When it comes to Science Fiction, some writers are stylists. Thomas M(ichael) Disch is one of the great stylists of the genre. JG Ballard pips him, but that’s about it. Black humour? Disch is a master – besting even Philip K. Dick. Satire? Disch is a sublime satirist; greater, perhaps, than HG Wells.
An American, Disch lived for some time in the UK, and was a member of the SF New Wave in the 1960s, hanging out with Ballard and Michael Moorcock. Why then is Thomas M. Disch relatively unknown compared to the above writers? John Clute and Peter Nicholls in their essential Encyclopedia of Science Fiction have a possible answer:
“His virtual departure from SF may be not unconnected to the nature of the field’s response to him. Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, TMD has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.”
Disch has written several first rank SF and mainstream(ish) novels. However, to acquaint yourself with him, you should first read Under Compulsion, an exquisite short fiction collection containing some 17 (the precise number depends on whether you read this or the US version Fun With Your New Head) superlative stories of SF, surrealism and horror. True, you may have to read some of them three, maybe even four times, before you get the idea. Maybe you’ll never fully understand some of them. But you’ll appreciate the writing, I promise you that.
With Under Compulsion, the lasting impression is of a writer utterly confident with his literary gift (it’s sobering to realise that Disch was only 28 when this collection was assembled, and barely 20 when some of the stories were written). I sense a writer who wants you to taste his words, to enjoy the sentences they create, to observe the paragraphs as they assemble themselves starkly before you, to feel uncomfortable or perplexed with the direction you’re being pulled in, to feel your mind being stretched. And what’s wrong with that? Much of the writing that strains the shelves today is safe and easy. Much of it is also dull, inane, and derivative. These attributes may be desirable for TV, but for literature? Pass me the blowtorch.
For existentialist style, consider this excerpt from The Contest:
They walked together before the Racquet Club and were mirrored in the glass facade of the Seagram Building. Beneath their feet, sewers flowed silently into the sea. By a curious chance, the two men wore identical suits. From the upper stories of the Pan-Am Building they were scarcely visible: all suits seem identical from these heights. The younger, less garrulous man stepped on a dog turd and grimaced. His companion smiled. “To pursue the metaphor,’ he said apropos this new unpleasantness, as though it had been a parenthesis in his conversation, “some poet – Goethe, I think – said that architecture is frozen ordure.”
“Architecture is the empty spaces in between.”
They stopped and considered these empty spaces. Light, sound, electro-magnetic waves, and orgone energy contested for their attention. Somewhere, a defective toaster sent out signals to aeroplanes. Every five minutes a retarded child was born, but elsewhere, cybernetic machines were being assembled at a much faster rate.
In Casablanca, an elderly, hideous and holidaying American couple mentally and physically disintegrate, as they become aware that their homeland has been obliterated in a nuclear attack. Disch’s gift is in making you feel a combination of pity and disgust, despite, or perhaps because of his clinical prose.
A-1 is black, black humour and savage, sardonic satire. I’ll give nothing away, other than to say I was reminded of Bill Hicks’s classic rant: “Anybody dumb enough to want to join the military should be allowed in. Case closed.”
Descending is pure Kafka. A man gets on a down escalator, and just keeps on going down.
Perhaps the finest story is Flight Useless, Inexorable the Pursuit. The title alone – Disch is also a poet – is worth the purchase price. Sexual disgust, disease and love converge to a killer punch in under three pages.
Ultimately, I’m reduced to quoting the blurb on the back of this edition, as you are urged to: “…read them (the stories). Eat them. But be sure and get them into your head somehow.”