A Biblio-Critical Study of Speculative Fiction Novels

Chapter 04 Camp Concentration: Thomas M. Disch


Links to other sites on the Web:
(for links to other chapters go to the end of the file)
Back to Chapter 3
Forward to Chapter 5
Back to the Academic Page
Back to Fruit Home

Chapter Four: Camp Concentration,
Thomas M. Disch

A. Introduction

Disch remains one of the most persistently ignored science fiction writers of the first rank. He belies the apparent optomism of a fictional form that effects a certain optomism simply assuming a future will actually occur. Disch's worlds offer surreal visions of our own, shadown zoens with problems as real and related to those of today's. Disch's characters, perhaps the best developed in speculative fiction, struggle for ethical, philosophical, and psychological survival in a compelling battle against an indifferent future. Disch searches for the unpleasant, higher reality, not the traditional one associated with science fiction:

"The escapist reader (of science fiction) wants a book that ends with a triumph of the hero and not an ambitious accomodation. I supposed I'm inclined to think that you can't have it that way. I don't know people who have moral triumphs in their lives; I just know people who lead, more or less, good lives; I just know people who lead, more or less, good lives...A literature that doesn't try to mirror these realities of human existence as honestly and thoroughly and as passionately as it can is being smaller than life. Who needs it?" (1)

Thomas M. Disch (1940-) was born and raised in Minnesota, a setting similar to that in one of his novels. He came to New York in the early 1960s and took a number of odd jobs. At one time he intended to become an architect. He later worked at a number of clerical jobs and briefly attended New York University, dropping out with his first sale Cele Goldsmith's Fantastic. For a time, he wrote prolifically for both Amazing and Fantastic. The exciting albeit chaotic atmosphere of Moorcock's New Worlds attracted Disch. With John Sladek, he travelled to London and became one of the few American authors closely associated with Moorcock. Later, he journeyed to such locations as Mexico, Turkey, and Italy. He presently lives in New York City. Describes himself as a "Beach-comber on a semi-global scale (Europe and the New East)." (2)

It often becomes impossible to distinguish Disch from his characters. He often uses first person narration, and his protagonists resemble their creator. Disch clearly feels subject to the same kind of problems that plague his characters, but he often adds distorting, even grotestque, details to distance himself from his characters. One Disch surrogate is black and another obese. In 334, he avoids this potential difficulty by utilizing an almost clinically objective narration. Like many great authors, Disch possesses the ability to write about himself with humor and distance.

Disch's novels concern themselves intimately with characters. The novel begins with the reelvation of some psychological problem plaguing someone; the story proceeds until the problem or someone resolves it or, more likely, the characters learns it defies solution.

Stylistic experiemtnatin marks his works. He earliest novels liberally interweave authorial voice. Camp Concentration comes in the form of a diary. 334 often resembles an unemotional ethnological study. Volumes by Disch may sport mythical, usually Biblical allusions; others contain none. Disch has proven remarkably adept at varying the format of a novel to meet the demands of its material.

Disch's characters rank among the best-developed in the genre. He draws from life, rather than genre stereotypes. His heroes, like those of Delany, include anti-heroes and artists. His weak people suffer from their physical and psycholigical failures. His major weakness stems from a tendency to present "grotesques" as realistic chacters. Characters under modern stress probably form the central focus of Disch's fiction.

Crticits censure Disch for his pessism, and tone of his novels tend towards the bleak. Characters inhabit future worlds far too much with them. He shows black version of the modern that he defends against the critics.

