RIP, Thomas M Disch

Sf author Thomas M Disch committed suicide at his apartment on July 4. Patrick Nielsen Hayden's eulogy paints a picture of a man who was brilliant, noble, foolish, difficult and angry. I only knew him through his fiction, from which I learned a great deal. Patrick writes:
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.



  1. In his own words…

    The Art of Dying

    Mallarmé drowning
    Chatterton coughing up his lungs
    Auden frozen in a cottage
    Byron expiring at Missolonghi
    and Hart Crane visiting Missolonghi and dying there too

    The little boot of Sylvia Plath wedged in its fatal stirrup
    Tasso poisoned
    Crabbe poisoned
    T.S. Eliot raving for months in a Genoa hospital before he died
    Pope disappearing like a barge in a twilight of drugs

    The execution of Marianne Moore
    Pablo Neruda spattered against the Mississippi
    Hofmannsthal’s electrocution
    The quiet painless death of Robert Lowell
    Alvarez bashing his bicycle into an oak

    The Brownings lost at sea
    The premature burial of Thomas Gray
    The baffling murder of Stephen Vincent Benét
    Stevenson dying of dysentery
    and Catullus of a broken heart

    — Tom Disch

  2. I’ve always liked that movie…always felt that it should have got more recognition as IIRC good animation was thin on the ground in 1987…

  3. Wow…

    My absolute favorite line he’s ever written is in the short story Getting Into Death (from the collection of short stories by the same name,) about a dying writer who reveals to her stepdaughter the contents of her will, he wrote, “Had the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center collapsed on her, Laurie could not have been crushed by any larger happiness.”

    today i am crushed by a very large sadness.

  4. That’s…. really sad. I haven’t read much of his work, maybe now is a good time to get caught up. RIP, sir.

  5. I didn’t know him, nor did I read his works. But I have to say the eulogy posted is interesting and refreshing. All too often there’s a habit to make the dead out to be saints. (Most recent case in point: segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms) This eulogy wasn’t that. It painted a much more complex picture of a man. Someone who was both enormously talented and also at times an insufferable son of a bitch. This eulogy was to a man, not to a whitewashed caricature of a man. And because of the “realness” of this eulogy, Patrick Nielsen Hayden is going to miss him.

  6. I spent quite a lot of time one year playing his Amnesia game. It was one of the most detailed, fantastic times I’ve ever spent with a game. I’m sorry to see he’s gone, and I wish his friends and family well during this tough time.

  7. For people who haven’t read any of his work: all of the stories praised so far are grand, but Emma Bull and I are especially fond of On Wings of Song.

  8. Will, one of my long-term secret ambitions was to hear him read “Feathers from the Wings of an Angel.”

  9. I’m stunned and oh so sad. I read “The Brave Little Toaster” as a kid, and it opened my eyes to just how odd a story could get and still be perfect.

  10. Teresa, a fine way to remember him. (And a great line by Beth!) I hate the way death reminds us to read the people we’ve been meaning to get to sometime.

  11. I met Tom Disch a few times and have good memories of one long discussion over dinner with Tom and just 2 others. He was affable and intelligent on the surface, but seemed a little mean spirited. I really enjoyed some of his earlier work, particularly The Genocides and Camp Concentration. That is not to say that either was fun to read. They were not. They were was thoughtful and truthful novels at some level. His later work, from The Businessman on were fairly well written, but what came through to me was that the author was a bitter man. He had rejected a society that would not accept his lifestyle and wrote to tear it down. This comes through strongest in The MD. After The MD, I would read no more novel length works of his.

    I did not know he had a blog until I saw the boingboing article. I see references to his own death there in his postings. Had he been writing that way for a while?

    I always hoped to see some announcement of a change in his attitude. I would have loved to have heard someone say he had had some life changing experience and was now applying his talents to thoughtful works again. This is not just because I wanted more good books. I did want those, but I wanted him to live a happier life.

    I am sorry to see that he could not face life, and regret the choice he made. The suffering he faces now is much worse that anything he faced before.

  12. I hope he stayed around long enough to watch one last round of fireworks, and that he was carried away in beauty.

    Thanks for the stories.

  13. This is so sad. Camp Concentration was my favourite book. Calvino, Borges, Stanislaw Lem, Kafka and Disch – I discovered all of them in my teens, and haven’t read them in a long time. Such a shame that I’ll never see more from him.

