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Norman Spinrad

Profiled by Galen Strickland

Born in New York, he has also lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and Paris. With the possible exception of Harlan Ellison, he was perhaps the most controversial American component of SF's New Wave movement of the mid-to-late '60s, and if such an idea is conceivable, has probably irritated and offended as many readers and critics as has Ellison. Never a major success, he has however been popular within the SF community, serving on two different occasions as the president of the SFWA, and also as president of the World SF Council shortly after his most recent move to Europe.

While relatively unknown in the U. S. outside of the genre, he has a very strong following in literary circles throughout Europe. Many of his novels fall within the mainstream, and he has relied heavily on semi-autobiographical reminiscences for some of his most controversial stories. At best, the majority of his work should be considered fabulations of near-future possibilities, rather than be constricted within the confines of science fiction. More on these points later.

He graduated from City College of New York in 1961, obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in pre-law. He had begun writing during his senior year there, although it would be two years later before his first story saw print, "The Last of the Romany" in Astounding Science Fiction. The theme of the Romany, the wandering Gypsies, appears quite often in his work, perhaps resulting from the influences of the Bohemian lifestyle he experienced in Greenwich Village both before and during his college years. He had grown up reading the Beat writers such as Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as their precursors Henry Miller and William Burroughs, at the same time absorbing some of the more literary efforts of the SF genre, such as Aldiss and Ballard.

After a post-graduate trip to Mexico, he decided he would rather write than enter law school. He enjoyed a moderate success in various short story markets, and after his third sale signed on with the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Frustrated after more than six months without another sale, he answered a newspaper ad and was successful in obtaining a job as editor for that same agency. Less than 24-years-old, and he was gaining invaluable information about the ins and outs of the publishing business, at the same time advising some of his own literary idols, such as Philip K. Dick, Philip José Farmer, and Theodore Sturgeon. He retained this position for little more than a year, leaving out of a frustration that he did not have sufficient time to pursue his own writing.

During this time he was successful in placing a few other stories, some in the now-renamed Analog, but most to much lower paying markets such as the men's magazines Gent and Knight. He also made a modest sale on his first novel, The Solarians, a minor and pedestrian space opera, but which afforded him the opportunity to leave his agency job and pursue a full-time writing career.

He intended to move to San Francisco, and on the way attended the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference at the invitation of Damon Knight. There he met and became fast and good friends with Harlan Ellison, who invited him to stay with him in Los Angeles. Only planning to stay in L. A. a few days, he ended up living with Harlan more than six months, during which he wrote his most oft-anthologized story, "Carcinoma Angels," the first purchase Ellison made for the landmark collection Dangerous Visions. He also outlined another novella intended for that book, but which later was reshaped into his third novel. He eventually did move to San Francisco, mainly because Los Angeles did not provide him with the vital street life to which he had been accustomed in New York. Finding the North Beach area that Kerouac had mythologized taken over by high-rent townhomes, he settled near the soon-to-be famous Haight-Ashbury district.

It was there he would complete Men in the Jungle, the first of his novels to exhibit signs of a unique new voice in SF, and shortly thereafter he wrote Agent of Chaos, a more conventional genre piece which was printed first. Ostensibly a thinly-veiled critique of the conflict in Vietnam, Jungle can also be viewed as a probing look at the dehumanizing aspects of all the jungles in our lives, from the urban nightmares of America to the complexitites of the human mind. On the merits of these two novels he was able to obtain an advance from Doubleday on his first hardcover contract, which book would prove to be his breakthrough, but that only after repeated failures in placing it with a reputable publishing firm.

He had returned to Los Angeles by this time, and through contacts of Ellison's was able to obtain a steady stream of work; film criticism in the Free Press, a column of commentary in Knight (later collected as Fragments of America), and two scripts for Star Trek, only one of which - "The Doomsday Machine" - was filmed. This income, along with the first half of a $1500 advance from Doubleday, enabled him to write Bug Jack Barron over the period of about eight months. Doubleday rejected it, essentially saying, "Take out all the sex, drugs, and politics, and we'll publish it." All that would have been left would be a short story, so Spinrad continued to shop it around to other publishers, all to no avail.

