?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Book group: Camp Concentration - Instant Fanzine [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Instant Fanzine

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Links
[Links:| Book Group: Perdido Street Station Book Group: The Fortress of Solitude Book Group: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Book Group: Neuromancer Book Group: Tales of the City ]

Book group: Camp Concentration [Dec. 18th, 2005|12:05 pm]
Instant Fanzine

instant_fanzine

[grahamsleight]
This is weird: I've never written a "start the discussion" post before. Reviewers are used to standing on a pedestal (maybe one of their own imagining) and preaching, as it were, the good or bad news. Since the intention here is actually to start a conversation, I'm going to try hard not to be too dogmatic. So maybe I should suggest that talk about Thomas M. Disch's _Camp Concentration_ should be arranged around four areas. I'll set out what I think of them and folk can argue back.

First, character. Disch is sometimes depicted - not least by himself - as someone who arrives at sf with a deep knowledge of what mimetic literature has achieved, and determined to drag sf kicking and screaming into a world of full depiction of character, moral complexity, all that stuff. You have to say, he's pretty damn good at it. Louis Sacchetti, our narrator, is to me thoroughly convincing. Just looking at his early entries, before the Pallidine kicks in, we get initial misery (May 11), anger at his self-delusions (May 14), momentary empathy with his guard (May 18) and many more moods: all that you'd expect of a self-questioning, intelligent man in an unhappy (and partly self-induced) situation. He has no one view about the wisdom of his decision to be a conscientious objector, and so be imprisoned - and isn't that as you'd expect? Other characters are necessarily less vivid, and fall into two camps - either the Pallidine-ridden inmates, and the operators/guards of Louis's various prisons. But plenty of them (Mordecai, Skilliman, Haast, Aimee Busk) seem to me vivid and distinctive. Certainly, this is a character-driven novel in a way that wasn't common for sf then (1968) and still isn't now.

Second, the depiction of intelligence. In a sense, you can see CC as Disch setting himself a technical challenge - how do you write a first-person novel by someone far more intelligent than you? - and getting away with it. In Part I, Louis's accelerating intelligence is largely depicted in ways used by other sf works on the same theme (Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon", Chiang's "Understand" - though both push on in different directions from Disch.) Louis becomes manic, a faster worker, a faster reader, a faster figurer-out. But then, at the end of Part I, he finds out about his infection with Pallidine and the narrative steps off a cliff. The fragmented opening of Part II has always been deeply disturbing to me, a depiction of the sense that in Louis's enhanced state, narrative (or at least language) *is not sufficient* for what he wants to say. Louis's maddeningly allusive fragments at the start of Part II are Disch's assertion that (unlike in the Chiang, say) enhanced intelligence will not just steer their owner to enhanced problem-solving skills, but to an ever-deeper immersion in past culture and the questions it raises, to questions of self and time and identity with (as Louis says later, quoting Valery in section 99) no way out. For me, then, the assertion (some way into Part II) of narrative again is something like an act of heroism. You know by then that the Pallidine's effects are killing Louis mentally and physically; you have to read the last fifty or sixty pages as the tip of an iceberg, with too much thought going on that Louis is unable to speak.

Third, related to the second, antecedents. Disch drops some pretty broad hints that we should also be thinking of Thomas Mann's study of syphillis-enhanced intelligence, _Doctor Faustus_, and through it also the Faust myth in general. It's the cautionary-tale model of sf, where an individual reaches for too much and gets punished for it. (One of these days, I'm going to write up my view that Faust is the real ur-myth of sf, not Frankenstein - and, indeed, that Frankenstein can be seen as an instance of the Faust story. But that's a sidetrack.) But Disch goes beyond this model in suggesting a sexually-transmitted plague of Pallidine outside the prison walls (Part II, section 67). Which, given that it's apparently Aimee Busk doing the spreading of her pet syphillis strain, is pretty darkly ironic. Which brings me to:

Fourth, perhaps most problematic, the book's plot and the way it's founded on irony. Each of CC's two parts climaxes with an enormously withheld revelation which the intelligence-enhanced Louis has failed to figure out - even though most readers will have. In the first part, it's the news of his infection with Pallidine; in the second, it's Haast/Mordecai's explanation of what really happened at the play performance. Disch's point here, I guess, is that even really intelligent people can be really dumb - that they can miss the blindingly obvious. He's courting disbelief, of course, on any number of scores: that Louis, alone with his thoughts, would not even have begun to suspect either of these conclusions; that Haast/Mordecai the other prisoners would not have attempted to rescue Louis from his Pallidine-wrecked body (or at least given him the option); that no hints about either of these secrets would have leaked. I'm interested to know whether others found these two twists believeable.

They do anyhow enable Disch to arrive at a conclusion - in entries 98-100 of Louis's final diary - which have the orthodox cadences of consolation. They're the elegiac tones you'd expect a book like this to end with. After all the difficulty of the text before them, I'm never sure whether I buy these closing lines (entry 100 in particular.) I'm sure Louis wants to believe them, in the eternal verities they represent; and that both he and Disch know it's a *deliberately* neat conclusion. The striking thing is that its neatness follows one of the most complex novels sf has produced.
linkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-12-18 12:41 pm (UTC)
I'm interested to know whether others found these two twists believeable.

I didn't find the first one believeable. I'd actually considered it and then discarded it, because Sachetti didn't seem to me to be getting more intelligent. I think the problem was that I could never quite disentangle what Disch was saying about intelligence from what he was saying about knowledge. Most of the time it seemed to be a novel about being burned by the latter, not by the former, which ... eh. It doesn't seem a terribly enlightened viewpoint. Maybe I don't understand Faust.

I also didn't get a sense of genius, or of language not being sufficient--certainly not compared to, say, 'Understand', where the protagonist has that exact experience and then creates an ur-language to express himself in.

The second twist, the bodyswapping, didn't give me the same problems, but it was a bit silly. I was more impressed by the leaking of the virus out into the world than by either of the section-ending twists; I figured it out before Louis revealed it, too, but it was the right kind of figuring out, dawning horror and then confirmation. Actually, I want to read the book set outside, in the world where the intelligence plague is happening ...

Given all of that, the portrait of Louis as a character was still probably the most interesting thing about the book, at least in the early stages. But I'm not sure I'd call it character-driven. It's virus-driven, surely? :)
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-12-18 12:43 pm (UTC)
Maybe I don't understand Faust.

I think it's rather the book that doesn't understand Faust - or at least loses its understanding at some point.

Actually, I want to read the book set outside, in the world where the intelligence plague is happening ...

We agree. Shit.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: grahamsleight
2005-12-18 01:08 pm (UTC)
I didn't find the first one believeable. I'd actually considered it and then discarded it, because Sachetti didn't seem to me to be getting more intelligent.

I think you have to take it that, in Part I at least, the prime index of how Louis's intelligence (though not others) is augmented is his ability as a writer. On May 19, just 3 days after his injection of Pallidine, he's writing again. On June 4, he's dismissing that piece of writing as cliche. (Also, another mini-poem on June 3rd). And then there's the manic burst of energy leading to Auschwitz: A Comedy. I think Disch is arguing for intelligence as an improved idea to see connections, and that for a writer that will manifest in writing.

I could never quite disentangle what Disch was saying about intelligence from what he was saying about knowledge.

Maybe this is a hint from Disch that trying to disentangle them (like style and content) is always going to leave you with less pieces of the puzzle than you started with.

But I'm not sure I'd call it character-driven. It's virus-driven, surely? :)

Smarty-pants :)

In a narrow sense, of course: you can plot the inevitable course of the novel from the moment Louis receives the injection - and none of the characters actions change that. But it would be a radically different novel if done from, say, Mordecai's diary. Disch's point is that experience is always mediated (defined?) by the experiencing consciousness - which is why he's not interested in writing the big panoramic novel about Pallidine in the wild.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-12-18 12:41 pm (UTC)
character

I'm vaguely with you on this. Sachetti is a good character who reminded me an awful lot of the vain and strutting, but clever and sympathetic, Charles Arrowby in Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea. The other characters I hold in less esteem than you - Mordecai in particular is a talking head rather than a character (perhaps a consequence of Disch's method of depicting high intelligence, of which more below), whilst Busk and Haast are getting there, but are fatally undermined by the fact that the book pulls the rug from under our conceptions of these characters (as it pulls the rug from under almost everything). Sachetti, though, is decently depicted. One of the reasons he reminded me about Arrowby, however is because ...

intelligence

... he's just not as clever as he thinks he is. You suggest that Disch is arguing that high intelligence would necessarily mean a delving into past culture, that - of course! - the discourse of such an individual would be via fragments and quotes, references and allusions. Essentially, the highest form of human intellect is The Wasteland (which, incidentally, does the 'madness fragments' of this novel better). This is obvious nonsense: if language and writing becomes insufficient to Sachetti's needs, then quoting language and writing is simply going to compound his problem. He wouldn't bother - he'd read every book every written and dismiss it as pretty facile. Disch's deliberately opaque attempt at writing the ravings of a super genius thus falls a little flat - not only does it lose sight of the reader at some point around its second line, but it also loses sight of its own idea. Ultimately, his 'higher intelligence' is terribly academic and distinctly unconvincing. These pinnacles of evolution can communicate ideas with no more sophistication than St Thomas Aquinas? Then exactly what makes them so special?

antecedents

Ultimately, in fact, the book becomes what is characters become: a riff, a reference, an intellectual echo. You're right that the only thing Camp Concentration adds to our previous understanding of the Faust myth is the wider plague, the infecting of all society with the Faustian disease. It's an interesting idea, but of course little can be done with it given Camp Archimedes' isolation. At the close of the book, we're left with the sort of hopeful elegy that we often see in tales like this: humanity on its way out, but a bunch of plucky scientists beavering away to try and save them. It seems an oddly stock note on which to end such an interestingly different novel.

