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Camp Concentration: A Novel Paperback – April 27, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Thomas M. Disch is one of the overlooked masters of science fiction, and Camp Concentration is one of his finest novels. The unlikely hero of this piece is Louis Sacchetti, an overweight poet who's serving a five-year prison term for being a "conchie," or conscientious objector, to the ongoing war being fought by the United States. Three months into his sentence, Sacchetti is mysteriously taken from prison and brought to Camp Archimedes, an underground compound run by General Humphrey Haast. This is the so-called "camp concentration" of the book's title, a strange oubliette where inmates are given a drug that will raise their intelligence to astounding levels, though it will also kill them in a matter of months.

Sacchetti's job is to chronicle the goings-on at Archimedes in a daily journal that is sent to Haast and other select members of the project. Through his writings, readers get to know the various characters that inhabit the camp, geniuses whose intellectual fires burn brightly even while their bodies slowly go cold. Although these latter-day Einsteins are supposed to be thinking up new ways of killing the enemy, most of the inmates are instead focusing their studies on alchemy, which Haast hopes will allow them to discover the secret of immortality.

Camp Concentration is one of those SF books that falls squarely into the "literature" category both for the eloquence of Disch's writing and the timelessness of his ruminations on life and war. This is a thoughtful novel that offers insights into human existence, and it will likely stay with readers long after they have turned the last page. Ursula K. Le Guin summed up the book best in her cover blurb, which says simply: "It is a work of art, and if you read it, you will be changed." --Craig E. Engler


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed edition (April 27, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375705457
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375705458
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #197,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on February 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
"Camp Concentration" plays on some familiar themes: government subverting the will of the people, technology as mechanism of human downfall, to name two. As such, one might be tempted to pass it by, which would be a terrible mistake. Thomas Disch has produced a novel that is perhaps unique in Cold War fiction, for even as it decries the folly of military adventurism (in the form of a war in Malaysia which has presumably spread from Vietnam) it also considers the individual's culpability in national mistakes. Ultimately, he questions whether principled, but passive, opposition is just that, or if it is a form of ego not far removed from the motivations of those who are being protested.
Set in a secret government installation, "Camp Concentration" consists of the journal of Louis Sacchetti, a conscientious objector and prisoner, not to mention poet, who has been brought in to document the installation with a critical, but unscientific eye. The reason for this is that the population of this installation (except for administrators and staff) have been injected with Pallidine, a substance derived from syphilis that grants vastly expanded mental capabilities even as it ultimately kills the recipient.. Needless to say, those who receive it are being used to develop super-weapons, although they have other ideas.
To offer any more than this brief sketch would surely spoil the plot, but it is the subtext that makes this a superb novel. First is the fascinating, and entirely unexpected, consideration of religion. Sacchetti, who is something of a born again Catholic, suffuses his journal with religious references. Moreover, the Pallidine is clearly and allegory for the Forbidden Fruit, the source of both enlightenment and death.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A fan on November 15, 1999
Format: Paperback
Just finished this amazing novel. I'm making my way through Pringle's 100 Best Science Fiction Novels. So far, I've read 60 of them and this one is absolutely among the top 10. An incredibly layered, intellectual book. Make sure your dictionary is nearby for this read. It's a short book, but a slow read that packs so much thought, allegory and symbolism into so few pages. Yet Disch's style and characters keep the book entertaining. I expected nothing less than a fantastic, mind-blowing ending and that's what I got. I disagree with others who said they were disappointed. This book is the journal of an loftily intelligent man and only the most brilliant author could pull it off. Disch is nothing short of a genius--and he's writing horror now! Can't wait to read his horror, as well as 334 and "On the Wings of Song."
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Shepherd VINE VOICE on December 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book appears on most of the 'best of' science fiction lists that various pundits and critics have put out, even though it is not a very commonly known work. Does it deserve such a placing? I think the answer to that depends upon what your viewpoint is about what science fiction, as a form of literature, is supposed to accomplish.

The idea is simple enough. A new drug, developed from the bacteria that causes syphilis, is found to have the property of greatly increasing a person's intelligence, but with major side effect - it kills the user in about nine months. The story follows one Louis Sacchetti, a conscientious objector to a seemingly interminable war, and who would already be considered to be a genius by most standards, as he is transferred from a standard prison to a facility specially constructed to see what will happen to its inmates when given this drug. The story is told through the means of a journal that Louis is encouraged, almost forced, to keep.

As this idea is extremely similar to that of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon (which was later made into the movie Charly), comparison is invited. Flowers emphasizes the tragedy of the hero, a man who struggles to find those bits of knowledge that will help not just himself but all mankind, up against an unbeatable problem, that of his own retreat to sub-normal intelligence again. Camp Concentration follows a completely different path, that of the essential selfishness of the individual, of nihilism, of the despair of ever being able to change humanity in any meaningful way.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 21, 1997
Format: Paperback
Not a book for careless readers or those looking
for a quick fix of science fiction. This was Disch's 1st significant novel, and it appeared in 1969. The "endless" Vietnam War and a certain cynicism about government animates the book, but
it is essentially a story of a man who triumphs
in the face of disease, degradation, and official brutality.

The book is a tour de force of style. By turns acerbic, aphoristic, funny, and offbeat, the prose is packed with literary allusions to writers as diverse as Paul Valery, W. H. Auden, Christopher Marlowe, Arthur Rimbaud, and Rainer Marie Rilke. It's not devoid of a certain amount of excessive literary virtuosity, but all and all, Disch manages to carry it off well.

This isn't Disch's best novel. _On Wings of Song_ and _334_, to name two, are better. But this was a remarkable book for a young writer to have written. I'm still very fond of it.
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