Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

334 is a complex, tightly crafted work. The individual stories cohere thematically and dramatically as a novel. Characters, events, and places recur from story to story and propel the plot.

The complex formal structure of “334” and the other stories never becomes a detached aesthetic game for two reasons. First,...

(The entire section contains 487 words.)

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334 is a complex, tightly crafted work. The individual stories cohere thematically and dramatically as a novel. Characters, events, and places recur from story to story and propel the plot.

The complex formal structure of “334” and the other stories never becomes a detached aesthetic game for two reasons. First, the diagrammatic structure has thematic relevance, demonstrating how the MODICUM apartment building shapes the characters’ lives and how human lives are complexly interconnected. Second, Thomas M. Disch deeply empathizes with the losers in the brave new world of MODICUM and makes the reader feel their plights, hopes, and depressions.

It seems as though 334 is a grim depiction of life in a depressing world. The book begins with the deaths of Socrates and Birdie and ends with Mrs. Hanson applying for death. In Disch’s early novels, such as his first, The Genocides (1965), the universe is hostile to human life. In 334, human society itself is inimical to human life. As in most of Disch’s science fiction, people are powerless to improve the horrible situations in which they find themselves, but again in many of his other novels, especially On Wings of Song (1979), there are light places within the dark, usually because of artistic creation. The best moments in 334 occur when, despite their deadening society, characters have epiphanic, creative bursts. Although such moments are brief and do not largely improve the society, they do help Disch’s characters exorcise personal hells. Everything about 334 encourages the reader to read creatively: the complex structure, the many allusions to arts and artists, the recurring motifs, and the vivid characters.

Disch has produced a varied body of quality work, from poetry, plays, and criticism to science-fiction and horror stories and novels. 334 embodies the best traits of his other work: well-rounded characters who are mocked ironically and empathized with compassionately; a rich style that varies to suit the wide range of characters and moods; a passionate concern with the artistic process and the role of art; and a bleak view of life and human nature and society, sometimes leavened by humor, love, and creativity.

In these features, 334 belongs with other New Wave science fiction from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, including works by Samuel R. Delany and J. G. Ballard. 334 certainly is not traditional hard science fiction, for Disch uses technological advances sparingly and ironically. For example, even though it may not work, cryogenics becomes a kind of religion. Despite 334’s future setting, which is imaginatively and believably extrapolated from trends present in 1972, Disch, as in all of his science fiction, uses the genre to explore current negative aspects of human nature and society, not to predict the future.

Because of its challenging form and bleak visions, 334, like all of Disch’s science fiction, has not received as many readers as it deserves. He slowed his science-fiction output considerably later in his career. Written early in Disch’s career, 334 is a masterpiece of science fiction.

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