I think I would have adored Camp Concentration if I’d read it at University. With all the literary allusions and themes about death and religion and science, it’s the sort of vaguely pretentious book that someone struggling through a Masters of Philosophy would identify with. Of the many SF and Horror and Doctor Who books I read in my early 20s, this is probably one of the few that I could have shared with my Philosophy mates without feeling embarrassed.
And while I probably didn’t adore Camp Concentration, reading it as a thirty something, I did enjoy it. It’s because the book wears its anger on its sleeves. It’s about a poet, Louis Sacchetti, who ends up in prison for being a draft dodger. Although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the book, the US seems to be at War with everyone, using biological weapons rather than nukes. Louis is moved out of his prison cell and into a secret facility where the Army is testing their ‘smart’ drugs on other prisoners. The main drug, Pallidine, is derived from syphilis (of all things) and while it makes the user extremely smart it also has the unfortunate side effect of rotting a person’s brain.
It’s a very interesting set-up and one where Thomas Disch can go crazy, not only with literary invention but also with quotes from Goethe to Hegel to Bunyan to… well too many to mention. This is a book populated by polymaths, and as a result has an air of pretension about it. And yet the book is very readable. There’s the odd moment, where Disch experiments with style and goes a bit bonkers, but mostly with all the quotes and all the philosophy, Camp Concentration is a very accessible novel.
While published in ’68, the book was written in ’66 and ’67. Lyndon Johnson had ordered an escalation of the Vietnam War, which resulted in a number of student protests at the time. And it’s clear that Disch, who was living in Europe when writing the book, was voicing his own protest through Camp Concentration. The book takes a very dim view of war, but also the abuse of science to keep the war machine running. Disch isn’t playing the anti-science card here. In fact, faith – whether it be faith in God or faith in alchemy – is ridiculed as well, But the book does take the position that science, if used improperly will lead to our destruction.
It’s no surprise then that Faust – both the Goethe and Marlowe version – play a role in the book. Because, in Disch’s eyes, the focus on science is very much a case of the US selling it’s soul to the devil to get an advantage. Whether that’s by maximising the intelligence of the populace so that they can invent bigger and better bombs, or coming up with bacterial and biological weapons that can wipe out a whole society. And throughout this attack on science gone bad and selling its soul, there’s the lurking presence of death just around the corner. Palladine provides intelligence by rotting the brain – a brilliant and nasty concept – which results in a horrible death. Death and human creativity are married together, the feeling that without the inevitability death, there’d be no reason to create anything.
Camp Concentration remains a unique reading experience, both experimental in structure and political in tone. And for Disch it starts a trend of novels that are loud and angry and in your face, that don’t bathe in the nostalgia of yesteryear but critique and react against the politics of the day.