May 2 2011 3:10pm

Sunlit clouds beyond the iron grating: Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song

When I wrote about Samuel Delany’s Nova, I said that if it was published today it would still be a book we’d be excited about. I can say the same about Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song. On Wings of Song was nominated for the 1980 Hugo and won the 1980 Campbell Memorial Award. It was published in 1979, but it doesn’t at all read as if it was. It’s set in a satiric dystopic future collapsed USA, where the country has fragmented and the economy has gone to pieces. It reads as if it could still be the future—I mean it doesn’t have cell phones and the internet, but then it makes sense that it wouldn’t.

It’s a fascinating complex world. There are machines which you hook up to and sing sincerely, and if you do it right you have an out of body experience. They call this flying, and it’s banned in the same way that drugs are banned—illegal but available. The world is also full of phoneys, white people who dye their skin black for personal reasons, fashion reasons, to please their partners, or just to get on. They always leave one part white though, sometimes a finger, sometimes the tip of their nose. There are famines when rations get cut to starvation levels, and prisons where you have to get McDonalds takeout to survive. There are rich people and there are people who have to hustle to get by, and there’s a movie called Gold Diggers of 1984, and Bel Canto is a popular artform.

We don’t seem to have a word to describe the kind of story this is. It’s the whole life story, from age five to death, of Daniel Weinreb. He lives in New York and then in Iowa, with one trip to the bright lights of Minneapolis, and then back in New York. He spends a while in prison for distributing the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Iowa—I was so surprised when I found out that was a real newspaper! He wants to fly, he wants it more than anything. His life is complicated and largely unheroic, the kind of life people actually have in reality and seldom have in fiction. But it’s a life he could only have in that time and place, in the world he lives in. It’s a book about how he grows up and what happens to him and what he wants and what he has to do to get by.

The book is depressing and hilarious in a way that’s very hard to describe. Most of Disch is brilliant and depressing, this is brilliant and depressing and moving and funny. I can talk about the world, and if I wanted to do spoilers I could talk about Daniel and the plot, but I can’t possibly describe to you the experience of reading the book. The best I can do is to say that it’s as if Dostoyevsky and Douglas Adams collaborated on the Great American novel.

You really want to read On Wings of Song. You might not like it, but it’s one of the books that marks the boundaries of what it’s possible to do with SF—still right out there on the edge, thirty years on.

And furthermore, somebody should reprint it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

John Ginsberg-Stevens
1. eruditeogre
Thank you for a lovely recap of this important book. This is one of my five favorite books, period. It's harrowing, funny, and rich with detail and insights. Why Gollancz hasn't got around to a reprint (or why Disch has not had some sort of Modern Library edition yet) I don't know.
Lucas Huntington
2. L.P.Huntington
Yeah, that was a great review. I don't think Disch gets enough attention paid to his work. I always look for his stuff at the bookstore, but I rarely - if ever - find it on the shelf, which I don't understand.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this review up here, but I should know better by now than to be surprised by yall ;)
Sharat Buddhavarapu
3. Sharat Buddhavarapu
I love Dostoyevsky, but his writing is so hard to read. 19th-century Russian mind-boggling weird realism colliding with the deeply cynical satire of a 20th century Englishman really scares me.
zaphod beetlebrox
4. platypus rising
Yes Yes Yes. I agree with the Ogre. It is one of my five favorite books too, in and out of genre, and it's a mystery why the Gollancz Masterworks Series hasn't reprinted any of his novels yet.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
I think the reason it's out of print may be the same reason there is still some Disch I haven't read -- it's depressing, and I have to be feeling emotionally resilient before reading this kind of thing. Brilliant but a downer.
David Thomson
6. ZetaStriker
Everything written here makes the novel sound very interesting, but if there ever was a cringe-inducing cover that could prevent me from picking up a novel, it's that one.
Eli Bishop
7. EliBishop
ZetaStriker: It's one of the least appropriate cover images ever made for anything.

Jo: Well, 334 and Camp Concentration got reprinted, and they're at least as depressing as On Wings of Song. But they did have sort of an anointed status as New Wave classics, didn't they, whereas OWoS didn't get that kind of attention when it first appeared, so maybe it just didn't seem like a safe enough bet for a reprint to overcome the downer aspect. I feel for various reasons that people might actually be more ready to read it now than they were in the '80s, but maybe that's wishful thinking.
Eli Bishop
8. EliBishop
Speaking of that cover-- I just took a look at the cover images of all the other editions, and man oh man, they're all extraordinarily awful. But that same link also has some great interview excerpts of Disch talking about the book.
9. DarrenJL
Is that a Wolverine pompadour?
Arthur D. Hlavaty
10. supergee
I think there was a curse on Disch that gave him horrible paperback covers. The Avon paperback of Camp Concentration may have been the ugliest ever.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Eli: That isn't all the covers, because I have a different cover. Mine's a British cover, very psychedelic, and while it's not great but better than any of those pictured.

I can understand why they had problems deciding what to put on the cover of this particular book, which is so hard to describe.
David Thomson
12. ZetaStriker
On the other hand, since the guy on the cover looks almost exactly like the Green Goblin from the Spiderman 3 movie, perhaps this would fool people who wouldn't ordinarily read it into buying what they thought was a superhero novel . . . very tricky, Disch. Very tricky.
13. MarcL
"We don’t seem to have a word to describe the kind of story this is. It’s
the whole life story, from age five to death..." So true. And it's incredibly hard to pull off these time leaps and transitions without jarring your story to pieces. Here, it's seamless. When Disch did the same thing again, in The M.D., the book never recovered from its leap from the M.D.'s childhood to his adulthood. Clearly it's a form that Disch was partial to, but this book represents the best use he made of it. Another odd thing about it is that it reads like an allegory about AIDS, written several years before the outbreak. I didn't like it at all as a teenager. Rereading it after Disch's death, it seemed indispensible.
14. dmg

You might appreciate this obituary...

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment