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Camp Concentration
by Thomas M. Disch

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 27, 2024

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This is the book that came to mind early in my reading of Premee Mohamed's The Siege of Burning Grass. Both have main characters who are pacifists confined to prison, and both undergo some experimental procedures, but other than that they have nothing in common. Disch's tale is set in the near future of when it was written, the late 1960s. It first appeared in a serialized version in the UK periodical New Worlds Speculative Fiction in '67. Disch was American, but New Worlds had attracted writers working within what had become known as SF's New Wave. I cannot recall when I first read it, or whether it was the first I read by Disch, although I think it was. The paperback I have (pictured here) is the first Avon printing from June 1971. Everything of his published earlier I bought used later.

Louis Sachetti is a poet and English professor, and a 'conchie,' a conscientious objector to the war then raging in Malaysia, but it is easy to assume it was influenced by the real world war in Vietnam. The current President of the United States is Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. He is pushing for nuclear weapons to be used. I for one am glad he never occupied the Oval Office, and I wasn't really surprised when I learned his middle name was Strange. Sachetti was of an age and marital status that he could have used them as deferments to the draft, or he could have fled the US, but he chose to make a moral stand, ending up in Springfield Prison. There are so many Springfields across the country there is no telling where it was, but let's assume it was in Disch's home state of Iowa. He is not there very long before he is transferred to a super secret location known as Camp Archimedes. The book was translated into Italian as Campo Archimede. Another character, not a conchie, but under Army discipline for other crimes, deduced they are in Colorado, but it is hard to confirm since they are isolated deep underground.

The medical experimentation implemented was designed to increase intelligence, even while knowing it also shortened the subject's life. The drug used was Pallidine, a form of the bacterium Treponema pallidum, the source of syphilis. The book is in the form of a journal written by Sachetti, and when he first learned what was going on at Archimedes he thought he had been recruited to document the procedures. Halfway through he realizes he has been injected with Palladine too. Both the director of the facility, and the patient who thinks he figured out where they are, talk a lot about alchemy. Major Haast seems to be serious about it, while Mordecai Washington pretends to be, in order to manipulate things to his own advantage. Unfortunately, Mordecai dies during a stage performance of Faustus. Sachetti grows despondent, worried about how much longer he has to live. He goes through the same progression as Washington, periods of brilliant genius, balanced by debilitating illness, which renders his journal a cryptic puzzle.

In addition to being a novelist and short story writer Disch was also a poet, in fact based on number of titles poetry dominated his bibliography. The only ones I have read are those within another story, including this one. Based on what I've already said, it would be easy to assume the book ends badly, however I am going to be vague about why that might not be the case. Pallidine was the cause of the syphilis, but also the cause for increased intelligence. Someone smart enough might be able to figure a way out of the dilemma. Since I am not that smart this book took longer than expected. I had to rely on the dictionary and wikipedia more times than for any other I recall. Part of that was the allusive language Sachetti used in his journal and poems. Also in Washington's dialog, and in margin notes in the many books he read, which Sachetti consults later. It is not a fun read, but in certain ways it is satisfying. We don't know for sure, but it is implied that Louis is able to leave Camp Archimedes, and maybe reunite with his wife. After that, his vast intelligence, but also his conscience, will lead the way.


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Thomas M. Disch

Serialized in New Worlds Speculative Fiction July-October 1967
First book edition April '68

Winner of Ditmar

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