Monday, June 18, 2018

Review of 334 by Thomas Disch

Dystopias have been around for a long time—one might even successfully argue since Dante’s Inferno, perhaps even the Bible or others canonical texts.  Frankenstein is a strong qualifier, as is Gulliver’s Travels.  But it remains the likes of Nineteen Eighty-four, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and other such novels to represent the focus on oppressive systems and the potential misuse of technology and position for authoritarian means in the modern socio-political context. Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood’s novels garner the lion’s share of the attention (thank you high school required reading), but there remain numerous high quality dystopias on the market worth every bit of the same attention.  From Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles to J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (or The Jagged Orbit, or The Sheep Look Up, or…), there are many other stories delving into the various ways in which humanity limits itself willing and unwillingly.  Another such novel/collection to add to the list of must-read dystopias is Thomas Disch’s 334.

The number of an apartment block in near-future New York City urban conglomerate, 334 is less a single story and more story strands.  Five novellas concluding upon a short novel that braids the novellas together, Disch remains focused on character throughout, highlighting the manner in which even the simplest change from our current system (or as it was in the late 60s and early 70s when Disch was writing the stories) can/will have widespread effect on social and personal standing for the ordinary Joe (and Josephine).  Like Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles, 334 is a subtle dystopia that the less discerning reader may have trouble parsing or appreciating. 

A story that implements eugenics in non-macabre yet highly disturbing fashion, “The Death of Socrates” tells of a young university student named Birdie.  In love, Birdie dreams of marrying and starting a family with Millie.  Learning one day that his Regents score is too low, however, puts a strong damper on his chances of getting permission to start a family, and so he decides to find a way to get a higher score. A very, very believable view toward class stratification by demographic data.  A story that is outright macabre, “Bodies” tells of a watchman at a hospital and the scam he runs selling corpses and body parts to brothels with necrophiliac customers.  Though macabre in import, Disch avoids the gory, sexual details to focus on the social and human implications of the people doing the trade, and why.

A nod to Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and perhaps the best story in 334, “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire” tells of a woman living a double-life: one in reality and one in a hallucinogenic rendition of ancient Rome.  The beauty of the story is in how it lacks the standard cues that indicate when the story has switched settings.  Each blends seamlessly into the next to create a dream-like experience that represents what such a drug-induced possibility would be like (versus what any cold and dry, hard sf hand-waviness could do).  The woman faced with an important decision regarding the placement of her son in a school, Disch uses her escape into the hallucinogenic world to highlight just how human humans can be.

Remarkably seeming more at home in 2018 than 1972, “Emancipation: A Romance of the Times to Come” is the story of a marriage which elects to use the latest gynecological techniques.  The child gestated outside the womb, and the husband biologically altered to participate in child rearing in a way currently not possible, Disch again avoids the potential minutiae of technical detail and instead focuses on the characters, their hopes for their child, and what love means in the context of advanced medical practices.  A disturbing story, “Angouleme” is something of a shorter version of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but with a different ending (doesn’t equal “happy”).  About a small cadre of young teenagers, led by Bill Harper, aka Little Mister Kissy Lips, who live in the blocks around building 334, together they philosophize and plot to kill an old man who lives in the neighborhood.  Disch’s focus on both the intelligence/experience of these youth relative to the youth of 1972 and the potential horrors the lack of real-world experience could unleash, seeing what some maladjusted teens actually do in high schools in 2018 makes Disch’s story look like a cakewalk. As stated, a troubling story nevertheless. 

I come up empty looking for a proper metaphor, such is the time-hopping, incorporated experience that is the final story/sub-novel in 334.  The title story, it looks in detail at the people from the Hanson family, most of whom are side-characters in the preceding stories.  More interleaved vignettes than a linear progression of sub-stories, “334” accomplished a number of things.  It creates a tighter web of characters in the 334 setting, represents stories in itself, and anchors Disch’s agenda in the collection, primarily to parallel the decline of Rome to that of the modern West.  Adding a layer that the figureheads of the modern dystopia do not go out of their way to emphasize,

In the end, 334 is a slow burning novel/collection that builds momentum like a glacial floe.  What seems relatively standard dystopia at the outset steadily and subtly spreads itself into a much broader vision of society, technological evolution, and the unchanging aspects of the human panoply that will and does react to said changes. The focus wholly on the characters, their lives, and the actions and decisions in the near-future New York setting Disch expands ever so slightly from our own, the value at heart is the exploration of a Spenglerian mindset toward technology, perceived advancement, and certain unchangeable, underlying truths.  Perhaps in a few centuries it might be looked back upon as one of the key dystopias of the 20th century?

The following are the six stories collected in 334:

The Death of Socrates
Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire
Emancipation: A Romance of the Times to Come

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