Thomas Disch, 1940-2008

SF writer, critic, and poet Thomas Disch took his own life on July 4, 2008.

No writer meant more to me in the late sixties and seventies than Thomas Disch. He wrote like an angel, had a mordant wit, and was an incisive critic. He represented everything I aspired to as a writer. For years my answer, when asked who was the best writer currently doing sf, was "Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe."

I drifted away from his work in the 80s after THE BUSINESSMAN. But I was just this month re-reading his early short fiction for an anthology I'm putting together with Jim Kelly. It holds up magnificently. Throw in THE GENOCIDES, CAMP CONCENTRATION, 334, and ON WINGS OF SONG and you have a landmark career right there. It's ironic to see this gay intellectual Manhattan-dwelling science fiction writer and contemporary poet die the same day as Jesse Helms, almost as if God was selecting one from column A, one from column B.

I did not know Disch well--though we had one extraordinary drunken conversation over dinner in 1986, which I will always remember--but he was one of my writing heroes when I was in my twenties. I only met him a few times, and cannot say we were friends, and I disagreed strongly with much he had to say in the little angry book he wrote about sf a few years ago. I saw his increasing bitterness as a falling away from a humanity that showed through the cynicism of his early work. I suspect now that it was a struggle he was having with himself.

I was at the 1980 worldcon where ON WINGS OF SONG lost the Hugo to Arthur Clarke's THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE (actually, I think it came in last in the voting). It's not denigration of Clarke to say that I thought that was an absurd result. As I was walking out of the auditorium after the award, I happened to end up right next to Disch (who didn't know me from Adam). On impulse, I leaned over to him and said, "I think you deserved the award." He said, "It's all right. He'll die sooner than I will."

I guess he was right (barely) about that. RIP, Tom.

Here's a poem Disch wrote:

 

How to Behave when Dead

 

A notorious tease, he may pretend
not to be aware of you.
                     Just wait.
He must speak first. Then
you may begin to praise him.

 

Remember:
sincerity and naturalness
count for more than wit.
His jokes may strike you as
abstruse.
       Only laugh if he does.

 

Gifts?
They say he's mad for art,
but whether in the melting
elegiac mode of, say, this
Vase of Poppies
or, turning the mirror
to his own face, a bronze skull
gorging on a snake --
that is a matter of taste.
In any case, the expense
is what he notices.

 

What to wear.
                  Some authorities
still insist on black.
But really, in this modern age,
your best is all that is required.

             -- Tom Disch