334 is a science fiction novel by American author Thomas M. Disch, written in 1972. It is a gritty, subtly dystopian look at everyday life in New York City around the year 2025.
Explanation of title
Most of the novel's characters live in a huge housing project
at 334 East 11th Street, in Manhattan
. The title also refers to the year 334
CE, during the later years of the Roman Empire
; numerous comparisons are made between the decline of Rome and the future of the United States
The future in 334 has brought few technological advances except for new medical techniques and recreational drugs. There have been no dramatic disasters, but overpopulation has made housing and other resources scarce; the response is a program of compulsory birth control and eugenics. A welfare state provides for basic needs through an all-encompassing agency called MODICUM, but there is an extreme class division between welfare recipients and professionals.
The novel consists of five independent novellas (previously published separately) with a common setting but different characters, and a longer sub-novel called "334" whose many short sections trace the members of a single family forward and backward in time. The sections are as follows:
- "The Death of Socrates": A high-school student finds that, due to poor scores on his Regents Examinations and his father's health history, he has been permanently forbidden to have children; he searches for ways to get extra credit.
- "Bodies": Porters at Bellevue Hospital moonlight as body-snatchers catering to a necrophiliac brothel. Their task is complicated by the desire of some patients to be cryonically preserved for a better future.
- "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire": A privileged government worker, trying to decide where to send her son to school, pursues a parallel existence in a hallucinogen-assisted role-playing game set in the year 334.
- "Emancipation: A Romance of the Times to Come": A young professional man and woman face marital conflicts and parenthood, with several twists unique to the 2020s.
- "Angouleme": A group of highly educated prepubescent children decides to commit a gratuitous murder in Battery Park.
- "334": Vignettes of the Hanson family from 2021 to 2025.
Characters in "334"
- Mrs. Hanson: An elderly widow living at 334. Mother to Lottie, Shrimp, and Boz.
- Lottie Hanson: An unemployed single mother living at 334.
- Shrimp Hanson: Considered genetically desirable for her unusual intelligence, therefore has a free pass from the government to have children, although she is actually motivated by a fetish for artificial insemination.
- Boz Hanson: Unemployed, former resident of 334, managed to leave by marrying Milly.
- Milly Holt: A professional sex demonstrator for the high schools. Was Birdie's girlfriend, now married to Boz.
- Ab Holt: Manages the morgue at Bellevue Hospital. Millie's father.
- Birdie Ludd: A high-school student living at 334.
- Frances Schaap: A prostitute living at 334. Like many people in the 2020s, she has lupus.
- Alexa: A MODICUM administrator, responsible for the Hansons.
- Tancred: Alexa's son.
- Amparo: Lottie's daughter.
- Little Mister Kissy Lips: Son of a television executive, classmate of Tancred and Amparo.
Like much of Disch's fiction, 334
is both a prediction of future trends and a satirical portrait of the contemporary United States
. Its bureaucratic
city-state is an exaggeration of aspects of liberal programs that began in the 1960s, combining their best hopes (material need has been eliminated) with the worst suspicions of their detractors (the lower class remains uneducated and without aspirations; their social workers mostly regard them with contempt). Its portrayal of other forms of social change is similarly ambiguous: same-sex relationships gain acceptance, but suffer the same pathologies as traditional ones; sexual frankness (and free TV pornography) does not relieve neurosis; the intellectual pursuits of the professional class devolve into endless solipsistic therapy. The only institution that the characters feel some loyalty to is the nuclear family.
Political action is touched on only indirectly in the novel; most of the characters are so politically uninvolved that "Democrat" and "Republican" are used only as sexual slang. (Ironically, rather than having a conservative connotation, "Republican" means "homosexual"; the Democratic Party has traditionally had an overwhelming majority in New York.) Although almost nothing is mentioned of the world outside of New York, the U.S. is embroiled in a Vietnam-like war in Burma—but rather than a draft, young people are pressured into the military by economic means. A group of student activists passionately debates the system's injustice, but takes no action, while a nameless character crashes a plane as a protest but elicits no response other than a brief TV story.
In the third novella, "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire", several members of the professional class suggest that the U.S., like Rome, is a superpower in irreversible decline, whose citizens can no longer hope to make meaningful contributions to the world but should simply seek advantageous positions for themselves. The novel leaves as an open question whether this is an accurate judgement, or a self-fulfilling prophecy by the society's elite.
Allusions/references to other works
- The killing of a hospital patient by adjusting life-support equipment is referred to as "burking", a reference to the murderers Burke and Hare.
- The children in "Angouleme" name their intended victim Alyona Ivanovna, after Raskolnikov's first victim in Crime and Punishment.
- Miss Kraus, the delusional sign-carrying woman who frequents Battery Park in "Angouleme", was an actual person alive at the time Disch wrote the novel.
Literary significance and criticism
was selected by David Pringle
as one of the 100 best science-fiction novels written since World War II
Samuel R. Delany's The American Shore (1978) is a book-length critical essay on the novella "Angouleme"; Delany argues that despite the lack of any scientific themes in "Angouleme", its speculative setting makes it inherently science fiction.
Awards and nominations
The novel was nominated for a 1974 Nebula Award
. Previously, the novella "334" won a Locus Poll Award
Shrimp watches 54 movies at home. Besides existing films, Disch lists some proposed future works including Leaves of Grass
, Stanford White
, The Confessions of St. Augustine
, Pale Fire
, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
, and The Hills of Switzerland
; the last is the title of one of Louis Sacchetti's books in Camp Concentration
Several usages of future slang in early editions of the novel were "corrected" to standard spellings in the 1999 Vintage Books edition. Two of these, "mickeymouse" and "sexlife", were contractions indicating the increasingly casual usage of the phrases; another, "gorillas" for members of the Marines, was changed to "guerrillas", but may have been an intentional pun due to the black masks worn by the soldiers.
The novel is dedicated to "Jerry Mundis, who lived here."
- Original publication of novellas:
- 1972, UK, MacGibbon & Kee, ISBN 0-261-63283-3, hardcover
- 1974, US, Avon Books, paperback
- 1974, UK, Sphere, paperback
- 1976, US, Gregg Press, hardcover
- 1981, Australia, Magnum, paperback
- 1987, US, Carroll & Graf, paperback
- 1999, US, Vintage Books/Random House, ISBN 0-375-70544-9, trade paperback
- Delany, Samuel R. (1978). The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science-Fiction by Thomas M. Disch.. Dragon Press. ISBN 0-911499-01-6.