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on Jul 7, 2008

i was saddened to read today that writer and poet Tom Disch committed suicide in his New York apartment on July 4th. I’ve always been a big fan of Disch’s classic intellectual science-fiction novels of the 1970s: the amazing Camp Concentration, 334, and On Wings of Song, as well as his great collections of short fiction, Getting into Death and Fundamental Disch. Following my teenage years, when I read a lot of science fiction, Disch was one of the few writers, along with J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Stanislaw Lem, who retained a space on my bookshelf. I met him briefly once, when my friend Mark Binder and I invited him to speak at Columbia when we were students there. I remember him as a witty, commanding and slightly intimidating figure.

Most people reading this will probably remember a Disch story, The Brave Little Toaster, that was turned into a Disney animated film, but he was a very prolific writer whose work spanned genres. His stories were often poetic but always fiercely interrogative of power, government, authority and convention.

A number of writers and bloggers have posted remembrances. In his, Scott Edelman quotes John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distant mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, Thomas M. Disch has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.

Ellen Datlow remembers him here.

Nielsen Hayden remembers his early novels as well as some of his sadder later viewpoints:

I certainly read him; his SF novels of the 1960s and 70s, particularly Camp Concentration and 334, had an enormous impact on me. But “least read” may be true: according to publishing legend, his SF masterpiece On Wings of Song had a 90% return rate in its 1980 Bantam paperback edition. Despite that, he went on to hit bestseller lists with his 1991 horror novel The M.D. Just as unexpectedly, his children’s book The Brave Little Toaster was adapted into a popular Disney cartoon.

He could be hard to take, both in person and in his public interactions with the SF world. He played the game of literary politics hard, and sometimes lost badly. He frequently seemed to have no patience for his allies, much less his enemies. Of his other career, as noted poet Tom Disch, I can’t say much, except that to my mind the poetry was often good. In his later years he wrote a blog; after he began to post frequently on the depravity of Muslims and immigrants, I became unable to keep reading it.

The Disch I prefer to remember was no nicer than that, but much smarter: a brittle and brilliant ironist with a bright wit and no optimism whatsoever. Here are the concluding lines of his 1965 SF novel The Genocides, a book wedged forever up the nose of overweening skiffy can-do-ism:

“Nature is prodigal. Of a hundred seedlings only one or two would survive; of a hundred species, only one or two.
Not, however, man.”

Disch had apparently been depressed over health issues, the death of his partner from cancer three years earlier, and attempts by his landlord to evict him from his rent-controlled apartment (Disch’s partner, Charles Naylor, had the name on the lease). The saddest post is over at the Daily Kos, in which Eric S. writes about his own relationship with Disch as well as some of these things Disch was battling.

After reading all of this, if you’re not familiar with Disch, I recommend starting with Camp Concentration. His latest novel, The Word of God, will be published this summer.

UPDATE: Douglas Martin has a very nice obituary in the New York Times. An excerpt:

But it was as an exemplar of a generation of more sophisticated, better-educated science-fiction writers who emerged in the 1960s that Mr. Disch first stood out. His dark themes, disturbing plots, corrosive social commentary and sheer unpredictability made him a leader of what was called “the new wave” of science fiction writers, those who consciously wrote literature rather than disposable pulp entertainment.

“You could finally write for grownups!” Mr. Disch said in 2001 in an interview with Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a poet and critic, said Monday, “The reason his science fiction is important is that he combined a kind of really dark Swiftian satire with a modernist, really postmodernist sensibility.”

David Pringle, an editor and critic, most recently listed three novels by Mr. Disch on his list of the 100 best science fiction novels: “Camp Concentration” (1968), which tells of political prisoners who are being treated with a new drug that increases their intelligence, but also causes their early deaths; “334” (1972), which describes a New York City housing project that has sunk to depressing depths in 2023; and “On Wings of Song” (1979), which chronicles an Iowan who comes to New York and encounters a similar hell.

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