On a return visit to the Milford conference he met Michael Moorcock, then editor of the British periodical New Worlds, who agreed to serialize the novel in six parts. On the basis of the first part, the magazine was banned from the racks of W. H. Smith, a news agency chain large enough and powerful enough in the U. K. that such an action was tantamount to censorship. New Worlds operated under a grant from the British Arts Council, which was successful in negotiating with Smith's to rescind their ban. The notoriety of this incident enabled Spinrad to obtain a deal with Avon Books to publish the novel as an original SF paperback, and shortly before its release it was also bought for hardcover publication by Walker Books. The splash it created in the genre was significant, being nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and it helped to establish the so-called New Wave as a force with which to be reckoned. Although quite dated in much of its political orientation, it is still a powerful novel, foreshadowing the rise of the media's power in shaping public opinion and controlling our political destiny.

The book is set in the very near future (as of the time of its writing that is, a future that has not happened yet, at least not on our timeline). This could very well have been the America that would have resulted from a more prolonged confrontation between the establishment and leftist rebels such as the Weather Underground and Black Panthers. The haves and the have-nots have never been more alienated, crime is rampant, and a balkanization of political ideologies has begun. In the midst of this chaos, Jack Barron, former activist and agitator, friend to many of the political left, in places both high and low, is now the host of the most popular live television show on the air. Each week he challenges his viewers to call in and bug him with their pet peeves, their gripes and squabbles, as he endeavors to address their grievances to the person or persons who might be responsible for the problem. And woe be unto those who are unavailable when Jack calls on them to tell their side of the story.

By today's standards, this novel is not that shocking, but at the time it was quite daring, and most especially for the science fiction genre. Spinrad has never pussy-footed around an issue, and there is never any doubt about his political allegiances. He has also been very forthright in acknowledging his use of various recreational drugs, as is the case with many of his characters. In Jack Barron's world certain drugs have been legalized, in fact one of his sponsors is Acapulco Golds, the finest of marijuana cigarettes. But politics and social issues are only a part of what makes Spinrad and his works tick. In this novel alone, other aspects of the story include, in his own words, "love, sex, immortality, suicide, drugs, idealism lost and ultimately regained, informed by a sexual explicitness the science fiction genre had never seen before..." Just imagine a cross between Ted Koppel, Larry King, and Jerry Springer, and maybe just a touch of Howard Stern, and you will be able to get a little bit of an idea of what Jack Barron is all about.

I've recently re-read Bug Jack Barron and you can read my review of it HERE.

In 1970, the best of Spinrad's early short stories were collected in The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde, the title story of which was an attempt to write in the style and universe of Moorcock's character of Jerry Cornelius. Never a prolific writer of any length, his only other story collections are No Direction Home, The Star-Spangled Future (which perhaps should not be considered since it was just a reprint of stories from the first two collections), and Other Americas, an original collection of four alternate-history novellas. Spinrad has also edited two anthologies, The New Tomorrows, along with one intended to be a teaching text, Modern Science Fiction. His non-fiction work has appeared in the previously mentioned Fragments of America, as well as Science Fiction in the Real World and Staying Alive: A Writer's Guide.

But it is with his infrequent but complicated novels that his considerable reputation lies, and rightly so. Spinrad has never taken the easy course of artistic repetition, nor tailored his thoughts to the dictates of any editor. Each of his books are unique, and explore avenues of thought and speculation few others have traveled. Sex and power are usually his primary themes, and while it could be argued that much of his work is meant merely to shock, I feel he has honestly been attempting to explore these cultural relationships in a realistic, albeit exaggerated and satirical way.

It would have been easy for him to have followed Bug Jack Barron with much the same type of political/sociological story, but instead he ventured off in a different direction with his next book. Purportedly a "found" novel, The Iron Dream is supposedly written by an alternate history Adolf Hitler, who, thwarted in his political aspirations, emigrates to America and later becomes a science fiction writer. His text, originally titled "Lord of the Swastika," revolves around the fight for the purity of humanity's gene pool against invading hordes of mutants created out of an apocalyptic wasteland. Of course there are many parallels to the Nazi regime of our own world, but in this case they are the saviours of humanity, rather than the devils of our reality.

Unfortunately, it has been quite a few years since I have read (or in some cases re-read) much of Spinrad's work. One of the most frustrating things for me right now is not having the time to read as many new books as I would like, let alone refamiliarize myself with some of my older favorites in order to write about them. So at this time my comments about these books will be rather limited, but hopefully in the future I can return and expand on these thoughts. Not only that, in my search for information about his work I have discovered titles of which I had not previously been aware. Such is the state of the publishing world, that an original voice such as Spinrad's gets so little exposure that even his fans never see some of his work. There are others that I had heard about but have never seen in either stores or libraries, and even one title listed on amazon - Vampire Junkies (1994) - that is not included in the bibliography on his official website. [Well, that was the case when I originally wrote this piece; now he not only mentions it on his site, he's talking about doing a film version of it.

