RIP Thomas Disch
July 7, 2008 5:15 AM   Subscribe

Thomas M. Disch, the author of such New Wave classics as Camp Concentration and 334, is dead. He committed suicide on July 4th. Disch's LiveJournal.
posted by ed (72 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa. I'm sorry to hear it.
posted by OmieWise at 5:19 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 5:22 AM on July 7, 2008

I made a post about his death that I posted after this one. Here are some of the links I had collected: 5 stories, some poems, New York Times author page, interview from 2001, Bat Segundo audio interview and Locus obituary.

Great writer. I'll have to go to the library and check out what they have.
posted by Kattullus at 5:34 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let's try some of that again, New York Times author page and some poems.
posted by Kattullus at 5:36 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by ardgedee at 5:54 AM on July 7, 2008

Wow, I remember getting my dad to buy "Amnesia" all those years ago. I didn't remember that it was written by Thomas Disch. Excellent game (although I was pretty bad at it, not having much of a sense of direction). I read the novel "The MD" a few years ago and wasn't particularly impressed but I remember really enjoying a lot of his short stories from his New Wave period.

What a shame he lost the light at the end of the cliche.
posted by h00py at 5:55 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:36 AM on July 7, 2008

Could anyone who has read the new book, The Word of God comment on the connection? it had the strange conceit of being a first person account of deification, which made me worry a bit.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:40 AM on July 7, 2008

I really enjoyed most of what I read by him (Camp Concentration, Genocides). For a while now, I'd been following his livejournal and thought he was a bit of a curmudgeon.

That said: .
posted by drezdn at 6:43 AM on July 7, 2008

Damn. We've lost a good one. I hope he's found the peace he wanted.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:45 AM on July 7, 2008

Pity. I liked camp concentration, though I hear he went a bit strange towards the end (a bit of an occupational hazard).

He eaves behind the term Dischism, which I've sometimes found useful:

The unwitting intrusion of the author's physical surroundings, or the author's own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision -- when this is actually the author's condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. "Dischism" is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M. Disch)
posted by Artw at 6:46 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:46 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by crataegus at 6:50 AM on July 7, 2008

I remember reading "The Brave Little Toaster" in F&FS many years ago, thinking,"What a great story, so different from everything around it".
posted by 445supermag at 6:54 AM on July 7, 2008


For many of us whose formative sf-reading years were the 1970s, Disch (along with Delany, Zelazny, Ellison, LeGuin and Russ) was one of the absolute must-reads. His more recent critical opinions sometimes rubbed me the wrong way, but his books Camp Concentration, On Wings of Song, and 334 remain vivid in my mind thirty years later.
posted by aught at 7:02 AM on July 7, 2008

Thanks for the link to Disch's LiveJournal. Damn, the man could write.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:06 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:13 AM on July 7, 2008

Oh, my God. And suicide. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful.

I met him once. I was working for a new media company about 20 years ago and I mentioned Disch and the boss said he'd invite him to the opening party. As promised, Disch showed up, all in leather, cruised the party looking for action I think, and split. I don't remember exchanging three words to him. :-(

(Later that night the boss threw a punch at me and then fell on the ground crying when I blocked it (he'd been hitting on the secretary, 20+ years his junior with a boyfriend, and I was delegated to politely tell him to knock it off - but he was very drunk).)

. for Tom Disch. What a shame, what a shame. Everyone should read his book of short stories, "Getting Into Death." "Everyone knows about Apollo and Daphne — how he pursued her, how she resisted, how at the last possible moment she was changed into the lovely Lever House,
which we can see to this day on the corner of 53rd Street and Park Avenue."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:23 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Very, very sad.
posted by jlbartosa at 7:42 AM on July 7, 2008

Man, I first heard of him just two weeks ago, and I'd been waiting to pick up 334.
posted by 235w103 at 7:55 AM on July 7, 2008

Damn it. Such a great writer.
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:55 AM on July 7, 2008

I thought Amnesia was really hard. But really interesting. It was hard to imagine it came from the same mind as The Brave Little Toaster.

posted by grouse at 7:59 AM on July 7, 2008

Very sad news. I am sorry I didn't know about the LJ before...there's some wryly dark stuff there, now the more moving in light of his death.
posted by BT at 8:00 AM on July 7, 2008


That's what I said when I read the headline. The death of celebrities or heros rarely causes me to be more than a little sad. After all, I don't really know them or I only know their public image, and the before and after of their existence will look much the same. The stretch between books becomes a little longer, they show up on TV less, the body of work they produced remains. And to mourn when there are people, loved ones, who are feeling a real and personal loss - it seems cheap, disrespectful.

