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Spinrad, Norman

Entry updated 8 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1940-    ) US author, born in New York – where he set some impressive fiction – but resident in France for many years; married to N Lee Wood (1990-2005). He began publishing sf with "The Last of the Romany" in Analog for 1963, assembled with other early work as The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (coll 1970), the title story being among the most successful of the attempts made by various authors to write a Shared World tale using the characters and universe of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series. The story was originally published in New Worlds, to which Spinrad was a significant contributor during the 1960s, when both the US and UK New-Wave movements, though with different emphases (the UK form tending more selfconsciously to assimilate Mainstream modes like Surrealism), argued against traditional sf, which (it was claimed) had failed to use the hard sciences to explore Inner Space, regarded as the proper territory of all genuinely serious writing. After publishing two commercial Space OperasThe Solarians (1966) and Agent of Chaos (1967), which depicts a garish Dystopia en passant – Spinrad subsequently kept faith with that brief and the ethos which generated it.

The Men in the Jungle (1967) – which subjects its tough, urban protagonist to a complex set of Realpolitik adventures on a distant planet where conditions closely resemble the then-current events in Vietnam – demonstrates the vigour and occasionally slapdash bravado of what would become Spinrad's typical style; but it was with his next book, Bug Jack Barron (December 1967-October 1968 New Worlds; exp 1969), that he made his greatest impact on the sheltered world of sf, whose risible parochialism, when confronted by this not particularly shocking novel, was demonstrated by Sam J Lundwall in his Science Fiction: What It's All About (1969; trans exp 1971), where Bug Jack Barron is dismissed as "practically a collection of obscenities". The violent texture and profanity of the magazine version of the text more ominously rattled the excitable dovecotes of the UK "moral establishment" as well, leading directly to the banning of New Worlds by W H Smith, a newsagent chain then so dominant in the market that its action was tantamount to censorship. The novel itself, whose language does not fully conceal a certain sentimentality, describes a Near-Future US through Television figure Jack Barron and his involvement in a politically corrupt system: the resulting picture of America as a hyped, Sex-obsessed, apocalyptic Theatre of the Absurd made the text seem less sf than Fabulation, where this sort of vision is common. The sledgehammer style matched, at points, the content; and the treatment of women (see Feminism) lost the book some of the positive interest its flaring cynicism about male-dominated power structures might have merited.

In Spinrad's next novel, The Iron Dream (1972), which won the 1974 Prix Apollo (see Awards), the intention to offend was gratifyingly explicit. The Alternate History frame of the tale features a version of Adolf Hitler who, thwarted as a politician, migrates to New York, where it is easy for him to translate his spite and envy into popular fiction, becoming a well-known Pulp author in the process. Framed within this New York context, the heart of The Iron Dream is "Lord of the Swastika", a novel-length sf story from Hitler's feverish pen through which Spinrad is able to mock – effectively if at times unrelentingly – some of the less attractive tendencies of right-wing sf, its fetish with gear, its fascist love of hierarchical display, its philistinism, its brutishness, its racism, its not entirely secret contempt for the people its Heroes or Messiah-figures defend. The narrative itself follows a Hitler-substitute figure named Feric Jaggar as he conquers the world (see Hitler Wins) and is turning his attention to the stars as the tale ends. The "Afterword" by "Homer Whipple", with its exculpatory analysis of the book in terms of phallic imagery, just as hilariously guys the kind of critical writing generated by publish-or-perish academics, who had begun to invest the field around this time. Spinrad then released two further collections of early work – No Direction Home (coll 1975) and The Star-Spangled Future (coll 1979), the latter an adroitly shaped compilation of his first two volumes of stories The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and No Direction Home – which concisely demonstrate the range of his response to the complexities of a rapidly changing Western world. From this point, that world dominated – as metaphor or in realistic depiction – his work.

In A World Between (1979) the citizens of a Utopian world deal with strident threats to their middle way from technophile fascists of the right and lesbian fascists of the left. The Mind Game (1980; vt The Process 1983), not sf, savagely treats a manipulative "church" whose dictates and cynicism seem clearly to evoke Scientology for the sf reader familiar with the controversies that attended L Ron Hubbard's founding and governance of this Religion; and the later The Children of Hamelin (early 1970s Los Angeles Free Press and The Staff; 1991), likewise not sf, deals with contemporary people trapped in a cult. The Post-Holocaust Songs from the Stars (1980) opposes a restrictive "black" technological rule with an uplift message from a soaring galactic civilization. The best single work from this period was The Void Captain's Tale (1983) which, with its thematic partner Child of Fortune (1985), comprises what one might call an eroticized vision of the Galaxy. The Spaceship in the first tale is driven by Eros, in the very explicit sense that sexual congress is the engine that drives the ship; and the female protagonist of the second, in her elated Wanderjahr among the sparkling worlds, at least symbolically – fertilizes all she touches. Little Heroes (1987) is set in a nightmarish urban Near-Future America divided into haves and ruthlessly manipulated have-nots; the plot turns on a combination of technology-fixing and co-optation that cuts close to the bone, though by this date Spinrad's weary rage had begun to lose some of its purgative bite.

