I first heard Disch‘s name when I was a pre-teen computer geek and his text adventure game Amnesia came out. I didn’t play it until years later, but I do remember reading about how the game had squeezed the whole of Manhattan onto a single 5 1/4″ disk as the game’s map, including subway and bus system. How? By making New York awfully empty. Most of the street intersections are completely barren, save for occasional Chock Full O’ Nuts and other food stores. These were important: Wikipedia quotes a review complaining that “the main character would collapse after an unrealistically short amount of time if he didn’t eat or sleep frequently.”
And yes, much of the game was wandering around this empty simulation of Manhattan as a homeless man, sleeping in an abandoned tenement, being persecuted by everyone from police to rats, and begging and washing windshields for enough money to keep yourself fed. The game made the gap between ten cents and ten dollars seem insurmountable and condemned you to a random and frustrating struggle merely to stay alive.
Later on I would realize exactly how representative this was of Disch’s worldview and would come to recognize Disch’s signature move of cutting down his characters right at their greatest moment of triumph. But it made Disch an ideal representative of the left-behind in America, both in the close-minded midwest and in decaying and broken cities. On Wings of Song presented the divide between the urban and rural parts of the US taken to a plausible extreme, well before it became a fashionable trope. 334 presents, with more sympathy than was usual for Disch, the failure of New York to provide for its indigenous people. And I still rate The MD as a very modern fable about technology and medicine, as well as one of the better allegories of AIDS. And his best short stories–“Descending,” “102 H-Bombs,” “Dangerous Flags,” “Slaves,” “The Asian Shore,” “Angouleme,” etc.–are some of the best in the genre and easily some of the best of the new wave.
Many right-wing sci-fi authors use cruelty to show the unstoppable forces of history, how the strong survive and the weak perish, and so on and so forth. Disch’s cruelty sometimes took similar forms, but he always treated its effects on the personal level and made sure that no one could walk away feeling good about those left aside on the road of “progress.” In this I do not know his better.
(Also see John Sladek’s piece on Disch. Disch and Sladek also collaborated on the odd, indescribable non-scifi novel Black Alice.)