Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Author||Thomas M. Disch|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback)|
The book is set during a war, projected from the Vietnam War, in which the United States is apparently criminally involved (it is noted at one point that the US is waging germ warfare in "the so-called neutral countries"). The President of the United States during this fictional war is Robert McNamara.
Poet, lapsed Catholic and conscientious objector Louis Sacchetti is sent to a secret military installation called Camp Archimedes, where military prisoners are injected with a form of syphilis intended to make them geniuses (hence the punning reference to "concentration" in the novel's title). By breaking down rigid categories in the mind (according to a definition of genius put forward by Arthur Koestler), the disease makes the thought process both faster and more flexible; it also causes physical breakdown and, within nine months, death.
The book is told in the form of Sacchetti's diary, and includes literary references to the story of Faust (at one point the prisoners stage Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Sacchetti's friendship with ringleader Mordecai Washington parallels Faust's with Mephistopheles). It only becomes clear that Sacchetti himself has syphilis as his diary entries refer to his increasingly poor health, and become progressively more florid, until almost descending into insanity.
After a test run on the prisoners, a megalomaniac nuclear physicist has himself injected with the disease, joins Camp Archimedes with his team of student helpers, and sets about trying to end the human race.
The prisoners in the book appear to be fascinated by alchemy, which they used as an elaborate cover for their escape plans. Sacchetti, who is obese, has a number of ironic visions involving other obese historical and intellectual figures, such as Thomas Aquinas. The novel's ending may owe something to the episode "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" from the television series The Prisoner, for which Disch wrote a spinoff novel.
Allusions and sources
In addition to the staging of Marlowe's play, the book references the Thomas Mann novel Doctor Faustus, which is about a composer named Adrian Leverkühn who intentionally contracts syphilis. Disch's book mentions a female composer named Adrienne Leverkuhn.