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R.I.P. Thomas Disch (1940-2008)

Once called "perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied, and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers," science fiction and horror author Thomas Disch committed suicide on July 4 in his New York apartment. He was 68. While never gaining the widespread acclaim given to contemporaries such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin, Disch wrote groundbreaking speculative fiction–in particular 1968's Camp Concentration, 1972's 334, and 1980's children's classic The Brave Little Toaster–in addition to horror, poetry, and criticism. He was the winner of the Hugo Award and a multiple Nebula Award nominee.

Disch was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and worked a series of odd jobs across the U.S. and Europe before settling in New York, where he pumped out a steady flow of stories, poems, and articles. It was his novels, though, that drew the greatest attention: A vital figure in the late-'60s/early-'70s New Wave that dragged science fiction out of pulp and into far more complex themes and techniques, Disch nonetheless seemed as leery of the genre as he was in love with it (in fact, his 1998 book, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, attacks the SF community for manipulating its readers and pushing political dogma). Disch had recently suffered a series of personal catastrophes–including the death of his longtime partner, poet Charles Naylor–that friends say may have led to his suicide. Blasphemous till the end, Disch's new novel is the theological satire, The Word Of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten.

On a personal note: I adore Thomas Disch. The consummate square peg, Disch once said, "I have a class theory of literature. I come from the wrong neighborhood to sell to The New Yorker. No matter how good I am as an artist, they always can smell where I come from." He also had an ax to grind with the Catholic religion (his 1994 novel, The Priest: A Gothic Romance, does for the clergy what The Bad Lieutenant does for cops, and then some), and three months in a mental hospital in his late teens left him with a Foucault-ish view of institutionalization (if you're looking for PKD, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut wrapped in alchemy and dystopia, read Camp Concentration). I posted a science fiction/fantasy summer reading list on the A.V. Club blogs a couple weeks ago, and Disch's urban nightmare 334 was among the books in the stack. It'll be a bittersweet read now.

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