[9 July 2008]
The worlds of both science fiction and great literature lost a smart, acerbic voice on Friday when Thomas M. Disch committed suicide at the age of 68. It’s often said of uncommonly talented writers that they defied description; in Disch’s case, that actually managed to be true.
A child of the upper Midwest—he was born in Des Moines in 1940—Disch later moved to New York and spread his talents over a multitude of endeavors, excelling in most. He had a sharp tongue in his criticism, but since he was generally smarter than the opposition, it was rarely without cause. Like most science-fiction writers who came to prominence during the brief window of creative opportunities afforded by the genre’s experimental New Wave period (like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, and others), Disch received waves of critical accolades that could never translate into mainstream stardom. Also like most of the stars of that period, his writing will probably endure in print for years longer than many of their once-bestselling but less-adventurous cohorts.
Disch made his reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s by taking the stolid personalities and quiet, wide-open spaces of his youth, and using them as the backdrop for some sublimely creepy and tragic dystopian visions. In the instant classic Camp Concentration (1968), military prisoners under a dictatorial American regime are subjected to hideous experiments in order to breed geniuses. A more complex work, 334 (1972) was an interlinked series of character studies all set within the same apartment building in a falling-apart Manhattan of the near future.
Both books are masterpieces of forward-thinking fiction, marrying a bleak sociopolitical forecast with crackling dialogue and barely muted outrage. In them, Disch, a frequent Hugo and Nebula nominee, displayed something of the blast furnace antiestablishment anger of a John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, in particular), but also a keenly literary imagination that drew heavily on classical sources and operatic impulses. Like Philip K. Dick, Disch was a believer in science fiction as serious literature that could use its frequently maligned narrative devices to go places that straight fiction rarely dared.
Disch would deserve noting here even if just for his science fiction output. But he was almost as adept a critic as he was a creator, penning witty theater, opera, and literary criticism for a host of publications, from Entertainment Weekly and The Nation to The New York Sun and Harper’s. In his 1998 book The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of (a companion piece to his 1996 excoriation of modern poetry (The Castle of Indolence), Disch created a short, cogent, but sweeping history of, as the subtitle put it, ” How Science Fiction Conquered the World.”
Being one of the genre’s great practitioners as well as fans, he felt free to go after some of its more fatuous progenitors, like Robert Heinlein, and was lacerated by a number of fanboys as a result. However, Disch went to the wall time and again to defend the greatness of those who deserved it, like Joe Haldeman and Dick (even if the latter did famously and hilariously claim in a paranoid rant to the F.B.I. in 1972 that Disch had been recruited by an anti-government organization to plant coded messages in novels like Camp Concentration).
There were numerous other sidelines to Disch’s career. He published several volumes of poetry under “Tom Disch”, penned the occasional opera libretto, edited anthologies, and even dashed off a quartet of modern gothic horror novels and wrote a play (The Cardinal Detoxes that was denounced by the Catholic Church, an institution he had many run-ins with). His 1980 novella The Brave Little Toaster was turned into a pretty adorable children’s film in 1987.
He collaborated on an intensely detailed “computer novel” text adventure game in the mid-1980s called “Amnesia” that was designed to run on PCs, Apple IIs, and Commodore 64s. It was a literary precursor to games like Grand Theft Auto in that it detailed every single block in Manhattan south of 110th Street. Most incredibly, according to a friend of his over at DailyKos, Disch might even have had a hand in another Disney creation:
Disney subsequently asked Tom [after The Brave Little Toaster] if he could develop further projects. Tom delivered to Disney as “work for hire”, a clever adaption of Shakespeare for the kids, and transported it to Africa, even giving it an ecological subplot—and without a credit or the slightest stake in its future, but for the grand sum of $5,000—this astoundingly literate, self educated poet and non-businessman offered up to the world something called The Lion King.
Even if that story isn’t true, it damn well should be.
Someone who bravely defied genre conventions in the name of good writing, Disch was also openly gay for most of his adult life, a fact that became more apparent in some of his later novels (like On Wings of Song and his horror series). He had apparently been depressed for a number of reasons, including his failing health, the 2005 death of Charles Naylor, his partner of 35-years, and the possibility of getting evicted from his rent-controlled Manhattan apartment.
Although his friend and colleague the anthologist Ellen Datlow noted that she was “shocked, saddened, but not very surprised” by Disch’s suicide, he had apparently been going through a spurt of creativity of late. In fact, just this month saw the publication of Word of God, a typically fearless piece of work in which Disch speaks in the voice of God. Yes, God. It was his first novel in nine years. If only there could be more.