initially confronting a field of flesh furniture, Ijon is kidnapped by an underground enclave of monastic robots. With the robots, Ijon learns the lengthy history, through oral and written traditions, of the planet’s clash of science and religion. 54 pages ------ A quirky start to the story is dragged to a sluggish crawl when the story is bridled and reined in by a heavy dose of detailed world history, ecclesiastical preponderances, and philosophical meanderings. While the intellectual foray is mentally stimulating, the protracted exposure is somnolent, being in great contrast with the playful and intriguing mix of the previous seven stories.

The Twenty-Second Voyage (1954, shortstory) – 4/5 – Recalling mementos at his museum of memories, Ijon relives the tale of his penknife. The sun of Erysipelas has 1,480 bodies orbiting its vicinity, two hundred of which have the generic name of “Satelline”; on one of these orbiting bodies Ijon has lost his favorite penknife and he still himself to find the pub in which he left it, but instead is entertained by a Dominican monk. 11 pages ------ Absent-minded and driven by unseen internal forces, Ijon is, again, the bedazzled oaf among the stars, this time on a quest for an emotionally-attached personal trinket—a penknife. At the end of the story, which follows an odd direction, is a interesting and poignant tale of sacrifice and martyrdom which follows another tale of sheepishly believing what students are taught. The translator, Michael Kandel, admits that “the last few pages” (275) of the story to be omitted but doesn’t specify why the story is truncated as it is (but research suggests it may have been too controversial to the over-sensitive Americans of the “Bible Belt”, in regards to blindly digesting what has been taught versus critically appraising what has been taught, as per the morale of “The Twenty-Second Voyage”).

The Twenty-Third Voyage (1954, shortstory) – 3/5 – The planet of Erpeya is renowned for its small size, a fact which is interesting enough to send Ijon on yet another heedless voyage. Most interesting to Ijon, the Whd of Erpeya atomize themselves to ashes during their sleep time or any time of wait or boredom. He’s not eager to try the atomization but he soon becomes a fan of the process and abuses its convenience. 6 pages ------ Leading idol lives is the sin of the Whd; idle time spent in a pile of atomized ash rather than being lost in a book, absorbed in conversation or amazed at the world around them. Clearly, this idle lifestyle, the epitome of a labor saving device to the extreme, can be addictive and contagious, as Ijon finds out. I know a number of people like the Whd—they exclusively watch TV as a form of “entertainment” and their personality reflects the dull glow of the same television set.

The Twenty-Fifth Voyage (1954, shortstory) – 3/5 – The planet of Tairia exists amid the “primordial chaos and danger” (237) of its solar system’s innumerable rocky elements; not only are the tiny missiles hazardous to passing ships, but a recent attack by a creature has raised further concern. A friend of Ijon was attacked by, what scientists deem to be, potatoes. The declaration is so preposterous that philosophers gather to debate what “is” is and scientists are eager for a live sample. 17 pages ------ This story follows a ragtag series of inanity from potatoes stalking the asteroid belts to an olfactory symphony to an alien race which to have sexes. While each part is interesting, entertaining or captivating, I haven’t been able to link it all together into coherence, thus the 3 or 5 rating. Let me know if your whack at it is more successful.

The Twenty-Eighth Voyage (1966, shortstory) – 3/5 – Ijon, alone in his spaceship in deep space, recollects about his family name, his ancestors and his birth. With plans to jettison the document, he records the family line from Anonymus, who fathered eighteen children and held a number of rather odd jobs, to the star captain named Cosimo Tichy, with his ship hold full of family members cum generation ship and an unnamed boy stuffed in a drawer. 20 pages ------ Ijon’s eccentric personality, idiosyncratic whims and moments of complete stupidity may come from his inbred gene line while aboard his father’s ship. This allegation is inferred, I could be wrong as another reviewer has said that perhaps either Ijon himself or his father was an imaginary figure, insanity stemming from prolonged, isolated space travel, much as Ijon is used to but not yet accustomed to.

Friday, January 17, 2014

1991: The Unwound Way (Adams, Bill & Brooks, Cecil)

Ingrained with mythology, allegory and author indulgence (3/5)

Cover: Richard Hescox (1991)
Taking a look at my 553-book database and using a few analysis tools, some interesting things arise: originally, when I started reading SF in 2007, my focus was on late-80s/early-90s science fiction with authors like Greg Bear, Iain M. Banks, William Gibson, and Kim Stanley Robinson; now, the most represented years in my collection are 1968 and 1974, both years with 20 books in my collection. This is in part to my interest in John Brunner’s work but also because I’m more willing to dabble in forgotten paperbacks and take the chance of discovering a classic with the risk of stumbling upon some stinkers.

