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The Proteus Sails Again
Thomas M. Disch
Subterranean Press, 128 pages

The Proteus Sails Again
Thomas M. Disch
Thomas M. Disch was born in Des Moines, Iowa, at the beginning of World War II. Within months of finishing high school he was in New York where he worked as a checkroom attendant, a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera, in offices and bookstores and night-shifts on a newspaper. He wrote his first published story called "The Double Timer" for Fantastic Stories. He has written 12 novels (the most recent being The Priest: A Gothic Romance), 5 collections of short stories, 7 volumes of poetry, and essays, reviews and incidental pieces too numerous to count. Thomas Disch has won two O. Henry Prizes for short stories, the W. Campbell Memorial Award and the British Science Fiction Award. He died in 2008.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Word of God
SF Site Review: The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Richard A. Lupoff

To be perfectly candid, I cannot be objective about any work by the late Thomas M. Disch, novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, librettist, ironist, and my very good friend from the early 60s until his suicide on July 4, 2008. I first met him at a cocktail party at the apartment of Terry and Carol Carr in Brooklyn Heights. Not long after, he thrilled all the children in our exurban neighborhood when he roared up the hill to our house on his huge BMW motorcycle. He was carrying the stencils of his short-lived fanzine, Just Friends. He had come to use our mimeograph.

Among my treasured possessions is a first edition of Disch's Camp Concentration (1969). The book is inscribed, "For Dick 'This sounds like a piece of Tibetinous sculpture' Thomas M Disch." We got stoned a lot in those days, and I'm sure it meant something at the time.

The Proteus Sails Again, as far as I know, is Disch's last known work, although further unpublished material may yet be found. The Proteus Sails Again is a very short book, stretched to 128 pages by the use of large type and plenty of white space. It is a sequel to The Voyage of the Proteus (2007). In the earlier book, Disch is summoned through time by Cassandra, meets Homer and Socrates, and fights off a flock of attacking Harpies. In the second book, Disch is back in his apartment in New York. The time is a tantalizingly described near future. Disch is now the summoner, and his former comrades do not disappoint.

To say that The Proteus Sails Again is loosely plotted would be an understatement. The narrative wanders through time and place. We meet Disch's dog, a feisty little Lhasa Apso, and a terrifying wolfhound named Terror. We meet Disch's psychiatrist and get to audit one of their sessions. There is a good deal of philosophizing and more than a little moderately explicit sex. (Disch was homosexual.) Most chilling is Disch's discussion of suicide. His life partner, Charles Naylor, had died in 2005, and the last time I spoke with Tom, a few months before his death, he told me that he had never got over Naylor's death. To add to Disch's depression, the apartment they had shared for decades had originally been rented in Naylor's name, and the landlord was attempting to evict Disch.

In his varied career, Disch enjoyed and suffered many ups and downs. His best known works, ironically, are a pair of children's books, The Brave Little Toaster and The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, both adapted as Disney films. At the opposite end of the spectrum was his libretto for an opera based on Mary W. Shelley's Frankenstein. I have never seen this work performed, but I was present at a chilling dramatic reading by the author, of the creature's valedictory to humankind. The moment lives with me after two decades and more.

If possible, I would recommend reading the two Proteus books consecutively and without pause. And preferably, read them in the order of publication. As I write, The Voyage of the Proteus is out of print and it may be difficult to track down a copy. I became impatient, I'll confess, and read The Proteus Sails Again before a kindly collector-friend loaned me his copy of the first book. The effect was not unlike entering a grindhouse movie theatre in the middle of a film and seeing the second half of it and then the first half. You do get the whole story that way, but it would have been better to start at the beginning and end at the ending.

With The Proteus Sails Again, Tom Disch also sails beyond our ken. Those who knew him have their memories of a brilliant, gentle and beloved friend. All of us have his books.

Copyright © 2009 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff has written a lot of books, some of them actually pretty good. His most recent is Marblehead: A Novel of H.P. Lovecraft; the next couple will be short story collections, Visions and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix.

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