Few novels have been able to portray genius convincingly, let alone in the genius's own words, but "Camp Concentration" manages to do both. Add to this a plot that explores the paradoxes of human nature, a narrative that's tragic and darkly comic by turns, and a cast of memorable larger-than-life characters, and the result isn't just superb science fiction, it's also great literature. "Camp Concentration" stands with other science fiction classics--Daniel Keyes' "Flowers For Algernon", Walter M Miller's "A Canticle For Liebowitz" and Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human"--in using the genre to tell us profound truths about ourselves.
So what's the story? It's the 1970s and the US is fighting a land war in Asia. If this sounds like history remember that Disch is writing in 1968, so to him it's the future; one in which the Asian conflict has spun out of control, America is losing its edge, and battlefield nukes and germ weapons are being deployed. These horrors are never described, but suggested in tiny chilling clues--overheard rumors, the cover of a news magazine, a reluctance to shake hands for fear of catching something deadly. This is appropriate, because the book's real battlefield is not Malaysia, plague-ravaged California, or indeed anywhere on the planet. It is the human soul, from which all these nightmares have sprung.
In particular it's the soul of Louis Sacchetti, a good Catholic boy who's been thrown into jail for refusing to fight. Louis is a poet, a smugly superior intellectual who's suffering (a bit too enthusiastically) a spiritual martyrdom at the hands of his inferior fellow men. And yet he's baffled by these ordinary guys, with their ironclad faith in the war and their sincere belief in the rightness of killing. He's bright, but he's no Einstein. Not yet anyway.
Inexplicably transferred to Camp Archimedes, an Army-funded think tank buried somewhere deep underground, Louis finds himself tasked with recording the lives of its inmates. These are convicts like himself: conchies, deserters, petty criminals--ordinary guys except for their ferocious IQ. Louis is shaken to discover that they have volunteered to be infected with a disease that supercharges their intelligence while at the same time rotting their bodies and brains.
Louis agonizes over whether he would accept this Devil's bargain: a degrading death in exchange for nine months of Olympian insight into the workings of the Universe. He decides not. But such understanding leads down disturbing byways: Louis's old schoolmate Mordecai Washington, now at the height of his superhuman intelligence, claims to have figured out God's real purpose in creating man.
Already troubled by these developments, Louis begins to suffer migraines that bring startling new insights, bouts of fever during which he writes complex and beautiful poetry. Gradually he becomes convinced that Mordecai has hit on the truth about the Divine plan.
Meanwhile, Modecai and his colleagues are about to perform their Magnum Opus: the creation of the alchemist's centuries-old dream, the Philosopher's Stone. Can they cheat death by concocting the elixir of everlasting youth? Or are they really, as the increasingly brilliant Louis suspects, pulling some dazzling and incomprehensible confidence trick on their jailers?
By writing "Camp Concentration" as a journal, Thomas Disch tells the story of Louis' rise to genius and descent into terminal insanity in the poet's own words. This gives a visceral punch to ideas that might otherwise seem dry and abstract; Louis' intellectual and physical pain, so eloquently and uncompromisingly expressed, forces us to confront the sobering moral lessons of the past century. And yet the book does not end on a bleak note; at its close there is a very real sense of optimism--an acknowledgment that we may all carry within us the seeds, however undeserved, of our own redemption.
The subject matter of "Camp Concentration" is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. At times it can be daunting, but if you like being challenged and want more from science fiction than comic-book action, this one's for you. Stick with it and I guarantee you'll come out the other side well rewarded. They don't come much better than this.