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Book Review #12, by Eric Weeks

November 29, 1998
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Wow, November has been a very busy month for me. I read these books a few weeks ago and it's taken me a while to sit down to write the reviews. Hopefully December will be quieter...

"Camp Concentration" by Thomas M. Disch, Bantam Science Fiction, 1972.

With a title like "Camp Concentration" you know it's not going to be one of those happy fluffy books. But then, if you want reviews of Piers Anthony novels, you should write them yourself. Actually, this book takes a lighter tone than I was expecting, given that the book is set in a prison where the prisoners are being used for medical experiments that will kill them.

Specifically, the prisoners are being given treatments that will drastically and rapidly increase their intelligence, at the expense at killing them in under a year. The background for this is that the United States is at war with some unspecified enemy, and nearly the entire country is in favor of this war. Poet Louis Sacchetti is one of the few who is against the war. He is a conscientious objector, thrown in jail, and then sent off to Camp Archimedes, the underground prison where the medical experiments are conducted. He is there to provide observations of the other prisoners as they are changed by the treatment; the entire story is told through his journal which he writes in prison. He knows copies of his journal are immediately sent to the head warden (who sometimes sends Louis written comments on the journal), which adds a twist to what you are reading.

That's the basic plot. The characters include a guard who is strongly patriotic and supportive of the war; a head warden who believes in astrology and alchemy; a scientist who has knowingly undergone the intelligence treatment in order to help the war effort; and Louis himself, who is occasionally inspired to write poetry based on the events he observes. The focus of the book is various moral/philosophical ideas, although many of them are obvious. For example, it is clearly wrong to be performing these experiments on the prisoners; this is not a question in the book. The main idea of the book is examining the effect the treatment has on the prisoners, who are trading their health and lives for intelligence and knowledge. (The prisoners are given whatever books they want for study.) It is at this point that the book begins to get over my head, as there are many references to Faust which mostly went by me. But overall the book focuses on the prisoners and makes its points through their conversations, so I didn't feel like I missed too much.

A few more comments. This book has a high concentration of words I didn't know; I had a dictionary open for parts of this book. Also, for part of this book, Louis starts babbling in his diary, and again, I fear that the significance of this part of the book is over my head. (Fortunately it's a short portion of the book.) This wasn't the easiest book to read, but it was still engaging and was far more interesting than dreary. Parts of the book are very though-provoking, and overall I liked it. It gets 3 stars, but only because it is thought-provoking; if you're looking for lighter reading, skip this book. Then again, a book like this is good to read now and then, and it's quite readable for such a though-provoking book. One final fact to tantalize you: the 'about the author' paragraph says that Disch was involved in the TV show The Prisoner -- so you know this book's gotta be good!

"There Are Doors" by Gene Wolfe, Tor Books, 1988.

This is the first book by Gene Wolfe I've ever read; I've been curious about him ever since the high praise he received from Joe Haldeman in If. However, I had just read Camp Concentration, and I was hoping for a lighter book; There Are Doors didn't quite fit the bill. It's a good book, though, and had an interesting flavor as if it was some complicated dream sequence. The main character, Mr. Green (whose first name we never really learn), is in love with Lara. Lara is a complicated woman to be in love with. For starters, she's from a parallel universe; for another, she has several different aliases/personnas in the other universe. Oh, and she's a goddess in this other world (which is why she can go between the worlds easily).

Unfortunately for poor Mr. Green, he does not go easily between these worlds. Lara walks out of his life, and he accidentally finds himself in the alternate world as he is looking for her. Here in the alternate world we have the strongest feeling of it all being some sort of bad dream; everything is slightly different from what you expect. (Or more specifically, from what Mr. Green is expecting.) Lara keeps popping up, but only indirectly -- he finds pictures of her in magazines, he finds a doll that resembles her, he sees her on a TV. While trying to find her, he has many strange adventures, all slightly incomprehensible; clearly this world has its own rules and we don't quite know them. In some ways this book strongly reminds me of Pamela Sargent's stories which are somewhat confusing, but which make more sense by the end. And by the end of There Are Doors many things have fallen into place.

Mr. Green is an odd choice for a main character. When he's not looking for Lara, he is a furniture salesman. His main character trait is being in love with Lara, and trying to seek her out. But that's OK; this book isn't about characterization (although there are some interesting peripheral characters). This book is more about encountering a strange world, and making a way through this world solely to find Lara. The world is quite interesting; it's main feature is that when men have sex, they die. Wolfe explores the social implications of this, although never directly. The best way to describe this book is that it is very dream-like. If that's your cup of tea, you'll like this book. I found it a little too odd, and wished that the main character had more character. I give it 2 1/2 stars, but let me also add that I am looking forward to reading more of Gene Wolfe's books. This book may be odd, it may be dream-like, but it's also well-written and interesting.

"The Family Tree" by Sheri S. Tepper, Avon Books, 1997.

Is this a pro-environment book? Perhaps the trees attacking evil anti-environment people will give you a clue. Or perhaps when babies disappear from families that already have too many children, and the author doesn't seem to mind, you might decide there is a message here. But the bottom line is that it's a very entertaining book, one of Tepper's best (although not the best -- I am still planning to write a review of The Gate to Women's Country someday, which will get 4 stars).

The main character is Dora, a modern-day cop who is married to a 100% pure evil man. He doesn't beat her, but Dora's husband is one of Tepper's evilest characters I've ever encountered, a bad guy right from the beginning of the book. In fact, I was suspicious that Dora, a nice person, would ever have married this guy, but fortunately this is explained later in the book. Dora starts the book by investigating various crimes, which may or may not be related to the strange environmental occurrences. The latter are more interesting: trees are growing overnight, in inconvenient places, like surrounding cars and in the middle of streets. Humanity is being forced to act in a more environmentally friendly way, and we don't know why this is happening.

Meanwhile, a completely separate story is developing. On some other world, the young girl Opalears is a servant to a prince who is on a quest. This world is a fairly typical fantasy setting, where magic is not uncommon, for example. In fact, I was surprised for a while that Opalears' world is so familiar-seeming, given Tepper's usual imaginative environments; later in the book the uniqueness of this world becomes more clear. For example, despite the presence of magic, Opalears' world is actually a future Earth. Eventually the stories of Opalears and Dora become related, at which point the book kicks into high gear. (For the first part of the book, I found the story of Opalears a little slow -- I wanted to find out more about the menacing trees Dora was investigating.)

This book gets 3 1/2 stars. The characters are entertaining, and the book has a very satisfying "makes sense" ending that flows completely from the plot (unlike some of Tepper's novels). The environmental message is a little too heavy-handed at some points. I was disappointed that the ominous trees turn out to be unimportant -- they're not a red herring to a mystery, I don't think I'm revealing any secrets to say this. The book has entertaining characters and an engaging plot; it was fun to read. The other Tepper book I reviewed earlier, After Long Silence, also got 3 1/2 stars. That book was more entertaining of a story, but lacked a clear message; The Family Tree is steeped in message, but the story isn't as strong. Still, a very good book, I highly recommend it. The ominous trees are cool.