Camp Concentration by Disch, Thomas, 1968

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Science fiction novels that are told from the perspective of an insane person, even where that insanity is well conceived from a literary standpoint, have always been difficult for me to read. I spoke on this issue a few weeks ago after I read Barry Maltzberg's Beyond Apollo. That was an early 70's book about a mad man who had probably survived a traumatic encounter with an alien. Maltzberg tends to write a lot of his books with the same hopeless voice, and while Maltzberg is a master of the written word and thoroughly capable of telling his own story in his own way, I find his style to be very reminiscent of Thomas M. Disch, especially his unacknowledged masterpiece of speculative fiction, Camp Concentration. Many of the problems I have with Maltzberg I also have with Disch, especially this piece. However on just about every level, including philosophical, Disch really outshines Maltzberg and generally produces more readable works.

The book is set in a post-Vietnam USA with a dictatorial government which has begun a peremptory war against former British-colonies south-east Asia. That war is spreading to the rest of the world, and has become a direct threat to the United States. Sacchetti is a published poet who is in jail for being a conscientious objector. The nation outside the prison walls is apparently an absolute wreck, and bacteriological and nuclear attacks have taken place all over the world, including within our own borders. During his incarceration Sacchetti, who is highly intelligent, is transferred without warning to an underground bunker called Camp Archimedes. In the Camp his fate at first takes at first a turn for the better, followed by a fall that ultimately leads to his death.

Camp Archimedes is a secret military installation that is implementing a project whereby prisoners' intelligence is greatly amplified by the injection of an engineered form of the herpes virus, called Pallidine. After injection the subject's intelligence begins to climb at a very steep rate, but after nine months and some pretty debilitating health effects result. The subjects ultimately die with what seems to be a 100% mortality rate. Towards the middle of the book we learn that not only Sacchetti, but just about everyone in the Camp, prisoner, guard and administrator, has contracted the virus and has either died or is on death's doorstep.

Sacchetti has been brought to the Camp to keep a journal of what he sees in the prisoners who have been injected with Pallidine. He does that, and interacts with Mordecai Washington, and old vaguely remembered high school mate of his who has been injected, and a retired general most often referred to as "H.H." With Mordecai's help Sacchetti deconstructs a fellow inmate's production of the Faust legend, and gets into lengthy discussions that play out over months about the nature of genius, atheism, hell and purgatory, the differences between magic and science, the relationship between insanity and genius, and most importantly, alchemy. With H.H. Sacchetti basically barters information about the inmates, in exchange for information about the nature of the project, which he never really gets before his and H.H.'s brains rot to mush.

My opinion is that the meta-question Disch is really asking by exploring all these avenues is, can you foster genius, or do you just have to wait for it to happen naturally? I think that it is obvious that Disch is saying that you can force genius, but the price may not be worth it. The syphilis virus rotted away the bodies of the inmates while it completely transformed their minds and at least for a time, made them all truly brilliant. Mordecai's staging of Faust underwent constant metamorphosis because he could never decide if he wanted to depict Marlowe's version of the Faust legend, where the people seeking knowledge without experience go to hell for daring such, or Goethe's version of Faust where the seekers are forgiven in the end for trying to upset nature by learning that which only God is supposed to know. Disch tells the story by unloading all the raw feelings and impressions from all the characters, and filters nothing for us the readers. So if you want to try to figure this one out, you will have to put together a case based solely on circumstantial evidence. Brilliantly though Disch gives enough to make a case that either view of Faust could prevail, though I think Mordecai prophesied that Marlowe had it right because in the end everyone in the facility caught the disease, but the only one who did not have a transcendental experience was H.H., who did nothing more than watch others, hoping to benefit from their suffering and their brilliance. In other words, H.H. was the only one who was seeking knowledge without experience. Everyone else suffered for their gifts and instead of being freed the inmates were condemned to die in a concrete bunker deep in the earth that was so closed off from the rest of the world it has its own mausoleum. In fact, it was its own mausoleum. Mordecai and Sacchetti come to believe that they have already died and gone to Hell, and they may be right. In a vain attempt at reconciliation with God Mordecai seeks to escape from the Camp and hides his attempts with the pursuit of alchemy. He is indulged by H.H. who has hopes that he actually will be able to turn base metals into rare ones, and because of his lust for material wealth he fails to see what he is really up to until he is himself overtaken with the side effects of the virus.

The format of the book is a bit odd too. Told in two books, part one is the story of Sacchetti's transfer to Camp Archimedes, while part 2 is a series of 100 excerpts from Sacchetti's diary of what occurs in the Camp told largely, but not entirely, in chronological order. Disch's prose is extremely dense, and in my opinion its virtually impenetrable at times. If Disch had not been so obtuse in many places, I certainly would have rated this book better. I was also reminded in certain parts of Dick's The Unteleported Man, which is in places so dense and boring that I have never completed certain passages. Some people think that this is Disch's strength. Personally, I read for understanding and to widen my perspective. If I'm not capable of doing that, I don't take a lot from the experience of reading the book. Not to say that all of the book, or even significant portions of the book are like this. Only in two or three places is the story indecipherable, and never because the book is written poorly, but instead the passages are just too personal to Sachetti to be understood by anyone but him. Part of this I'm certain is to depict Sacchetti's descent into madness, but in others it really feels like Disch is ranting and doesn't care what we think of what he is saying. Fortunately, though, the plot and characters are compelling, making this book overall worth the effort. If you are a fan of Brunner, Spinrad, Maltzberg or Delaney, you will probably enjoy this book.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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