"What sort of criticism is it today that a writer is pessimist. One can choose any number of admirable writers who were pessimistic whose writing one cherishes. Usually, all it means is that I am stating a moral position that is uncongenial to the person reading the story...I think the very fact that my imagination goes a greater distance than they're prepared to travel suggests that the limited view is on their part rather than mine." (3)

Disch presents no easy solutions to his reader. He states the problem, and the reader and the character must suggest a solution or learn to live with the problem. This has led some critics to charge Disch with nihilism, which Disch also rejects:

"Nihilism is a pejorative that people throw out by way of dismissing an outlook...It also throws up the problem of what do you believe in, God? Is he a living God? Have you seen Him? Do you talk to Him? If someone calls me I nihilist I want the transcripts of his conversations with Jesus, till I'm convinced that we're not brothers under the skin." (4)

Disch's anti-heroes, his often anti-establishment attitude, and works such as Echo Round His Bones show his obvious debt to Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Disch sees humans as flawed fragile beings in imminent danger of total collapse. Further, Disch exhibits a Dickian suspicion of organized society, whether organized by the group, the individual, or the government and a general opposition to war or at least a pessissim about its possibilities to solve human problems.

Where Disch differs from Dick concerns style. Dick's ideas take the form of story constructs. Thus, he shows dehumanization by inventing the "simulcra," machines much like, even too much like, humans. Disch uses many of the same sorts of constructs, but he possesses the ability not only to better develop his characters but to use these constructs and milk their symbolic value.

Diversity represents another fact of Disch's career. He edited several influential anthologies of speculative fiction: The Ruins of Earth (1973); Bad Moon Rising (1973); New Constellations (1976), and Strangeness (1977), with Charles Naylor. He wrote three gothics, the third of which achieved distinction in that genre: The House That Fear Built (1966); Black Alice (1968); and Clara Reeve (1975). His also novelized the TV series, The Prisoner (1969), based on a rather Dischian plot of a man caught in his own psychological trap.

He also wrote a series of notable short stories. In these works, Disch tried practically every form and style in fiction from Hemingway-like short fiction to lyric extravaganzas. He reuses the positive results of these experiences in his novels. Collections include: One Hundred and Two H-Bombs (1966); Fun With Your New Head (1968); Getting Into Death (1976); The Early Science Fiction Stories of Thomas M. Disch (1980); and Fundamental Disch (1980), edited by Samuel R. Delany, the subject of the previous chapter. The titles themselves give some inkling as to his stories' tone and attitude.


B. The Early Novels: The Genocides, Mankind
Under the Leash
, and Echo Round His Bones

Disch's The Genocides (1965, Pocket Books) created a stir in science fiction circles. In many respects it follows the common alien invasion/disaster tale tradition of John Wyndham. Disch's novel, however, show a special twist that Disch explains with his typical black humor.

"It seemed to me to perfectly natural to say, let's be honest, the real interest in this kind of story is to see some devastating cataclysm wipe mankind out. There's a grandeur in the idea that all the other people threw away and trivialized. My point was simply to write a book where you don't spoil that beauty and pleasure at the end." (5)

A small group of humans survive the initial invasion of aliens and their subservient plants. Anderson, an old God-fearing, Moses-like figure, remains intent on bringing his subjects to survival and back into God's grace. Buddy, his "prodigal son" returns from the city to his father's community on the plains and marries Maryann, a mouse-like stupid woman, who never loves him. Neil, his large and stupid half brother, marries Greta, Neil's sensual, former lover. Blossom is their sister. Orville, the sole remnant of a rival group Anderson destroys, joins the group.

The plants progressively overcome Anderson's settlement and force living members underground. Neil kills an ailing Anderson when he finds his father intends to will his leadership to Orville. Buddy rejects Greata, who feeds herself to gigantic dimensions on "mana" supplied by the plants. Neil stalks Blossom, intent on his incestuous love for her, but the others kill him. The plants, they discover, actually form one big plant. The humans themselves fill the ecological niche of worms digging holes to break up the soil. Later they find out aliens actually farm the planet, and the humans only survive as parasites. The aliens harvest the crops, and the humans rise to the planet's surfacealready fearing the second crop. Blossom and Anderson join hands, an apparent new Adam and Eve:

"But these figures were very, very small. the landscape dominated them entirely...In any square foot of ground a hundred seedlings grew, each exactly like every other, no prepossessing.

"Nature is prodigal. Of a hundred seedlings only one or two would survive; of a hundred species, only one or two.

Not, however, man." (6)

The novel contrasts cosmic and human perspectives. Compared to the cosmos, man seems only a small, pathetic creature. Anderson's old-testament perception of a personal god contrasts with that of the aliens, who do not even realize that humans hold enough intelligence to oppose them. Human relations, obvious, seem infinitely important to the characters involved. Objectively, humans count for nothing, but subjectively they consider themselves all-important. The worst fault of the novels lies in Disch's tendency to drop into grotesque humor, inhibiting identification with his characters. The Genocides offers a humorous, devastating summation of the existential dilemma and a destructive beauty reminscent of New World's most-featured writer J.G. Ballard. The main message, ironically, comes from the Bible:

"Behold, even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his site. How much less man, that is a worm? And the son of man, which is a worm." (Job 25: 5-6) (7)

Mankind Under the Leash (1965, Worlds of If) or White Fang Goes Dingo continues the same theme. Aliens take over the Earth and make pets of mankind. White Fang gathers resistance and drives them off. Unfortunately, he regrets the loss of the father figure. Freedom requires effort and offers less security than subjugation. Most critics consider this as a lesser effort (8).

Echo Round His Bonds (New Worlds, 1966) starts out as a superior novel but degenerates into standard Campbellian fiction. Disch, in an interesting twist, utilizes the familiar narrative voice common in 18th/19th century in contrast to the serious, anti-heroic matter of the novel.

"This captain, who will b the hero of our history, was a man of the future...this is to say, what would seem futurity to us; for to the captain it seemed the most commonplace present." (9)

Captain Nathan, a Vietnam veteran, transfers to Mars; he shares joint responsibility for that planet's nuclear arsenal. The depressed, exploited Mars in the novel bears more than a chance resemblance to that of acknowledged Disch influence Philip K. Dick as well as its more obvious reference, Vietnam. Polish-refugee scientist Panofsky has invented a device, the "manmitter," that allows the transfer of matter over unlimited distances. The military monopolizes this and creates a Martian base that outflanks the Russian lunar base. A new US president, desiring to "show his teeth," threatens to launch the Mars-based missiles. Neither side actually intends to fire, but negotiations break down. Hansard travels via the manmitter and finds himself in an "echo world" where he can see the normal world but not effect. Other manmitters, good and evil, share this shadow world. Here Nathan's conscience begins to bother him; he remembers atrocities he committed against a Vietnamese family. He finds a "higher consciousness."

At this point, however, Disch loses the real/unreal confusion that made the novel surrealistic. All these "echo worlds," Hansard discovers, exists in a musical chord, with the Earth as the base tone and the other worlds notes above it. In our dreams, the worlds overlap. Hansard transmits his disgust with Vietnam into his dreaming, primary self. The primary self transmits the missiles into another of the shadow worlds and saves humanity. Hansard returns briefly to the primary world, marries his girl, and then escapes to the first echo world.

The strength of the novel rests upon Hansard's gradually rising sensibility and his assumption of responsibility for his past actions. Disch rejects the Cold War mentality and calls for an end to Vietnam and nuclear arms. The weakness of the book lies in its ingenuous, but limiting, explanation of the parallel echo worlds. Disch allows his characters to have it both ways: the ending of war and the assertion of ours as the "real world." A bit more of his reputed pessimism might world better. Echo Round His Bones starts as an interesting surreal novel, but ends a conventional parallel worlds novel.

C. Camp Concentration

Ironically, Disch's best novel remains out of print. Camp Concentration tells the story of Louis Sacchetti, a moderately successful poet who goes to prison to protest the draft. Without his permission, authorities transfer him to Camp Archimedes, a secret underground prison containing capable, creative men. The prisoners, given the drug Pallidine, derived from syphilis, raises their intelligence dramatically before eventually killing them. The novel consists of entries from Louis's diary. Some prisoners succumb to despair. Skilliman, the geologist, actually volunteers for the treatment because of a narcissistic desire to create a "biological time bomb." Mordecia compares life in the camp to life in an existential world:

"'I've had the bad luck to sneak a look at the execution orders, while most people walk off to the ovens thinking they're going to take a shower...It isn't just Germany...And it isn't just Camp Archimedes. It's the whole universe. The whole god-damned universe is a fucking concentration camp." (10)

Louis, true to form, gets ill but retains his moral standards. Blinded and dying, he draws the mockery of Skilliman who, like the devil, temps him to surrender to despair.

"'Come, come--moralize for us, Sacchetti. Such reticence isn't like you. Tell us why it's good to be good. Lead us by a paradox to virtue-or to heaven. No? A smile is not answer. I won't buy it. I won't buy smiles, paradoxes, virtues, nor yet Heaven. To Hell with all of them. But I'll buy Hell. At least it's possible to believe in Hell. Hell is that famous bleeding hole at the center of things...Put it another way. Hell is the second law of thermodynamics...a universal misrule, all things wound down and nowhere to go. And Hell is more than that. Hell is something we can make. That, finally is its fascination." (11)

Blinded, unable to see the sun, as he bids it farewell, Louis against hears from Skilliman as the later prepares to kill him and his response goes to heart of the dilemma Disch posses:

"'Well? Well, Sachetti? Don't you have anything you'd like to say? A couplet to leave as a legacy? Another cheek?'

"'One thing. To thank you. It's been so beautiful, coming here again. So inexpressibly beautiful. The wind. And...can you tell me, please? Is it night...or day?" (12)

Unfortunately, a standard, optimistic science fiction ending mars the power of this tragically beautiful scene. The inhabitants obtain the mental skill necessary for their minds to actually leave their bodies, so they occupy those of the camp guards.

Sacchetti, however, focuses the morality of the novel. He faces the horrors of modern existence, but he maintains his ethical values. He survives in a psychological sense. At the end of the novel, Disch hints that the plague has now spread to society at large; everyone must face his or her own personal Camp Archimedes. Disch mocks and attacks the military value system, represented by Sachetti, but Sacchetti's fight forms one of the more important themes in the novel. He represents of all of us. By choosing a diary forma, Disch frees himself to make mythical allusions and to use poetic language that would otherwise seem over-indulgent in another novel. There book makes some devastating comparisons between the camp and Dante's Hell; Louis's mind contains his Hell. Tragically out of print, Camp Concentration ranks with the best speculative fiction novels written.

D. The Masterpiece: 334

334 consists of a number of short stories illustrating life in New York about fifty years from now. Disch's New York has achieved a moderately high standard of living, but it suffers from deeper ills. The novel takes the form of a sociological survey. The total lack of emotion in narration adds to the horror of the book. As Disch comments:

"I think what distressed some people (readers, critics, etc.) is that it presents a world in which the macroproblems of life, such as death and taxes, are not considered to be solvable, and the welfare system is not some totalitarian monster that must call forth a revolt of the oppressed masses... Almost all science fiction presents worlds in which social reform can be accomplished by the hero of the tale in some symbolic act of rebellion, but that's not what the world is like, so there's no reason the future should be like that." (13)

The physical and social environment of the housing project of 334 East 11th street links the stories. Realistically presented characters, lacking even the desire for any emotional or aesthetic attachment, perform meaningless jobs. They struggle to find something worthwhile in life.

Birdie in "The Death of Socractes" struggles to become an artist not out of any artistic vision, but because making a work of art will raise his social ranking so that he can marry Milly, his social superior. When he fails, the government forces him to join the army, presented as the ultimate form of alienation:

"They retired their right arms and took one step forward and rattled of the Pledge of Allegiance or whatever. Then the sergeant came up and slipped the black Marine Corps mask over Birdie's sullen face. His new ID number was stenciled across the forehead in big white letters: USMC 100-7011-D07. And that was it, they were gorillas." (14)

Ab in "Bodies" works as a doctor, one of the few people not unemployed or working for MODICUM, the ironically named central welfare-governmental organization running the city. Ab makes most of his money selling bodies to the necrophiliacs. He only really attaches himself to television, like Bradbury's more famous housewife in Fahrenheit 451. A change in a program devastates him:

"A pagan forcibly converted to new religion would have felt the same loss and longing...It was as though he'd looked into a mirror and failed to find his reflection...Then, slowly, in the person of young Dr. Laundry (a new soap opera character), he began to rediscover the elements of his identity." (15)

Yet some hope remains in the novel. Alexa questions the role of MODICUM in controlling the lives of the city's residents:

"She often suspected that the great machinery of the welfare state might actually do more harm than good. Her salary was only large enough to cover the extra expenses the job involved her in. Duty in these circumstances was an article of faith as thorny as the resurrection of the body. Yet it was only this faith-and a vague conviction that a city ought to be lived in-that good helped her resist G's gentle, persistent drift suburbsward." (16)

Boz in "Emancipation" discovers that his wife, Milly, holds no desire to bear him the children he wishes to have. The doctors performs an operation, he bears and nurses the children. This probably presents the one genuinely optimistic assessment of technology in the entire novel.

"334," the title story, ties together the diverse characters and plots of the previous sections. It forms a sociological study. Mrs. Hanson, the old patriarch of the Hanson family, laments the breakdown of the value system of her childhood. In the final chapter, she destroys her furniture in an enraged attempt to force some sort of reaction from her society and MODICUM. This only results in her enforced commitment to a retirement home. She desires only death, the one form of self-expression and individuality MODICUM leaves to her, but even death only comes after Modicum's approval:

"'As I understand it, you've got to approve my application. If you don't, I'll appeal. As I have a right to. And eventually I'll win...I'll get what I want and what I have a right to. And sincerely, Miss Lapham, I do want it. I dream about it. And I think about it. And it's what I want.'" (17)

334 probably stands as Disch's best work and received a nomination for a Nebula. It balances character development with social extrapolation and balances ethical problems with story. It poses no answers but asks questions of value in a devastating way. The objective form of the final story "334" adds to the horror of the novel. One would expect to find 334 n the city public library between volumes 333 and 335. One does not have to passively accept Disch's frightening re-creation of the modern city, but it certainly merits consideration. 334 is one of those books that readers will find difficult to love but impossible to dismiss.

In recent years, Disch turned to a wide variety of projects ranging from opera librettos to horror novels. His most recent novel, On Wings of Song (1979), a fantasy, deals quite seriously with questions of creativity and the human spirit. (18)

E. Conclusion

Disch presents a bleak, desolate, and often inhuman vision of the modern world. He, perhaps more than any other speculative fiction writer, has explored the darker side of modern life. He brings to speculative fiction the skill and techniques of a mainstream writer. Echo Round His Bones and the Space Puppies merely reach the level of competence, but 334, Camp Concentration, and The Genocides number rank among the classics of speculative fiction. 334 and Camp Concentration rise about the genre and number among the best novels using the surrealistic vision.

(1) Thomas M. Disch quoted in Charles Platt, "Thomas M. Disch" in The Dream Masters (New York: Berkley, 1980), pp. 13-14.
(2) Judith Merril, England Swings SF (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 142.
(3) Disch in Platt, p. 12.
(4) Ibid, pp. 12-13.
(5) Ibid, p. 12.
(6) Ibid, p. 173.
(7) Platt, p. 13.
(6) Thomas M. Disch, The Genocides (New York: Pocket Books, 1967), pp. 207-208.
(7) Ibid, p. 203.
(8) John Clute in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, p. 173.
(9) Disch, Echo Round His Bones (New York: Berkley, 1967), p. 9.
(10) Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration (New York, Avon, 1972), p. 72.
(11) Ibid, pp. 150-151.
(12) Ibid, p. 171.
(13) Disch in Platt, p. 14.
(14) Thomas M. Disch, 334 (New York: Avon, 1974), p. 38.
(15) Ibid, p. 45.
(16) Ibid, p. 61.
(17) Disch, 334, p. 269.
(18) Platt, p. 18.

Links to other sites on the Web:
Back to Chapter 3
Forward to Chapter 5