Thomas M. Disch - The Pressure of Time

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The Pressure of Time

unfinished
"The human race has become immortal as a result of genetic alterations caused by a plague that swept the world in the late twentieth century. However, a small but genetically dominant minority of mortals has survived and perpetuates itself in this world. Most of the mortals live apart in island enclaves, but a few, such as the protagonist of this story, lead a makeshift existence on the fringes of the larger immortal society" - introduction used to several of the novellas

The Pressure of Time originally was to have been the next novel in line after Camp Concentration. "Things Lost" was written in early 1966, just before "Camp Concentration". A diary about the high culture pursuits of immortal geniuses in the early days of a century-long space journey, "Things Lost" could be looked at as a warm-up for Camp Concentration. Having finished Camp Concentration in the spring of 1967 Disch returned to The Pressure of Time.

In the introduction to "Things Lost" for Again, Dangerous Visions Disch wrote "For various reasons, personal and impersonal, I never got back to work on "Pressure", and now I see I won't, alas. Since Camp Concentration (which took 8 months to write) I realise I can't afford to spend such a lot of time on a book that earns only a standards sf advance". The personal reasons included an intense affair with the poet Lee Harwood that lasted about six weeks. After Harwood left him, Disch suffered several months of unrequited love. Disch confessed that much of The Pressure of Time was "inspired by the pangs of despised loved". Disch travelled around, visiting Ireland and Turkey, but suffered writers block. Unable to continue with his own work, he wrote novelisations of The Prisoner and Alfred the Great. The work he'd done so far he was able to salvage and published as novellas in "Orbit" and "Again, Dangerous Visions". As Disch's quote makes apparent, he'd also fallen out of love with science fiction, believing that the audience he sought was not there, neither were the publishers and their money. Camp Concentration had been rejected by Berkley, the publisher who had originally commsssioned the novel, and after being printed in "New Worlds" had appeared in small-run hardback printings in the UK and US. The sums he received for paperback reprints were a further insult.

In the mid-70s Disch was taken on by the respected and powerful American publisher Knopf. Knopf gave Disch financial and artistic security. Not only could they pay him what he felt he was worth, but their prestige could move his work, even when it was science fiction, out of the perceived ghetto. His first novel for Knopf, Clara Reeve (1975) was published pseudonymously as by "Leonie Hargrave", but it was widely and positively reviewed and sold very well. Disch's next novel would have been "The Pressure of Time". It was science fiction, but it was mature in every way, an attempt to match "Anna Karenina". Disch was distracted from The Pressure of Time, when he was inspired to write On Wings of Song, but that was still with Knopf's approval.

Then in 1976, Disch and Naylor had a lunch with an editor at Scribner, and in the process came up with the idea for "Neighboring Lives". Disch wanted to stay with Knopf, but felt that his and Naylor's novel was entitled to be published by Scribners. Knopf did not see it that way. Disch received a furious letter from Robert Gottlieb. Its gist was that if Disch went ahead with "Neighboring Lives" for Scribners then (1) Knopf could not guarantee that it could accept any of the novels that Disch was writing for it (2) that Knopf might feel that it was entitled to keep that work, and not allow Disch to offer it to any other publishers (3) that Knopf would ensure that Disch had no reputation in the publishing community. Disch and Naylor went ahead with "Neighboring Lives" for Scribners. While the pair alternated work on that book, Disch continued with On Wings of Song. When it was completed, it was rejected by Knopf. It made the rounds of the New York publishers and was largely rejected as too literary, demanding or "faggotty". Eventually Disch would turn to the science fiction magazines, and it was published in instalments in the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" in 1978. After all the stresses, Disch turned his back on writing for a year. As had happened before, Disch salvaged much of what he had written and published sections as novellas in the late 1970s.

Unlike 334, The Pressure of Time was never intended as a "fix-up". Like Clara Reeve and On Wings of Song it was written to resemble a triple-decker. Unfortunately I've misplaced my notes of Disch's synopsis for Knopf, so some of what follows is probably a little imprecise. The main narrative of the Knopf version follows Emma Rosetti. This meant that "Things Lost" was definitely jettisoned, and I think the same applies for "Mutability". The space ship is an integral part of the plot but the diary was removed. Similarly, most of the romantic confusion in "Mutability" is reduced to back story, since it effectively duplicates Emma Rosetti's experience. The 1980 version of "The Pressure of Time" was section I. I can't remember if some of "Chanson Perpetuelle" was included in section I, or if it was all of the first part of section II. Disch's archives at Yale contain pretty much all of the material for the remainder of section II, a luxurious travelogue around the Mediterranean, visiting the anti-Pope at Venice, and examples of the immortals' combining art and science. After that, who knows? Disch on occasion made murmurs that he had made further work on the book, but never any suggestions that he had completed it. A throwaway comment in a 1986 autobiographical piece mentions "60,000 words completed in a near-final draft, at least as many more more to go."

The book has certain resemblances to both Clara Reeve and On Wings of Song. Emma is a protagonist whose fortunes in the world match Clara's. As Daniel is an outsider to the gift of creative inspiration, so Emma can only envy the immortals and the creative richness of their lives. On Wings of Song has its blacked-up phonies, and The Pressure of Time has the members of the Society of Jesus who dress up as clowns and teddy bears. Like Clara Reeve and On Wings of Song, The Pressure of Time features the forces of puritan religious repression.

There is also the fact that it is slightly dated. References to Derry & Toms, Wimpys, prices in pre-decimal UK currency, and the BBC Twelfth Programme, all date it to a UK that is no later than the early 1970s.



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