Genocides, The by Disch, Thomas M., 1965

Genocides, The by Disch, Thomas M. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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The story of The Genocides focuses on the fate of the inhabitants of a tiny village in northern Minnesota called Tassel, or rather, New Tassel. It is about an invasion of an enormous invasive alien plant that within a decade dominated the surface of the Earth. Of the thousand some pre-catastrophe inhabitants of Tassel slightly less than 250 survive at the beginning of the novel, which is set in the late 1970s, approximately ten years after the Plants first sprouted. Nobody knows where the Plants first came from. Some in the story believe that they are an alien species, and others believe that they are the wrath of God. Wherever they came from, the have practically taken over the entire Earth, and have all but eliminated every other species on the planet. Mankind, in its infinite stubbornness, has refused to follow suit and go quietly.

There was in these forests a strange, unwholesome solitude, a solitude more profound that adolescence, more unremitting than prison. It seemed, in a way, despite its green, flourishing growth, dead. Perhaps it was because there was no sound. The great leaves overhead were too heavy and too rigid in structure to be stirred by anything but gale winds. Most of the birds had died. The balance of nature had been so thoroughly upset that even animals one would not think threatened had joined the ever-mounting ranks of the extinct. The Plants were alone in these forests, and the feeling of their being set apart, of their belonging to a different order of things was inescapable. It ate at the strongest man's heart.

In the decade since the first shoots of the Plants emerged worldwide, mankind has learned very little about their enemy. They do know that they can grow to the size of a mature maple tree in a month, and to their full size of 600' within a year. They propagate without flowers, grow immune to poisons in a matter of weeks, and they will thrive in any strata from tundra to desert sand. Where there is water the Plants will drink it up, and in fact Lake Superior's shores had contracted more than a thousand feet since the the first crop of Plants matured. While they are pulpy and insubstantial inside, they are extremely tough to take down, and mature specimens have an armor-like bark around them that makes them even tougher to remove. No species of terrestrial plant survives where they grow.

The residents of the village of New Tassel fled from their original village when it became obvious that they needed to organize and defend a smaller, uniformly shaped plot of land. The survivors grow corn to feed their livestock and themselves, and spend their days plucking the leafy, green shoots that constantly invade their zone of control. The cities have been emptied for years, and the villagers have learned the hard way that any person they encounter is a marauder who must be put to death, lest he or she organize other marauders and come back to raid. New Tassel is a clan in the true sense of the word; most of the inhabitants are related in some way to Anderson, the harsh and unforgiving Calvinist chieftain. Omnipresent death has disrupted many of the families, and as a result many of the children are of the half or step relation to each other. Most of the dead got that way because of the harsh realities of life, but recently livestock, game and even people have been mysteriously incinerated while in the forest. Three of Anderson's children have survived, though Anderson is on his second wife, Lady. The children are Neil, Buddy and Blossom. Anderson's youngest son, Jimmy, was recently found incinerated with most of the village's cattle. Anderson was in a funk following his son's death and the destruction of all but one cow, and during that time a band of people from Duluth passed through, fleeing a rain of fire by a trio of metal orbs that used incendiaries to burn everything and almost everyone in town. The orbs made careful note that 240 people and 15,000 animals escaped, and once Duluth had been burned to ash, the orbs set out to capture and destroy them all.

The band from Duluth was not marauding, but the people of New Tassel took no chances. They killed all 23 of them, save for Orville, a mining engineer, and Alice, a nurse. One of those killed was Jackie, Orville's beloved. Orville was one of those odd characters that turns up with some frequency in New Wave era catastrophe novels: One who embraces the destructive forces and welcomes the end of the world. Jackie and Orville found each other after their families died off, and had fallen in love with each other. They fled from the destruction of Duluth in wonderful moods, elated by the destruction and full of hope for their future together. But they were captured by Anderson's guards along with others who fled Duluth with them. Orville and Alice were spared because they had necessary skills, but the others were murdered and rendered into sausages that the residents of New Tassel happily ate for Thanksgiving. Alice was killed in late summer. By Thanksgiving Orville had decided that he would exact a bloody revenge on Anderson and his family; a blood lust which seethed as he chewed the sausage made from his murdered lover.

As fall wore into winter Orville and Alice were gradually accepted by the villagers. Orville had been as cloyingly sweet as he could be, and took every opportunity he could to help them; he wanted to be sure that every one of them survived so that when he sprung his trap, he and he alone would murder them all. Despite his better judgment even Anderson took a liking to Orville, who was smart, educated, wise and could handle all of the country rubes in the village. Neil and Buddy - despite their fierce sibling rivalry and contests to please their unpleasable father - and especially Blossom had taken to Orville. Thirteen year old Blossom fell in love with him, and Orville encouraged her; it would make his revenge plan that much sweeter. The villagers had taken to living in a longhouse made of woven fibers during the winter. In late December the trio of orbs came to the village and burned the longhouse and most everything in it - people, animals and property included - to the ground. Only 31 of the villagers survived, and none of the food that they had hoarded. Out in the snow and the cold, with very little in the way of provisions, the survivors did not stand a chance. Then one of them, Blossom, remembered a cave down by the shore of Lake Superior. As they entered the mouth of the cave one of the orbs spied them and gave chase. They blocked the mouth and made way for the back of the cave, and just as they were coming to the end they found an exposed tap root from one of the Plants that had been gnawed open by rats. The tap root was hallow, and was more than wide enough for a man. The villagers climbed into the root and made their way down until they discovered an enormous, starchy sweet fruit about 1,200 feet down.

