I was puzzled when I ran across a comment about him on William Gibson’s blog, but with further refreshing of the feed reader I learned that Thomas M. Disch commited suicide July 4th.
I actually met Thomas Disch in the late 80’s. The US cultural attache(?) in Israel happened to be a Science Fiction enthusiast, and he organized a small convention – two days of academic-type panels at Beit HaSofer, with a single movie screening as the US Embassy as an extra event. The big attraction of the convention, however, were two American SF authors as special guests: Harlan Ellison and Thomas Disch. Lots of people showed up on the first day, eager to see the fabled Harlan Ellison speak. We were all dissappointed and annoyed to learn upon arrival that Ellison had cancelled his visit due to illness. Some people left upon hearing the news.
But the guest that we did have, Tom Disch, was marvelous. Witty, charming, friendly and gracious, enthusiastic and intelligently critical about SF. He did all the events both he and Harlan were scheduled to do, and was great fun to hear. I recall when a moderator asked him how he would translate the experience of his visit to Israel into his work, he responded that the wonderful thing about being a Science Fiction writer is that you don’t have to write about your personal experience. The average American novel, he said, was usually a dreary thing about coming of age, reconcilling with your father, shooting your first deer… and the glory of being an SF writer is that you can write about something else entirely than mundane existence.
I recall first encountering Brian McHale at that conference (the coolest lecturer Tel-Aviv University ever had), and Emanuel Lottem and Aharon Hauptman, and Deena Shunra (Ben Kiki in those days), who volunteered to start a fanzine and suggested having an Israeli SF Award in the form of a Dish (in honor of). Lots of proto-Israeli fandom, still lacking the spark of Freidman and Internet to get ignite it. But Tom Disch was the best thing there, I think.
I had him sign my copy of Medea (which he confirmed was already signed by Ellison, and which this year I got signed by Larry Niven), and (out of guilt for having read nothing of his stuff), I read his story in that collection, which was very strange and rather wonderful.
Meeting your heroes can be a let-down; they rarely surprise you for the better, because you know too much about them already. But some of the best meetings I’ve had as a fan with authors were with those I knew and cared little for before: You meet this guy whose name you’d heard of but whose work you’d not really investigated, and he (or she) turns out to be this brilliant person. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by meeting Ian Watson and R.A. Salvatore, for example. Thomas Disch was probably the first and most striking of those pleasant surprises.