Disch, Thomas M

Tagged: Author

(1940-2008) US writer, raised in Minnesota but for many years intermittently resident in New York where, before becoming a full-time writer in the mid-1960s, he worked in an advertising agency and in a bank; he subsequently lived (and set several tales) in the UK, Turkey, Italy and Mexico, before returning to Manhattan, where much of his significant work is set; he was the partner of Charles Naylor from 1969 until the latter's death in 2005. Disch began publishing sf with "The Double-Timer" for Fantastic in October 1962; much of his early work appears in One Hundred and Two H Bombs, and Other Science Fiction Stories (coll 1966; rev 2 stories omitted and 2 added, vt One Hundred and Two H-Bombs 1971 USA) and White Fang Goes Dingo and Other Funny S.F. Stories (coll 1971), which reprints some material from H-Bombs. "White Fang Goes Dingo" (April 1965 If), which appears in the first and third versions of the collection, soon became Disch's second (and rather minor) novel, Mankind Under the Leash [for subtitle see Checklist] (April 1965 If as "White Fang Goes Dingo"; exp 1966 dos; vt The Puppies of Terra [for subtitle see Checklist] 1978); in it Aliens take over Earth and make pets of mankind for aesthetic reasons. The hero, White Fang, eventually drives the aliens off, but his feelings towards his period of effortless Slavery as a dancing pet remain ambivalent (see On Wings of Song below). The first version of One Hundred and Two H Bombs, plus one of the stories added to the second edition, plus Mankind Under the Leash under its vt The Puppies of Terra, all appear in The Early Science Fiction Stories of Thomas M. Disch (coll 1977) edited by David G Hartwell.

Disch's first novel, The Genocides (1965), his most formidable early work, also involves Alien manipulation of Earth from a perspective indifferent (this time chillingly) to any human values or priorities or conventions of storytelling, specifically those governing First Contact tales; this sense of the indifference of society or the Universe pervades his work, helping to distinguish it from US sf in general, which remained fundamentally optimistic about the relevance of human values through the 1960s. In The Genocides the aliens seed Earth with enormous plants, in effect transforming the planet into a monoculture agribusiness (see End of the World), an environment in which it gradually becomes impossible for humans to survive. When groups attempt to fight back, the aliens treat them as vermin, worms in the apple of the planet; and, in one of the most chilling conclusions to any sf novel then published in the USA, fumigate them.

Echo Round his Bones (December 1966-January 1967 New Worlds; 1967) – later assembled with The Genocides and Mankind Under the Leash as Triplicity (omni 1980) – is a minor work dealing light-heartedly with Matter Transmission, Matter Penetration and Matter Duplication, but his fourth novel, Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968), is Disch's most sustained sf invention, and represents the high-water mark of his involvement with the UK New Wave (he was one of several Americans, including John T Sladek, to be more strongly associated with UK than with US sf in the late 1960s). Told entirely in journal form, Camp Concentration recounts its narrator's experiences as an inmate in a Near-Future US concentration camp or human Zoo where the military has treated him with Pallidine, a wonder "drug" which heightens human Intelligence but causes death from a new form of syphilis within months. Along with his fellow-inmates, the narrator understands he is being used as a kind of self-destructing think tank, experiencing the ecstasy of enhanced intelligence and the agonies of "retribution" – the analogies with Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947 Sweden; trans 1948) are explicit [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] – but his death is averted by a trope-quoting sf climax (employing Identity Exchange) which has been sharply criticized as a begging of the issues raised. This novel received Australia's Ditmar Award.

