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The Genocides

by Thomas M. Disch
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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
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
Grapes of Wrath
and Elmer Gantry, where social conflicts and clashing moral
codes drive an Americana-tinged plot filled with homespun characters.

See Also:
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

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
.  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.

Publication date: July 16, 2014
To purchase, click on image
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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