Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 3/4)

(Cover by Peter Phillips. New Worlds, September 1967.)

Who Goes There?

A bit of a tangent here, but I do recommend reading Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster,” also the film based on it. People of a certain generation might remember The Brave Little Toaster, but it’s a relatively obscure movie now and the source novella is doubly obscure. A shame, because even when he’s deliberately writing for a younger audience (or at least a less jaded audience), Disch has tricks up his sleeve. Disch’s writing sometimes raises questions of gender, of war, of the human condition in general—which is to be expected considering he was part of a wave of queer SF writers who happened to come along around the same time in the ’60s. Another thing Disch and his fellow New Wavers had in common was a love of literature that fell well outside the confines of magazine SF; he had read Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Joyce’s Ulysses, and he wanted to make sure you knew that.

Placing Coordinates

Part 3 was published in the September 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is… not on the Archive. But it’s on Luminist! Just gonna link to the magazine’s page here, rather than the specific PDF; you’ll know where it is. You can get a used copy, as far as the book version is concerned, or you could buy a fresh paperback from Vintage. Apparently there’s an SF Masterworks edition of Camp Concentration as well, if you don’t mind it being British.

Enhancing Image

Last time we were with Louis he was in the midst of an existential crisis—which continues quite merrily here! Now, in reviewing novels installment by installment I’ve come to notice more the workings of structure, and how a novel that’s being serialized on a monthly or bimonthly schedule might be written in such a way that the author deliverately deploys peaks and valleys in the narrative. With Camp Concentration there have been crescendos of action and/or plot revelation at the end of each installment, with the stakes and scale of the action widening or even narrowing accordingly. Most of Part 3 sees a profound narrowing of scope, but the intensity of the action has not ebbed—only been funneled into what amounts to a drama of values between two characters. Interestingly, we’ve done away with dates for Louis’s journal entries at this point, not that I noticed much of a difference.

Not only is Mordecai dead, but Camp Archemedes has become generally a much smaller and quieter place in the months since that event. That’s right, we’re experiencing not so much a time skip as a time slippage, and like water through the gaps between his fingers the people Louis has come to know and (maybe) love have all left him, to go the way of Abraham. By this point he doesn’t even have fellow prisoners to chat with, now being stuck with Haast, the man he despises most and yet feels a strange pity for. And what about Dr. Busk, the token woman of the group? She’s left house. “She has been out of sight, in fact, since the very evening of Mordecai’s death.” Make sure to put a pin in this one, because it’ll come back much later.

While the cast has shrunk, however, we do get a new character in that we’re finally introduced to the camp administrator—man by the name of Skilliman. Does that sound a lot like “skeleton”? Hmm. And oh boy, he’s Haast’s boss! Holding your breath for his actual arrival will be quite the challenge, though, as we don’t see or hear much from him for most of Part 3. Before we’ve even gotten a good word from the guy we’re immediately told, rather indirectly, to be wary of him, partly because of his name and partly his backstory, which does not give the impression of a fine role model. A (thankfully small) portion of this installment concerns Louis writing a short story that’s based maybe a little too much on Skilliman’s life, with Haast does not approve; and, though I would not be eager to agree with Haast, I also would not approve, more so for the reason I found the story-with-in-a-story borderline unreadable. The best I can say of Disch’s little experiment here is that since it went in one ear and out the other, I can’t say it was painful.

What’s of more interest is the changing relationship between Louis and Haast, which is naturally adversarial to an extent but which also seems to strike both men as a necessary evil. Sure, Louis could give Haast the silent treatment, but then who else would he talk to? He’s already losing his mind, and his body is following suit as well. (I’m not sure how much time Louis has left, since he’s been infected with the Pallidine for at least a few months now, and the physical symptoms of the disease have made themselves very much known. Our boy is having a bad time.) It’s here that we get what might be the most telling exhange in the whole novel up to this point, and unlike the fiery monologues that came before this is but a brief dialogue between Louis and Haast that says a lot about both the latter’s character and the integrity of Camp Archimedes—or rather the lack of it.