The next books were less weighty. Black Alice (1968) with John Sladek, writing together as Thom Demijohn, though not sf, is reminiscent of both writers. The Prisoner (1969) is a Tie to the television series The Prisoner. Much of Disch's best work in the years around Camp Concentration is in shorter forms, most of these stories being assembled in Under Compulsion (coll 1968; vt Fun with Your New Head 1971) and Getting into Death: The Best Short Stories of Thomas M Disch (coll 1973), a title superseded by the superior US edition, Getting into Death and Other Stories (coll 1976), with essentially different contents. Disch's most famous single story, "The Asian Shore" (in Orbit 6, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight), which appears in both versions of the collection, renders with gripping verisimilitude the transmutation of a bourgeois Western man into a lower-class urban Turk with family, through a process of possession (see Identity). Other notable stories from this period include "The Master of the Milford Altarpiece" (Spring 1969 The Paris Review), "Displaying the Flag" (in Getting into Death, coll 1973) and "The Joycelin Shrager Story" (Winter 1975 The Paris Review); "Frankenstein: The Opera" (January 1984 Last Wave #2) is an opera libretto (see Frankenstein Monster, Music). Increasingly over the years, Disch's best work tended to make use of sf components (if at all) as background to stories of character; in much of this work his protagonists are directly involved, whether or not successfully, in the making of Art, and he increasingly devoted himself to studies of the nature of the artist and of the world s/he attempts to mould but which generally, crushingly, moulds her/him, a progression clearly evidenced by the contrast between a relatively late tale – "The White Man" (in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy, anth 2004, ed Al Sarrantonio) – and its doppelganger, "The Asian Shore" (see above); this and other late tales reflecting upon these issues appear in The Wall of America (coll 2008).

From the early 1960s he wrote and published much Poetry, normally writing as Tom Disch, and the contents of his verse collections evince a sharp speculative clarity whose roots are almost certainly generic. After Highway Sandwiches (coll 1970 chap) as Thomas M Disch, with Marilyn Hacker and Charles Platt, and The Right Way to Figure Plumbing (coll 1972) as Thomas M Disch, further work appeared in ABCDEFG HIJKLM NPOQRST UVWXYZ (coll 1981 chap) as Thomas M Disch (the ordering NPOQRST being intended), Burn This (coll 1982 chap), Here I Am, There You Are, Where Were We? (coll 1984 chap), Yes, Let's: New and Selected Poems (coll 1989), Dark Verses and Light (coll 1991), and About the Size of It (coll 2007). From 2006 until a few days before his death, he made a practice of releasing new poems (sometimes more than one a day) in LiveJournal form (see link below). Tom Disch was for many readers primarily a poet whose connection with sf, if known, seemed secondary.

During the 1970s he also edited a sequence of original theme Anthologies which contain much work of interest from a wide range of contributors: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future (anth 1973), Bad Moon Rising (anth 1973), The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian S-F (anth 1975), New Constellations: An Anthology of Tomorrow's Mythologies (anth 1976) with Charles Naylor and Strangeness: A Collection of Curious Tales (anth 1977) with Charles Naylor.

Disch's most enduring single works of the 1970s are, however, sf. 334 (coll of linked stories 1972), perhaps his best single sf treatment of the Near Future, is set in a degraded Manhattan (see New York); the stories, whose linkings are so subtle and elaborate that it is possible and probably desirable to read the book as a novel, pivot about the apartment building whose address (334 East 11th Street) is the title of the book (the numbers 3, 3, 4 also serve as an arithmetical base [see Oulipo] for the design and proportions of the text). 334 comprises a social portrait of City life in about 2025 CE in a New York where existence has become even more difficult, intense and straitened than it is now, and where the authorities treat humans no better than Disch's Aliens do; but the essence of the book lies in the patterns of survival achieved by its numerous characters, whose aspirations and successes and failures in this darkened urban world do not step over the bounds of what we may expect will become normal experience. On Wings of Song (February-April 1979 F&SF; 1979), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1980, is likewise set mainly in a Near-Future New York, and thematically sums up most of the abiding concerns of Disch's career, as well as presenting an exemplary and poignantly sophisticated portrait of the pleasures and miseries of artistic endeavour in a world made barbarous by material scarcities and spiritual lassitude; though it lacks the complex, energetic, multi-voiced denseness of the earlier book, its central portrait of a failed artist (the protagonist is a singer) is perhaps Disch's most sustained single analysis of a character, and On Wings of Song is now widely understood to be perhaps his finest single novel.

