norman spinrad walks among us

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

IN 1969, I MET NORMAN SPINRAD. Well, met him in the sense that I dis­cov­ered his novels while I was working at Leo Ma­tus’s news­stand. Leo car­ried to­bacco, mag­a­zines, and sun­dries and was lo­cated on Public Square—smack dab in the middle of Wilkes-Barre in North­eastern Penn­syl­vania. He had a couple of spin­ners with racks for pa­per­back books on the floor filled with the latest in every genre imaginable.

One of my du­ties was to re­move last week’s ti­tles that didn’t sell and re­place them with this week’s—most of which wouldn’t sell. Of course, most books don’t sell—then or now. I be­lieve it was during the late ’60s that the media began paying at­ten­tion to the ed­u­ca­tors and re­lated pro­fes­sionals who had been alarmed by the rising rate of what was being called ‘func­tional illiteracy.”


As an in­tro­duc­tion to Spinrad, try Russian Spring, Songs From The Stars, or Green­house Summer.


Now Merriam-Webster de­fines a func­tional il­lit­erate as “a person who has had some schooling but does not meet a min­imum stan­dard of literacy.”

Wikipedia gives a more us­able de­f­i­n­i­tion: “Func­tional il­lit­eracy is reading and writing skills that are in­ad­e­quate to manage daily living and em­ploy­ment tasks that re­quire reading skills be­yond a basic level.

Func­tional il­lit­eracy is con­trasted with il­lit­eracy in the strict sense, meaning the in­ability to read or write simple sen­tences in any lan­guage” (em­phasis added).


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Don’t bug Jack Barron

Back to 1969: the just-published Bug Jack Barron caught my at­ten­tion with its title—although I read “BUG” as a noun, thinking that Jack Barron was being com­pared to an in­sect. So I took it home (after strip­ping the cover off of it!) and was amazed by the story and the writing.

At the time, Spinrad was some­what en­am­ored of the British ‘New Wave’ of sci­ence fic­tion writers—most of them as­so­ci­ated with New Worlds mag­a­zine and under the sway of its ed­itor, Michael Moorcock.

Spinrad was writing in a very Sixties-ish style, with psy­che­delic al­lu­sions and forays into whole para­graphs of stream-of-tripped-out-consciousness. While it was outrageous—and a lot of fun to read!—then, some of the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in style has aged poorly.

Still, while more mainstream-oriented critics offer up Tom Wolfe’s New Jour­nalism in The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hunter H. Thomp­son’s Gonzo Jour­nalism in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas as ex­am­ples par ex­cel­lence of lit­erary rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the unique­ness of ‘the Six­ties,’ I offer up Bug Jack Barron.


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Men in the jungle

So, I quickly found Spin­rad’s ear­lier novel, Men In The Jungle (1967), this time at the Book & Card Mart, co­in­ci­den­tally owned by Mrs. Matus, and a place where new ti­tles en­joyed a longer shelf life than they did on Leo’s spin­ners. I was just as as­tounded by the con­tent and the writing.

In 1970, Spin­rad’s short story col­lec­tion, Last Hurrah Of The Golden Horde (which is rec­om­mended if just for one story, “Car­ci­noma An­gels”), ce­mented a life­time’s love for his writing. I also even­tu­ally found his first two novels, Agent Of Chaos and The So­lar­ians, but these are best left un­read by all but Spinradaholics.


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Passing through the flame

Also seek out his at­tempt at con­tem­po­rary main­stream fic­tion, Passing Through The Flame (1975). It is often con­sid­ered ‘trash fic­tion’ and I have seen it com­pared to Harold Rob­bins and Jacque­line Su­sann. Uh-uh. That is not the story that I read!

Set in the early ’70s, it deals with a rock group (the lead singer was based on Grace Slick but it’s im­pos­sible for anyone who lived through the Sev­en­ties NOT to think of Stevie Nicks) and its control-freak man­ager (who has more in common with Satan than Colonel Parker or Brian Epstein).

It is a dif­fi­cult book to find on or off the internet.


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Norman Spinrad in the real world

Since these early books, Norman Spinrad has had a no­table ca­reer: he is per­haps the quin­tes­sen­tial au­thor of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. Back in the early ’70s, I un­der­stood the term spec­u­la­tive fic­tion to mean a form of sci­ence fic­tion in which the au­thor takes some as­pect of con­tem­po­rary re­ality and, while leaving every­thing else much the same, projects that as­pect into the fu­ture, usu­ally ex­ag­ger­ating it or bending it—seeing what would happen if this as­pect was left unchecked. That is, the au­thor spec­u­lates on the fore­see­able future.

