Thomas M. Disch, RIP


The critic, poet, and novelist Thomas M. Disch has died, a suicide on the Fourth of July. Jim Henley has written a worthy appreciation of his work at Unqualified Offerings; I'll just add that 334, Disch's 1972 novel of a near-future welfare state, is one of the great undersung works of dystopian fiction. Its final lines, disturbing enough in their original context, are even more haunting in light of their author's fate:

The way some people want sex, that's how I want death. I dream about it. And I think about it. And it's what I want.

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  1. The way some people want sex, that’s how I want death. I dream about it. And I think about it. And it’s what I want.
    Didn’t the original draft of his Brave Little Toaster end with the same lines?

  2. Also; I had no clue that he had a Livejournal account;

  3. I greatly enjoyed much of his work. Sad to hear of his voluntary exit.

  4. Terrible news, very sad. Agree regarding 334, great novel. Camp Concentration is also a very powerful work.

  5. So is On Wings of Song. There was a dark, sarcastic edge to a lot of his writing, but he also wrote “The Brave Little Toaster,” a funny, offbeat novelette that anticipated works like “Toy Story” and “Wall-E.” I had the privilege of meeting him at a science fiction convention back in the 80s at the height of his success. Sorry to see him go.

  6. Thanks, Jesse. I just ordered a copy of 334. It’s OOP, but Amazon still has plenty of used copies.

  7. I grew up on an almost unadulterated diet of SF. I loved Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, but my basic aesthetic is much more a product of Disch, Delaney, Dick, and early Sheldon. And the less alliterative Linebarger.

    I do think that fate is an odd word here, at least applied only to his manner of death. Does anyone know if he was sick, or just sick and tired?

  8. I have vague (early childhood) memories of The Brave Little Toaster and at this news, I made a bunch of strange, bittersweet associations.

  9. Also; I had no clue that he had a Livejournal account;

    It’s super creepy, too; it has ‘ordinary’ observational postings but the occasional troubling entry such as the one dated 21 Jun titled Why I Must Die: A Film Script.

  10. I last read 334 about ten years ago and remember finding many similarities between it and (of all things) Firesign Theater’s “Don’t Crush That Dwarf…”
    I do not recall the specifics of the similarities, so now I must reread it.

    I am wary of reading his new book. A metafictional treatise on discovering he’s God might make my eyes bleed…

  11. That sucks.

    In addition to 334 and Camp Concentration, Echo Round His Bones is a good take on the multiple identities problem in duplicative matter transmission (a softer edged Rogue Moon). His short stories are also pretty good, but many suffer from that New Wave mallady Ballardism, a tendency to mistake obscurity as profundity.

  12. Disch also wrote a tie-in novel for The Prisoner. Ordinarily I avoid TV tie-in novels like the Plague, but this is one I really want to read sometime — his sensibility and The Prisoner‘s sensibility seem like a good match.

  13. Jesse,

    Dreading the remake? I know I am.

    The last costume party I ever went to, the wife and I made Village outfits, even the little hat and cape for her. No one got who we were, even in a party full of computer geeks. Had a damn badge, even. I guess it would have helped if we brought along a weather balloon and smothered people with it.

    “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”

  14. I’m dreading the remake. Not just because it will suck, but because it’s so unnecessary.

    I would have given you the fish sign at that party, SugarFree.

  15. I took me forever to stitch on that white piping.

  16. I love how Reason tries to make a few bucks by putting an Associate link in an obit.

  17. Disch had an interesting, wide-ranging career; he was always trying to do something new and different, and refused to follow party lines and engage in any kind of groupthink (he wrote for both the Nation and the Weekly Standard, in his LiveJournal he expressed some pretty vicious hatred for Bush and Cheney but also seemed to rely on Drudge for news, and while gay resisted being considered a “gay writer.”) I join others here in highly recommending 334 and Camp Concentration.

  18. I was also a voracious SF reader in my teens and twenties, and happened upon Disch toward the end of that period. I think I got truly hooked by his stories, “Problems of Creativeness,” and “The Man Who Had No Idea,” which fully demonstrated the sarcasm that Syd mentioned above. “334” and “Camp Concentration” messed with my head the way Phil Dick’s stories often did, and in fact prepared me better to appreciate latter PKD, such as “Valis.” I didn’t really like “On Wings of Song,” but thought “The Brave Little Toaster” was a great story, and I also appreciated the non-fiction (?) book on SF history, “The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.”

    Jesse, I have a paperback copy of “The Prisoner,” which you are welcome to have if you want it. It wasn’t bad — had it appeared on its own, without Disch’s name on it and without the prior context of the TV series, I probably would have liked it very much — but as it didn’t hit me as either unfettered Disch or as a particularly resonant interpretation of the beloved TV series, my net reaction was, “meh.” I add, however, that I probably would have reacted much more strongly and negatively to the product of a lesser writer.

    Looking now at his wikipedia entry, I see that Disch had been seen as depressed for the past few years, partly in response to efforts to evict him from his rent-controlled apartment: Yet another “unintended consequence” of the well-meaning but economically ignorant populist-authoritarian interventionist approach. The author of “The Man Who Had No Idea” would certainly have appreciated the predicament. I don’t recall if he ever wrote about rent-control, but if anyone knows of examples, please post them here. I’d like to read his opinions on the topic.

    TMD, RIP.

  19. I find it interesting that quite a few of the comments on other site that posted about Disch’s death point an accusing finger at America’s cruel and heartless medical system as the cause of Disch’s suicide. One comment even urged any reader with depression to move to Norway, as healthcare there is free. I take it the suicide rate in blessed welfare nations is a cozy 0%. Way to score political points out of someone else’s misery – blame it on the free market.

  20. I notice no mentions of his books like THE BUSINESSMAN and THE M.D., which, though horror, were comedies. It was hard to “process” these odd works as from Disch, in some ways. And yet, perhaps, Disch’s obsession with death showed through in these works, even more clearly than in some others.

    Of course, he depicted the death of the human race in THE GENOCIDES. It was a necessary book to have written, for sf as a genre. I bet it did no great good to Disch’s own soul.

    I judged ON WINGS OF SONG to be his most humane book, despite its shaggy-dog send-up of an ending. Which I also enjoyed.

    Imperfect works by an imperfect man . . . who took final editorial control with a gun. He wasn’t, perhaps, the bravest of toasters, but he braved enough.

    Minnesotans should erect a pyramid in his honor.

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