Friday, October 19, 2012

#598: Doubting Thomas

Writer & critic Thomas M. Disch was always attracted 2 the embarrassments of science fiction -- the main embarrassments 4 him seemed 2 B that most of it was worthless & most of it was written 4 kids. Disch always wanted 2 believe that he was writing 4 mature, intelligent adults.
This was maybe an issue 4 Disch because -- altho he started out writing SF -- he was brilliant & multi-talented. As his career went on he wrote gothics, plays, lots of poetry, opera, videogames, & 3 huge horror novels that got rave reviews & capped his career. He also wrote quite a bit of criticism thruout his career.
Disch's ON SF (2005) collects over 40 of these pieces. 2 of them R about science-fiction embarrassments -- & sevral other sections read like rough drafts 4 his cynical 1998 critical overview of SF, THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF. The sections on Newt Gingrich's co-written science-fiction novels(!), Whitley Strieber's allegedly factual UFO-abduction books, & SF writers Walt & Leigh Richmond's "telepathic" collaborative writing were all recycled in DREAMS -- Disch's point being that SF was most like itself when it was being its most schlocky.
But Disch doesn't seem 2 get much fun from pointing out the embarrassments. He mostly seems embarrassed himself -- offended that such stuff is allowed 2 exist in the same universe as his more refined novels.
Disch had a lot of talent, & wrote sevral SF stories that I think R classics. It's tough 2 argue with "Descending" or "The Number You Have Reached." Or there's the spooky possession tale "The Asian Shore." Disch withdrew his novel CAMP CONCENTRATION (1968) from consideration 4 a Nebula Award -- tho there R none of the standard SF devices like spaceships & lasers in it, it's an intellectual adventure & it's not 4 kids.
His novel 334 (1973) got lots of acclaim -- a near-future novel in which the Welfare State takes over. He finally won a major SF award 4 ON WINGS OF SONG (1979). & 1 of his late horror novels, THE M.D. (1991), waits on my bookshelf 2 B read -- I got a few pgs in2 it. The 1 thing the reviews I've read of it agree on is that it's pretty grim. So I can probly wait 4 that....
But Disch wasn't always grim & serious. There R reviews included here from his magazine work 4 TWILIGHT ZONE and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, & they R as vivid & clever & argumentative as I remembered. I wish there were more of them. Disch had absolutely no patience 4 hacks, & he pinpoints weaknesses in writers like Stephen King, John Shirley & Barry N. Malzberg.
But here again, Disch is so self-conscious & refined & offended -- as if he is above all this trash he has 2 review. There R some good insights -- he almost makes me want 2 TRY 2 re-read Gene Wolfe's BOOK OF THE NEW SUN quartet -- a project I know I'd NEVER get thru. & there R good critical pieces on summa the works of Philip K. Dick & William Burroughs.
I wish this book were more FUN, but I gather that Disch's life wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, either. He suicided a couple years ago after his longtime lover died & while the landlord of his New York City apartment tried repeatedly 2 have him evicted.
In their edition of this book, the University of Michigan Press helps put across some of Disch's attitude toward SF right on the front cover -- they call the collection "A last judgement on the genre." That gets the feeling of what's inside just about right, & I'll bet Disch probably enjoyed it.

No comments: