Like his partial namesake - Thomas Jefferson - one of my favorite authors, Thomas M. Disch, is dead on the Fourth of July.
I can't say I'm sitting here in our living room with tears on my cheeks, or even that I'm truly grieving, because I never knew Tom Disch. How can we really grieve over the deaths of strangers? It's a question I ask myself with frequency. We can have sympathy, we can feel empathy, we can relate far and distant deaths to close and personal ones - but we can never really grieve in the way that the friends and families of the dead do.
So I'm just going to think about Disch today, and probably for a while to come, remembering what he's meant to me. Which begs the question: What did Thomas M. Disch mean to me?
Hard question to answer, really. Disch was never like Philip K. Dick or R. A. Lafferty or a handful of other authors who played pivotal, defining roles in my intellectual, literary and even - to a degree - personal life. But I found Disch at a crucial stage in my life as a reader and he made his mark on me. I found Disch during high school.
Let me define: High school sucked. No need to elaborate further. And I had only a few defenses to get me through it - my wit (such as it was), music and books. Weird jokes, weird music and weird books saved me. I bet there's a lot of you out there who had very similar experiences in high school.
Inside the garish covers, on the already yellowing pages of dozens, hundreds of science fiction books - mainly from the 60s and early 70s, I found words that spoke to me, that resonated within me. I've already mentioned the New Wave of SF before, but not elaborated on it.
Now, I loved science fiction already - had been reading Heinlein and Clarke and Bradbury and many other classic writers of the genre for years already by high school - but I was beginning to spread my wings as a reader, beginning to wonder what else was out there. I was kinda worried too that I'd have to leave science fiction behind me, put it away like a childhood toy, if I wanted to grow intellectually. So, finding a bunch of weirdo writers who'd tried to expand the boundaries of SF, to push it intellectually and artistically, to bring sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll and politics into science fiction - well, that was mind candy, pure brain sugar.
The New Wave and its writers like Thomas M. Disch, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, John Brunner, Ursula K. Le Guin, the already mentioned Dick and Lafferty, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, Brian Aldiss - the list goes on and on - gave me freedom, dared me to think, encouraged me to push myself in new directions, to question and never stop questioning.
Seriously, I gorged myself on this wild new stuff - I fattened my brain on this crazy swill! I was a convert, a new believer, and I couldn't get enough of it. It lit a fire inside me that still burns today, a fire that talks to me, that says "Hey, man, just because it's always been done that way don't mean it can't be done different now. Let's kick it over and see what happens! Let's kick out the jams!"
And Tom Disch was part of that. His marvelous short stories in New Worlds and his incredible novels and collections, books like The Genocides (see pic above) and 334 and 102 H-Bombs and Fun With Your New Head - the list goes on. Not endlessly, sadly, but there's a lot of wonderful words that came out Disch's head and heart and I'm right now actually starting to cry, I'm surprised, because I'm just realizing that there won't be any more words from Tom Disch and words were the connection I had to him and all I really had to know him by.
Thomas M. Disch is dead. He committed suicide on July 4, 2008. Goodbye, Tom. And thanks.