  14. SFReader, I’m inclined to count Disch as another one of the casualties of 9/11. I know a number of these cases: a sort of intellectual PTSD where their balance, once overset, is never quite regained.

    Which is not to say he wasn’t getting bitter before that happened. But who am I to speculate about why? I didn’t know him well enough.

  15. “The suffering he faces now is much worse that anything he faced before.”

    I beg your pardon?

  16. #18: I guess he’s thinking that being turned into a tree in the Seventh Circle of Hell can’t be anyone’s idea of a good time…

  17. I read Camp Concentration in my first year at university. It really opened my eyes. It looks like such a small novel, but I’d never read something that was so full of ideas, and captured what genius must feel like. The Genocides was also really interesting.

    What a shame.

  18. I feel that all expletives in the world cannot cover the loss. The man was a writer pure and simple, the obsessions that gripped him in the end cannot detract from the humanity that came earlier. And anybody who has not felt that same despair should take a moment to feel lucky… I’m not sure he was ever a happy man, and I’m sure that he took liberties because of that, but in every instance I’m aware of, while being keenly aware that the majority of us were not worth a damn, he still took the time to make us care. I can’t think of anything more to say than that. My condolences to everyone else out there; if you never had the chance to read him, then take the opportunity now, otherwise you will never know what you missed.

  19. I love his book-length essay “The DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF: How Science Fiction Conquered the World .” It’s not the usual drivel about how SF authors foresaw communications satellites and the Interstate highway system. It’s much more… well, Disch-y than that. If you haven’t read it, do so.

  20. This is very sad news. I discovered Disch when I was in high school. His short stories were always great, and I absolutely loved, loved, loved ON WINGS OF SONG. His book on science fiction, THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF is terrific, too, and I hope people who haven’t discovered his work or think of him solely as an insufferable son of a bitch (which perhaps he could have been) will see a different side of the man, one open to appreciative of the very best of art, by giving it a read.

  21. The Tablets of Common Knowledge 2

    People regularly disappear.
    Some simply return to the burrows
    they’ve lived in and die among friends.
    Some take holidays: you may have received
    their postcards and seashells. But many more
    are murdered. The numbers are astonishing.
    Corpses disintegrate in woodland graves
    or, submerged, are home
    to the seaworm and the ray.
    We are entering an era
    when men will die like flies,
    swept off by floods, shoved
    into pits by bulldozers, or starving
    en masse as they cling
    to the prison bars. Oh, the world
    is a terrible, unkind place. But wasn’t that
    always the case? Let’s sing something
    together. Maybe that will help.

  22. The author Henry Miller wrote forcefully about artists like Thomas Disch in his dark, prescient WWII-era book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. After writing “The American way is to seduce a man by bribery and make a prostitute of him. Or else to ignore him, starve him into submission and make a hack of him,” he goes on, “Who besides a handful of desperate souls can recognize a work of art? What can you do with yourself if your life is dedicated to beauty? Do you want to face the prospect of spending the rest of your life in a strait-jacket? Go West, young man! they used to say. Today we have to say: Shoot yourself, young man, there is no hope for you!”

    What I’ve read from others here affirms that Disch hung in there, and dedicated his life to a beauty few of us can easily tune in to. We need more of him, whether we like him or not.

  23. Will @ #8:
    I read On Wings of Song back when it first came out (and I was just starting to read SF intentionally). It still haunts me to some degree today.

  24. Thomas is not suffering. He is not feeling anything. He just ceased to exist. If you claim other thing, as he being in hell, as a Christian you should remember that is up to God to judge, not to you, not your church or your pastor.

    I am so sorry about all this. His books made me think a lot and realize many things, and his brutal depiction of human nature is very accurate, but yet, written in a very beautiful way.

    I wish we could stop this shit of people getting old and ruined happening. I really wish we could build a better society and support more people, with labor, solidarity and technology. But that seems to be more unlikely that Christian hell.

  25. Thomas is not suffering. He is not feeling anything. He just ceased to exist. If you claim other thing, as he being in hell, as a Christian you should remember that is up to God to judge, not to you, not your church or your pastor.

    I am so sorry about all this. His books made me think a lot and realize many things, and his brutal depiction of human nature is very accurate, but yet, written in a very beautiful way.

    I wish we could stop this shit of people getting old and ruined happening. I really wish we could build a better society and support more people, with labor, solidarity and technology. But that seems to be more unlikely that Christian hell.

  26. Guidodavid, while the odds are good that sfreader is some form of Christian, he is not the only sort. There are universalists who conclude that a loving god would damn no one, and Jamesian Christians who believe God loves anyone who has done good in their lives, and a great number of more mainstream Christians who believe that things like homosexuality and suicide are not enough to trouble God. The cafeterians who pick a couple of lines that may have been added or misinterpreted by scribes to decide what God hates are only one group that, thankfully, is growing smaller every day.

    I was going to apologize for bringing this up, but I think Disch would appreciate a theological discussion when he’s being remembered. I can’t guess which side he would pick–maybe the one with the best lines. Certainly the one that recognized that metaphors are as complex as human nature.

  27. Also, yes, this is only the latest indictment of the US health care system. One good way to remember Disch and other writers who have struggled here would be to support HR 676.

    And the idea that a land with empty homes has people in fear of homelessness should be obscene to anyone, even the most hatefilled sort of Christian.

  28. Oh bugger.

    I will hoist a pint or two to the old curmudgeon’s memory tonight.

    (I loved his fiction. I loved the slightly cruel cynic I met through his livejournal a year ago somewhat less; but his misanthropy seemed to me to be the bitter fruit of a man who’d spent one round too many in the ring battling an indifferent and hateful world that had ground him down, rather than something born of malice. And I wish I’d thought to tell him how much I appreciated his work.)

  29. You want Disch on theology? How about this from a 1979 interview with Charles Platt:

    So Disch has consistently written at a level which pleases himself, and has consistently been misunderstood by science fiction readers as a result. His novel 334, a gloomy vision of America in the future, was if anything less well-received by such readers than The Genocides, and was condemned as being even more depressing—even nihilistic.

    “Well, nihilism is a pejorative that people throw out by way of dismissing an outlook,” he replies. “It was one of Agnew’s words. Agnew loved it because it means that someone believes in nothing and, of course, we know we don’t approve of people like that. But it also throws up the problem of what do you believe in. God? Is he a living god? Have you seen him? Do you talk to him? If someone calls me a nihilist I want the transcripts of his conversation with Jesus, till I’m convinced that we’re not brothers under the skin.”

  30. The thing that I loved most about Disch was his ironclad refusal to brook any laziness, in his own writing as well as in that of others. For him, SF was never a “literature of ideas” where sloppy prose and perdestrian style were excused by supposedly whiz-bang ideas. It was literature first, and he was a great practitioner of it.

  31. I am a fan of horror novels as well as science fiction. “The MD” and “The Sub” are two of the greatest horror novels I have ever read. “The MD” is not only creepy, but has the most devastatingly cynical sense of humor I’ve ever encountered in a genre book. “The Genocides” might be a horror novel and science fiction at the same time.

    This hurts. I’m sorry he’s dead.

  32. I just checked my bookshelf and yes, I still have my 1966 Ace Double copy of ‘Mankind Under The Leash’, cover by Kelly Freas (doubled with Ursula K Leguin’s ‘Planet of Exile’). I’m also about halfway through ‘Neighboring Lives’, the novel he wrote with Charles Naylor about the 19th C artists/writers enclave in Chelsea. He was a brilliant writer,sadly underread.

  33. From Disch’s good friend Michael Moorcock on the Multiverse forum:

    “Tom shot himself, as he said he would, if things got bad enough. The irony was that he seemed more cheerful and positive lately. Suicide always makes you wonder if you could have done more and so on. It’s a strong argument against killing yourself. But despair is despair and I hope never to feel so bad myself. I have to say I’ve been shocked by some blog comments from people Tom appears to have offended in passing. He was the funniest, jolliest person I’ve known and full of a fucked up sort of kindness. But after Charlie died, things got worse for him, with one problem after another — including a landlord trying to evict him — a problem all ‘unmarried’ partners have in NY. A good case for gay marriage, I have to say. Even if it’s only ‘civil union’.

    “He meant an enormous amount to me and to Linda and we really thought the danger of suicide had diminished.”

  34. Takuan,
    There are consequences for our actions and his final action has its consequences. I don’t decide and I hope I am wrong about where I believe he will go. I was expressing my sorrow for that suffering.