Here is where things got really weird. The villagers decided to stay in the fruit. It was enormous and was connected to many others just like it. In fact all of the Plants' roots merged into one system underground. Just like the Aspen trees in Aspen, Colorado, the Plants were one giant, world-straddling organism. It provided them with sustenance, but after a few months they were all suffering from light deprivation and vitamin deficiency. The fruit also had a calming and very mild intoxicating effect, so the villagers became complacent and turned into lotus-eaters. After three months in the fruit Anderson - an old and unhealthy man to begin with - had become quite sickly. He had grown disgusted with the parasitic lifestyle that his clan had adapted themselves to, and wanted to move them back to the surface. One day while trying to climb a vertical root out of the fruit he encountered a warren of rats. Orville collapsed the tunnel on the rats, but not before one had taken a sizable chunk of meat out of Anderson's toe. His foot became gangrenous and he teetered between life and death. Before he died he told Alice that because his two sons were unworthy - Neil was an idiot and coveted his own sister (Blossom), and Anderson had caught Buddy fooling around on his wife with Greta, who was Neil's wife - he wanted to wed Blossom to Orville and pass leadership to him. He did not like the idea of giving control to an atheist, but Orville had saved the clan time and time again, and remained alert and wise despite the effect of the fruit. Neil found out about this and killed his father, then blamed Alice and had her tied, gagged, and dropped down a deep vertical root. Blossom, Buddy and Orville found Alice after she was dropped and figured out what Neil had done. By this time Orville had had a major change of heart. He had fallen deeply in love with Blossom and decided that he could do nothing to harm her, so he pledged himself to her and abandoned his plan for revenge. The three survivors vowed to do something about Neil and to try to save the clan.

At the same time that all of that was happening below, the Plants were entering a new stage of growth. Spring had sprung on the surface and sap was draining into the lower parts of the fruit at an incredible rate. Once the Plants came out of their winter torpor uncountable globes of metal - miles wide in diameter - descended from space and landed. Meanwhile down below Neil had joined the group of his siblings and Orville. Neil said that he was out to save Blossom, who had fled once she saw her father was dead, but he was really trying to get his young sister alone. Since he had Anderson's gun, he took charge. The four, Neil, Buddy, Orville and Blossom began a long climb to the surface through sap-filled roots until Neil made his move against Buddy and Orville. For days they clawed their way through ever-shrinking tunnels, covered in sap and pulpy fruit. The hopelessness of it all drove Neil insane, and later in the dark they fooled him, grabbed Blossom and made their way back to the rest of the villagers while Neil professed love to the Alice's headless corpse, thinking he was kissing his sister. Once back home Buddy learned that Greta, Neil's wife had returned but she was enormously fat and had practically melted into a pile of flesh that could not stop eating. Happy to be alive and together, the villagers climbed out to the surface. Just as they were about to pull Greta's bulk to the top a mechanical harvester plunged through the roof and whipped up all of the fruit, leaving almost nothing but a hallow tube downward. The few remaining survivors climbed out just in time to witness the giant orbs burn the Plants to the ground. A few days later, after the rain had put the fires out and cleared the sky, the Earth was again covered with green shoots, as the next planting started the cycle again. As The Genocides closes the groups have split apart. One, Buddy, Maryanne and their baby resembled an emaciated Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the other, Orville and Blossom, a dying Adam and Eve.

The Genocides is, if you have not guessed yet, a take on multiple religious stories and ideals, including the seven deadly sins, the ten commandments, and the stories of Christ, Creation, Exodus and Armageddon, wrapped around a pretty unique biological SF story of alien invasion where the humans literally become parasites, and the environment they find themselves in is an analog for Hell. This book is science fiction in the way that Aldiss' Greybeard and Ballard's The Drowned World are science fiction, especially in the manner that the three books share a common symbol of the welcoming victim. Throw in Greener Than You Think, and maybe some William Tenn, and you probably have the basic set of books that Disch drew influence from. Written in 1965, this book is a derivative of those that came before it, but in my opinion, its the best of the lot. Unlike some of Disch's other novels the author does little to hide the ball from the reader, and in fact took pains to inform the reader even when important characters spend entire chapters in the dark. It is true that we never see the "farmers" who to our detriment till the soils of Earth, though we do get to see an extra-textual document of theirs; a record of the destruction of Duluth, and the manner in which they moved assets to do the job quickly and efficiently. The Genocides is also about the reduction of humanity to the level of parasite. Throughout the entire book the reader will likely have the question, 'how can one species do this to another?' in the back of his or her head. The fact is that because we are never really treated to any of the alien's thoughts, this comes off as cold and very inhumane. But it's not like this doesn't happen on Earth too; we do the same thing to our pests, and we steal land for various uses without regard for whatever or whoever is there before us. There is also a very subtle subtext here about the uselessness of religion, but in the context of a story about the uselessness of any kind of response to a threat, and that fact that science (Orville) and faith (Anderson) failed alike, that particular barb loses much of its piquance.

Only a great author could have carried this book off. For a first novel, it was magnificent.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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