I met Tom Disch on just one occasion. I was making the rounds
of Manhattan with my brother one day in the mid-1980s, when
we stopped by Disch's apartment. Dana and Tom spent much
of the time talking about poetry, and Disch also gave a rundown
of his dealings with Disney on an
innovative animated film project.  
But I found myself caught up in a computer game that Tom had
invented. He showed me a prototype version of a narrative-
driven game he had created for the Apple II called
Amnesia,
and I got so engrossed in giving it a test drive, that I scarcely
participated in the conversation.  

I mention this, not only to express regret over
not asking the late Mr. Disch more questions
about science fiction—although I wish I had—
but to stress the wide-ranging activities of this
intensely creative individual, who is too often
pigeonholed as a one-dimensional genre writer.  
Disch was a visionary—I can't think of a better
word to describe him—and his talents not only
extended to the fields of poetry, video games,
and film, discussed that day, but many other
areas as well.  He wrote theater and opera
criticism, and also created his own dramas
as well as an opera libretto based on the
Frankenstein story.  He published children's
books and horror fiction. And then we come to his science fiction,
works that broke out of the traditional genre mold at every
opportunity. Disch was a daring prose stylist, and could easily
have thrived in the world of literary fiction, but he understood that
his own allegiances and background were more aligned with
populist pursuits. "" have a class theory of literature," Disch
once explained. "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."

Where does a reader start with such a wide-ranging oeuvre?
Disch's 1968 novel
Camp Concentration offers a good entry
point, showcasing the storytelling skills that made him a leader
of the New Wave movement in sci-fi, but also incorporating
elements of poetry, political commentary, satire and literary
criticism. The narrative, presented in the form of journal entries,
is wide-ranging;  some sections are explicitly experimental
discursions into the unknown (or 'ravings' as described by
the protagonist), while others are taut, plot-driven interludes
in the style of traditional adventure stories.  But even when
Disch keeps closest to the conventions of genre fiction, his
writing is infused with symbolic resonances you won't find in,
say
Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke.  Much of Camp
Concentration
plays out as a commentary on the Faust legend,
and there is more Aquinas, Dante and Bunyan here than
physics, chemistry and biology.  Yes, this is science fiction,
but how fitting that the technology that gets the most attention
here is a discredited one, namely alchemy.  In short, Disch plays
by his own rules at every stage of this book, and they are the
most unruly rules you will find in a sci-fi novel.

The hero and narrator, Louis Sacchetti is a conscientious objector
whose refusal to participate in a Vietnam-type military campaign
leads to his internment at  Camp Archimedes, an underground
government installation involved in secret research.  Here
prisoners have been injected with a modified version of syphilis
that inflames the brain with stirrings of genius.  Those infected
get smarter with each passing month, demonstrating a
remarkable ability to assimilate technical and cultural knowledge.  
They learn sciences, master new languages, write literary works,
and delve into the most arcane reaches of philosophy.  But there
is an unpleasant side effect:  they die from the disease after only
nine months.  This is their Faustian bargain: they get a taste of
the fruits of towering intellect, but at the cost of their lives.

This extravagant plot offers a perfect set-up for Disch, who
has an excuse for inserting conversations and observations on
almost any sphere of the intellectual life into Sacchetti's journal
entries. These imprisoned savants might debate ethics one day,
and stage a theatrical production the next.  Their restless
energy, married to intense curiosity, leads them to seek out
ever new stimuli, and try their hand at various creative projects.  

In other words, they prove to be very much like Tom Disch
himself.  

New Wave sci-fi took many chances during this period.  Soon
after Disch published
Camp Concentration, J.G. Ballard released
his controversial
The Atrocity Exhibition and Samuel R. Delany
delivered his daunting
Dhalgren. Disch offers a more cohesive
work than either these exemplars of experimental sci-fi, and
even when he stretches his sentences and paragraphs beyond
traditional notions of coherence, he still finds a way to tie them
credibly into the story at hand.  His choices of vocabulary take
on a showy effervescence—this book is littered with five-dollar
words such as 'hyperdulia', 'rodomontade', 'illapses', 'epithesis'—
of Nabokovian proportions, and he will toss in occasional passages
in foreign tongues to keep readers on their toes.  But in a tale of a
band of geniuses, this is not only justified, but perhaps necessary.  
Yet the real treat here is in the conversations, some of which
remind me of the heated intellectual dialogue in Thomas Mann's
The Magic Mountain, while another powerful section of Camp
Concentration
offers a modern updating of Dostoevsky's "The
Grand Inquisitor."

Not everything hits the bullseye in these pages.  A few passages
are self-indulgent.  The final resolution of the story is surprising
and clever, yet feels a bit rushed.  But these are paltry
peccadilloes.  The best parts of
Camp Concentration are
captivating in their bravado, smartly conceived and stylishly
written.  How sad that this novel is now out-of-print, suffering
the fate of many of the leading New Wave sci-fi works of the
1960s and 1970s, cutting-edge works that have fallen out of
favor for no better reason than the most obvious one, namely
that the New Wave is no longer new. Yet in the current era,
when literary fiction and sci-fi are again cross-fertilizing and
producing vibrant new hybrids, this 1960s book could serve as
a textbook, showing how this merging of highbrow and lowbrow
can be achieved, and what heights it can reach.



Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
conceptual fiction
Camp Concentration

by Thomas M. Disch
Essay by Ted Gioia
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