    Will Shetterly,
    I am a Christian. I certainly don’t wish Tom to be suffering for how he ended things. And what I think will have no effect on where he went. In my first comment, I actually started to write that I hoped he rested in peace, but it seemed false. I regret that he decided as he did and I was trying to express that. There was no intention to say where I wanted him to go. Tom and I did talk about Christianity a bit. I don’t think he thought too much of it. I did not criticize him for that. At the time, I remember thinking that he seemed to think Christians were quaint and that this was a typical New York intellectual viewpoint. I wanted it to be a friendly conversation and not an attack. We talked about what he thought of as the government’s responsibility to fight AIDS and Christianity came into that discussion. I disagreed with much of what he thought about the matter, but in a friendly way(I think). When I revisit that conversation, I wonder if he would have liked it to be more confrontational. I am sure he would have been up to it intellectually. I like debating, but I have a hard time gaging other people. I played it safe with him. The other two people were from the Dallas SF community and I felt some obligation not to ruin it for them. He was entitled to his beliefs there and I enjoyed the conversation.

  35. I don’t decide and I hope I am wrong about where I believe he will go.

    How very magnanimous of you.

    Put it this way, if Tom Disch is in some wretched Abu Ghraib afterworld (and what a dismally mean-spirited thing to suggest on a memorial posting…) he’d be in damned good company (pun intended). The number of gay people who killed themselves when they could no longer take society’s shit any more is substantial. So while eking out the millennia in god’s torture chamber he can talk literature with Yukio Mishima and have a laugh with Kenneth Williams. And those are only the names that occur to me just now as I restrain my language and temper.

  36. The suffering he faces now is much worse that anything he faced before.

    Get hold of a good reference on theology and look up the sin of presumption.

    While we’re remembering Disch’s work:

    I don’t know whether you’ve ever run into a candied popcorn snack called Screaming Yellow Zonkers. When it first came out, my mother and I were both struck by the excellence of the copy on the box. Instead of the standard corporate wordwooze, it was clear, snappy, funny, and had a genuine voice. Many years later, I found out that it had been written by Tom Disch.

  37. Teresa, thank you for #41. I’ve been trying to think of a simple and respectful way to answer sfreader and failing miserably.

  38. Teresa,
    OK, I did that. I make no such presumption. I hope I go to heaven, but I always know I have to work to earn it. I was never speaking about my going to heaven. I am sorry for what happened to Tom and expressed my sorrow. I don’t think you have to accept every aspect of Tom’s life to mourn his going.
    I probably should just let this die now. I started by referring to my sorrow for Tom and I don’t know that a meta-discussion about me adds much. I would not have responded to this one, except that I am answering a moderator. I don’t know the rules here, but I figured that required an answer.

  39. sfreader, your presumption is not about you. Your presumption is worse: it’s about what God thinks of people like Tom Disch.

    In my understanding of Jesus’s message, Disch’s suffering ended when he died.

    And, yeah, he would think this is a really silly discussion. But you seem to take your Christianity seriously, so think about whether God’s love excludes anyone, and whether it should exclude people who assume God would let anyone be tortured for any reason after death.

  40. I can’t find out any information about Thomas’s suicide. It is really annoying.
    Depression doesn’t kill people, people kill people.
    Why does society feel it necessary to suppress the telling of the actual experience of other people at the most critical moments of their lives. Why are ewe not to know how they were feeling, thinking and experiencing.
    He was a writer, did he leave a note? Didn’t he want to communicate anything to anyone before he went Does anybody know anything?
    Maybe many of us would do the same thing if we had his same circumstances. Suicide is often the frustrated desire to fully live that cannot be be achieved and is a very rational and forced decision.
    I found a little information on Michael Moorcock’s site. A little more than usual but not much. Why is it that people don’t want to know and don’t even ask nor consider the actual thoughts, feelings, and experience of another human for the actual real time of their death experience. Why is it they wish to blanket it under labels or generalities. Why is the art of communication and empathy lost when approaching death?

    “The Art of Dying”
    Neruda died in Chile, Crane died returning form Mexico and jumping off a cruise ship. Perhaps the poem is metaphorical in a way i don’t understand.

    Camp Concentration (Rank 56) and 334 (66) are listed in One Hundred Top Scifi Novels by David Pringle.

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