irony

You call it irony, and try to find a way to mesh rushed execution with wider theme; I call it a bit daft. Again, swapping is a decidedly old-fashioned device to bring to bear on so self-consciously inventive piece of SF. It also, of course, robs us of our understanding of Haast, and also the novel of something of its moral: wait, if you pursue knowledge at any cost you won't die because you'll be cleverer than the devil. It's a nicely modern message, but it doesn't quite mesh with the bleakness of the rest of the book. If you want to argue that falling back on such standard tropes is Disch giving his readers some consolation, then by all means do so. But, really, it's just him falling back on standard tropes, isn't it?

In conclusion: not a bad book, but certainly a very muddled one. And, perhaps inevitably, it is Charles Arrowby in book form: clever, but not that clever.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-12-18 12:58 pm (UTC)
You suggest that Disch is arguing that high intelligence would necessarily mean a delving into past culture, that - of course! - the discourse of such an individual would be via fragments and quotes, references and allusions [...] This is obvious nonsense:

We actually do agree. Shi-it.

That said, I think you might be pointing at a symptom rather than a cause. You're describing the confusion between knowledge and intelligence, and I think where that comes from is that 'knowledge' is a defineable thing, whereas 'intelligence' isn't. We can agree what makes an expert much more easily than we can agree what makes a genius.

Disch's geniuses (genii?) seem to be defined by an ability to cross-reference their knowledge: achieve insight by spotting connections others have mixed. Pattern recognition. Which is certainly thought of as being a trait of genius, and probably is part of it, but it's not the whole story, because intelligence has so many different domains.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: grahamsleight
2005-12-18 04:01 pm (UTC)
BTW, is it just the three of us blokes reading this? (I remember doing a Readercon panel on intelligence-enhancement in sf a few years ago, and just about every example we came up with was by a man. Is wanting your IQ doubled a peculiarly guy thing?) Other comments welcome...
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-12-18 04:07 pm (UTC)
Is wanting your IQ doubled a peculiarly guy thing?

Sometimes an IQ is just an IQ, Graham. :P
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: rparvaaz
2005-12-18 04:10 pm (UTC)
Is wanting your IQ doubled a peculiarly guy thing?

Women *are* smarter, y'know...

*ducks and runs*
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: grahamsleight
2005-12-18 04:44 pm (UTC)
TO our credit, we *do* know that.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: chance88088
2005-12-18 04:12 pm (UTC)
BTW, is it just the three of us blokes reading this?

I read it, but I've only had time to skim the entry because I've been DOING STUFFS.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2005-12-18 04:41 pm (UTC)
Is wanting your IQ doubled a peculiarly guy thing?

Possibly the over-emphahsis on quantitative, rather than qualitative, assessments is a guy thing :-p

I haven't read the book, but I'm enjoying the discussion. Especially Ban writing "Collecting trivia is not displaying intelligence" - I feel sure that's going to come in handy at some point in a future conversation...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: chance88088
2005-12-18 04:46 pm (UTC)
*snerk*
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: despotliz
2005-12-18 04:52 pm (UTC)
I have eaten such a large Christmas dinner it has rendered me incapable of coherent thought. I have read the bok, though, so expect some comments once my brain revives.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: i_ate_my_crusts
2005-12-21 08:43 am (UTC)
I read it, but my reaction to it was similar to Niall's in some ways.

I ended up considering how much it was a reflection of the way SF reading protocols have changed over the last umpty-ump years. I assumed that Sachetti had been infected, but didn't get a sense of incluing about that, or about the body swapping revelation or about the virus in the outside world. So, my mind wandered around trying to pinpoint how my sense of what was incluing, as a reader, might be a product of my era. I recall thinking back over what I'd read with an eye to seeing what hints I'd missed about the revelations, but didn't find anything that I could really pin down as recognisably incluing for the reader. I didn't feel it was possible for the reader to guess from reading the text at a reasonable speed. That felt, to me, like the author was cheating. But I also wondered how much it was a product of me not having read a great deal of sf from that period.

I'd be interested to know whether other people saw incluing, in the text.

I'm having trouble remembering a great deal about my reactions to it because I lose books entirely if I don't write about them while reading and then upon completion. Reading the thread has reminded me of some bits, but then I'm not entirely sure how much of my thoughts are influenced by other's comments. The protocols and incluing are really my only thoughts which I can say are definitely mine.

Oh, and also, as a microbiologist, some of the biology was a bit off. But I forgive people crappy microbiology on a regular basis.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: i_ate_my_crusts
2005-12-21 09:50 am (UTC)
motivation.
the distancing techniques.

silly typos.
(Reply) (Thread)