Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Camp Concentration

Camp ConcentrationGiven that WordPress has now eaten my review for the second time for no apparent reason when it has never done this before, I’m starting to get extremely frustrated. So, I’m going to go after a somewhat different, more compressed, format, since I’m getting sick of typing out the same damn thing over and over.

Thomas M. Disch published Camp Concentration in 1968. Timing-wise, this places the book in the midst of a) political upheaval and both internal and international conflict in the US, b) the New Wave movement in science fiction literature spear-headed by Michael Moorcock, c) a time when several other prominent SF authors wrote books with Faustian references. This last point amuses me in a general sense; authors include Phillip K. Dick (in 1969) and Roger Zelazny (in 1966).

Plot summary available from Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar with it.

Narrative structure is journal format, divided structurally into two books. Our records-keeper is Louis Sacchetti: poet, conscientious objectioner (“conchie”), obese man, Pallidine-carrier, and unreliable narrator. Why? Well, I would be unreliable too if I knew the director of my newfound prison and his pet military researcher running the experiment received copies of my journal as a daily newsfeed.

Did I like Camp Concentration? No, I did not. Not only does Disch align the reader with those holding power over Sacchetti by giving us the same “gaze” that they have–we join the heads of Camp Archimedes as the journal’s audience–but also creates a separation between us and Sacchetti with this same practice. I could not fall into the narrative per se, and further to that, with all the name-dropping literary-referencing madness-tinged-discourse-inserting it was just too much work for a payoff I didn’t even want by the end of it. Disch writes in a dense, compressed style that packs a lot of punch with a low word-count: his poetic leanings win out in his prose, which makes it a work-heavy read that necessitates interpretation.

What do I think of Louis Sacchetti as the main character? Hard to tell, since he censors himself as a record-keeper. This is something that bears analysis, and to be honest, I didn’t like the book enough to read it over 2-3 more times to put every single piece together of a complex, unlikable, and unsympathetic character. For example, it takes Sacchetti until the end of the first book to acknowledge he has been infected by Pallidine: is this denial, inability to connect the dots, or purposeful concealment of his knowledge from his captors? I could not tell you.

That said, what do I think of Camp Concentration? It’s a book that espouses ideas more than characters. What is the nature of genius? Is genius book knowledge, self knowledge, power over the natural world, or ability to exact what you want from other people? Is it genius, or an illness, or something else? As Sacchetti muses near the end of the novel: “I exist without instincts, almost without images; and I no longer have an aim. I resemble nothing. The poison has had not two effects–genius and death–but one. Call it by which name you will.” (p. 184).

It also brings into question the ethics of biological warfare and human test subjects, rampant government control, and war in general. Throughout the course of the book identity, the nature of science, and the regulation and politics of knowledge production are hot-button issues, as is a hard look at the compromises made for meeting one’s goals. Disch provides us with a large amount of commentary on social control relating to the government, the separate groups of prisoners (more so in the latter half of the book), and religious beliefs within this context. Definitely more idea-driven than character-driven, though character certainly plays a large role in the book itself.

The ideas? Fascinating. Worth the read if you like to consider big questions, but if you are a completist and feel a need to look up and search out context for various quotations and references, you can spend an awful lot of time on Camp Concentration, which is relatively short. Really, the title itself gives one enough pause: allusion to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, within the bounds of the story there is Camp Archimedes itself which promotes concentration and study within the camp, and the concentration required from the reader. Imagine what you could pull out of 184 pages packed with multiplicities of meaning, if you are so inclined.

If anyone out there is looking for fodder for a scholarly study, this book would be a grand topic. It might not be your cup of tea for an engaging, escapist read–though I suppose that depends on what you like your escape to be. Although certainly a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration will never be a favourite of mine.

Check out the Blogger’s Book Club discussion hosted over at OF Blog of the Fallen for some other thoughts and reviews!

Disch, Thomas M. Camp Concentration. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. $17.95 (Canadian), but likely at your local library, trade paperback.



