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

(Cover by Richard Hamilton. New Worlds, October 1967.)

Who Goes There?

Thomas M. Disch would’ve been no older than 26 when he wrote Camp Concentration, and yet he already had three novels under his belt, including the immensely bleak The Genocides. Like other New Wavers, Disch was edgy, transgressive, but also cultured, bringing a literary flair to the field that was previously the exception and not the rule. In terms of installments Camp Concentration is the longest serial covered on this site thus far, but going by actual word count it is certainly not the longest; indeed the book version is only about 180 pages, or I’d reckon round 50,000 words. A lot of that word count is spent on monologues, by the way. This is a very chatty novel that substitutes plot for character (kinda) and symbolism (oh yes), which may rub some people the wrong way. Disch is showing off here at least a little, but most of it I think is worth the trouble—most of it.

Placing Coordinates

Part 4 was published in the October 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is not on the Archive but which can be found on Luminist, link to the New Worlds page here. Camp Concentration in book form can be found used easily, and if you want a fresh copy then the Vintage paperback is still in print.

Enhancing Image

Part 4 is the shortest installment, which means I won’t have as much to talk about—at least on paper. There’s about as much plot here as in the previous installment, which is not a compliment towards Part 3 I might add, but what’s more, Disch has one hell of an ending to give us; more on that later. To start things off, Louis has gone blind by this point: one of the inevitable symptoms of the super-syphilis (that’s what I’m calling it now) as we reach the end of the victim’s life. Shit’s not looking good for Our Anti-Hero™, and Louis is an anti-hero if anything; it’s not like he does anything heroic or has any grand scheme for escaping the prison. Indeed the novel’s ending depends on Louis being deliberately kept out of the loop by his fellow prisoners at Camp Archimedes, a true innocent who has no idea there’s been a secret plan to escape the prison this whole time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Last time we heard that Dr. Busk had left the prison, or rather vanished into thin fucking air, and even at the end we still don’t know what exactly became of her. We do know that Busk had apparently contracted the disease, all but certainly of her volition, and in the months since we’ve been seeing the work of a super-syphilis super-spreader in the outside world. This is all a little silly. I have to wonder if Disch would’ve written this subplot the way he did had he written the novel in a post-AIDS world; more specifically Louis’s projections about the disease spreading, evidenced by quite a few stories being connected and making it clear that at least a couple million people now have the super-syphilis. To quote Louis:

Within two more months 30 to 55 per cent of the adult population will be on their way to soaring genius. Unless the government immediately reveals all the facts in the case. Less specific warnings against venereal disease will have no more effect on promiscuity than thirty years of Army training films have had. Less, because nowadays we’ve come to place our faith in penicillin rather than in condoms. Penicillin, sad to tell, has no efficacy against Pallidine.

Yeah, would not be the case if this was 1985 and not the novel’s version of 1975. I could go into a long tirade about how the Reagan administration completely denied the public knowledge of AIDS for four years after the first reported case in the US, and how misinformation from both news media and the government contributed to the spread of AIDS even after the public was made aware of the threat, but we’d be here for a while. In some ways Camp Concentration is creepy and prescient, helped by most of the novel only being nominally science fiction, but in other ways it very much comes from a point in time when the worst thing you could catch from doing the nasty was syphilis, which could be treated with penicillin—although that (rather conveniently) has no effect on the super-syphilis. Death is certain unless someone can invent a cure, and even if you were to become impossibly intelligent you only have months to use that intelligence.

My point is that even if you had someone deliberately spreading the disease, the actual number of people infected after, say, a five-month period, would be waaaaaaay lower than what’s Louis’s estimating; his stats are bogus. Sadly as the novel creeps more and more into outlandish territory the harder it becomes to take seriously. I wanna point out that when I say “outlandish” I don’t mean stuff like Louis having dinner with a grossly obese Thomas Aquinas—stuff that’s clearly a product of Louis’s psyche—I’m talking real things that are supposed to be really happening in the world of the novel. Keep this in mind, because the ending Disch decides to go with is a real doozy. It’s here, in the home stretch, that the novel stretches my suspension of disbelief before finally snapping it in two with what is admittedly, to Disch’s credit, a clever twist if totally removed from reality.

One more thing…

It’s here, a bit in the last installment but especially here, where we’re introduced to yet another batch of characters who, like what’s-his-face from before, serve no purpose other than to mark time in the narrative. The cast of characters we actually care about has whittled down to Louis and Haast, which I know is not entirely accurate if you know the ending, but from the perspective of a first-time reader we’re left with two main characters, a goofy replacement villain, and some redshirts. In a way I can see why Disch opted for a bombastic and ludicrous ending, because the back end of the novel is otherwise lacking in both plot and character, only kept afloat by some poetry and musings on symbolic connections with other works.

There Be Spoilers Here

After having gone blind and suffered a stroke, it looks like Louis will be put out of his misery at the hands of Skilliman and his henchmen, with Skilliman (so it seems) having overpowered Haast but who may be losing control of the prison guards. For the first time in months Louis gets taken outside, into the cool air of the real world, and in a nice little exchange he asks if it’s day or night. Now of course we know that Louis can’t die because if he did then he wouldn’t be able to write about said near-death experience, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Haast ends up killing Skilliman and reveals that a) the guards are in cahoots with Haast, and b) Haast is not really himself. I wanted to build up to this more, but I may as well say it now: Haast is actually Mordecai, who you may recall had died two installments ago. A switcheroo of epic proportions had been committed a while back.

I won’t dignify the explanation by going deep into it, but apparently Mordecai and the prisoners under his leadership had conspired to save themselves by… swapping their minds with the bodies of the prison staff. Okay. So Haast was in Mordecai’s body when “Mordecai” died of an embolism at the end of Part 2. Haast has, in fact, been dead for about half the novel. “Mordecai maintains that it was the thought of being a Negro.” What’s more is that Louis’s own life is miraculously saved when his mind gets moved into the body of one of the prison guards. This is rather hard to explain, and even harder to justify given what we’ve known about the mechanics of the novel’s world up to this point. I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say Disch jumped the shark when he came up with this deus ex machina, and yet I don’t think he did it because he was pressured by Michael Moorcock or anyone else. Looking back, the twist had been established as early as Part 2, although even so the bread crumbs Disch leaves are so small that only the most desperate of rodents would deem them a fine meal.

I’m reminded of the A. E. van Vogt story “The Great Judge,” which has a twist ending very similar to the one in Camp Concentration, to the point where I have to wonder if Disch was inspired. In “The Great Judge” you’re given a mad scientist, an evil dictator, and the solution the mad scientist uses to take out the evil dictator, all in the spance of half a dozen pages; and yet even within the tight confines of a short-short story van Vogt alludes to the solution early on and implies that such a solution, though incredible, would be possible given what we know about the story’s world. Mind you that “The Great Judge” is far more removed from everyday reality than Camp Concentration and thus the mind-swapping is much easier to digest. I’ll give Disch credit in that the ruse is a good one because it’s nigh-impossible to predict, but it’s also like that because it’s so far-fetched. You wouldn’t expect the twist because it totally goes against your understanding of what is possible in what is, like I said, only nominally science fiction otherwise.

I’m conflicted about the ending because while I think it’s ridiculous, and snaps my suspension of disbelief in half like a twig, it’s not predictable and it’s not boring—unlike a couple stretches earlier in the novel. There’s debate as to whether the ending of Camp Concentration breaks or redeems the novel, and I think that debate wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t such a flabby and uneven novel, even at its short length. It’s a fine novel, but it could’ve been even better had it been a 30,000-word novella, cutting out tangents and monologues that lead nowhere; then again I’m biased, as I think a lot of flawed SF novels would be better if they were novellas.

A Step Farther Out

I have issues with the endings, which brings it down half a point, but I can’t say it wasn’t memorable. I wanna accuse Disch of being outrageous for the same of itself, but I don’t think that’s the case. I also have to wonder how this novel would read as one unit, as opposed to four short installments, because goddamn did it feel longer than it actually was when stretched out like that. Not helping was also the microscopic type used in New Worlds during this period, which was seemingly made to be read by ANTS. And my ass is legally blind. Doesn’t matter too much, because if you want a taste of what New Wave science fiction is all about (sex, drugs, foul language, snobby literary references), then Camp Concentration is a good choice.

See you next time.


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