So, now when I do buy a book from the late-80s/early-90s, it’s for the sake of nostalgia and filling a gap in my library which hasn’t seen any new life breathed into its already stellar repertoire; however, I always hesitate. The unknown novel The Unwound Way, with an uninviting cover by two unknown authors was, obviously, an impulse buy. It is not a regrettable decision, but my time definitely could have been spent more wisely on one of my other 154 unread novels.

According to the “About the Authors” page, Bill Adams had written mystery fiction under the name T. M. Adams and, with some interweb research, wrote some short stories in the same genre in the 1970s and 1980s. Cecil Brooks lived in Pennsylvania and his written work seemed to have been nil until 1991 when he co-authored The Unwound Way and its 1994 sequel The End of Fame. I reckon either the sales or feedback about the novel (only one review published in Locus, #369 October 1991) weren’t forthcoming because nothing else has been written by these two fellows since 1994… which is a shame because the talent is there, just not the delivery.

Rear cover synopsis:

Evan Larkspur dreamed of greater glory than his play writing could ever bring him. But his newfound career as officer on a star-survey mission ended in disaster almost as soon as it had begun. And when he returned home, the only survivor of a freak accident that had flung his ship out of known space, the found that a century had passed—and though Larkspur the playwright was now famous, Larkspur the explorer was a wanted man.

Buried in his memory was the fate of his ship; hidden on his person was the star—access data that would have been worth several fortunes—if it were not scrambled beyond repair. The repressive First Column government coveted the data and would not hesitate to strip Larkspur’s mind in an attempt to decipher it.

There was nothing a deceased playwright or a vanished explorer could do against the Column. And so Larkspur fled to the fringe worlds, hiding his identity, intent only on survival—until, on an obscure planet called Newcount Two, he discovered a powerful legacy he never knew he had…”


During his university years, Larkspur was involved in three things: girls, writing plays, and the brotherhood of Kalanists. While his plays never found popularity, his frolicking was intermittent and successful and his association with the Kalanists brought his peace of mind; ‘twas a time of self-discovery and relative freedom under the First Column government. However, life wasn’t challenging enough and simply being known as a failed playwright didn’t win any hearts, so the young Larkspur enlisted in the Navy was sped off to the stars with something less than wanderlust.

The mission to map the stars was interrupted by a disaster onboard; all indications pointed towards  manmade sabotage and awakening the officers from cryogenic sleep had mixed results of insanity and dissociative catatonia. Larkspur was one man who awoke with his mind intact and he quickly drew to a position of leader, one who must confront the disaster, the perpetrator and find a solution for the ship stuck in the dimensions between space and time. His steady hand doesn’t salvage the ship or save the crew, rather he is shifted further along his world’s timeline into a future he hardly recognizes… yet the world recognizes him—not his face, but his accomplishments.

Unwilling to enter the limelight, Larkspur assumes an alias while maintaining a series of menial jobs shuttling around the sphere of human affairs. His spell of innocuous existence is broken when Senator Condé hires him for a mission of pure subterfuge, an action fit for the repressed flamboyant actor in the playwright. His mission, with promised protection from the influential Senator, calls for him to jaunt off to Newcount Two, a small uninhabited Earth-like planet, for the purpose of securing an archeological dig site which greatly interests the Senator. Reportedly holding ancient artifacts of a giant bipedal race, two sections of the dig site, something like a barrow, are to be secretively cordoned off and the rest of the dig to go ahead as planned; the motley crew, a group of experienced amateurs rather than expert professionals, is composed of one dashing lass, “an eccentric oldster, an academic know-it-all, a shirttail boy and his ineffectual father, a monk, a mystic warrior, and a misanthropic redhead” (46).

