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.