One thing that I have re-read recently, for the third or fourth time, is the Hugo-nominated novella "Riding the Torch" from 1974, which has appeared in several different forms. Originally it was released as one of three stories in the collection Threads of Time, the title story being written by Gregory Benford, with the third by Clifford Simak. It has also been printed in paperback as part of the Binary series of double novels, and ten years after its first appearance it was reprinted in an illustrated trade-paperback edition by BlueJay Books, with black-and-white drawings by Tom Kidd, and afterwords by Robert L. Forward and James Frenkel. This is the edition that I have.

The main character of the novella is Jofe D'Mahl, artist and creator of "senso" spectaculars, multi-media presentations of his thoughts and dreams. Jofe is also a member of The Trek, survivors of humanity's annihilation of Earth, on a quest for a new home among the stars. The Trek has continued for thousands of years, propelled by ramjets which gather their fuel from the tenuous gases in interstellar space. Technology and innovation have continued. They have discovered ways to manipulate the molecules of matter gathered by the ramjets and reformulate them for use in constructing new torchships and in outfitting them with luxurious quarters and simulated gardens and forests. The quest has continued for so long due to the failure to discover suitable planets for habitation. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this tale is the proposition that Earth was a totally unique phenomenom, and humanity, guilty of the destruction of their only possible home, is doomed to wander the skys forever through a desolate universe.

One of the titles I came across in my searches that I had never heard of is also one I could find very little information about. It is Passing Through the Flame, which was published in 1975, three years after The Iron Dream. All that I have been able to determine about it is that it is not SF, but I do believe it is a fictional novel. If and when I find out any other information concerning it I will update this article. Also, over the years Spinrad has written several books that took an inordinately long time to find a publisher, as has already been mentioned concerning Bug Jack Barron. One of these was a non-SF novel about a young Hollywood couple who come under the influence of a cult which bears a remarkable similarity to Scientology, the quasi-religious/scientific organization founded by Golden Age SF author L. Ron Hubbard. This was The Mind Game, written around 1976-7, but not published until 1980.

It is apparent that Spinrad wrote this story from a perspective of personal experience. Not that he was in any way ever associated with Scientology himself, but considering its popularity with many in the media it is very likely he has known several people who have come under its influence. A couple of years before this, Spinrad had been subjected to considerable pressure to edit out negative comments about Hubbard in his anthology Modern Science Fiction, and he had also made many enemies over a comic short story that mentioned the sect, "Holy War on 34th Street," which had appeared in the March, 1975 issue of Playboy, and was later reprinted in The Star-Spangled Future. In any event, due to its controversial nature, coupled with quite a few changes in Spinrad's business dealings with agents, editors, and publishers, no one seemed to want to take a chance on the book. Another novel, which took even longer to get into print, was The Children of Hamelin. This was also non-SF, and also based mostly on his personal experiences during the early part of his writing career. It was written in 1969, shortly after the release of Bug Jack Barron, although it was not printed until 1991, and Spinrad is convinced this was due to his less than positive portrayals of several of his aquaintances in the publishing industry.

A World Between (1979) was a highly satiric look at the enormous gap between the genders, as well as another inquiry into the influence of the electronic media on both politics and our personal lives. The majority of the action is set on the peaceful planet of Pacifica, with the militant Femocrats from Earth vying for political and commercial influence against the dominant male Technocrats from another planetary system. There is considerable graphic detail of the sexual tension between both these groups and between them and the naive Pacificans. It is apparent Spinrad used grossly exagerated characters merely to make his points clearer to see, although I think it would be easy for many to formulate a falsely negative opinion of his views on women from this book. Many feminists might brand him a misogynist, but I feel there are several things that do not support that idea. First, his depictions of the cooperative nature between male and female Pacificans are quite sympathetic towards the more conventional heterosexual relationships. And secondly, since the Technocrats are usually portrayed in a very negative light (they are more commonly referred to by the title of Fascho-Chauvanistic Fausts) I think it highly unlikely he was advocating a male-dominated society.

Due to his many conflicts with publishers, it had been over four years since he had had a novel in print, but shortly after the release of A World Between he was successful in negotiating deals for both The Mind Game and a far more conventional SF story, Songs From the Stars. Both of these had been completed much earlier, but on the surface it seemed that he had been practically inactive for many years, then all of a sudden he emerged again with a flurry of new works. Songs is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, just barely beginning to rediscover lost technologies. Their progress is potentially about to blossom anew, due to the reception of radio signals from a highly advanced alien civilization.

