Thu
Dec 31 2009 4:18pm

Imprisoned Intelligence: Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration

Thomas M. Disch was an absolutely brilliant writer who wrote incredibly depressing but brilliant books. Camp Concentration (1968) is original, compelling, funny, and about as grim as possible. It is my favourite of his books, and certainly the one I read most frequently. Disch was one of the New Wave writers of the sixties and seventies, along with Delany, Le Guin and Zelazny and his prose has the same kind of sparkle, his ideas have the same kind of freshness, as if they’re new ideas nobody has ever thought before. In Disch’s case, it’s as if his stories are etched in a newly developed acid.

Camp Concentration is a satire about intelligence amplification and the ethics of experimenting on willing or unwilling human subjects. It’s written in first person journal form, set in the near-future US. Louis Sacchetti is a rather unlikeable Catholic poet and conscientious objector against a Vietnam-style war with a draft. He finds himself imprisoned in an unusual facility where he is expected to report on an intelligence amplification experiment in progress.

Writing about very smart people is always challenging, because it requires the author to be just as intelligent. Writing about people becoming more intelligent is even harder. Disch was very intelligent himself, and smart enough to know that intelligence doesn’t necessarily make you popular or happy. Unlike Flowers for Algernon where Charly starts off very dumb and goes on up through normal, Disch started with people of normal intelligence and shoots them off into the stratosphere—but like Flowers for Algernon it can’t last. The amplification kills the subjects in about nine months.

This is one of those dystopian books about how awful people can be, but it transcends that. I like it. I like it as a take on Faust. I like Sacchetti, not so much an unreliable narrator as one the reader can always see through—his vanity, his greed, his obliviousness. I like Mordecai Washington, the presiding genius and deus ex machina, the black guy from an army prison who claims he can turn lead to gold but whose actual achievement is much cooler. (And good for Disch having a wholly admirable major black character in 1968. There are gay characters too.) I like the hints of what’s going on in the wider world outside the prison, where President Robert Macnamara is using tactical nukes but people are still publishing poetry reviews. I love Disch’s audacity in having Sacchetti write a verse play called Auschwitz: A Comedy. The prose (and occasional poetry) all through is wonderful, spare, sparkling, evocative. It has totally chilling moments and impressive reversals, which I’m trying hard not to spoil.

Camp Concentration is very short, 158 pages in my edition, but it’s one of those books with far more heft than its wordcount. The characters and situations come back to you, the satire keeps on biting. The experience of reading it might be like an icy shower, but it’s certainly memorable. Disch was a major writer and this is one of his best books.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

13 comments
Tim W.
1. Tim W.
"about as grim as possible"

That can't be, because 334 and The Genocides are even grimmer!

I'm very glad to see the late great Disch getting some love.
Tim W.
2. Shireling
I must have read this soon after it came out -- don't remember many details, except that it was great. And kudos to Disch for the *perfect* title.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
334 isn't grimmer. The Genocides on the other hand...
Tim W.
4. afterthefallofnight
I am not a big fan of most of Disch's work, but Camp Concentration was a terrific story. I read it as a young man and it has remained one of my favorite stories.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
I think one of the reasons this worked so well is that it may have been the most personal of Disch's novels. Like Sacchetti, Disch was both a poet and a lapsed Catholic. The presence of gay characters reflects his own sexuality and the year of the book's publication was also the year he came out publicly.
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
I don't have anything at all to contribute to this conversation. I'm just sick of seeing all those spam posts when I stop by the site.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Sandikal: Yes, me too. If you flag them, it does help. Normally the human moderators are paying attention and zapping them, but I think they may be less alert than usual because of the holiday.
Sandi Kallas
8. Sandikal
I've flagged quite a few, but I think you're right about the holiday. I tried to see if I could flag the user posting the spam, but I didn't find an option for that.
Avram Grumer
9. avram
I just read this last year. The edition I read had a typo on the publication info page, listing the copyright date as 1982. It's a somewhat different book if you think it was written in the early '80s.
James Goetsch
10. Jedikalos
I first read this book decades ago, yet it has remained in my imagination: especially the last lines of the book (which of course I will not post!). But I often think of them when faced with new situations and dilemmas.
Tim W.
11. BJVL
And the only Disch I've ever read was actually his essay book: The Stuff Our Dreams Are Made Of... which is really a lovesong to Science Fiction.
Tim W.
12. dmg
I considered Camp Concentration for the earlier thread re which books do you gift to other people. But as much as I like Camp Concentration, which is a lot, I never did gift it to anybody.

But I am with you on this book. 100%. Disch was a treasure -- although in person he was the poster child for Toulouse Lautrec's quip. And they never met each other! :-)
Eli Bishop
13. EliBishop
It's probably silly to post a comment on this four years later, especially one that could be seen as self-promoting, but in case Jo sees these & might be interested: I've written a bunch of online annotations to Camp Concentration— and, on the same site, 334. Every time I read those two books I find more in them.

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