Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 1/4)

(Cover by M. C. Escher. New Worlds, July 1967.)

Who Goes There?

Thomas M. Disch started out not too dissimilar from close contemporaries Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny, being at least adjacent to what we’d call the New Wave period of science fiction. Like Delany and Zelazny, Disch was literate, uncompromising, at times crass, but also quite funny; he had a sense of humor, even when working with premises that produced the bleakest outcomes. His debut novel, The Genocides, is apparently one of the bleakest works in the genre’s whole history, and he was just getting started with that one. Disch wrote a ton in the ’60s (about half his novels were published that decade, so by the time he turned thirty) for a variety of outlets, but his presence at New Worlds, under Michael Moorcock’s editorship, had to be the most unconstrained, the most vulgar. New Worlds was the only SFF magazine on either side of the Atlantic at the time where you could see dirty words like “fuck,” “shit,” “piss,” “pussy,” “cock,” “cunt,” “twat,” and “Englishman.” As such it shouldn’t be surprising that the first installment of today’s novel, which appeared in New Worlds at the height of its powers, has some of those words along with ones I did not mention.

I’ve been curious about Camp Concentration for a while, and since starting this site of mine I’ve gotten a good reason to read it carefully. It’s also the longest serial I’ve done so far if we’re going strictly by number of parts, but in its book form Camp Concentration clocks in at only about 180 pages. Each part is only 10 to 25 pages, but keep in mind that the type is microscopic, on top of being two-columned, and in A4 format—some made-up British thing, I think. Not a long book, this one, but it looks to pack a punch.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the July 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is on the Archive. Just a heads up, we’ll be moving to Luminist at some point for this serial, because the Pulp Magazine Archive’s coverage of New Worlds is a bit spotty right now. This is a very nice cover by M. C. Escher too, which is a nice change; a lot of the covers for New Worlds from this period are just kind of ugly. Anyway, this is not a novel that has been reprinted very often; it wasn’t even printed in the US until 1969, hence American reviewers were slow to cover it. I do believe the most recent paperback release from Vintage is still in print, so try looking for that one. It’s at least much easier to find than the chapbook release of Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster,” which has been out of print since the ’80s and which goes for prices that’ll make your wallet weep.

Enhancing Image

Louis Sacchetti is a poet, and at the outset he’s also a political prisoner, with a history of dissent. A few things immediately struck me about Louis, all of them seemingly contradictory. Despite his history of protest he does not act like one of those “flower children” that would’ve been making the rounds on college campuses and at rock concerts in the ’60s, but rather someone of the older generation who was sympathetic to the cause. He’s also a believing Catholic—a “WASC,” he calls himself at one point, although aside from confessionals he hasn’t done much that could be considered Catholic-y as of late. He’s also, really by his own admission, an egocentrist: he gets a kick whenever someone mentions that they’ve read his poetry, which he hasn’t been able to read in book form himself on account of being held prisoner. “For ten years I could lay claim to no book but my wretched Doctor’s thesis on Winstanley; now my poems are in print—and it may be another five years before I’m allowed to see them.” We start off in a normal everyday prison, without any science-fictional trappings aside from what’s happening outside the prison, but we won’t be here for long.

Right, so I don’t think we’re given an exact year, but Camp Concentration takes place in the near future—like the very near future. The US president is McNamara, as in presumably Robert McNamara, which seems to imply that he would succeed Lyndon B. Johnson; keep in mind now that Johnson and McNamara were partly responsible for the war effort in Vietnam (which hadn’t even gotten so bad yet when Disch was writing this novel, probably in late 1966) escalating like it did. Pretty much immediately we’re placed in what now reads as an alternate past wherein the US’s efforts to “defend” South Vietnam grew more drastic than anticipated—or maybe just as drastic as reality would have it. Something you have to understand about Camp Concentration is that it’s a bit of a time capsule; Disch makes no secret of what current events he was taking inspiration from when writing it. In that way the novel feels very much “of its time,” but there were also few SF novels at the time that placed such a high bet on capturing that specific time frame, to the point where metaphor is all but expelled.

The novel is written in the form of Louis’s diary, which he keeps at the prison he starts at and will keep when he’s moved, unexpectedly, to somewhere else without his knowledge or consent. We’re given a month and day but not a year. In this initial sequence we’re introduced to a few characters who will probably never be seen again once we get to that other place, namely a couple “faggots” (look, I’m bisexual and Disch was gay, I think we can use that word with impunity) who share Louis’s (what I have to think is a large) cell with a “Mafia” guy. These first several diary entries establishes Louis’s character somewhat, and get us in touch with the unabashed crassness of the novel’s world, but we’re given very little insight as to what’s happening or what any of this might signify. Not gonna lie, I was worried the salty language was just gonna be there because this is New Worlds and we gotta have some shock value at first, and I was also worried that this would be one of those SF novels where the SF element is so subtle that it might fly over my head, but thankfully this will not be the case.

