Thomas M. Disch - Echo Round His Bones

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Echo Round His Bones

Serialised: New Worlds, Dec '66, Jan 67
The year is 1990. The Soviets have made the moon a nuclear stronghold. But, thanks to the instantaneous matter transmitter of Professor Bernard Panofsky, the U.S. has made a military installation of Mars with its own nuclear stockpile aimed at the Moon. Precarious détente prevails. Captain Nathan Hansard and his squad of men are transmitted from a military base near Washington D.C. to Mars. There Hansard finds that the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal will be unleashed within six weeks, leaving him with nothing to do but wait. However, whenever anything is transmitted a sublimated copy remains behind, an "echo", invisible and intangible to the real world. The sublimated Hansard finds he can only live on sublimated air, water and food, and has to flee into Washington D.C. from the predations of barbarous "echoes" of previously transmitted soldiery. Eventually he discovers a small colony of multiple "echoes" of Prof. Panofsky and Panofsky's wife. Hansard gradually becomes part of their community, even marrying one of the wifes. Once Hansard conceives of a receiverless matter transmitter the group is able to implement Panofsky's plan to avert nuclear holocaust. The sublimated Hansard is transmitted to Mars. There a chord of Hansards is formed by the sublimated version overlapping the real, and this combined Hansard with their combined consciousnesses transmits himself to Earth where he transmits the Earth across the solar system out of the range of the Soviet Moon. With the balance of power redistributed all is happiness as the sublimated Hansards created during the adventure marry the remaining versions of Panofsky's wife, and efforts are made to put the solar system back into balance.


Sweet spasms of God! Thomas M. Disch writes a novel by Robert A Heinlein?

The reader might think he knows what to expect: the self-reliant libertarian protagonist who, with all the resources engendered by a military/industrial establishment, strikes out and refashions that establishment in his own image via the virility and vitality of emboldened technocratic extravaganzas. Instead, the world-shattering conflicts and domineering exploits we might anticipate are acted though the smaller and tighter focus on one man's survival in a world of strange new rules, where the man he is is challenged to adapt or die. In this respect, Disch may have criticisms to offer to Algis Budrys's ostensibly similar Rogue Moon with its own half-enamoured testing of Hemingwayesque identities in an exultory death dance of machismo. The cocksure righteousness of Heinlein's characters gives way to fascism, but Disch favours the diversity of humanism, and his protagonist Hansard, guided by others and his circumstances, is never the stereotypical master of his destiny. Potentialities are revealed in Disch's protagonist which outstrip and are inaccessible to the Heinleinite capable hero. In Disch's eyes and from his own experience the militarism typically advocated in this type of fiction brutalises. It is innate in the condition of the soldier to fight – removed from their regulated roles the "echoes" of the soldiers sink to murder and cannibalism. General Pittman may be the book's closest approximation to the omnicompetent ideal, but here his existence is apotheosised in his desire to push "the button" - if the resource is there, be it the Bomb or the ideal soldier, the end result is the same fiery consummation. From the opening we are told Hansard is unique for his time but has chosen to subsume himself in the role of soldier, misunderstanding what his nature is. Hansard's story is how he overcomes his military training and experiences to realise himself. The series of p.o.v.s when the chord is achieved allows the reader to observe the expansion of vitality and personality wrought in the new Hansard.

As much as the conclusions of the novel, it is its style which sets it apart from its putative sub-genre and the didacticism and boosterism offered by the plainspeaking Clarkes and Heinleins. The curious tone of Disch's expositional passages serves to distance the reader from the situation of the novel, accentuating the eerie sense of alienation that is the condition of the "echo", in the world but not part of it. Highlighted baroque stylising in later passages partakes of Hansard's becoming alert to the details of the world from which he has been excluded. Indeed, for much the narrative Hansard himself is treated by the author as a curiosity piece, a strategem that can be related to the fact that Hansard is not a character-surrogate for Disch himself. In much of the later sections of the book an ironic tone is directed, as much as at anything, at the author himself, half-amused/incredulous at the facts of the story he is telling, with its audacious fancies acted out under the very real shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. This only serves to accentuate the ambiguity of the novel, its testing out of fundamental moral precepts in an unreal, invalidifiable situation, where the bulwarks of society are ------- and even the consolations of religion are dubious (Panofsky's belief that echoes cannot have souls), to determine what constitutes a good man and a good way of life – a return to Disch's persistent theme of the man in isolation constructing his identify from himself and his environment. Mutually Assured Destruction is the ultimate expression of Disch's feeling of the individual's irrelevance to his environment, where everyone is a victim of external forces. Disch, more so than in The Puppies Of Terra, writes out a realistic response to nuclear anxiety, tying the themes of destruction and survival in The Genocides to the conditions of modern life. And with its application of Catholicism to science fictional variations on current affairs and its motif of Eichmann as God, Echo Round his Bones also looks forward to the mood and practices of Camp Concentration. The characters we see who live in the real world under the Bomb are reduced to automaton survival, a self-perpetuating circle of militarism begetting more militarism. With the "echo" Disch has found a metaphor for this alienation, where existence is incidental, death prevalent and all assurances illusory.

"In Disch's hands, SF proves such a corrosive 'deathray' when aimed at social structures, individual behaviour and eventually metaphysical tenets, that it leaves nothing but the bones, with just a rather absurd echo around them. At this level of nihilism, a man is reduced to sheer existence (without even being sure that he exists) and a writer to silence. Sartre – whose existentialist philosophy Disch's fiction hitherto closely parallels – drew from total absurdity the concept of total liberty and total responsibility; Disch seems to have made the jump to Pascal's Credo quai absurdum (I believe because it is absurd). The way out for him has been upwards ("Thomas M. Disch", George W. Barlow. Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers, ed. Curtis C. Smith, 1986.)".

Disch's solution to the "echo" and M.A.D. is a leap of faith to the solace of an artistic perfect – the chord. Unlike his fellow-tillers in this field Disch has little faith in the products of science as good in themselves or the hierophantic privileges which Heinlein and Clarke accorded their scientists and technicians. With his application of the chord Disch joins the arenas of art and the agencies of technology to conceive a better world. Disch's "hard science" is an opportunity to exercise his creativity in a highly formalised environment to the same degree of rigour that a villanelle might require. He mocks the ostentation of technological marvels, while the receiverless transmitter and the salvation of the earth are jeux d'esprit, implausibly plausible. It is the cultured play of his protagonists, so far from the sordid state of the "echo soldiers" whose savage survivalism acts out the condition of the real world, that saves that world. The freedom that the "echo" has granted Panofsky, Hansard and their wives from militarised and constrained lives, by the very same agency, enables them to release the world from the terror of nuclear warfare. Disch proposes the release into higher realms that art grants as a consolation to nuclear anxiety. With its realistic fantasies, stylish structures and irony, Echo Round His Bones attempts to encompass this anxiety, finding a release from nuclear neurosis and offering an escape for its characters and its readers.



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