This dystopian almost Kafkaesque novel was first published in 1968. It is not an easy book to get through (even though only 158 pages), yet many of its readers have praised it very highly, regarding it as a classic in the sci-fi genre.
Disch surfed into the sci-fi scene on the crest of the New Wave; this so-called movement had several strong advocates, among them Brian W Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard. New Wave attempted to go beyond the usual tales of rocket ships, robots, time travel and telepathy, or if it did use these motifs, they’d be used in a different way; the old taboos were ditched – notably the use of swearing and ‘adult’ themes were tackled. Writers tended to examine ‘soft’ science more, and investigate ‘inner space’ rather than outer space; indeed, in this book Disch refers to ‘inner space’.
Disch was an atheist, a poet and gay though he said he didn’t write ‘gay literature’. Why mention his sexuality? Because some reviewers have accused him of homophobia in this book!
My copy was published by Panther, an imprint of Granada Publishing at the time (1977); Panther published a great number of sci-fi books in this period, most with eye-catching covers. Unfortunately, the book blurb in the front gives away too much, to my mind. As plenty of reviews already reveal much of the plot, I have no qualms about saying this is how it goes:
It’s the future (as seen from 1968) and man is on the moon and a war is being waged with nuclear and bacteriological weapons. In an attempt to boost the inventive powers of their armaments researchers, the US Army experiments on a group of prisoners in an underground facility. They intend to raise their brain power to genius level by injecting them with a strain of syphilis that’s known to achieve this end; unfortunately, it also means they will die within nine months from the disease. [I've left out the rest as they're spoilers].
As you will have gathered, it is a black comedy; it's also a dystopian moral fable, a criticism of the Vietnam War, a criticism of religion and a diatribe about distrusting government.
Over-weight split personality conscientious objector Louie Sacchetti (a conchie) is permitted to write a journal about his incarceration. He’s a poet and a lapsed Roman Catholic, and his style of journal writing reflects this: ‘Something special about any artist… a sort of magic – in the literal sense. Unriddling the signatures of nature, and breathing the same secrets back…’ (p36)
Sacchetti is interviewed by a female psychologist, Dr Aimée Busk, of whom he states: ‘She desired not argument but, like a picador, simply to wound.’ The bull-fighting allusion continues further down the page (p82).
Some of the inmates, stretching their genius muscles, get involved in alchemy, and the fourteenth century advocate Nicholas Flamel is mentioned (the discoverer of the philosopher’s stone).
Much of the narrative is philosophical, interspersed with clever word-play and literary and artistic references, and dark humour.
The Faustian parallels are evident. The clever twist ending is gratifying, though whether the world can be saved is another matter.
Disch committed suicide in 2008, aged 68.
It’s a literary work, alluding to classic literature, the Bible, opera, drama and even Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional hollow earth, Pellucidar (p17). Disch intended to write what pleased him and took no prisoners. I do wonder that as a result of this paranoid prisoner tale being published that he was approached to write The Prisoner novel (1969) [republished as I Am Not A Number]. The disconnection with reality, the idea that isolation can reveal or perhaps subvert truth provides fertile ground to plant seeds based on the legendary TV series.
There’s an overabundance of abstruse vocabulary that the average reader will not know, me included (though I’m impressed to note that the Word dictionary recognises some: orthoepy (at least he explains this one – the study of correct pronunciation). Here are a few other words he drops in: opsimath (‘one who begins to learn late in life); perfervid; hypogean daedal; cornua; emulous; farctate; agnoiology; chthonic; epiphanous: there are others I failed to note. Anthony Burgess used to revel in using a rich vocabulary, but I suspect Disch outdid him in this novel.
There are too many characters whose names begin with the letter ‘S’: Skilliman, Schipansky, Sacchetti himself, for example.