In this chillingly plausible work of speculative fiction, Thomas M. Disch imagines an alternate 1970s in which America has declared war on the rest of the world and much of its own citizenry and is willing to use any weapon to assure victory. Louis Sacchetti, a poet imprisoned for draft resistance, is delivered to a secret facility called Camp Archimedes, where he is the unwilling witness to the army's conscienceless experiments in “intelligence maximization.” In the experiment, Prisoners are given Pallidine, a drug derived from the syphilis spirochete, and their mental abilities quickly rise to the level of genius. Unfortunately, a side effect of Pallidine is death.
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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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