Ha’Penny

Ha’PennyJo Walton‘s Small Change series started off on solid ground with Farthing, a murder mystery “with fascists” set in a very different WWII era United Kingdom, and continues in her 2008 Prometheus Award winner Ha’Penny. Walton’s writing has always had a historical bent, first evident in The King’s Name series as historically-tinged fantasy, and more so in Tooth and Claw, a Victorian novel with dragons. Writing alternate history therefore isn’t much of a stretch, and her talents in creating period mood in prose certainly shine in this series.

Picture a U.K. that made peace with Hitler’s Germany after the Blitz in 1941: this is Walton’s world, several years later with a British populace manipulated into complacency. Ha’Penny focuses on two characters: the actress Viola Lark, blackmailed into participating in a scheme to assassinate the leaders of both the Third Reich and Britain, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, whose homosexuality opens the door for Britain’s leaders to blackmail him into participating in their political maneuvering. Carmicheal also played a major role in Farthing, and mostly due to his recurring presence and fascinating character development, I  recommend not starting the series with Ha’Penny–as well you may miss some political subtleties.

Ha’Penny, like Farthing, hinges on the familiar both in plot and content. Plot-wise, Farthing used the murder mystery, while Ha’Penny follows more of a suspense/thriller format. While Ha’Penny doesn’t deliver a page-turning potboiler in the traditional sense, it delivers a politically-charged character driven view of what might have been that reflects on current political tensions. Walton’s use of familiar, comforting structure and setting serves as a lull to amplify the danger and contrast with more subtle political violence. The real story and Walton’s own agenda paddles along frantically beneath a calm surface.

Carmichael, reluctant though he is to aid the government, has made the choice before to acquiesce to the demands of those in power for his own safety and comfort. Viola’s first person narrative of wakening to action serves to contrast his more removed and stoic internal third person narrative. She begins the novel as an actress who must work for a living, though born into privilege and willingly removed from the political arena, who becomes strong-armed into a plot she sees no purpose in. Walton uses her role in Hamlet to mirror her character, especially in the latter half of the novel. Viola’s revelation and change in character at a society event with the leaders she plots against packs a softened, yet wounding, blow:

“What about Germany?” I asked. “That they wanted the war? But they didn’t, did they, no more than we did, that’s what the Farthing Peace was all about?”
“No, about the camps.” Lord Ullapool drained his wineglass and stared off at the dancers, but I don’t think he was seeing them. “Anything you’ve heard about the work camps on the Continent, about enslaving the workers and confiscating their property, about working them to death, about gassing those who can’t work, it’s all true.”
I’d never believed it before, not when Siddy mentioned it in the Lyons, not even when Malcolm was giving me facts and figures, but hearing it now in this gentle old man’s quiet voice I couldn’t doubt it. (p. 238)

I usually do not read alternate history because the ideas behind it frequently overwhelm the characters, but Walton places character development in the forefront, hinging the novel on this. While written with an agenda, the reader must decide whether there really is a “good” or “evil” in this story, and where they sit amid shades of grey. This is part of the source of the power in the novel’s message; readers who choose to engage in the novel in this way are forced to look within to know where they might stand, which is not so simple in a world where complacency and ignorance can be so easy and potentially rewarding, even inadvertently, as the culmination of the novel demonstrates.

Ha’Penny is an excellent piece of literature that makes me wish I had more grounding in both Hamlet and WWII history; since I have only smatterings of the two, I can only say that the book is deftly engaging and eerily plausible in the current political atmosphere we live in today. I’ll definitely keep a watch for Walton’s third Small Change book, Half a Crown, which will be released near the end of the month in hardcover.

Walton, Jo. Ha’Penny. New York: Tor Books, 2007. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.



Grit, as Writ

I’ve been thinking for a while about grit in the SF genre, especially in fantasy. You can’t go more than a few reviews or browse more than a few book covers in a store without the use of “grit” somewhere. What is grit, and what’s the appeal?

LOOK! Boys wanted to sell GRIT! Continue reading