Going to camp, thinking deep thoughts, and reading some Disch

I usually don’t pay much attention to those quotes on the covers of books; you know the ones, the dripping-with-honey praise from other authors for the particular book in question. I mean, all books have those, and it seems easy enough to find someone to praise just about anything. In this case, though, I admit I was struck by the quotes on this Bantam paperback edition of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration. First, Samuel Delany calls it “one of the three best speculative novels of the decade” — high praise indeed from someone widely considered one of sf’s true intellectuals. And Ursula Le Guin says it’s “brilliant… a work of imagination controlled by real moral responsibility…. a work of art.” Since Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, naturally her opinion is worth listening to. So I started this novel thinking there had to be something to it; and even if I’m not sure I can appreciate it as much as Delany and Le Guin do, I must say it’s well worth reading.

In one sense this is an anti-war novel. It takes place in a near future when the U.S. is involved in a drawn-out, senseless war which may or may not be a continuation of Vietnam, but in any case is modeled on and strongly invokes that war (not surprising as the novel is from that period, published in 1972). This future America is led by President McNamara (as in, presumably, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam). The novel’s main character is a poet who is in prison as a conscientious objector, or “conchie.” Soon he is yanked out of one prison and put into another of a very different kind, a secret facility known as Camp Archimedes.

And this is where one of the book’s other major themes comes into play, one of the other ugly things governments engage in besides self-serving wars: the quest for power through any means, even by experimenting on their own citizens. Camp Archimedes is a military facility running biological experiments on prisoners. Specifically, these experiments involve Palladine, a strain of bacteria related to the one that causes syphilis. Palladine’s effects are an extreme extrapolation on the old idea that many luminaries of the past had syphilis and that a heightened intellect was one of its effects. Palladine produces outright geniuses, but at a steep cost: while their minds soar at a superhuman level, their bodies are ravaged, leading to death in around nine months. Our poet is brought in, against his will, to keep a journal documenting the subjects’ mental accomplishments; only later does he learn that he, too, has been infected.

The sad thing is that there’s not much about this that’s really fictional. The U.S. government, in the form of the military, the CIA, or various other agencies, has a long history of experiments on its own people, experiments of many kinds (biological, radiological, chemical, pharmaceutical), with various levels of consent of the subjects — meaning, in the worst cases, no consent at all. I’m assuming Disch drew heavily for this novel from the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service allowed several hundred illiterate black sharecroppers infected with the disease to go untreated, and unaware of what disease they had, for many years so the effects could be studied. This atrocity was made public in 1972, around the same time Disch was writing this book. And one of the book’s other major characters, a sort of spokesman for the infected, is a black man, possibly a nod to the Tuskegee victims.

But it’s not only governments that are indicted here. Some of the criticism also rubs off on scientists and doctors who go along with these unethical practices. Then, also, some of the Palladine subjects volunteer to be exposed to it, and that’s another of the book’s themes: the Faustian bargains people are willing to make in order to acquire something they desire, in this case knowledge, or insight, or enlightenment.

This is an extremely dark novel. I mean, you kinda get that idea from passages like this one:

“And isn’t everybody, after all?”
“A prisoner? I often get that feeling — yes.”
“No, I meant marked for slaughter. The difference is I’ve had the bad luck to sneak a look at the execution orders, while most people walk off to the ovens thinking they’re going to take a shower.” He laughed harshly [….] “It isn’t just Germany,” he said. “And it isn’t just Camp Archimedes. It’s the whole universe. The whole god-damned universe is a fucking concentration camp.”

This bitterly bleak outlook on life is evident throughout the book. It can even be seen in Palladine’s nine-month duration; it can’t be a coincidence that it equals the human gestation period. Disch seems to be equating life with death. We’re headed for the grave from the moment we’re born. Shit happens. Life’s a bitch, then you die.

This is a deep book with a lot to say. The only problem I had was that a lot of what it had to say went right over my head. The sheer density of literary, artistic, and theological references is a bit much to handle; about half the time, at least, I had no idea what they were even about. I’m not sure if it’s fair of me to classify this as a criticism. More likely, Disch was an utterly brilliant writer, and any failure to grasp the full depth of the novel is probably my own damn fault. Still, this did detract from my enjoyment somewhat. Maybe the book is just a bit too intelligent for it’s own good… maybe.

Speaking of intelligence, I think the cover art on this edition is the most perfect representation of a book’s contents I’ve ever seen. Rodin’s The Thinker with barbed wire through the head — brilliant!

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