Merriam-Webster de­fines spec­u­late as an in­tran­si­tive verb meaning “to med­i­tate on or ponder a sub­ject; re­flect,” which cer­tainly fits my un­der­standing. Its sec­ondary de­f­i­n­i­tion is “to re­view some­thing idly or ca­su­ally and often in­con­clu­sively,” which does not fit my understanding.


In He Walked Among Us, the human race of the fu­ture are dying on an en­vi­ron­men­tally rav­aged planet and send a rep­re­sen­ta­tive back to the first years of the 21st cen­tury to get us to quit polluting.


I state this here be­cause the term spec­u­la­tive fic­tion has ap­par­ently been broad­ened in the in­ter­vening decades: it is now more or less an um­brella term “en­com­passing the more fan­tas­tical fic­tion genres, specif­i­cally sci­ence fic­tion, fan­tasy, horror, weird fic­tion, su­per­nat­ural fic­tion, su­per­hero fic­tion, utopian and dystopian fic­tion, and al­ter­nate his­tory” (from Wikipedia).

This is so broad a de­f­i­n­i­tion as to be func­tion­ally useless!

I prefer my in­ter­pre­ta­tion and will stick with it . . .

I have read all of Mr. Spin­rad’s novels, most of his short sto­ries, and his sole non-fictional title, Sci­ence Fic­tion In The Real World, which con­sists of his ob­ser­va­tions on the re­ality of sci­ence fic­tion when re­moved from the in­su­larity of fandom.

To this day, when­ever I visit a used book­store, I al­ways head to the SF sec­tion and look for copies of his books. I will buy every copy I find of cer­tain ti­tles and then give them to family and friends as gifts. My first choice as an in­tro­duc­tion to Norman Spinrad is Russian Spring (1991) with Songs From The Stars and Mind Game (both 1980) and Green­house Summer (1999) next in order.


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The iron dream and other suspect ruminations

I am a bit of a sucker for SF from the New Wave/Dan­gerous Vi­sions era and con­sider Mr. Spinrad one of the bea­cons of the genre (both spec­u­la­tive and sci­ence fic­tion) of the last fifty years—and he is STILL active! 

“Norman Spinrad Walks Among Us” was orig­i­nally written as a re­sponse to a re­view of Mr. Spin­rad’s novel The Iron Dream by Joachim Boaz on the Sci­ence Fic­tion and Other Sus­pect Ru­mi­na­tions web­site. Mr. Boaz re­sponded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to my com­ments and we went back-and-forth a few times.

The Iron Dream (1972) is one of Spin­rad’s most out­ra­geous novels and deals with the young Adolf Hitler as a nov­elist in America! Joachim re­lays just enough of the plot to (hope­fully) whet your ap­petite for more. If you are in­ter­ested in knowing more about this novel or Norman Spinrad, by all means, click on over to the SFAOSR site and read away!

Need­less to say, I could not leave well enough alone (love that idiom!) and so the orig­inal letter has been edited and ex­panded for use here on my blog as “Norman Spinrad Walks Among Us.”

If you do make it over to the SFAOSR site, stay awhile and read more of Mr. Boaz’s re­views. He de­votes a good amount of space to an­other fave of mine, Poul An­derson. Joachim re­views ten of his books, mostly early work from the 1950s and ’60s. I state this be­cause I be­lieve that An­derson was a con­sid­er­ably better writer as he aged, some­thing not often said about writers.


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HEADER IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is a re­laxed shot of Spinrad (in the white jacket with the cig­a­rette) with Harlan El­lison  (in the brown jacket with the pipe) with mem­bers of the Los An­geles Sci­ence Fic­tion So­ciety in 1981-1982. Spinrad has an in­ter­esting blog/website, Norman Spinrad At Large, where you will learn that Norman Spinrad does walk among us . . .




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Love your writing, just one thing, “proof read.”

i will add this title to my “list.” thanks, neal.

Thanks for the shout out! 

I’m cur­rently reading An­der­son’s Brain Wave (1954) -- very underwhelmed....

Where there’s a cen­tral fal­lacy to the first half. People would NOT simply quit work be­cause of slightly in­creased in­tel­li­gence if they have to sup­port fam­i­lies.... An­derson ap­par­ently thinks that the en­tire US is pop­u­lated by young men without fam­i­lies... Think of all the people who do drudge jobs way below their in­tel­li­gence in order to sup­port kids. He seems to re­alize this about half way through and com­ments that it wasn’t everyone....