Thomas M. Disch - Vector Interview
Thanks to Michael J. Cross at the BSFA Magazines Index
Disch on Disch
A Recorded Interview: Transcript of an interview which was recorded
at the second Brighton Arts Festival - May 1968
Vector Issue #51, October 1968
Interview, by Michael Kenward
Tom Disch first came to Europe two year ago. Before he came he was virtually unknown to English sf readers. He is now considered to be one of the most talented of the younger generation of sf writers. But sf is not his only field of expression. He has written a thriller, in collaboration with John Sladek, called Black Alice. His poems have been published in various literary magazines, as have some of his short stories. His novel Camp Concentration (Rupert Hart-Davis), first serialised in NEW WORLDS, has caused something of a stir in sf circles.
His books include 102 H-Bombs & Others (Compact), Echo Round His Bones (Rupert Hart-Davis), and The Genocides (Panther). A collection of his short stories, Under Compulsion, will be published later this year by Rupert Hart-Davis.
How did you find thing coming to England where you were completely unknown?
Absolutely unknown when I came here. I had an introduction to Mike Moorcock from Damon Knight and Judith Merril. No one, here, had read anything of mine and, in fact, I unloaded a story onto NEW WORLDS as soon as I got here. This sort of thing would never happen now. The first thing that Mike published of mine was "Invaded by Love" (NW 166), which is just a stock pulp story
When I arrived I had no notion of what NEW WORLDS was. They were not only ignorant of me, but I was ignorant of the fact that there was anything in England to take notice of at all in sf. I hadn't read NEW WORLDS and I didn't know that it had a "different" reputation. Mike had not been at it very long. Actually, I had an image of it as a poor kid brother, a little retarded, fit only for visiting at week-ends.
What made you come to England?
I had intended to go to France from Spain, but I came down with hepatitis in Spain, and I was so little able to cope with the cultural gap of speaking another language that England just seemed to be a comfortable idea.
Since your arrival you have gained the reputation of being among the "new wave" of sf writers
Most of the stories that have been published so far in NEW WORLDS cannot be said to have been influenced by the "new wave". For example, "Linda, Daniel, and Spike" and "1-A" were both written in Spain, before I came to England. I haven't written many short stories at all in the last two years, I have been working on several novels. I wrote Echo Round His Bones (NW 169/170) in Spain. When I came to England I was finishing a book called Black Alice. This isn't a science fiction novel. It is a thriller, written in collaboration with John Sladek. After this I went to Austria to write Camp Concentration.
I think that my treatment of this may have been bolder as a result of the "new wave" and NEW WORLDS. It had been sold, in outline, to Berkley books in the States. I had a feeling that they would turn it down, that it would be too strong for them. But I decided that I would try to make it as good as I possibly could. NEW WORLDS does not pay at all well, but I knew that at least the novel would not be completely lost, it would stand a chance of being read. I don't really know that this provoked me. The material was such that it almost forced that kind of treatment. It is a book that when you settle down to write it you are immediately confronted with the problem that it has to be written by a person who is at first a poet, then becomes an incredible genius. Surely this calls for a certain kind of pyrotechnics. Also, the theme was very dark.
The final plot is exactly as it is outlined for Berkley. The only thing that is different is the intensity of the treatment. I think that Mordecai is a much stronger character than it would appear from the outline. Even so, the basic descriptions of these people as detailed in the outline still read true. It is just that the outline does not suggest that this wouldn't be just a fairly respectable sf story, of an ordinary type. No different from anything that I have done before. In fact, it is more intense. For example, the moralistic speech of Skilliman has been taken to its extremes. It is this that I thought might put Berkley off. The dream of Aquinas, as well, which is certainly blasphemous. Also some of Mordecai's more explicit blasphemies. And the comparison of the concentration camp and "god's scheme". These are the elements that weren't in the outline and that made the novel exciting to me; exciting, that is, as I wrote it.
The sequence that opens book two, where he describes his ravings, this is something that I might not have done but for knowing that NEW WORLDS was there. I wanted to see how far I could force the language, until I had to break off and return to an ordinary narrative. But it still had to remain convincing. There was the fun of making the language more and more pyrotechnical. This is one of the things that indicates that the drug is working on him. And the fact that you can see the drug working emphasises the fatality of it. We also know, therefore, that he is going to die. And so, each evidence of his increased brilliance, if it works that way, also should have the poignant aftertaste that it is a doomed venture.
Somewhat like "Flowers for Algernon".
Yes. I could never let myself read that novel, of course. I still haven't. Really there are bound to similarities when dealing with genius. Which reminds me of another novel on the same lines. This is Poul Anderson's Brain Wave. It was his first novel, and I don't think he has written anything as good as this since. Here all of humanity starts developing such genius. The rationale for this event is very good. The results of it are very well considered and very dramatic. I have not seen anything else of his that has the intensity of this book.
There is a similarity between Sacchetti thumping things out on his typewriter and the ideas of "The Squirrel Cage" (NW 167).
In two of the stories in my new collection Under Compulsion, this notion of the Squirrel Cage appears. It is a basic theme of mine. The situation of the person put alone. "Descending" was the first time that I used this theme and found what could be done with it. The second story wasn't so good, it is called "Come to Venus Melancholy".
I think that I finally got ride of this thing in "The Squirrel Cage". There is one further remove that I feel that I can take this too, but I will have to do this in a novel that I have in mind.
The situation is a fascinating one that is almost impossible to write from. There is just one character. This dramatises the whole question of being a writer: of the notion the meaningfulness of communications that are undertaken at this very abstract level. This is what the Squirrel Cage is all about. Here I realised, for the first time, this is what Samuel Beckett does.
Do you feel yourself to be writing in the same way, in a vacuum?
Well! It is the whole paradox of writing. You are always doing so in a vacuum in the sense that you are writing on a typewriter, and other people in the room are an annoyance.
Are you writing for yourself?
Yes. But at the same time may of the things that you do in writing are tricks that you are playing on the reader. For instance, the notion of a concealed ending. A surprise in the story is not going to surprise you. The writer is always second guessing the reader of the story. You are trying to use shock tactics in one way or another. Leading him to believe one thing and then making him believe something completely different. If, at the moment of shock, it can also have a propagandistic or even emotional purpose, then so much the better. For example, "1-A" is a very propagandistic story. The whole purpose of the shock at the end is to make people see things the way that I do, to think, "That's what the army is like". It is a trick that you are playing. All propaganda deals in that kind of trick.
This is certainly a very reader conscious activity. It is just that the reader becomes an abstract thing. For instance, the things that I am getting a response to now are those that I wrote, on average, two years ago. The mechanics of the process take that much time between writer and reader. It can extend over a long time as, now with the paperback Genocides, more people are beginning to read my work.
I do like to get an immediate response to my writing, and all of my friends suffer from this. I will just take a new story over to them and read it aloud. I am a frustrated actor.
If one wants to be a writer there is something about this abstract notion of "an audience" that is appealing. I still get a kick out of going into a store and seeing a book of mine there. Suddenly I have expanded all over the world. A fantastic sensation of expansiveness. Like having little portions of yourself placed all over the world. I identify very strongly with the physical objects that are my books. There is a great big machine going "clomp, clomp, clomp" spewing out more nits of Disch.
I didn't really get to read Ballard until I got to England. I started to read one of his anthologies on the boat, on the way over here, when I knew that I was going to meet him. I was just astonished. I was just so impressed that somebody, in the context of science fiction, was doing work that was obviously first rate and as good as, if not better than, anything being done anywhere else at just that moment.
I don't think that it has influenced young writers so much. Rather it has encouraged writers to become sf writers who wouldn't have otherwise done so. Jim Sallis, for example, is somebody who could certainly be making a career for himself in the quarterly area. I think that Jim, without NEW WORLDS, would have become so discouraged with sf that he would have given up. Also without people like Ashmead, who is the Doubleday person, in the States. He seems to share many of Mike Moorcock's tastes. A lot of NW's writers are having Doubleday books published in the near future.
English sf is different. Surely it must mean something that most of the good young sf writers seem to be coming to England?
Not only that, they are published here first. The fact that Bug Jack Barron is being first published in England is a scandal for American science fiction. I think that it is one of the best sf novels ever done.
I couldn't have published Echo Round His Bones" in America, although my agent tried. This is a very straight, and standard novel, perhaps too much so for the American magazines. Though I really have contempt for those magazines, and for most of the things that are in them. I publish a little in FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, but I have seen so many good things that have been at mill for so many people. Somebody like Carol Emshwiller has been writing beautiful stories for years without being published. And who knows what fine stories might have been, but weren't because of this general attitude?
If one is a novelist then one doesn't have this sort of trouble so much. A good novel is much easier to publish than a good short story. Which seems paradoxical really. Perhaps this is because short stories have stuck so much in the pulp formula. Novels have gone somewhere else and have developed ideas with a greater freedom to be honest.
Would you agree that there is a certain amount of stagnation and "incest" in NEW WORLDS?
As long as you have got an extremely limited number of writers who are writing for you, there is always the danger of incest. There is the danger now, but there is a turnover of writers in NW. One year there will be a crop of stories from one author, and nothing the next. This is just a part of the author's natural periodicity.
It seems that much sf today is scienceless. You have talked of the effort that was needed to make "Echo Round His Bones" scientifically self-consistent, do you think that people are becoming less willing to go into such efforts for the correctness of detail.
This depends very much upon the novel that you are doing. In the case of "echo", to be a good book this demanded, and in fact absolutely depended upon the science being convincingly presented, and a good case being made for the possibility of the echo. Then there had to be a consistency of detail and event, based upon the logical working out of things.
This is almost an attraction of science fiction that it does require such efforts on the part of the author.
This is a pleasure of a particular kind of sf. For instance, Hal Clement is an example of this. The entire pleasure of his work derives from this. There is equally good sf that lacks it entirely. For example, The Space Merchants by Kornbluth & Pohl, which I felt was a good sf book. It is a kind of hodge podge of ideas. But if you start analysing it you will find many inconsistencies. For its effect, not being based exactly upon science, it is not important that it be self consistent. The purpose of the book was a broad kind of satire. This will just reach for its effects where it can get them. Satire does not need to be self consistent, it is always reaching for a new effect. Catch 22, by Joseph Heller, is an extreme example of this. It is a mass of internal inconsistencies. The time scheme is impossible. Some of the events could not be taking place before certain events and after others. They form a triangular time scheme.
Science in sf, is it important in the works of Ballard, for example?
Yes. I think that it is very important for him. For instance, the rationale of The Drought is extremely well worked out. Not only in terms of scientific validity but in terms of the fact that the sequence of technological events that lead up to this also is relevant to the allegorical element of the novel. The petroleum fuel wastes that blanket the ocean and the cars that form a graveyard by the sea. This was one of the basic images of the novel. It related not only to the scientific plausibility of the event, but also to what he is saying about civilization and what civilization is doing. And so, the two were in perfect balance in the book, because the whole notion of the spinal landscape, of time imposing two different kinds of order, the order of the physical world and the moral order of the human world. So that his science takes on the allegorical force that science has in Dante. This is where Ballard has his special brilliance. And in the short novels, as he calls them; although the science is not worked out with the same consistency. It can't be without a linear narrative, science needs linearity really. Some of the scientific notions presented, or alluded to are very provoking. And in fact, in conversation with you he can present them linearly, and they are very convincing that way. And they can be deduced from these little stories. In this sense I think that Ballard is one of the people who use science intelligently as an sf writer.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, is a novel in which the science is of absolutely no purpose. In fact there is almost no science in it. It is almost a recapitulation of Western science up to about Faraday. At least, this is the case in the first two thirds of the novel. The imaginative element in it has to do with the workings out of the probability of cyclic history. This is a valid speculative notion, to examine just how cyclic you can make history appear and still make it convincing, and probable; and whether the cycle can be broken out of. This is a basic thing that can have very little to do with science; history can hardly be called a science.
The next thing that I am working on is something in which science doesn't come into it very much. It is set in the far distant future. It is about the most elaborate description that I have ever attempted of a future society. Most of my things have been set in the fairly near future, with only one single element changed. In this one I am trying to extrapolate a whole society, again with only one single thing changed, immortality. This would, of course, have enormous social ramifications, at every level. To try to imagine a world in which all of these things have changed simultaneously requires a great deal of effort. But there is no original speculative element in it that I have to do a lot of research for.
When inventing such a "future history" you rely very much on all kinds of prophesies that other people have made about science. Both of the other novels were of the "wonderful invention" class of stories. They dealt with explaining the invention, showing in exhaustive detail how the invention worked, and just what the results would be. In this novel a wonderful invention would just take away from the interest of the story, because the interest is of a social/historical type. And although the world certainly is transformed by different technologies and the basic business of immortality, nevertheless the kind of scientific imagination that goes into it can almost be borrowed.
