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Thomas Disch

Disch at South Street Seaport on 3 June 2008. Photo: Ariel Hameon
Born Thomas Michael Disch
February 2, 1940(1940-02-02)
Des Moines, Iowa
Died July 4, 2008 (aged 68)
New York City, New York
Occupation Writer, Poet
Nationality USA
Citizenship USA
Period 1962–2008
Genres Science fiction, Speculative fiction, Poetry, Children's fiction, Criticism
Literary movement New Wave
Partner(s) Charles Naylor

Thomas Michael Disch (February 2, 1940 – c. July 4, 2008) was an American science fiction author and poet.[1][2][3] He won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book (previously entitled "Best Non-Fiction Book") in 1999, and he had two other Hugo nominations and nine Nebula Award nominations to his credit, plus one win of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, a Rhysling Award, and two Seiun Awards, among others.

In the 1960s, his work began appearing in science-fiction magazines. His critically acclaimed science fiction novels, “The Genocides, “Camp Concentration”, “334” and “On Wings of Song” are major contributions to the New Wave science fiction movement. In 1999, he won the Nonfiction Hugo for The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, a meditation on the impact of science fiction on our culture, as well as the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse. Among his other nonfiction work, he wrote theatre and opera criticism for The New York Times, The Nation, and other periodicals. He also published several volumes of poetry as Tom Disch.

He committed suicide on July 4[1][2][4][5] or July 5,[3][6] 2008 in New York City, New York.



Disch was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on 2 February 1940. Because of a polio epidemic in 1946, his mother Helen home-schooled him for a year. As a result, he skipped from kindergarten to second grade. Disch's first formal education was at Catholic schools; which is evidenced in some of his works which contain scathing criticisms of the Catholic Church. The family moved in 1953 to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, rejoining both pairs of grandparents. In Minneapolis public schools, Disch discovered his long-term loves of science fiction, drama, and poetry. He describes poetry as his stepping-stone to the literary world. A teacher, Jeannette Cochran, assigned 100 lines of poetry to be memorized and Disch wound up memorizing ten times as much.[7] His early fascination continued to influence his work with poetic form and the direction of his criticism.

After graduating from high school in 1957, he worked a summer job as a trainee steel draftsman, just one of the many jobs on his path to becoming a writer. Saving enough to move to New York City, he found a Manhattan apartment and began to cast his energies in many directions. He worked as a (literal) spear-carrier for the Metropolitan Opera, then at a bookstore, then for a newspaper. Just when he seemed to be getting work closer to his love of language, he turned 18 and enlisted in the army. Disch's incompatibility with the armed forces quickly resulted in a nearly three-month commitment to a mental hospital. After his discharge, he returned to New York and continued to pursue the arts in his own indirect way. Some of these jobs paid off later; working as a cloak room attendant in New York theater culture allowed him to both pursue his life-long love of drama and led to work as a magazine theater critic. Eventually, he got another job with an insurance company and went to school. A brief flirtation with architecture school led him to night school at New York University, where classes on novella writing and utopian fiction developed his tastes for some of the common forms and topics of science fiction. In May 1962, he decided to write a short story instead of study for his midterms. He sold the story, "The Double Timer", for $112.50.[8] Having begun his literary career, he did not return to NYU but rather took another series of odd jobs such as bank teller, mortuary assistant, and copy editor - all of which served to fuel what he referred to as his night-time "writing habit". Over the next few years he wrote more science fiction stories, but also branched out into poetry; his first published poem, "Echo and Narcissus", appeared in the Minnesota Review's Summer 1964 issue.[9]

Disch entered the field of science fiction at a turning point, as the pulp adventure stories of its older style began to be challenged by a more serious, adult, and often darker style. This movement, called New Wave, tried to show that the ideas and themes of science fiction could be developed past the simple desires of an audience of twelve-year-olds. Rather than trying to compete with mainstream writers on the New York literary scene, Disch plunged into the emerging genre of science fiction, and began to work to liberate it from some of its strict formula and narrow conventions. His first novel, The Genocides, appeared in 1965. Much of his more literary science fiction was first published in English author Michael Moorcock's New Wave magazine, New Worlds.

Disch was widely traveled and lived in England, Spain, Rome, and Mexico. In spite of this, he remained a New Yorker for the last twenty years of his life. He said that "a city like New York, to my mind, is the whole world", keeping a long-time New York Residence overlooking Union Square.

