If there is a literary side to science fiction, Thomas Disch is standing on the horizon holding Camp Concentration, his 1968 creation, in the air. Paralleling classic literature, utilizing the tropes of sci-fi to full effect, and written in a sublimely deft hand, the novel has a gravitas the majority of writers in the genre simply never approach, let alone utilize. Cover copy provided by Ursula Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, and Samuel R. Delany, the company is more than apt.
Camp Concentration is the story of Louis Sanchetti, conscientious objector, and his resulting imprisonment in an experimental American prison. A strain of syphilis having been isolated and enhanced, when injected in humans the result is a slow but drastic improvement in memory, insight, and all things intelligence. It also puts a cap on life at nine additional months.
Encouraged by the prison warden, derided by the prison doctor, intrigued by his fellow inmates, and balked at by the prison psychiatrist, Sanchetti faithfully records his thoughts and ideas—as abstract as they come—in a journal. The journal forming the structure of the narrative, Sanchetti’s life as a poet comes gushing out in a flood of literary allusion, classical references, and angled commentary on the life of the “infected” prisoners around him. A young man named Mordecai proves the most thought provoking. Dabbling in multiple languages, alchemy, astrology, and even writing and staging his own plays, Mordecai introduces Sanchetti to the mindset of a person with so little time remaining yet with so much brain power to put to purposes previously only dreamed of.
Riffing off Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Disch exchanges hell for the experimental prison, the devil for the prison authorities who offer their elixir of syphilis to carry out intelligence experiments, and Sanchetti for Faust himself. The deal is made, and into the depths of Sanchetti’s soul Disch takes the reader, every philosophical, epistemological, and materialistic step of the way. The milieu at times intoxicating, science fiction rarely is put to such good use. Be warned, however, that the depths of hell in which Disch leaves the reader upon the last page are nothing compared to the suffering and agony of spirit Sanchetti undergoes in the prison. The ending a nice, simple twist that stands things on their head, in afterthought, it only makes the reader realize how grounded things were.
And Disch is a wonderful stylist. One of those authors who lulls the reader along with effortless prose, seems to always have that nice turn of phrase to embed meaning, and utilizes simile in restrained yet precise fashion, reading the text is enjoyable in itself. Readers kept on their toes, it’s also best to have a dictionary and encyclopedia on hand; at least twenty words appeared I had never seen before, not to mention artistic and classical references come often.
There is a drawback to Camp Concentration’s literary qualities, however. While allusion and reference to Greek myth, philosophy, poets of the past, and the classics of literature are all well and good, there comes a point when the inclusion of too many of these items burdens a novel. At only 150 pages, there are times Disch’s work feels more like a bibliography than a novel. A device perhaps used to indicate the increased intelligence of the prisoners, Disch still could have toned it down a little without losing any of the effect. If the reader is lacking a proper backing in the classics, many of Disch’s ideas will go over the head. Thus, be warned that the poets, artists, and classical allusion take a big chunk of narrative.
In the end, Camp Concentration, in spite of its weak title (the satirical quality does not match the gravity of the book’s subject matter), packs a serious literary punch. Two sci-fi tropes are used, complementing and driving the content under examination, to full effect. Art and science, and politics to a certain degree (it was written in 1968), are dis- and reassembled, then dismantled again under Disch’s anxiety riddled pen. A real treat for readers who enjoy their science fiction dark and literary, a more than healthy does of classicism is stuffed into the pages, dragging the reader into a number of hells. The plot simple enough to fully bear the weight, it is truly cerebral read.
(Intentional or not, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome borrow distinct elements from Camp Concentration. The former an examination of increasing intelligence, and the latter a look at the fantastical potential for disease control in humanity, both writers would seem to have come under some influence by Disch’s novel.)