The Prescient Science Fiction of Thomas M. Disch

April 2, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 22 9 min read

1. Disch, His Time, Our Time
covercovercoverThomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a brilliant, ornery, and greatly American writer. He was best known for science-fiction, and three of his novels—Camp Concentration (1968), 334 (1972), and On Wings of Song (1979)won places in David Pringle’s estimable Science Fiction: The Best 100 Novels.  But Disch also wrote poetry, horror, mysteries, at least one pseudonymous gothic novel, and perhaps best-known, The Brave Little Toaster. He was a gay man who disdained being called a gay writer. He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares. Disch’s particular gift was to root these qualities in the very heart of America. Dick predicted virtual reality; Disch predicted Sarah Palin. Dick killed himself with drugs, Disch with a shotgun.

Look at the big social novels of the 1960s. You find conspiracy theories in Pynchon and Mailer, suburban hells in Cheever and Yates and (in its apotheosis) Heller, solipsistic nihilism and self-indulgence in Barth and Wurlitzer, beatnik dropout fantasies in countless other authors. Even Gore Vidal was writing historical novels rather than anything set in the present day.

Disch, though, was ahead of his time. The American heartland of his novels, contemporary or future, now seems eerily prescient. It’s not that these trends weren’t visible in the 60s and 70s, but Disch foresaw their eventual impact in the post-Cold War age that his peers mostly did not. Frequently evoking the American grotesques of Poe and Lovecraft, he brought out the ghastly ignorance that increasingly defines American political life. He exaggerates, but the uncanny familiarity of the caricature is scary.

George Wallace and Adolf Eichmann are two figures who recur in Disch’s work, early and late, and they symbolize the two halves of America that now appear in far sharper relief than they did at the time Disch started writing: town and city, one rural, populist, and xenophobic, the other liberal, technocratic, and heartless. Disch frequently treated them in isolation, but they reinforce one another, antagonists that form a unified system. Together, they constitute the American success story, by which Disch means its inhumanity.

II. The Town and George Wallace
Disch’s small towns are brutal places, dominated by ignorance and delusion, fundamentalism and other social conservatism. Decency can emerge in them, but it usually emerges in opposition to the small town values, and it never emerges as the folky good-heartedness utilized by the pastoral science-fiction writers Clifford Simak and R.A. Lafferty (both, not coincidentally, Catholics, the faith from which Disch was violently apostate). His view is much closer to that described by John Sladek, Disch’s friend and sometimes collaborator and another Iowan refugee:

What’s wrong with the Midwest is not flatness or greyness but people. It was just as flat when it was a home for the Sioux, a pasture for their buffalo. It did not become boring until a peculiar breed of genocidal people took over. Their lives were flat and rectilinear, as the straight and narrow path to the heaven they believed in. Accordingly they cut the Great Plains into squares, setting rectilinear boundaries for states, counties, farms and fields.

To this I would add its insulation. It gave people enough space to allow them to forget that everyone else was not like them, to engage in a collective delusion.

And indeed, Disch’s Midwesterners are not purely libertarian populists nor religious fanatics (though those tendencies easily bloom in such a hothouse). They have a strong sense of community, unified not by religious or political belief but by xenophobia, the need to keep the other and the strange out while affirming themselves and their delusion. (That is, the sort of attitude that causes Sarah Palin to think she knows about Russia.)

So it is no trouble for the small town in Disch’s first apocalyptic novel, The Genocides, to turn to cannibalism after society falls apart, preserving as much of their old lifestyle as they can. Disch audaciously places the cannibalism at the beginning of the novel (where can he possibly go?), but despite the danger of Twilight Zone triteness, Disch portrays it with a precisely-observed authenticity. Under the civic and moral guidance of the vigilant Christian patriarch and his thuggish son, the scene of the townspeople calmly eating the flesh of bandits and other wanderers, as though at a box social, is compelling precisely because he shows them queasily (though successfully) suppressing their anxiety, trusting in the authority of their ruler.

The greater the spread of modernity and urban influence, the more the small towns of rural America try to shut it out. Disch’s 1979 novel, On Wings of Song, shows red and blue American gone down the drain: while the cities have gone downhill, Iowa and its friends have become police states which outlaw possession of non-local newspapers and punish small infractions with brutal prison terms. Disch’s vision is extreme, but compared to the fiction writers who treat the Midwest as a quaint oddity or as a strange civilization exerting mysterious forces upon our government, Disch’s portrayal is authoritatively convincing. The Midwesterners’ dogma and, more significantly, their fears, are recognizable in the hysteria of the Tea Partiers, desperate to keep out any nefarious outside influence, unable to tell the difference between insurance company handouts and Communism.

Those who were puzzled that the seemingly libertarian, free-market streak of the Republican party has given way to a harsh, protectionist populism need only look here for the explanation. Peggy Noonan and David Frum’s recent laments over how the extremist rhetoric of the right-wing media had crowded out real Republican ideas are pathetically naïve. Did they really think Reagan Democrats voted for the man because of his belief in Milton Friedman? Karl Rove knew better: they want George Wallace, not Ayn Rand.

III. The City and Adolf Eichmann
Sladek attributes the Midwestern mindset to the original settlers. Disch is a bit more egalitarian. For him, insulation to the pain and suffering of real life is inherently corrupting. Where there can be a revelation of truth and decency, there must be threat and failure. And that happens in the city.

Disch’s cities are not pretty. What they are is tolerant. A future version of New York pops up both in Disch’s story cycle 334 and On Wings of Song. In the latter novel, it’s a New York that has reverted to a 19th century status: the rich have their world and everyone else can go to hell. The action mostly takes place in the realm of the opera, as our hero Daniel Weinreb suffers a number of humiliations, including sexual slavery, in order to earn a living in the city. The suggestion is less of any past of America than the aristocracy of Europe or even old Rome: art is for those who can afford it, and if you can’t afford it and still want it, you must sell your soul.

Anyone who sees Disch as an inveterate basher of middle America is missing this half of the story. Disch has a conflicted love for the culture and beauty of New York, but he never hesitates to show the price paid for the modern city. 334, which I see as his masterpiece, paints a future New York that, while hardly a utopia, is far from the visions of social decay painted by Samuel Delany or Brian Aldiss around the same time. (If anything, it owes something to the benevolent tyrannies of Cordwainer Smith, though Disch does not deign to personalize the royalty as Smith did.) People are not starving. Overpopulation has resulted in unpleasant but manageable crowding. Needs are provided for, to some extent, by a socialized government no more moral than Eichmann, but happily turned toward (relative) good in this instance.

People’s lives are determined by the sorts of standardized tests that are increasingly becoming the metric for school success today. Those who are untalented are relegated to the armed forces to fight the latest Vietnam: “And that was it, they were gorillas,” Disch writes as a sensitive black boy flunks his English essay test. The middling people suffer through a routinized life in which there is frequently chemical escape; in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, “the terms of acceptance of American life have been made bleak and superficial at the same time that the terms of revolt have been made vulgar and irrelevant.”

Yet there is warmth among the lower classes, and sometimes even a happy ending. Even the rich sometimes learn. In the 334 story “Angouleme,” the insecure rich kid Little Mister Kissy Lips (a brilliant name) attempts to imitate Raskolnikov and murder a bum, but is scared off by the fearless fatalism that their target hobo shows him. In a moment he realizes more than any of Disch’s rural inhabitants. Mechanistic socialism and all, 334 is still Disch’s most optimistic book. But Disch seemed to think of the indifferent rich of On Wings of Song as far more the norm, that the Eichmann functionaries could easily be turned to oppressive or evil purposes.

IV. Success and Fantasy
coverAnd the rhetoric itself arises from a particular fantasy of life and power. Disch says in On SF, “Fantasies of power are a necessary precondition of the exercise of power—by anyone.” The darkest fate is when that fantasy is successfully realized.

The two sides of Disch’s darkness merge most vividly in Grandison Whiting, the rich businessman and antagonist of On Wings of Song. Callous, Machiavellian, and utterly indifferent to the suffering of anyone but himself and his family, he openly drives the misery of most of the characters in the book. Assured, well-spoken, but willfully uncultured, he is not so different from Ken Lay, Richard Mellon Scaife, Sam Walton, or even Lloyd Blankfein. (He has a dog named Dow Jones, a nice Gaddisish touch.) He is the worst of both the rural and urban worlds, comfortably solipsistic while driven to impose himself on as much of the world as possible. He wants power, which “is to feel the consequences of one’s actions spread through the world.” This is as close to a definition of evil as Disch gets. “Who but the defeated are to be blamed for a defeat?” he asks.

