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.