I did ask him, jokingly, if he too had volunteered for the Pallidine. Though he tried to make of his denial another joke, I could see that the suggestion offended him. A little later he asked: “Why? Do I seem smarter than I used to?”

“A bit,” I admitted. “Wouldn’t you like to be smarter?”

“No,” he said. “Definitely not.”

Even the director doesn’t want it. In case it wasn’t clear before, Disch does not think highly of the prospect of artificially heightened intelligence, not that this is a unique view among SF writers. How many cautionary tales have there been, especially in old-timey SF, where the protagonist or some other character experiments so as to raise their brain power, or even to force themselves into evolving beyond normal human capacity? I’ve mentioned Flowers for Algernon before, but I’m also thinking of Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, wherein the suddenly heightened intelligence proves to be as much a curse for some people as it does a blessing for others. If you think about it, Camp Concentration is not unique in its pessimism, although the delivering of said pessimism certainly raises eyebrows. I honestly can’t think of a magazine SF story published prior to Camp Concentration that was as vulgar, as shameless, as filthy, and yet as literary in combination with the vulgarity. While he teeters on being edgy, Disch knows what he’s doing.

There Be Spoilers Here

So, about Dr. Busk. Apparently the camp staff, even with the help of a nigh-infinite budget, have been unable to track her down; not only has she left the reservation, she’s seemingly gone into hiding completely. Personally I find the mystery of Busk’s whereabouts a bit hard to believe. I was also reminded about the plot point that, at least according to Haast, Busk was, despite being a fairly aged woman, a virgin; the keyword here, though, is “was.” Oh yes, now we’re getting to the big reveal of Part 3, and I have to admit it’s quite the climax despite Skilliman’s lengthy and kind of insane monologue toward Louis threatening to weigh down everything. Skilliman, being a late addition to the play that is the novel, is not as convincing an antagonist as Haast or even Busk, and it’s possible that Disch is aware of Skilliman’s lack of actual personality; even Louis is ultimately unconvinced. “Suddenly he [Skilliman] was not Satan at all, but only a middle-aged balding seedy administrator of not quite the first rate.” Just as well, because soon human villains will be outdone but a much larger and more shadowy threat.

(One more thing: we did get another new character, in the form of Bobby Fredgren, Busk’s replacement, but if I’m being honest I totally forgot about him while in the midst of writing this review; I had to check my notes again to be reminded of his existence. Indeed the few characters introduced in this installment seem mere shadows of their predecessors, which might be intentional; I hesitate to call this shallowness a flaw.)

You may recall that the prisoners of Camp Archimedes were infected with a special kind of syphilis, and syphilis is an STI. Sexuality—specifically the grotesque side of it—permeates much of Camp Concentration, but it comes back with a vengeance at the end of Part 3 as we find out that the disease, previously contained within the camp’s walls, has found its way into the outside world. It’s implied, and most likely true, that Mordecai had sex with Dr. Busk not long before the former died, presumably with the latter’s knowledge (I mean it would be impossible for her to not know)—specifically that the good doctor took it in the rear. I know, the “it doesn’t count if it’s anal” joke, some things never change. More importantly, Busk has possibly been spreading the disease among other people, which sounds evil as fuck if I’m being honest, but also coldly logical from Busk’s perspective. After all, the terminal status of the disease has no known cure, but suppose you infected enough people and someone were to find that cure…

Well shit, we may have a crisis on our hands.

A Step Farther Out

The plot thickens!

For a bit there I was worried we had run out of momentum and were just gonna devolve into mad ramblings from Louis, but things pick up again and we’ve reached the precipice of what might be a delicious climax. We’ve been stuck in Camp Archimedes so long that I forgot there was even an outside world to think about, but that’s just what Disch was counting on anyway. The world suddenly opens up again, but not in a ray-of-hope kind of way; rather the horrors inflicted on the prisoners of Camp Archimedes now reveal themselves as a real danger to the outside world. I have heard from some reliable sources, however, that the ending for this novel is… not good; so I’ll be going into the final installment with modest expectations.

See you next time.


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