By this point, Disch had begun to lessen his production of sf. Neither his massive Gothic novel Clara Reeve (1975) as by Leonie Hargrave – earlier, with Sladek, he had collaborated on a more routine Gothic, The House that Fear Built (1966), the two writing together as Cassandra Knye – nor Neighboring Lives (1981) with Charles Naylor, an historical analysis in fictional terms of mid-nineteenth-century English literary life, has any sf content. There followed two collections of literate but significantly less engaged genre work – Fundamental Disch (coll 1980; cut 1981) and The Man Who Had No Idea (coll 1982) – as well as The Businessman: A Tale of Terror (1984), an intricately metaphysical horror novel in which the poet John Berryman (1914-1972) is resurrected after his suicide as a Zombie; it is the first of the Supernatural Minnesota quartet. Its thematic partners – The MD: A Horror Story (1991), a massive and ambitious exercise in the supernatural whose conclusion takes place in a Near Future devastated by a plague more deadly than AIDS; The Priest: A Gothic Romance (1994), which savagely satirizes the sexual hypocrisies and obsessions of the modern Roman Catholic Church through a plot involving paedophilia and Doppelgangers; and The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft (1999) – mark only a partial return to the instrumental sf of his early work; however, as a requiem for and an ethical indictment of twentieth-century America, it is as punishing as any of the more conspicuously radical works from the beginning of his career. A thematic sequel set in the Near Future and perhaps his most sustained late sf story, "The White Man" (in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy, anth 2004, ed Al Sarrantonio), traces the growing understanding of a Somali girl in Minneapolis that whites are, to all intents and purposes Vampires. His computer Adventure game, Amnesia (written and programmed 1986), is an engaging if frustrating piece of interactive software. The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances (August 1980 F&SF; 1986 chap), a juvenile fantasy, was filmed by Walt Disney as The Brave Little Toaster (1987); the sequel was The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1988 chap), filmed as The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998). He was the author of two plays, Ben Hur (produced 1989) and The Cardinal Detoxes (produced 1990; 1993 chap), the latter being the subject of a controversy instigated by the Roman Catholic Church when it was still in denial about the extent to which its priests committed sexual abuses on their flocks. Disch was theatre critic for The Nation from 1987 to 1993, with an intermission in 1991-1992.

The gradual slowing of his sf output after 1980 or so may be not unconnected to the nature of the field's response to him. Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, Disch was perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern sf writers of the first rank. That he himself had long been affected by the active disregard which greeted his finest work shows clearly between the lines in two nonfiction books he addressed to the genre: The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (1998) – for which he received the Hugo and Locus Award for nonfiction – which half-seriously suggests that the spinal cord of sf runs from the hoax fictions of Edgar Allan Poe to Whitley Strieber; and On SF (coll 2005), whose individual essays and reviews, though sometimes over-cruel, demonstrate how badly his essential departure from the field in the twenty-first century should have been missed. A sense of injury, moderated by spoof sublimities, can also be detected in The Word of God; Or, Holy Writ Rewritten (2008), a novel couched as a memoir both of the Judeo-Christian deity and of the writer-as-creator; and in the Proteus sequence of novellas comprising The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World (2007) and Proteus Sails Again: Further Adventures at the End of the World (2008). In the first volume, a version of the author himself is transported into ancient Greece; in the second, the same persona, aided by a resurrected Socrates, attempts to cope with his own last hours in an apocalyptic New York (see End of the World). With the exception of the book awards mentioned, two of them for one nonfiction work, Disch went relatively unhonoured by a subculture awash in awards for the bestowing. His death, at his own hand, on the Fourth of July, did constitute, however, an act of defiance over issues broader than his failure to be soothed by a shoal of kudos. [JC]

see also: BSFA Award; Children in SF; Conceptual Breakthrough; Crime and Punishment; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Disaster; Dystopias; Entropy; Eschatology; Fantasy; Gothic SF; Horror in SF; Humour; Invasion; Messiahs; Mythology; New Worlds; Omni; Optimism and Pessimism; Overpopulation; Philip K Dick Award; Pollution; Psychology; Seiun Award; Sex; Superman; Utopias; Venus.

Thomas Michael Disch

born Des Moines, Iowa: 2 February 1940

died New York: 4 July 2008

works

series

Supernatural Minnesota

Brave Little Toaster

Proteus

individual titles

collections, stories, plays

poetry (selected)

All titles as by Tom Disch except where noted.

nonfiction

works as editor

about the author

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