Acting as “His Excellency, Alun Parker, Sub-Commissioner for Non-Human Artifacts” (29) representing the Column, Larkspur adopts the officious manner which his roles exudes, yet additional, more natural mannerisms creep into his persona which cause some of the site workers to silently question his role—surely, not all officers are well-read in theater, Kanalism, piloting, and philosophy. Regardless, his pristinely pleated uniform convinces even the strongest minds at camp, but this doesn’t stop an interloper from attempting murder. Larkspur’s quick reflexes as a pilot save his life, the life of the little vixen named Ariel, and the evidence onboard the sabotaged flitter. His suspicions piqued yet vaguely directed, Larkspur steeps in wanton ire.

When the furtive Larkspur returns to camp, the dig crew have revived one of their most important machinations for the dig and, in hasty attempt to test it, activate a physical switch which drains the lake near their camp. From the draining waters of alkalized lake rises a human artifact, a “broad circular shaft” (83) capped with a white dome and dripping sticky effluvia. Mesmerized by the unreal sight in contrast to the drab life at the archeological dig, the ragtag crew speed off by foot toward the towering phallic monolith, which they scale, frolic upon, and ultimately descend into without casting a word of discovery or warning to anyone… no one at all.

Descending into the depths of the planet, they assume they assume they are alone. They naively destroy the control circuits, spend some time gaping in awe at the human figures in the subterranean park and its extremely vast range, and translate the tale of twenty-five generation of humanity which found the planet, which was already in an artificial state due to a long gone alien race with fantastic technological prowess. Coming to some sense, they decide to ascend back to the crown of the wet ashen pillar in the middle of the drained lake, but at the elevator they are met by the Iron Brotherhood, a labor union of contract killers. It turns out that Senator Condé’s secret barrow of artifacts is, in fact, this very subterranean world and his insurance on the plot is guarded by his cronies. Larkspur feels himself instantly become immaterial, expendable.

In a bid to escape the predation of rifle shots and crossbow quarrels, Larkspur heads his subservient team into a graveyard’s crypt which is the sole entrance into Hellway. The Hellway is hundreds of kilometers long build by the Elitists and terminates at the north pole where they hope to exit and call for help. Originally built as a culturally inspired obstacle course for the prior human tenants’ rite of age, the numerous obstacles chosen for each player was chosen by the world’s computer system. Over the last few hundred years, however, the system and the world have deteriorated to the point of being even more deadly they it was before. Angered by the viciousness of the Elitists, some of Larkspur’s ragtag team damn the Elitists’ inhumanity and damn their own misfortune.

The ritualistic Hellway initiation for the coming of age isn’t as plainly trialing as the group first thought; rather, even the start of the maze is fraught with confusion and danger; the Hellway was “living poetry, an epic series of ‘objective correlatives’ for official Elitist virtues” (218), but even the most basic of mazes was laden with perplexing solutions, some which injured the trespassers and some which killed the errant. Belittled, Larkspur reflects, “This big phony stage set has reduced us to characters in a plya” (181). Allied lives are lost yet end-result expectations fizz with hope; meanwhile the Iron Brotherhood, in their own brutish and ham-fisted way, make their way toward the pole end of Hellway where a seemingly final aerial race to the finish to hosted between two intermixed teams of Larkspur’s ragtag team and the assassins.

Now leading with his wisdom and by example, confidence still grows among the dwindling crew; however, Larkspur is still plying his grand subterfuge in the equally as grand theatre of the absurd known as Hellway. He doubts his vaporous relationships with some members yet invests even his heart in a coital alliance. With the maze coming to an obvious terminus, his guise of Column importance cannot continue when official inspection nudges into the planet’s extraordinary matters. Larkspur may think his deception ends with the maze, but an even greater challenge awaits him on the planet’s surface—the real world, with problems of galactic importance.


Internally consistent, meticulously plotted, and burbling with subsurface Greek allegories, it’s too bad that most of the novel (onwards from page 130 to the final page 339) is steeped in a bitter brew of references to Greek mythology, a subject which I’ve never been interested in; therefore, any allegories which refer to these same allegories are utterly lost on me. I know the name—Daedalus, Icarus, Minotaur, etc.—but nothing more than the skim of their mythological fame; again, any deeper subcutaneous references to the mythologies fall in a vacuous area of my brain.

The numerous references began to irritate me, so I did something which I’ve never done before: I contacted the author. Prior to entry in the vast length of Hellway, everyone went through a mirror maze, then they went through three other trials (mazes), with a final maze at the end. Even with my limited knowledge of Greek mythology, I felt a tacit connection to something deeper in those same mythologies. So, rather than bone up on the wealth of Greek mythology, I opted to contact Cecil Brooks; I wrote, “The book is obviously influenced by Greek mythology, similar to Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection (1967) …. could you enlighten me on the significance of the number of tests which Larkspur had to endure” (January 8, 2014). The reply thus read, Perhaps if you finish reading our book, you’ll find that questions relevant to the text are answered in the text” (January 9, 2014).

So, the book, according to one of the co-authors, is self-evident. I’ve waited ten days to do this

review in order to throw more brain power at this spectral self-evidence; perhaps I thought about it too much, but the attempts to grasp at straws here doesn’t change my opinion of the book’s 3-star rating. That I can apply my thoughts to the analysis, I must spoil the party a bit by giving details about the mazes. In my attempt to apply as much ancient Greek relevance, I hit upon the classical Greek elements of fire, earth, water and air:

(1) The mirror maze: light, represented by fire, tricks the mind with illusions, reflections, and mirages—this misguidance could be consciously caused by the viewer based on emission theory, which postulated that the eye emitted light rather than accept it. As with the passage of light through the ether, passage through the mirrored maze takes time. The senses of patience and touch are required to navigate the subtle, deceptive and infuriating maze.

(2) The moth swarm: represented by fire and air, the moths seem to be an inane addition to the landscape of Hellway until the waft of a predatory pheromone; the harmless airy moths then attack with fire, paralyzing and dissolving the victim where they stand. As air acts as a vehicle for fire’s growth, so too do the moths offer a vehicle for progress, yet in a much more literal sense.

(3) The eel balloon: represented by air and water, eels are aqueous by inferred nature, they are dominate in their domain on Hellway as no other life form vies for supremacy of its waterways, yet the Hellway also has a mysterious side. During the eels’ the breeding cycle, a swarm is motivated to fill some of its brethren with hydrogen; thence they float to their spawning grounds, but while aloft they are out of their element and open to exploitation.

(4) The ivy-walled passages: represented by water and earth, the denizens of the rocky crawlspace are translucent globs of locomotion feeding on the verdant ivy which lines the passages; they affect what is needed while allowing non-vital elements, such as a person, safe passage through its doughy entity. The earth (of Newcount Two) and its stone are strong, unyielding to man’s passage yet fragile to time and kind to its smallest creatures, which Man is not. As time had lapsed in Hellway, certain passages decline in functionality and regress to the torments of fire, which casts a red light of warning.

(5) The aerial race: in the obvious median of air but bowing to the elements of earth and fire due to the trial’s purpose of propulsion; each team collects gold rings (earth) suspended by stony stalactites while being propelled by the constant power of fire on their backs.  In the lithesome yet innocent ether of air, earth can be a firm foundation for confidence while fire can drive passion, coerce inhuman feats.

Perhaps I thought too much about it… but then again, I also found a number of homosexual innuendos (as with the white pillar in the lake). A playwright joins the navy? That’s a good start. If a book is self-evident, as the author suggests, any theme which I think reinforces itself is, in fact, a solid case for an overarching theme. Regardless of my insight, I doubt very much that either the elements of the innuendos were part of the intended spread.

Lastly, I must mention one thing: an unusual gem of a sex scene which had me guffaw aloud; it started nicely and ended in a mood-shattering bomb of hilarity:

I reached for her waist where she stood and drew her close, my lips pressed, in that position, against her pale, taut belly. I could feel a distant tom-tom heartbeat, hers or mine, and tasted lightly salted girlflesh. There was a brief moment of civil war--north or south? (247)

I like the invented word “girlflesh” but it feels a bit sexist, devaluing a woman to mere skin. If I remember one part of this book in twenty years’ time, it will be the little civil war prior to Larkspur’s own “little death”.


I can appreciate The Unwound Way for its prodding allegories on my mythologically-deaf mind. I can also appreciate the interconnectedness, finesse, and overall control of the novel. Yet, the recurring trials in Hellway feel like, as I mentioned to Mr. Brooks in my email, an “author's unbridled eagerness for expressing a wealth of imagination” (January 8, 2014), much akin to Jack L. Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977).

With 154 unread novels on my shelves, I don’t think the sequel The End of Fame (1994) will grace the walnut crannies. In the end, Larkspur is an interesting character with a strange history and in even stranger circumstances; unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a particularly illuminating read perhaps, again, because of my allergy to mythology. For those with a mythology fetish, however, I would highly recommend this!

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.