Writing had become the dominant focus of his life. Disch described his personal transformation from dilettante to "someone who knows what he wants to do and is so busy doing it that he doesn't have much time for anything else." After The Genocides, he wrote Camp Concentration and 334. More books followed, including science fiction novels and stories, gothic works, criticism, plays, a libretto for an opera of Frankenstein, prose and verse children's books such as A Child's Garden of Grammar, and ten poetry collections. In the 1980s, he moved from science fiction to horror, with a series of books set in Minneapolis: The Businessman, The M.D., The Priest, and The Sub.

His writing includes substantial freelance work, such as regular book and theater reviews for The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Harper's, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and Entertainment Weekly. Recognition from his award-winning books led to a year as "artist-in-residence" at William and Mary College. During his long and varied career, Disch found his way into other forms and genres. As a fiction writer and a poet, Disch felt typecast by his science fiction roots. "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."[10]

Though Disch was an admirer of and was friends with the author Philip K. Dick, Dick would write an infamous paranoid letter to the FBI in 1974 that denounced Disch and suggested that there were coded messages in Disch's novel Camp Concentration. Disch was unaware and he would go on to champion the Philip K. Dick Award.[11]

He maintained an apartment in New York City, sharing it and a house in Barryville, New York, with his partner of three decades, poet Charles Naylor. Disch's private life remained private, for the most part. He was publicly gay since 1968; this came out occasionally in his poetry and particularly in his 1979 novel On Wings of Song. He did not try to write to a particular community: "I'm gay myself, but I don't write 'gay' literature."[10] He rarely mentioned his sexuality in interviews, though he was interviewed by the Canadian gay periodical The Body Politic in 1981.[12] After Naylor's death in 2005, Disch had to abandon the house, as well as fight attempts to evict him from his rent controlled apartment, and he became steadily more depressed. He wrote on a LiveJournal account from April 2006 until his death, in which he posted poetry and journal entries.[13]

His last novel The Word of God was published by Tachyon Publications in the Summer of 2008. His last published work, the posthumous story collection The Wall of America, contains material from last half of Disch's career.

Career in Computer Game Design

In 1987 Disch collaborated with New Jersey software company Cognetics Corporation and games publisher Electronic Arts to create the interactive fiction text adventure Amnesia, which could be played on the Commodore 64, IBM PC or Apple II computers. The title, based on technology pioneered by Cognetics' Charles Kreitzberg, was produced by Don Daglow and programmed by Kevin Bentley. It showcased Disch's vivid writing, a stark contrast to other game-programmer-written text adventures of the time, and his passion for the energy of the city of New York. Although the text adventure format was dying by the time Amnesia was released and it enjoyed limited success, the game pioneered ideas that would later become popular in game design by modeling the entire Manhattan street map south of 110th St. and allowing the player to visit any street corner in that part of the city in their quest to advance the story. Although the limited floppy disk capacity of the 1980s computers caused much of Disch's original text about the city to be cut, many Manhattan sites and people were described with unique loving distortion through the Disch lens.

Career in the Theatre

Tom was also well known for his work in the theater, both as Theater Critic for The Nation Magazine, and as writer of two extraordinary performance works, his meta-historical stage adaptation of "Ben-Hur" and his internationally acclaimed and quite controversial verse monologue/poem - "The Cardinal Detoxes." Both plays were commissioned and presented by Jeff Cohen and the RAPP Arts Center in New York's Alphabet City. "Ben-Hur," not only told the story of the famous Biblical novel, but delved into the life and times of its author, the proto-American General Lew Wallace. Brilliantly, Disch proffers the theory that Wallace penned "Ben-Hur," in part, to assuage his guilt over his part in the execution of Mary Surrat. In its world-premiere performance at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1989, it was chosen as a Critics' Choice by Time Magazine. "The Cardinal Detoxes" had a simple conceit: a Catholic Bishop has committed DUI vehicular homicide and is imprisoned in a monastic "drying tank" where he is sure he is being bugged by the higher-ups. So he attempts to negotiate his release by black-mailing the Church with all of its dirty secrets, big and small. The play was performed at RAPP, the former Most Holy Redeemer School, and drew a cease and desist order from the New York Archdiocese. An article written by the New York Times' Mervyn Rothstein got picked up around the world on the AP Wire and the play became one of the most notable censorship controversies of the 1990s. Disch and the Theater were well represented by Bill Kuntsler and Ron Kuby (the ACLU refused to take the case) and the Archdiocese lost in court. Their vengeful response was to simply lock the theater out of their building and have the Director jailed. Fortunately, The Cardinal Detoxes became as well known for its literary merits as for its controversy. It was selected in the compilation Best American Poetry 1994 and, again, in Best of The Best American Poetry 1988-1997.

Career as a Poet

His first published poems, though reaching print later (the first in 1964, though not collected until 1972), were written alongside the stories and novels which made his name in the 1960s. Although he aimed his poetry at a different readership than his fiction — even simplifying his by-line from Thomas M. Disch to Tom Disch — both genres emerged from the same expanding mind and changing times. His poetry includes experiments within traditional forms, such as a collaborative sonnet cycle Highway Sandwiches and Haikus of an AmPart, while others like The Dark Old House mix stricter and freer form. Like other popular American poets, he often uses humor and irony to power his poems.

Disch's reputation as a poet was solidified by a 1989 midcareer retrospective collection, titled Yes, Let's. A book of new poetry, Dark Verses & Light, followed in 1991. In 1995 and 2002, Disch published two collections of poetry criticism. He continued to regularly publish poetry in magazines and journals such as Poetry, Light, Paris Review, Partisan Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review and even Theology Today (perhaps an odd choice for a long-lapsed Catholic). Disch published two collections of poetry ,The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters and The Castle of Perseverance: Job Opportunities in Contemporary Poetry. His poetry criticism focuses on what makes poetry work, what makes it popular, and how poetry can re-establish a place in modern popular culture.

Near the end of his life he stopped submitting poetry to literary journals unless the journals asked for his contributions. He preferred to publish his poems in his LiveJournal account. In an interview just ten days before his death, Disch said, "I write poetry because I think it is the hardest thing I can do well. And so I simply enjoy the doing of it, as an equestrian enjoys spending time on a good horse. Poetry is my good horse."[14]



  • The Genocides, 1965
  • The Puppies of Terra (originally published as Mankind Under the Leash, 1966
  • The House That Fear Built (with John Sladek, collaborating as Cassandra Knye), 1966
  • Echo Round His Bones, 1967
  • Camp Concentration, 1968, ISBN 0-246-97352-8
  • Black Alice (with John Sladek, collaborating as Thom Demijohn), 1968
  • The Prisoner, 1969
  • Alfred the Great (as Victor Hastings), 1969
  • 334, 1972, ISBN 0-261-63283-3
  • Clara Reeve (as Leonie Hargrave), 1975, ISBN 0-394-48490-8
  • On Wings of Song 1979, ISBN 0-312-58466-0
  • Neighboring Lives (with Charles Naylor), 1981, ISBN 0-684-16644-5
  • The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, 1984, ISBN 0-06-015292-3
  • The M.D.: A Horror Story, 1991, ISBN 0-394-58662-X
  • The Priest: A Gothic Romance, 1994, ISBN 1-85798-090-5
see List of books portraying paedophilia or sexual abuse of minors
  • The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft, 1999, ISBN 0-679-44292-8
  • The Word of God, 2008, ISBN 978-1892391773


  • Torturing Mr. Amberwell, 1985
  • The Silver Pillow: A Tale of Witchcraft, 1988
  • The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World, 2007
  • The Proteus Sails Again: Further Adventures at the End of the World, 2008

Books for children

Story collections

Poetry collections

  • Highway Sandwiches (with Charles Platt and Marilyn Hacker), 1970
  • The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, 1972, ISBN 0-913560-05-7
  • Burn This, 1982, ISBN 0-09-146960-0
  • Orders of the Retina, 1982, ISBN 0-915124-60-2
  • Here I Am, There You Are, Where Were We, 1984, ISBN 0-09-154871-3
  • Yes, Let's: New and Selected Poems, 1989, ISBN 0-8018-3835-5
  • Dark Verses and Light, 1991, ISBN 0-8018-4191-7
  • Haikus of an AmPart, 1991, ISBN 0-918273-68-4
  • The Dark Old House, 1996
  • About the Size of It, 2007
  • Winter Journey (forthcoming)

Computer game



  • The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future, 1971
  • Bad Moon Rising: An Anthology of Political Forebodings, 1973
  • The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian Fiction, 1975
  • New Constellations: An Anthology of Tomorrow's Mythologies, 1976 (with Charles Naylor)
  • Strangeness: A Collection of Curious Tales, 1977 (with Charles Naylor)

Plays "Ben-Hur" 1989 "The Cardinal Detoxes" 1990


  • Can you hear me, think tank two?, 2001 (as Tom Disch). „Thought crimes in prose and poetry“ written and read by Thomas M. Disch. Recorded and produced by David Garland.
  • Mecca|Mettle, 2005. An anthology featuring text and audio by Thomas Disch, BlöödHag, and Tim Kirk.[15]

About Disch

  • Christopher Ecker: Warum wir alle Pyramiden bauen sollten. Eine Begegnung mit Thomas M. Disch (1940–2008), in: Sascha Mamczak and Wolfgang Jeschke (Hrsg.): Das Science Fiction Jahr 2009, München 2009, S. 506-560.

