Thomas Disch; Sci-Fi Writer Was Part of 'New Wave'

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 68, an innovative and often-overlooked writer who was part of science fiction's "new wave" of the 1960s and who also wrote poetry, criticism and a popular children's book, fatally shot himself July 4 at his New York apartment. He had been despondent in recent years because of declining health, financial reversals and the 2005 death of his companion and occasional collaborator, poet Charles Naylor.

Mr. Disch was the author of more than 40 books, including novels, poetry, short stories and criticism, yet he never had a bestselling breakthrough to make him a household name. A 1988 Newsweek article said he "may be the most formidably gifted unfamous American writer."

His 1986 children's book, "The Brave Little Toaster," about kitchen appliances that come to life and leave a vacation home in search of their missing owner, has become a modern classic and was made into an animated film in 1987.

From the time his first novel, "The Genocides," appeared in the 1960s, Mr. Disch was seen as part of science fiction's "new wave," along with Ursula K. Le Guin and J.G. Ballard, who placed as much importance on literary quality as other-worldly settings.

"He brought in a lot of literary values to the field that really hadn't been there before," said Mr. Disch's publisher and editor, Jacob Weisman.

Three of his novels -- "Camp Concentration," "334" and "On Wings of Song" -- were named to a critic's list of the best 100 science fiction novels of all time. His most recent novel, "The Word of God," an autobiographical tale in which the author assumes godlike qualities, is being published this month. A collection of his short stories is scheduled to appear in the fall. Last year, he published a book of poetry, "About the Size of It," which included many poems about being overweight.

"He was writing for the first time in several years," Weisman said. "The indications were that he was doing better."

Mr. Disch was a writer of prodigious versatility, whose novels ranged across the future and the past. Characters in his 1968 novel, "Camp Concentration," acquired supernatural intelligence in exchange for a limited life span. During the 1980s and 1990s, he published a series of four novels set in a dystopian version of Minnesota, where he grew up. His 1975 imitation of a Victorian novel, "Clara Reeve," was considered a tour de force.

"It would have been very easy for me to perform according to the publishers' expectations and turn out a succession of books that could be marketed as, 'Here's another one just like the last one!' " he told Publishers Weekly in 1991.

In 1999, Mr. Disch won a Hugo Award, an annual science fiction honor, for his nonfiction book "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of," a critical, ironic look at the genre.

He wrote plays and opera librettos and, in 1987, worked with a computer company to produce an interactive science fiction text. He also regularly contributed essays on poetry, fiction, theater, music and art to The Washington Post, the Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and other publications.

"Tom Disch's imagination couldn't be contained by any single genre," Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in an e-mail. "He could be satirical and blasphemous and iconoclastic and touching, but above all he was always dazzling."

Thomas Michael Disch was born Feb. 2, 1940, in Des Moines and grew up mostly in Minnesota, completing high school in St. Paul. He had three brothers and a sister, who survive him.

He left for New York at 17, served briefly in the Army, where, he said, he spent months in the brig. He attended Cooper Union and New York University and held a series of odd jobs while trying to establish his writing career.

Mr. Disch had been openly gay since 1968 but only occasionally touched on gay themes, saying, "I'm gay myself, but I don't write 'gay' literature."

In the 1993 edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, writer John Clute summed up Mr. Disch's peculiar standing, in which he was widely admired without becoming widely popular: "[Disch] has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank [science fiction] writers."

Within the past three years, his home in Barryville, N.Y., was flooded and developed severe mold. After Naylor died, a fire damaged Mr. Disch's Manhattan apartment. His health was failing from diabetes, he had little income and he was recently threatened with eviction.

"The last time I saw him, in May," Weisman said, "he actually said that if he lost the apartment, he would shoot himself."

Mr. Disch maintained a blog until two days before his death.

On June 17, he wrote:

What is so tragic as the lethal blast

Of thunderbolt or .38

That turns what had been present

Into past? There he stood

And here he lies at last.

Will you not shed a single tear

For any such? Is that too much to ask?

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