There’s a brief pause where Louis is unable to write in his diary before he’s given it back at the new place: Camp Archimedes, which is not a prison in the conventional sense but something else—call it a testing facility. There’s a bit of eerie prescience set up here, because I’m not sure how aware Disch could’ve been of several gross human rights violations that the US government was committing against its own citizens at the time; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for one, would not be made public until five years after this novel’s publication. Anyway, Louis is introduced to the head of Camp Archimedes, Humphrey Haast, or as he likes other people call him, H. H., a former big-time military man who now in his old age looks after this little testing facility of ours. Haast pretends to wanna be on friendly terms with Louis, but seems aware that kidnapping a man is not a surefire way for him to become buddies with you—even if you compliment his poetry and he’s always up for such a compliment.

Louis is horrified to be here at first, but soon becomes relatively accustomed to the quirks and mysteries of Camp Archimedes, which after all proves a much different and possibly less dreary existence than back when Louis was in Springfield Penitentiary. “Shall I confess that there is a kind of pleasure to be had in the situation, that a strange castle is rather more interesting than the same old dungeon all the time?” Why yes it is, maybe. It’s here, once we’ve gotten introduced to a few of the main characters, namely Haast, local Ms. Exposition Dr. A. (stands for Aimée) Busk, George the happy idiot, and Mordecai, the unofficial leader among the “students” of this establishment. Or you know, if you’d rather think of them as guinea pigs, which really they are. A lot of the men here are exmilitary, brought in on insubordination, aggrivated assult, those sorts of things, being given the choice between prison and Camp Archimedes and picking the latter; it must’ve at least sounded more exciting for them. Everyone here plays a role, with Louis as the equivalent of the town poet, as well as a sort of middle man between the fellow prisoners and the leaders of the place.

A few things to note here before we get to the climax of Part 1, since there both is and is not a lot of ground to cover. With a couple exceptions we don’t get any meaningful descriptions of places and objects; this is the sort of thing you’d expect from someone writing in a diary. One of the chief advantages of having a first-person narrator write a diary or memoir, especially for a new writer, is that you need not worry much about giving places and things flowery descriptions, because realistically, if you were the one writing in a journal or whatever, you’d focus on what matters to you specifically, which would probably be people’s personalities and your conversations with them. There’s also some possibility (I’d argue almost inevitability) of Louis being an unreliable narrator, since he recites quite a few conversations (indeed these convos take up the bulk of the “action”) that probably didn’t go down exactly as how he recalls them, but chances are we’re supposed to take his writings at face value. If you’re looking for adventures with spaceships and rayguns then you might have to wait—or that stuff might not come at all; what we have is a series of dialogues that border on Socratic.

There Be Spoilers Here

By the back end of Part 1 we’ve come to know that there is very little that’s off the table for Camp Concentration, with homosexuality and harsh language being not implied but overtly parts of the text. There’s another thing that would usually be considered taboo that gets referred to almost with glee here: drug here. Unfortunately for Louis and the others, the prisoners are not taking drugs of the fun kind, but rather something wholly experimental that is supposed to raise one’s intelligence. Now, we’ve seen many stories in the field before this that played with the notion of accelerating human intelligence, and drugs may have even played a part in some of them, but probably not as depicted in Disch’s novel. The prisoners are given a drug that might work, or it might not—or hell, it might work but have some serious side effects. People are only now, in the year 2023, coming to the realization that the truly dangerous drugs are not cocaine and heroin, but prescription drugs that you can buy perfectly legally. The legality of Camp Archimedes is pretty murky, of course, but given that the military is involved to some extent and that the site is backed by “a private foundation,” the US government probably doesn’t mind.

George, the friendliest if not brightest man among the lot, has been ill as of late for reasons none of the other prisoners can explain, but that doesn’t stop our boys from performing Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (with a shoutout to Goethe’s version, of course) in Part 1’s climax. Keep in mind that up to this point both Louis and Disch have toyed with intertextuality in a way that’s kind of frivolous but which also bring some light to what’s going on within the novel, especially Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The connection with the Faust/Faustus myth being made explicit is only the cherry on top, what with humanity’s quest for knowledge and the repercussions of that quest, and I have to wonder if Disch is teasing us here. Disch, like Delany and Zelazny, loves to play with mythology and juxtapose myths from ye olden times with “modern” lingo and anxieties.

I find all this amusing, but I have to admit I’m a little concerned that the pyrotechnics of Part 1’s climax might be something that Disch cannot top, or at least elaborate upon. the point being that its here that George illness enters dire territory, and it’s here that the prisoners are all suddenly made aware that George’s declining health is not unique to him—that it is, in fact, something that will afflict them all within a matter of months. The fruit of knowledge reveals the worm inside…

A Step Farther Out

At first it was rough going a bit, just because we spend time in a location that we never come back to, and at first we’re not even sure what the plot is. Once we enter Camp Archimedes, though, it’s off to the races. On the one hand I’m tempted to call Disch’s use of profanity edgy, and yeah, it’s a bit edgy, but don’t we tend to use saltier language when we’re chatting with close friends? Despite the darkness of the atmosphere, and the mass death implied at the end, it’s far from a dour novel—at least so far. Louis is a conversational and pretty coloquial narrator, and while he is egocentric and pretentious, he readily admits to that. Indeed the point, so far, seems partly to challenge Louis’s vanity and bring him down to the level of the rest of the prisoners. This is in essence a prison novel, complete with references to homosexuality, but it’s also playful riff on multiple myths: Disch knows that we know that he knows, so he has fun using intertextuality like a carrot on the end of a stick. I very much await what he has in store for us…

See you next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: