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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .