Conflicted Memories

Sam J. Miller’s “Who Killed Thomas Disch” (at Strange Horizons) is organized around a silly title at the expense of questions Miller himself says have genuine value: “What was really going on? Where do we put the blame? What do we do with our grief? With our guilt?” For it’s the time he spends on those questions that makes the reading worthwhile.

When some of the sf field’s talents die their passing elicits a certain amount of survivor’s guilt, though not in the case of Arthur C. Clarke, or others who achieve literary fame and fortune. But I remember a friend of the late Roger Zelazny speaking with bitterness and guilt about the last days of this great writer of sf short stories, as if they personally and society at large hadn’t done enough.

Some of that emotion permeates Miller’s piece about Disch, a richly-detailed, but ultimately question-begging exploration of the late sf writer’s last days. After all, most people enduring the same conditions do not kill themselves, so while much can be suggested nothing can be proved. I found Miller’s essay challenging and interesting (I wouldn’t write about it if I thought it wasn’t worth your time), though it would have been more satisfying (to me, anyway) if Miller had been governed by his own conclusion:

While I’d love to turn Disch’s death into one more argument in favor of expanded rent-control laws, or better tenant protections, or gay marriage (the surviving half of a married straight couple, in Disch’s situation, would be far better situated to fend off eviction attempts), there’s something creepy about reducing a human being to a weapon in the service of a political agenda. My need to find a scapegoat for his death does Disch a disservice. Disch’s life, like his work, was defiantly resistant to outside influence. From the very start of his writing career we see someone willing to slaughter sacred cows and name names and subvert all expectations, and it’s selfish to wish he’d given us a happy ending.

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