Prolific sci-fi writer mixed whimsy with dark horror

Times Staff Writer

Even in the genre of science fiction, writer Thomas M. Disch was considered unconventional.

The strange new worlds he created were an odd mix: dark and horror-filled, humorous and playful. His work outfoxed readers’ expectations, one critic said, and made labeling a chore for publishers.

But being outside the box was a Disch trademark.

“Tom Disch is one of the few people I have ever met who I would consider a genius,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “He was like a brilliant child in the richness of his imagination, although certainly no child had as dark and twisted an imagination as Tom did.”


Disch, 68, who has been called one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation, fatally shot himself in the head July 5, according to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Friends said he was found dead inside his New York apartment.

Disch also wrote poetry, drama criticism, book reviews, opera librettos, plays, children’s books and an interactive computer novel.

Critic John Clute once wrote that Disch was “perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.”

Though he never won mainstream fame, Disch was highly regarded in the world of science fiction.

Three of his novels, “Camp Concentration,” “334" and “On Wings of Song” were named in “Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels,” a survey by critic David Pringle.

Disch’s nonfiction work “The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World” received a Hugo Award in 1999.

Disch was far better known in England, where he lived for a time, than in the U.S., Gioia said. In the 1960s he was part of a New Wave movement in which writers introduced modernist and surrealist techniques into science fiction. Disch’s work was ripe with political and social satire and irony.

“334,” published in 1974, is set in a housing project in an overcrowded, controlled New York of the 2020s. One character, Birdie Ludd, must convince officials that he is fit to procreate. Another, Mrs. Hanson, must convince them that she has nothing to live for.


The book is “a cry for help, a voice from a future not so far off -- or, if you like, from a present we may never leave behind,” M. John Harrison wrote in the introduction to “334.”

“On Wings of Song,” published in 1979, tells the story of a repressive Amesville, Iowa, in the 21st century. The main character, Daniel Weinreb, tries to master the art of song and flight, “driven by the knowledge that some have attained flight, their spirits separated from their physical bodies and propelled on the waves of their own singing voices -- literally born on wings of song.”

For his efforts, Daniel is sent to a prison without bars: Each prisoner carries in his stomach an electrically controlled explosive that can be detonated from headquarters.

That Disch’s books were often described as dark did not trouble him. His work, he said, had the same proportion of tragedy and merriment as Shakespeare’s.


“In entertainment terms, evil has been good box office since the Greek theater,” Disch said in a 1999 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The closer you get to genuine high tragedy, the more willing to let terrible things happen to good people, the more you will grab the reader. Evil is an inexhaustible source when you want to discuss the nature of human beings.”

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 1940, Disch spent his childhood in Minnesota towns, moving with his father, who was a salesman. He was homely, gawky and shy, and felt different because he was an intellectual.

In the years that followed high school, he worked odd jobs and attended college in New York.

But in 1962, after the magazine “Fantastic Stories” published one of his short stories, Disch left school to write.


His first novel, “The Genocides,” was published in 1965. The story told of the last days of human existence and of aliens who wipe out humans the way humans kill insects in a garden.

Prolific and diverse in his literary output, Disch also was the author of “The Brave Little Toaster,” a children’s book that was made into an animated film by Disney, and “Amnesia,” an interactive computer novel. Earlier this month his satire “The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten” was released.

As a poet, Disch wrote in standard forms: sonnets, villanelles, epigrams, “always clever and full of wordplay,” said Thomas Heacox, who teaches English at College of William and Mary, where Disch served as a writer-in-residence in the 1990s.

His volumes of poetry include “Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poetry,” published in 1989.


The home he shared for years with his partner, Charles Naylor, allowed friends to see a whimsical, humorous side. Disch was “an enormously creative, infinitely amusing and often unhappy genius,” said Gioia, who is also a poet and had known Disch for many years.

In recent years Disch suffered a series of problems: Naylor died, health and financial issues ensued, and Disch battled to remain in his apartment.

In his personal life he was as formal as his poetry, Heacox said. “And he was a huge man: big, tall and heavy. But there was something extremely delicate about his manner and his soul.”