See also


  1. ^ a b Schudel, Matt (2008-07-09). "Thomas Disch; sci-fi writer was part of 'New Wave'". The Washington Post: p. B05. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  2. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (2008-07-08). "Thomas Disch, Novelist, Dies at 68". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
  3. ^ a b Stewart, Jocelyn Y. (2008-07-08). "Thomas M. Disch, 68; prolific science-fiction author". Los Angeles Times.,0,2416990.story. Retrieved 2008-07-12. "fatally shot himself in the head July 5, according to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner." 
  4. ^ "Death: Thomas M. Disch". Locus Online. 2008-07-06. Retrieved 2008-07-06. 
  5. ^ "Science fiction's Thomas Disch ends his life". Planet Out via Yahoo! News. 2008-07-07.  (Soon to be a.)
  6. ^ Wood, Graeme (2008-07-11). "Novelist Thomas M. Disch killed himself in his New York apartment on July 5.". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  7. ^ Heacox, Tom (Fall 1995), "The Dish on Tom Disch", jump! magazine (The College of William and Mary),, retrieved 2004-02-29 
  8. ^ Francavilla, Joeseph (1985), "Disching It Out: An Interview with Thomas Disch", Science Fiction Studies 37: 241–251 
  9. ^ Davis, Matthew S. S. (2001-12-28), Schrödinger's Cake,, retrieved 2004-03-09 
  10. ^ a b Horwich, David (30 July 2001), "Interview: Thomas M. Disch", Strange Horizons,, retrieved 2007-11-04 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Galbraith, David; Wilson, Alexander, "Taking flight with Thomas Disch", The Body Politic (December 1981): 26–28 
  13. ^ Disch's blog at LiveJournal
  14. ^ Champion, Edward (25 June 2008), "Podcast Interview: Thomas M. Disch", The Bat Segundo Show, 
  15. ^ Mecca|Mettle
  • Gioia, Dana. "Tom Disch," in Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1992, ISBN 1-55597-176-8, pp. 193–196.
  • Preminger, Alex, Terry V.F. Brogan, Frank J. Warnke, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. New York: Princeton University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-691-03271-8.
  • Walzer, Kevin. "The Sword of Wit: Disch, Feinstein, Gwynn, Martin," in The Ghost of Tradition. Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1998, ISBN 1-885266-66-9: pp. 152–184.
  • Yezzi, David. Thomas M., Meet Tom. Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 1995.
  • "Featured Author: Thomas M. Disch (With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times)". The New York Times. 1998-08-09. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Thomas Michael Disch (born 2 February 1940 - died 4 July 2008) is an American science fiction author and poet. He has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards several times.


The Man Who Had No Idea (and other stories) (1982)

  • Marvin Kolodny responded with a boyish grin and offered his hand. An American flag has been tattooed on his right forearm. On a scroll circling the flagpole was the following inscription:
Let's All
the United States
by Force &
  • "The Man Who Had No Idea" (originally published 1978)
  • ...there, strung out under the cornice of the building, was the motto, which he had never noticed before, of the Federal Communications Agency:
So simple, so direct, and yet, when you thought about it, almost impossible to understand.
  • "The Man Who Had No Idea"
  • He especially liked ads for shampoos and hair coloring. The women in them seemed to regard their hair as independent, capricious entities, whom they must placate and provide with food.
    • "The Black Cat"
  • Religious faith often finds itself at odds with story-telling. Puritans ban acting companies. Islam is uneasy about all forms of representation. And why? Because the experience of walking out of the theater after a performance is a paradigm of disillusionment, and religious people are officially supposed to believe, first and ofremost, in their own literal faith, from which there are no exits. They've taken the big leap, and live, ever after, in free fall.
    • introduction to "The Santa Claus Compromise"
  • The gods, after all, are only human, and once their rage has been placated they are perfectly capable of acts of mercy and grace.
    • "The Vengeance of Hera"
  • There was nothing like shared meals, so the experts at IBM claimed, for overcoming one's basic disbelief in the existence of other people.
    • "Concepts"

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