Into the Null

One drawback of developing the SF convention habit – besides the terrible damage to your liver – is that getting to know favourite authors makes the eventual obituaries even more painful. Though rarely as painful as when long ago the award-winning SF critic Susan Wood died young and a newspaper wrote: "As an SF scribe might chronicle it, citizen Wood journeyed into the null on the Gregorian Calendar's Day 12, Month 11 ..." Thank you so much, Mr Reporter.

Recent deaths that meant a lot to me include Thomas M Disch, who committed suicide amid the US Fourth of July celebrations, and Algis Budrys, who died in June after long illness. They were both damn good writers.

Budrys produced several SF classics. Who? centres on a faceless, rebuilt cyborg whose uncertain identity is vital to Cold War efforts. Rogue Moon, reprinted in various Masterworks series, is the definitive novel of matter transmitters and (again) problems of identity when they can run off multiple copies of you. Michaelmas stars a man with an overactive conscience who runs the world via an AI living in the Internet. Note that (although matter transmitters had long been regular SF props) Rogue Moon appeared six years before Star Trek, and Michaelmas four years before William Gibson's first cyberspace story.

My relations with Budrys were slightly uneasy. When I met him, he'd become the front man for promotion of L Ron Hubbard in the SF world. Undoubtedly he needed the money, but it seemed embarrassing that a top SF critic (his Benchmarks is a very fine collection) should find himself scraping up praise for that generally dreadful author. Still, Budrys was a conscientious editor. I have a rueful letter from him, regretting that he hadn't spotted and fixed the line in his magazine Tomorrow SF that got selected for my Thog's Masterclass showcase of differently good prose: "Sweat broke out on his brow as he wrestled with his brain ..." (Julian Flood).

Tom Disch, as everyone knew him, was also a formidably brilliant man. With his friend John Sladek he was in London for Michael Moorcock's 1960s "New Wave" revival of New Worlds magazine, and contributed amazing stuff – including his masterpiece Camp Concentration. Here, guinea-pigs in a US military experiment are infected with a venereal disease that boosts intelligence vastly but eventually kills; there are countless cross-references to the Faust legend. Brian Aldiss wrote about early Disch: "A genuine pessimist of a new writer has come along, to delight us with an unadulterated shot of pure bracing gloom."

Another black comedy serialized in New Worlds is minor Disch but a personal favourite: Echo Round His Bones, dealing – very differently from Rogue Moon – with multiple identities generated by matter transmission. I've often wondered why Disch didn't keep reappearing in SF Classics series. Apparently he was grumpy about people wanting to reprint these early works in a style from which he'd long moved on.

Indeed Disch was scathing about most commercial SF, calling it a branch of children's literature. His poem "On Science Fiction" (he was a noted poet too) cruelly portrays fans as dreaming cripples: "Do not refer / To our infirmities. Help us to conquer the galaxy." Ironically, his often hilariously grouchy critical book about the genre, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, won him his only Hugo award.

Disch was the first SF author I'd met who had a tattoo, and the first in an openly gay relationship; he never recovered from the death in 2005 of his partner Charles Naylor. When I approached him about his unpublished collaborations with John Sladek for a Sladek book I was editing, I was distinctly nervous. It seemed all too likely that this ferocious intellectual would thwack me across the face with a quotation from Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus in the original German. In the event, kindly Tom Disch gave me everything I needed and added his blessing. Thanks again!

But he held one grudge from the 1960s. Budrys the critic slammed Disch's first novel The Genocides, and when Budrys died the Disch LiveJournal gloated: "Ding-Dong! the witch is dead! ... I was certain I would beat him to the exit, but no I get to dance on his grave." Oh dear.

One last memory of Disch. He and I were guests of honour at the 1981 UK Eastercon – where the committee begged us to skip our hotel breakfasts because they were so short of money. This was a fib. They wanted a huge profit to launch a new SF magazine, and did: Interzone, still running (though under new management). A publishing enterprise which like so many others began by starving the authors ...

David Langford has since put on weight.