But damn, Disch was a talent. He wrote books that made you jealous you'd never write anything half as good. He wrote about ideas that you'd never think could be made to work, but did. And they managed to be entertaining and interesting and worthy, all at once. You find out that he's dead and think, "We just lost something. We lost something rare. Shit."
posted by outlier at 8:00 AM on July 7, 2008

I remember him most for his non-fiction The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of, an engaging, gossipy examination of science fiction in 20th century pop culture, including tropes, Scientology, feminism, politics, and more.

posted by kurumi at 8:01 AM on July 7, 2008

A brief statement from his friend the novelist John Crowley, who promises a longer memorial later.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:05 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Ber at 8:06 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by localroger at 8:14 AM on July 7, 2008

I had no idea he worked on The Lion King. His landlord sounds like a complete ass.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:22 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by aerotive at 8:28 AM on July 7, 2008

...his books Camp Concentration, On Wings of Song and 334 remain vivid in my mind thirty years later.
About once a week, I think about some aspect of one thing or another from what he wrote--fairies and fairy traps from On The Wings of Song; Birdie Ludd's problems of creativeness in 334, the would be child murderers in Angouleme therefrom or the syphilitic prisoner genii in Camp Concentration, under constant surveillance, and how, too late, the experiment gets shut down on the spot by their terrified wardens when they decide they'll just work out their secret escape plan by just talking about alchemy and stuff right there in the out right on mike open air.

And he died a suicide. This is so very sad.
posted by y2karl at 8:36 AM on July 7, 2008

It sounds like he was having some very shitty years in a row. I didn't know. 334 was an extraordinary book...

posted by Iosephus at 8:43 AM on July 7, 2008

Patrick Nielsen-Hayden on Disch.
posted by Kattullus at 8:54 AM on July 7, 2008

These are some incredibly saddening links, particularly around the circumstances of his death. I'd never read any of Disch's work, but intend to do so. Thanks for this.
posted by blucevalo at 9:08 AM on July 7, 2008

As to Big Idea # 2, I'll get to that later.

(from his Livejournal, July 1st, 2008)
posted by mecran01 at 9:08 AM on July 7, 2008

Very sad. Philip Dick references him in one of his last novels as one of the few authors worth reading these days (which would have been the late 70's). VALIS, I think. I'll have to go check.
posted by bardic at 9:10 AM on July 7, 2008

Oh, no!

posted by brundlefly at 9:16 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Shepherd at 9:22 AM on July 7, 2008

Eerily, at the same time that Disch was committing suicide, a friend and I were recommending Disch to my girlfriend.
posted by Kattullus at 9:22 AM on July 7, 2008

At least writing lives forever. I will miss him.
posted by A189Nut at 9:31 AM on July 7, 2008

God, that's really awful.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:41 AM on July 7, 2008

Gibson's note.

A truly original writer. SF will be poorer for loss of him.
posted by lodurr at 9:41 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:09 AM on July 7, 2008

One of my all-time favorite authors. I was so excited last month when I heard he had something new coming out that it sent me into a Disch-fit and i had to reread his older stuff.

Thank you all for the rich links (leading to places with even more rich links), I'll be mining them for weeks.

It sounds like the last years of his life were horrible. I hope he found some peace.

posted by merelyglib at 10:27 AM on July 7, 2008

Disch, Dick, Lem, and Wolfe were The Canon, as far as I was concerned. Wolfe is the last one left.

Dammit. This sucks. All my heroes are dying.

posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:37 AM on July 7, 2008

Gods, that's unfortunate.

posted by batmonkey at 10:38 AM on July 7, 2008

Dammit. He was one of the best, a real mindbender.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:51 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Lex Tangible at 10:59 AM on July 7, 2008

I ws at William & Mary during his "Artist in Residence" year, but I didn't have the faintest idea who he was at the time. I eventually found out, far too late, and still see that as one of the great missed opportunities of my life.
posted by rusty at 10:59 AM on July 7, 2008

Not. Happy. Right. Now.
posted by cstross at 11:15 AM on July 7, 2008

posted by Smart Dalek at 11:43 AM on July 7, 2008

I had no idea he had been struck by so many hardships and losses in recent years, or that he was writing online. Maybe it is just the statistical realities of pushing middle age (and thus your heroes, giants, bright lights and luminaries heading into old age) but it has been a hard damn century so far.
posted by nanojath at 11:44 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

OMG OMG -- I had no idea. This is so so so so sad... 334, Camp Concentration, Echo Round His Bones, Descending... oh I am so ready to cry.

God dammit. God fucking dammit.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:20 PM on July 7, 2008

Tom had been depressed for several years... He also was very worried about being evicted from the rent controlled apartment he lived in for decades.

Dammit. Killed, more or less, by his own fears and anxieties. Having dealt with depression and anxiety attacks, I can definitely relate.

Camp Concentration was the best book I read in college. This sucks.
posted by hifiparasol at 1:04 PM on July 7, 2008

Wolfe is the last one left.

