Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration, published in 1967, is the most erudite work of speculative fiction I've ever read, beating out even the various books and short stories that I've read by Gene Wolfe. The book's narrator, you see, is a poet, and he casually deploys scores of allusions, some of which I recognized and others I couldn't follow. Disch is the only writer besides David Bentley Hart that I've seen use the word “chthonic,” which is, along with “phthisic,” one of my favorite words that starts with four consonants.
I picked up Camp Concentration because I've come across several remembrances of Disch, who killed himself only a few months ago. Joseph Bottum wrote of him quite fondly for The Weekly Standard, and an article in the Boston Review praised in his first book, 334.
Camp Concentration is set in a nightmare America, where President McNamara has embroiled the United States in another Vietnam-style war. The book is the journal of an imprisoned conscientious objector who finds himself stuck in a secret military human enhancement project. It really takes off from there. Themes include: the existence and nature of God, alchemy, the possibility of creating Hell for ourselves, science and ethics, human cruelty, the pathology of genius, and, inevitably, death's inevitability.
The book's question is summed up in this passage, where one prisoner explains his philosophy to the narrator:
“Well, I do what I can to bring alchemic procedures up to date, but my attitude to pure Science, capital S, was stated a century ago by a fellow alchemist, Arthur Rimbaud—Science est trop lente. It's too slow. How much more so for me than him! How much time is left me? A month, two. And if I had years instead of months, what difference would it make? Science acquiesces, fatally, to the second law of thermodynamics—magic is free to be a conscientious objector. The fact is that I'm not interested in a universe in which I have to die.”
“Which is to say that you've chosen self-delusion.”
“Indeed, no! I choose to escape. I choose freedom.”
“You've come to a splendid place to find it.”
“Why, this is exactly where my freedom is the largest. The best we can hope for, in a finite and imperfect world, is that our minds be free, and Camp Archimedes is uniquely equipped to allow me just that freedom and no other. […] Anywhere else one begins tacitly to accept one's circumstances, one ceases to struggle, one becomes hopelessly compromised.”
“Nonsense and sophistry. You're just trying on theories for size.”
“Ah, you see into my very soul. […] But there is, after all, a point to my nonsense and sophistry. Make your Catholic Gaud the warden of this prison-universe, and you have exactly Aquinas' argument, nonsensical, sophistical—that it is only in submitting to his will that we can be free. Whereas in fact, as Lucifer well knew, as I know, as you've had intimations, one is only made free by thumbing one's nose at him.”
Disch doesn't let the book close on this or any single perspective—he's too good for that—but it's wrestled with throughout.
The plot, by the way, is fairly close to pulp in its barest outline. It's written on the Philip K. Dick model, where fairly standard sci-fi tropes are elevated and warped into originality by the author's ingenuity—and perhaps a touch of madness.
EDIT: Fixed up some confusion about when the book was published—I had looked at a republication date.