Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Thomas M. Disch 1940-2008
I don't think I ever really met him, though I remember talking with him in a group at a SFFWA cocktail party. I've read a few of his novels and at least one collection of short stories, and always found them fluid and fascinating. ON WINGS OF SONG was a mind-blower to me when I first read it serialized in F&SF magazine in the '70s. I always meant to read more -- this seems to be a common phenomenon with Disch's fiction (See Ellen Datlow's touching note on Disch's death).
But I always devoured his critical work. The recent compilation ON SF (pictured above) collects a variety of Disch miscellanea, including a devastating and very funny takedown of Ray Bradbury called "A Tableful of Twinkies." It climaxes with the line: "He is an artist only in the sense that he is not a hydraulic engineer." (I don't actually agree with the sentiment, but it always makes me laugh.)
Disch's finest piece of nonfiction, though, is the 1998 book-long essay THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF, a thoughtful, complex exploration of the many ways science fiction came to permeate and even dominate our culture. I can't say enough good things about this book -- it's an absorbing sf history lesson and it'll make you look at those toys on the shelf very differently.
One sequence from the book always stays with me. Disch begins a chapter on "SF as Religion" with an anecdote about his guest appearance at the Milford SF Writers Conference in 1964:
"But before the ball there was an ordeal to be undergone: I had to spend a night at the Red Fox Inn, a one-time boardinghouse some miles out of town that was the headquarters of the Centric Foundation, an organization devoted to the maximization of human potential whose founders (and only members) were the SF writing team of Walt and Leigh Richmond. Their method of collaboration was uniquely science fictional. Walt, a laconic, Burl Ives-ish fellow, would sit with a quiet smile on his lips and telepathically project his inputs to Leigh, who would translate them into their prose at the typewriter."
Funny so far, right? Disch explains the couple's background in (and excommunication from) the then-growing religion of Scientology, and describes them as "the first full-throttle, off-the-wall lunatic fringers that I met in the field of SF, and they remain the purest specimens I've known." But this isn't pointless cruelty. Disch goes on to explore, in more detail than I can quote here, the Richmonds' possible origins:
"For those who have been relegated to the category of nerd in high school years...there can be comfort in the assurance that despite being members of the chess club rather than the football team, they will have the last laugh -- as indeed many will, as they parlay their brains into scholarships to MIT or similar elite institutions. Yet there will be those, like (I imagine) Walt Richmond, whose capabilities don't gibe with their aspirations, whose chess game isn't top-notch and whose grades, even with effort, are C's and B's. How is one to reconcile, in such cases, the discrepancy between a grandiose self-image and the steady encroachments of mundane reality? The usual answer has been religion in one form or another."
I will miss Thomas Disch's thoughtful prose, which was sometimes dense and difficult, and more often liquid and absorbing. I'll miss his occasional flights into whimsy, such as the surprisingly successful BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER, also first published in F&SF. And I guess, judging from the above, I'll miss his cruel attacks on his colleagues. But most of all, I'll miss the ways he wove all those elements into an textured, illuminating worldview. I keep coming back to the word thoughtful; I can't think of a single Disch piece that ever seemed slapdash or hacked out.
And remember: If you're unsure about electricity, do not attempt to figure it out on your own. Consult a major appliance.