April 28, 2009


Worldmaker: Remembering Thomas Disch (John Crowley, Jan/Feb 2009, Boston Review)

334 is set in New York in 2021. The great issue is overpopulation, the bugbear of the 1970s (see, e.g., the 1973 film Soylent Green). Huge buildings house teeming populations in tiny apartments supported by MODICUM, acronym of the national social control and distribution agency. Only those testing at sufficiently high levels of achievement in various fields (military service, physical strength, intelligence) can get permits to have children. The book’s many characters largely inhabit tiny spaces at 334 E. 11th St., built in “the pre-Squeeze affluent ’80’s” and adapted by MODICUM to hold 3,00 tenants. By 2021, 334 is architecturally “on a par with the pyramids—it had dated very little and it hadn’t changed at all.”

As in many futurist novels of that time, there is a great deal of television (“teevee”) and drugs, much gender bending avant la lettre, moral vacuity, a distant endless war fought by “gorillas” (ours). What there is not is a revolution in information. A dozen years from now society will be managed by huge government computers but there will be no personal computers, no ATMs, no cell phones, no email, no printouts, no DVDs, no PINs, no MP3s, and no Internet. Young Birdie Ludd, a lumpen-citizen, attempts to get himself a higher social score by researching and writing an essay, and heads for the library:

The place was a honeycomb of research booths, except for the top floor, 28, which was given over to the cables connecting Nassau to the uptown branch and then, by relays, to every other major library outside of France, Japan, and South America. A page who couldn’t have been much older than Birdie showed him how to use the dial-and-punch system. When the page was gone Birdie stared glumly at the blank viewing screen.

Of course, Disch was not the only writer to miss this turn of events just around the corner; the whole field of SF missed it, and went on brooding about the bomb and overpopulation until William Gibson and cyberpunk came along to reflect, not to imagine, that new world. The future cannot be described in advance, and because it cannot, every greatly successful science-fiction vision of the future has to pass through a period of failure, when it becomes obvious that no, things are not going to be like that after all. Critics and readers who take science fiction seriously will thereupon state that SF projections are not really about the future at all; they are allegories of the times in which they are written, which is fine but somewhat deflating for readers who hoped for compelling predictions. Most such visions simply evaporate at this juncture into fantasy or “alternative reality,” perhaps remaining gripping or delightful to some degree.

But if the author is both good and lucky, a futurist novel can later regain status, revealing itself to be neither a book about our shared future nor about the present it was written in, but a vivid personal vision. In differing ways, this happened to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which gained power as fiction while losing it as prediction, and the book derived from it, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which remained powerful as critique though wrong in its particulars. The problem for such books is whether readers who were uninterested in them as science fiction will ever rediscover them on the far side of this process. Orwell and Huxley were at an advantage here, having a claim on a general readership beforehand. A writer beginning in SF, like Disch, takes his chances.

Certainly, 334 is, among other things, a heightened portrait of Tom’s and my New York as it was in 1974, where pay phones take dimes and Negroes are scary to whites, where violence and an ugly stupidity are pervasive and everything is worse than it was before. The streets are squalid, the popular entertainments vapid, the population hopeless. Birdie goes off to fight the endless wars in Southeast Asia; his girlfriend Milly works as a stewardess for Pan Am.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2009 6:34 AM
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