He continued to compose Satires all the same, and the four novellas about the state of the USA assembled in Other Americas (coll 1988) do show a recovery of Spinrad's urban venom about the self-consuming progress of his native land into the millennium. Russian Spring (1991), set in a Near-Future world dominated by a USSR liberated by perestroika, again voluminously anatomizes the American Dream, though the effect of the book was muffled by the real-life collapse of the USSR in 1991; but Deus X (1993; exp vt as coll Deus X and Other Stories 2003) adroitly mixed the cod theologizings of a troubled Pope with excursions into Cyberspace, where souls may – or may not – be deemed to dwell; and Vampire Junkies (August 1993 Tomorrow; 1994 chap) neatly contrasts the experiences of Vlad Dracul in 1990s New York with those of a hooker addicted to smack. The novel form of Journals of the Plague Years (in Full Spectrum, anth 1988, ed Lou Aronica and Shawna McCarthy; exp 1995) modestly upgrades the 1988 vision of a Dystopian America whose dealings with the AIDS epidemic evoke its author's abiding Paranoia about the nature of the Near Future: the American healthcare consortia, fearful of loss of profits, scupper a cure for the Pandemic. Pictures at 11 (1994) is associational. Greenhouse Summer (1999), again set in the Near Future, depicts a world intensely and incestuously politicized on the poison crux of Climate Change: presciently, some of the complex storyline concerns a faking of evidence on the part of those predicting even more terrible Disasters than have already occurred by the middle of the twenty-first century, though it is clear those disasters are in fact imminent (Spinrad's impatience with global-warming "sceptics" is refreshing). A problem with this tale, as with most of his later work, may be that his complex multi-phasic realism of his depiction of the Near FutureGreenhouse Summer and Bruce Sterling's almost simultaneous Distraction (1998), which both depict congruent worlds, both significantly use information-manipulating PR mavens to carry the tune – does not fit well into his habit of resolving matters through melodramatic, action-oriented climaxes. Spinrad's later fiction tended to eschew direct sf content, though He Walked Among Us (2003) incorporates into its Satirical portrait of contemporary America a possible sf reading, in the person of a messiah-like doomsayer who claims to come from the desperate future which twenty-first-century humanity may have already made inevitable. Equipoisal shudders may be numerous, but the text focuses primarily on the delusion-wracked present-day scene. Like all of Spinrad's best work, the novel is savage, sarcastic, self-indulgent, and rampageous.

Two nonfiction collections – Staying Alive: A Writer's Guide (coll 1983) and Science Fiction in the Real World (coll 1990) – make even more explicit some of his bleakly vehement assumptions about the course of the world. As immune from Boomer uplift as his most influential coevals and colleagues, in particular Thomas M Disch and Michael Moorcock, Spinrad spent his early childhood in the atmosphere of World War Two, and may have been indirectly afflicted by that war and the disheartening return to "normalcy" that marked the aftermath years in his native land; he certainly treated the human record during the second half of the twentieth century as grounds for jeremiad. He won the Prix Utopia in 2003, a life achievement award given by the Utopiales International Festival in Nantes, France; he won no significant awards in America or the UK. [JC]

see also: Asimov's Science Fiction; Clones; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Cyberpunk; Definitions of SF; Destinies; Ecology; End of the World; Entropy; Fantastic Voyages; Faster Than Light; Games and Sports; Immortality; Jobs in SF; Media Landscape; Medicine; Military SF; Music; Mutants; Organlegging; Perception; Politics; Pollution; Psychology; Race in SF; Rays; Ruined Earth; Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; Sun; Sword and Sorcery; Technology; Weather Control.

Norman Richard Spinrad

born New York: 15 September 1940



Second Starfaring Age

  • The Void Captain's Tale (New York: Simon and Schuster/Timescape Books, 1983) [Second Starfaring Age: hb/Ozzie Greif]
  • Child of Fortune (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1985) [Second Starfaring Age: hb/Mark Watts and Yee Chea Lin]

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor



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