Caricature or no, this seems a lot closer to the attitude of Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, et al. than any character in a Don DeLillo book. Whiting’s homespun rhetoric puts him awfully close to the Fox News demagogues of today. The rhetoric is the fantasy, and Whiting is a man who never had his fantasies crushed. His life is utter success, untempered by disillusionment. And for Disch, success is poison to anything resembling humanity and compassion. The most successful people, whether small-town monarchs or corporate masters, have lost all empathy in their efforts to spread their vision across the world.

Across Disch’s work, it is clear that Whiting and his kin are personifications of the post-war United States: high on two huge victories and bolstered by massive economic growth, the U.S. entered a period in which a growing number of people could not see why the entire world should not be remade in our image. The arrogance of Kennedy and Johnson’s “best and the brightest” was one grotesque manifestation of this delusion, but when merged with the xenophobia and ignorance of middle America, the result was the second Bush administration, people who ridiculed the “reality-based community” and thought that on invasion, Iraq would transform into a democracy of America-worshippers. Now that that fantasy has failed, the spoiled powers would rather ignore or destroy that which disproved them rather than let go of the neo-imperialist laissez-faire dogma.

So they still lie, having realized, like the smartest of Disch’s villains, just how far a clever lie can be pushed on a vaguely educated populace. This too became a trope of New Wave science fiction, but only Disch had a flair for extrapolating the neo-imperialist fantasies that Americans so eagerly swallow, the product of America’s own geographical isolation from so much of the world.

V. Failure and Humanity
Fantasy is not avoidable. The very act of writing fiction is a sin, a lie. One of Disch’s most haunting stories, “Getting Into Death,” is about a writer (one who uses two pseudonyms, at least one of which Disch used himself) who orchestrates her death by fabricating warmth and sentiment toward everyone she has ever known, creating a surfeit of charmingly mawkish moments. Disch does not approve, but he knows a little piece of this lie must be present in any sort of human autonomy. Only fantasy pushes back against fantasy.

For Daniel Weinreb, the strong but oppressed hero of On Wings of Song, life is an exercise in being beaten down by the humiliating power fantasies of others, from Whiting to an opera diva. He only has fantasy to turn to:

Christians  got  to  be  that  way  by  suspending  their  disbelief  in  a preposterous  but  highly  improving  fairy  tale.  This  presented  no difficulties to Daniel,  who took naturally  to pretending.  His  whole life  these  days  was  a  game  of  make-believe.  He  pretended  to  be black.  He had pretended,  for  one  whole  year,  to be  passionately  in love  with a  eunuch.  Sometimes  he  and Mrs.  Schiff  would  pretend for  hours  at  a  time  to be  honeybunnies.  Why  not  pretend  to  be  a Christian?

The problem is that he is too sharp to pretend and believe, and so he must cultivate, with great difficulty, a refined and practiced art before he can lose himself in any sort of transcendence. Certainty in one’s fantasies comes to others so easily, as with Whiting’s boorish son:

His eyes locked with Daniel’s and it  became  a  contest.  There was  something  implacable  in Carl’s  face,  a  force  of  belief  beyond anything that Daniel could ever have mustered.

At the end, Daniel does muster it momentarily, but it is far too late, and it comes as little more than a consolation prize. But his life of failures has made his small success a vindication, a tiny strike against the Whitings and Iowas of the world. The American protagonist of the brilliant “The Asian Shore” comes to doubt his life so much that he loses himself in Turkey. Are these gestures enough, for example, to counter the kicking and screaming of the ugly American Fred in Disch’s early story “Casablanca,” who descends into a fit of impotent race-hate in Morocco when the U.S. is nuked and he is faced with the end of his own fantasy? To put it another way, how will the U.S. today deal with its declining prestige in world affairs, even as it exists between two political parties, one venal and one crazy? Will Eichmann and Wallace be controlled?

Disch was not optimistic.

writes about literature and philosophy at He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a book reviewer for Rain Taxi, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He has completed a long, unpublished novel, but continues to write fiction.