Your canon is missing Jack Vance--who still lives. But then I would put Vance before Lem by an order of magnitude or two any day of the year. As would Gene Wolfe, or so I suspect.
posted by y2karl at 1:43 PM on July 7, 2008

I had no idea Jack Vance was still alive. And you're right, y2karl, I damn well should have included him.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:07 PM on July 7, 2008

Vance, great as he is, y2karl, is by no means to be compared to Lem. The two are utterly dissimilar. Lem, Wolfe, Dick, and Disch do indeed go together -- but Vance? No no no. His use of language is second to none but he is not the trailblazer Lem was, or Wolfe is. And I suspect he would agree with that. I would put Chip Delany in there before Vance -- who was not New Wave in any case. (Not that Lem was.) Shit, I'd put Harlan Ellison in there before Vance.

posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 5:35 PM on July 7, 2008

I'd put Harlan Ellison in there before Vance.

Setting aside his personal flaws-something I think he goes to great lengths to make difficult-I'm not sure Ellison's writing is holding up that well. A lot of his work seems to be impressive verbal pyrotechnics without a lot of substance beneath. He's always struck me as a very clever man who is about 15% less clever than he thinks.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:34 PM on July 7, 2008

Lem, Wolfe, Dick, and Disch do indeed go together -- but Vance?


The Dying Earth - Jack Vance

The Book of the New Sun - Gene Wolfe

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K. Dick

Go together ? Utterly dissimilar ?
posted by y2karl at 8:02 AM on July 8, 2008

The firts two are a lot more similar than the third, and TBH even those are not really as similar as they might seem on first glance.
posted by Artw at 8:22 AM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ah, but one is quite clearly in part an homage to the other and, also, one Gene Wolfe has written an essay entitled The Living Earth.
posted by y2karl at 9:49 AM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you look at the corpus, Vance ends up not looking that similar to Disch, Wolfe or Dick.

True, he was ahead of his time (yes, I realize he's not dead, but he's not ahead of his time anymore), and wrote stuff that stretched the genre, but then so did Bester. (Dick goes without saying.)

I don't know a ton of Wolfe, but from what I have read (probably five or six stories) he always struck me as someone whose work was just not as fundamentally out-there as Disch. Which is not a put down on Wolfe, I just don't think that's what he was after.

Dick could be an interesting and highly competent stylist in his own right, but that was the exception rather than the rule. He was mostly about ideas and scenarios and getting it all out on the bookstands as fast as possible. Thinking about Disch v. Dick makes me think of a great quote from Sterling, w.r.t. Ballard v. Burroughs: "He’s willing to stare into the same abyss as Burroughs, but he’d never sit there in a heroin stupor as the abyss started eating its way up his leg." (Having known as many clinically depressed people as I have, the comparison doesn't actually make me feel a lot of irony at the manner of Disch's passing.)

Aside: Disch has a fair amount of talking-head time in this PKD documentary.
posted by lodurr at 10:18 AM on July 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

*shrug* I don't think Vance belongs in that list of "trailblazers," is all I am saying, and I'll go with that. TDE and BOTNS have far-future settings -- so do lots of sf books. The tone and themes of TDE and Wolfe's work are nothing alike, for my money. Sure Wolfe owes something to Vance but then everyone who writes sf owes something to Wells. (Or Heinlein... or Asimov... or Clarke... or Hugo Gernsback. )

Dammit, I love Vance and have read tons of his work, but he just ain't in the same league as Wolfe, Lem, Dick, and Disch.

posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:29 PM on July 8, 2008

And even Dick was essentially just a pulp hack -- until he went bonkers, then he was off somewhere else.

Too much derail, I apologize.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:30 PM on July 8, 2008

Clarke Ashton Smith gets screwed yet again...
posted by Artw at 12:30 PM on July 8, 2008

posted by paddbear at 12:48 PM on July 8, 2008

posted by generalist at 1:14 PM on July 8, 2008

The LA Times remembers Disch.
posted by drezdn at 7:13 AM on July 9, 2008

I don't think Vance belongs in that list of "trailblazers," is all I am saying...

For you he's not a trailblazer. For me, To Live Forever, The Languages of Pao, Ulward's Retreat and Rumfuddle all come to mind as examples of innovative and ground breaking work of the first rank in concept alone. Emphyrio is nearly universally recognized as a classic of the genre:
'All Vance's novels have exotic locales and cultures, resourceful heroes, and vigorous action, but in Emphyrio they are raised to the pitch of perfection, making the novel a tremendous pleasure to read, and giving it also a mysterious beauty'

Kim Stanley Robinson

'Mr. Vance has written a fine book. Reading Emphyrio is like looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope… and this combination of strange things seeming familiar and familiar things suddenly becoming strange is the oddest and the finest in the world… I really cannot do it justice. Mr. Vance knows about childhood, grief, love, social structure, idealism, and loss, but none of these breaks the perfect surface of the hook; everything is cool, funny, and recognisable while at the same time everything is melancholy, real, and indescribably strange.'

Joanna Russ, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Not to mention the Moon Moth and Green Magic.

And then there is the whole xenosociological wonderment of Vance--how he could invent intricately detailed worlds, cultures, tribes and customs simply for the support of a sentence or two in a passage:
I have spoken of, and tried--in vain I know (for, as I said, only long, continuous reading brings out the subtleties)--to illustrate Vance's ability to create fully sensed, in-depth, complex, real-seeming worlds. If you don't already know Vance, you may be thinking along the lines of "Now that's well and fine, but most good authors can construct complex worlds in some degree of detail; why is this guy harping so on Vance?" I will put aside the deeper depth and richer richness and more elegant elegance Vance achieves compared to most worldmakers to focus on what makes him extraordinary--no, more than extraordinary, unique. That special something is--we should have drum rolls here--Vance's ability to conjure up whole and complete worlds and societies so quickly, so easily, that he can use them as throwaways.

Every SF&F author is bound to imagine a world different from our own in some way or ways, and to convey to us with a scope commensurate with the scale of the difference the nature and flavor of that world. Good SF&F authors imagine complex worlds for their tales; what Jack Vance does is imagine thoroughly complex worlds so easily, so capably, that he can use them as toys irrelevant to his tales; he does it just for fun; and he throws one after another of these full-scale worlds away in a few pages or, sometimes, a mere few paragraphs. They are like doodles in the margin, yet each is something that most other writers, even good ones, would have had to labor long and hard over as a prime project.
Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works - Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by Jack Vance

He is a dissimilar writer to Disch and Dick, for sure, but he shares many things with Gene Wolfe, not the least of which are a love for the obscure and arcane terms of description. And don't forget, Wolfe goes so far as to put The Dying Earth on the shelves of Ultan's Library. And that's my end of the derail.
posted by y2karl at 12:20 PM on July 9, 2008

You may well ahve a point. As I try to put myself into sense-memories of the Vancean and Wolfean head-spaces, they're pretty similar. For whatever that's worth, which is most likely 1/10,000 of a cup of diner coffee.
posted by lodurr at 3:36 AM on July 15, 2008

Well, just for the record:
Lawrence Person: Early in your career, critics placed you both inside and outside the New Wave. How heavily did the New Wave influence your own work, and did you feel you were a part of it?

Gene Wolfe: I don't think I was heavily influenced by the New Wave. If I was a part of it, I was only a very remote, peripheral person. I suppose the epicenter of the New Wave was J. G. Ballard, although you might dispute that, and certainly I was at a great distance from J. G. Ballard. But if I could sell a story because of that connection, I was happy to do it...

Lawrence Person: How heavy an influence was Jack Vance, and how much did you use The Dying Earth as a conscious template for The Book of the New Sun?

Gene Wolfe: It was very considerable. I did not try to write an imitation of The Dying Earth. I certainly took that idea from Jack Vance. I had read that years and years before and had been enormously impressed with it. So yeah, he was a very considerable influence. I'm sure that's where I got the basic idea that's behind The Book of the New Sun, the idea of remote antiquity and looming catastrophe.
Suns New, Long, and Short: An Interview with Gene Wolfe
posted by y2karl at 1:25 PM on July 15, 2008

On topic: Remembering Thomas M. Disch:
Disch was an often brutal satirist who wrote a beloved children's book about sweet-natured household appliances, an ironist who would cheer up a visitor by reading aloud poems ostensibly penned by Paddington the Bear, in Paddington's voice. He reveled in coincidence, in life and art. With Naylor, he wrote a marvelous historical novel, "Neighboring Lives," that explored the web of connections between Victorian thinkers and artists in Pre-Raphaelite London. Naylor gave him joy; "On Wings of Song" was dedicated to him.

Almost exactly a year after Naylor's death in September 2004, Disch began writing a sequence of poems, an extraordinary efflorescence of grief he shared on his blog. Eventually there were 31 of them. He titled the sequence "Winter Journey" after Schubert's lieder cycle "Winterreise" (a work Naylor loved). The poems are tragic, bitter, bleakly funny, romantic, heart-rending -- and also accessible. I can imagine, by some divine fluke, the book becoming a surprise, posthumous bestseller -- an irony Disch would have appreciated.

"The song does not end," Disch wrote in the closing pages of "On Wings of Song."
... and though he had written that song before he'd learned to fly himself, it was true. The moment one leaves one's body by the power of song, the lips fall silent, but the song goes on, and so long as one flies the song continues. He hoped, if he were to leave his body tonight, they would remember that. The song does not end.
posted by y2karl at 2:12 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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