He followed this with two other novels that, while they were both easily identifiable as SF, were far less conventional, and perhaps as daring and frankly sexual as anything else he has ever done. The Void Captain's Tale (1983) concerns the highly unique mode of starfaring experienced by the crew and passengers of the Dragon Zephyr. In order to activate the hyperspace capabilities of the void-jump drive engines a female pilot must undergo sexual orgasm while electronically wired to the controls. The male captain of the Zephyr, Genro Kane Gupta, does the unspeakable. He falls in love with Pilot Dominique Alia Wu, who tradition holds he should never have even met. His obsession with her, and his desire to share in the ecstasy she experiences, threatens to destroy both of them and their ship. Another novel which can be viewed as a somewhat eroticized vision of future interstellar travel is Child of Fortune (1985). It is a coming-of-age tale, relating the journeys of Wendi Shasta Leonardo, and her search for her true calling and her ultimate destiny.

I hate to admit it, but Little Heroes (1987) is the last of Spinrad's novels that I have read, although I certainly hope to remedy that situation in the near future. [And I have; see update below] That oversight is definitely not due to any lack of quality of this novel, in fact I think it is the best of his work yet, even better than Bug Jack Barron, with which it bears quite a few similarities. In this case the media of the future explored is not television, but the music industry, which has devolved into a generic mass of synthetic pop created not by musicians, but rather by computerized sythesizers. It is full of masterful insights into human psychology, cultural malaise, and the indomitable spirit of the perpetually downtrodden. It is also one of the last true SF works that Spinrad has produced.

Even though several of his later novels might involve near-future scenarios, their basic plots are more akin to technological thrillers than they are to SF, and thus are closer to being mainstream novels. Considering that Spinrad has long decried the insensitivity of the publishing industry towards what they seem to view as a ghetto genre, it is no wonder he has endeavored to cultivate a wider audience. As I have said earlier, I have yet to read these latest works, which include Russian Spring (1991), Pictures at 11 (1994), and Greenhouse Summer (1999). Those first two I have never seen, but the last I did purchase recently at one of my favorite used bookstores. It has been placed very high up on my must-read list, and I will return with my reactions to it when I am able.

Since I started this article I have been thinking it a shame it has taken me this long to get around to writing about Spinrad. I have read several of his short stories and novellas recently, and also read excerpts from some of the novels to get the feel of his work again, and I have been struck once again by his great talent. Certainly there may have been some inconsistency in the level of that talent expressed, but he is one of the genre's most emotionally charged writers. Spinrad has such a passion for life, and such an obvious love for humanity, in spite of all our foibles. Just as I intend to read more of his work in the future, I recommend anyone not yet familiar with his work to correct that oversight as soon as possible.

Update: The last two novels published have been historical fiction; The Druid King (2003) and Mexica (2005). There is another which up until recently had a very fragmented publishing history. He Walked Among Us seems to finally be getting the respect it deserves. It had been published in Germany in 2003, then Spinrad had attempted a "print on demand" distribution for it, which he quickly abandoned. Several years ago he made the entire text available for download, even allowing me to provide a link to a RTF file. I've read it, and now so can you. Click on the title to purchase it in hardcover or Kindle edition from amazon.com, or wait until next April (2011) for the paperback release.

There have been some other changes since I wrote this as far as availability of some of his books in new editions. The link above on Bug Jack Barron is a different release than before, Songs From the Stars and Science Fiction in the Real World are back in print, but unfortunately The Iron Dream, Vampire Junkies, The Void Captain's Tale, Child of Fortune and Greenhouse Summer are out of print. I left the links on those title though, since you can still search for used copies from third-party sellers on amazon, and that goes for any other title I have mentioned in this article.

 

"Norman Spinrad is the authentic, classic novelist of American, and
indeed, world culture. He is brilliantly political, admirably international,
touchingly human. He has enriched...our understanding of our times."

[ Timothy Leary ]

 

Related Links:
My review of Bug Jack Barron
Spinrad's Official Home Page
A very good interview by Michael Ventrella
Norman speaks about "My Favorite Books" at books.guardian.com
The Spinrad Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
Norman's "MeTube" user page at YouTube
Wikipedia

 

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Born
September 15, 1940
New York City

Official Website