The M.D. Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas M. Disch


There is little doubt that Disch is central to any understanding of the New Wave in science fiction. His style exhibits much of the same literary strength found in the works of J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and even Thomas Pynchon. The mature vision of The M.D. builds on such earlier successes as Camp Concentration (1968) and 334 (1972) and cynically focuses on people’s place in an absurd and cruel universe.

Characteristically, the book is challenging insofar as it upsets a schoolboy’s fantasy with dark consequences. Michaels plays with magic as would any boy, and makes it a real part of his own life. Disch is not strictly concerned with fantasy as whimsy, however, though he certainly recognizes this aspect. Instead, The M.D. turns toward the material effects of magic and considers the impact on victims and magicians alike, exploring how spells have side effects beyond all control. The strength of The M.D. lies in Disch’s convincing descriptions of working-class drudgery and family life. These make the eruption of supernatural powers and events all the more disturbing and sinister.

In challenging the limits of science fiction and fantasy, Disch invests his work with an intelligence and moral seriousness that give gravity to the subject. Michaels’ first use of the caduceus leaves his grandmother bald, an event Disch plays for comic effect. This is subsequently tempered with the reduction...

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