Monday, 19 October 2009

Camp Concentration - Thomas M. Disch

Aside from one or two references to the Vietnam War in which this work had its roots, this book remains as fresh and as relevant as ever. And for anyone who has ever claimed that sci fi is pulp, I challenge them to read this and not agree that it is highly literate, elegant, witty, dark, and highly accomplished.

The book is the journal of Louis Sacchetti, a poet and conscientious objector who finds himself first in an ordinary jail and then in the Dantean Camp Archimedes of the title. There he comes to realise that the prisoners are part of an elaborate experiment. They have been infected with a mutated form of syphilis which increases their intellectual capacity at the same rate it shortens their lives.

Creating a group of geniuses in a prison camp has the expected outcome, but just how they plot and execute their escape is a mystery until the very end. Of course, the world into which they escape, ravaged by the wars they were meant to help win and the disease with which they were infected, is a mixed blessing.

Packed with philosophical and religious discussion, with particular reference to ethics, this might sound like a dry story. Far from it. It flows with consummate ease. Disch was an exceptional poet and it shows in a prose that is condensed and fluorescent without ever becoming obscure. What is more it is packed with literary references that never once hinder the flow or meaning of the work. If you don’t get the references, it makes no difference to the fluidity and fierceness of the work.

As a critique of western society, this has barbs you don’t notice at first. The story draws you in with subtlety until it is too late and the impact of its message – that we have created a hell on earth every bit as destructive as Dante’s vision, every bit as vile as the concentration camps of Europe – hits you smack in the face.

The book met with critical acclaim, yet has now fallen into relative obscurity. One can’t help wondering if Disch knew why when, talking of his science roots in an interview, he said: “I have a class theory of literature. I come from the wrong neighborhood to sell to The New Yorker. No matter how good I am as an artist, they always can smell where I come from.”