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The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch

When I read Thomas M. Disch’s 334 back in grad school, I found it didn’t make much of an impression on me, beyond its unremitting and overwhelming grimness. Perhaps the bleak grimness of graduate school distracted me from its finer points? I’m not sure, but I can say that the cruelty and bleakness of The Genocides has definitely made an impression on me: I have essentially devoured it over the last day-and-a-half.  

It is, of course, a novel of apocalypse, and the first thing that comes to mind in terms of devastation and hopelessness is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, but the comparison is not sensible: Hoban’s book features human beings who, despite awful circumstances, rise to the occasion of being human. Disch’s humans, the last few who survive just before human extinction is complete, are mostly horrible people. If you really want to be forewarned, there’s a detailed plot summary at Wikipedia. The thing is, the plot isn’t the point.

Or, rather, they are horrible by our standards. Which is an interesting thing: how much the standards and values of our own present-day civilization–or, rather, of American society in the 1970s, in which this 1965 novel is set–might or might not matter to a group of people who’ve lived through the genocide of their whole species, of practically all Earth life, is an interesting question. Any number of things might be off-putting about them. Does one feel more disturbed by the urban pedophile, or the incest-driven maniac who fights to keep his barely-teenaged sister for himself? Does it matter than the teenaged girl, for some weird reason, wants to be with the old man and hates her brother? (Her consciousness is the least convincing in the book, for me, because of this: it’s just a little too bizarre and difficult to believe, for me.)

There’s also the sense I have that some of this comes down to social norms of the 1960s that are creeping me out: one male character slaps a women across the face when she propositions him, and then muses to himself that they might get together again at some point in the future, but not now. He’s meant to be a prick, but I feel like we wouldn’t be seeing the scene through his eyes if the book had been written today.

There are all kinds of ambiguities like these all over the place in the book. Does one hate or admire the bigoted religious leader who really was integral to keeping the villagers alive… but wanted to marry his teenaged daughter to a middle-aged man? Does one feel disgust, or outrage, or merely sympathy–or all three, and in what proportions?–when the villagers kill a group of men who endangered them and turn them to sausage to be served on Thanksgiving… at a time when, after all, the village is starving to death? This book may well be many things, but a “comfortable catastrophe” it isn’t.

The only thing truly admirable in the world of The Genocides is also horrifying to the degree we sympathize with any of its human characters: that is, the brilliantly designed, devastating alien Plants that have transformed the earth as part of an alien agricultural program. But Disch insists that the plants, despite the unspeakable elegance of their design and the horrifying gifts they give those whom they drive into extinction, are “evil.” But then, in this book, everything is:

Just as a worm passing through an apple may suppose that the apple, its substance and quality, consists of merely 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 later 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.

The metaphor of humans being worms in fruit farmed by some other species recurs throughout the novel, and the aliens–unseen except through the agricultural implements of their will–are impersonal as the wind, as merciless as earthquakes or CO2. What they want, who they are: they are farmers of a sort–of an industrial sort–but beyond that, it doesn’t matter, any more than it ought to matter to the worms or slugs in our gardens who we are, and what we want.

A very dark book–so dark that I am unsurprised that it did not win the Nebula for which it was nominated in 1965–and it has dated somewhat, but it’s still very much worth a read, if you’re willing to be very uncomfortable. Which, when we’re talking about the end of the world, is how you’re supposed to be. If only we were, when it comes to real-life apocalypse. And if only Disch were still among us… it feels like only yesterday that I read of his death.

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