What interests me is the picture of the society and the particular story that I am telling of this society. This is not a science fiction story at all, it is a long and detailed love story, between a mortal and an immortal. This goes back to the Odyssey. It is just one of those basic stories. This is not to say that I am a believer in the notion of re-telling old myths. I think that this is an abominable thing. One is obliged to produce one's own personal myths. To re-cast and re-tell a story that is known and loved, I don't see much point in that. But still one can't help recognising that themes have been dealt with before.
THE GENOCIDES - This book, which seems to me to be about the futility of man, has earned you a reputation as a pessimist.
But a catastrophe novel seems to me to demand this sort of treatment. I thought that I was doing a fairly ordinary thing in "The Genocides". I was writing a catastrophe novel. I certainly admire Wyndham's. Part of the delight of the catastrophe novel is the pleasure of seeing the human race destroyed, just annihilated, wiped out. It is like reading "The Apocalypse", there is just a beauty in the notion of total destruction. And this is the pleasure that you get from reading Wyndham, you are seeing civilization demolished. And the last minute discovery that there is a way out of it seems to me to be so cheating. In fact it nearly always turns out to be a cheat. They do it in some silly way. Wyndham, "The Triffids, what was it? Seawater? Such a silly thing. And Wells, microbes. A real "deus ex machina". Really the notion of tragic development is to proceed inalterable to its conclusion. Starting from the beginning, proceeding inexorably along each inevitable step and then you come to the last one. And this is where tragic emotion comes in. If a catastrophe novel isn't dealing with tragic emotions, then what is? So this was just a necessity of the story rather than my dismal view of humanity. It amazed me that it got such a violent reaction. It didn't seem to me that it was such a remarkable thing to do.
In the case of my new novel, because the theme has to do with the love affair between a mortal and immortal this is, again, a basically tragic theme. But the society that I am picturing is one that I think is really utopian. The notion of immortality is basically such a beautiful thing. If one is in favour of life that is. The notion of being able to do everything which, as a mortal, you can't now, seems lovely. And it seems to me to be not absolutely impossible, that it is not really just wishful thinking. It is wishful thinking for me, because I am mortal. But it may be possible in another two or three hundred years that people will be at least immortal for two or three hundred years. This is a fantastic notion, and it seems to me to be an incredibly beautiful one, and a terribly optimistic one. For all of the horrible things that one could imagine about the future, there are also nice things that can be imagined of it. And surely immortality is one of them. The background of the novel, the tragic feeling of being mortal will be all the more tragic for being set in a society which is beautiful.
You appear to have overcome the problems that immortality today would bring to society, for example the overcrowding that would rapidly ensue.
Yes. It is controlled, it is an extremely rational and, to my my mind, idyllic and human world. So much sf utopianism is, as in Simak, a sort of pastoral idyll. This is of the past, I think that any future utopia has to be urban, has to deal with an urban environment and an urban type of life. I don't really understand why I have a reputation of being a pessimist. I think of myself as a realist. Things like death are not really things that one can be optimistic about. In so far as fiction has to treat it fairly frequently, then fiction has to portray an unhappy thing.
I don't think that this immortality thing is just a wish fulfilment. If I felt that this were so then I wouldn't let myself write it. The thing is that immortality is a point of view. It seems to me that it is one that is becoming more and more possible these days. "living in the present". This is all that immortality is, an ability to live absolutely in the present, with the sense of the vivid, glowing timeless beauty of things, and of landscapes, and other people and of just "this moment". A sense of not having guilt about the past and anxiety for the future. This is one of the hardest things to achieve. The best moments in one's life are the moments when one has achieved this, if only for a day. If one can carry it on, and this is what really happens in a love affair, for two or three months or however long an affair may last at its intense, most passionate period, this is the nearest equivalent we may have yet, and may ever have of immortality. I think that this is what it is about. It is not just living a long time, but of living with a sense of...
The interview ends on this enigmatic note as a result of the expiration of the tape used. Many thanks to Tom Disch for his patience. I hope that the result does not make him regret that he ever agreed to the whole idea. It must be added that the transcript was done after Tom returned to the States, hence it is solely my responsibility.
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