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N O R M A N   S P I N R A D :
The Transformation Crisis

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, February 1999)
Norman Spinrad
    Photo by Charles N. Brown


Norman Spinrad's website


Norman [Richard] Spinrad was born September 15, 1940, in New York City. Nearly all of his childhood was spent in the Bronx, and he went to the Bronx High School of Science. He graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1961 with a B.A. as a pre-law major, but, as he notes below, he decided he'd rather be a writer. He had taken courses in short story writing at CCNY, so he worked on a (never-published) first novel, and wrote stories. His first sale was ''The Last of the Romany'' (Analog 1963). From 1964 to 1966, he worked at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. His first published SF novel was The Solarians (1966), followed by Agent of Chaos and The Men in the Jungle (both 1967).

Next came the best known and most controversial novel of his early career, Bug Jack Barron (1969). When a shorter version was first serialized in New Worlds (1967-68), its alleged violence and profanity led to Britain's major news agency banning the magazine. The controversy continued with The Iron Dream (1972), alternate-world SF featuring Hitler as a pulp writer. The French edition of this novel earned Spinrad the 1974 Prix Apollo. In the '70s, he also had collections The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970), The Star-Spangled Future (1979), as well as novels Riding the Torch (1978) and A World Between (1979). After Songs from the Stars (1980) came two well-regarded far-future SF novels, The Void Captain's Tale (1983) and Child of Fortune (1985). Another preoccupation rock'n'roll was featured in 1988 SF novel Little Heroes (along with the prerequisite sex and drugs). In the '80s, he also headed two SF organizations, as SFWA president in 1980-81, and president of World SF in 1988-90.

His interest in Europe led him to Paris in 1988 to research near-future SF novel Russian Spring (1991). He still lives there.

Spinrad has also written non-SF works, most recently Pictures at 11 (1994), and various works of non-fiction, including Staying Alive: A Writer's Guide (1983) based on columns in Locus and Science Fiction in the Real World (1990) based on columns in Asimov's. He is also the editor of Modern Science Fiction (1974), an important SF anthology.

''I wanted to do a society that knows human history. My two far-future novels, The Void Captain's Tale and Child of Fortune, are set in a good society that works, this galactic culture in the far future, three or four thousand years from now. They are not about changing or wrecking the society; they're about what happens to people inside it. Child of Fortune is another anarchist novel, because there's no government. (All right, so I'm an anarchist but I'm a syndicalist. You have to have organized anarchy, because otherwise it doesn't work.)

''In these books, people speak this kind of mélange language of human languages, to the point where everybody speaks their own dialect of this common language their own sprach of lingo, I call it. I hasten to say, these books are at least 80% in English! But in Void Captain's Tale, the starship captain speaks a more Germanic form, and in Child of Fortune it's more latinate and Italian.

''Child of Fortune is a book about the wanderjahr of a 17- or 18-year-old girl. In this society, after a certain amount of schooling, when you decide you want to do it, you go off to wander and find your 'true name.' People are given names by their parents, and then after their wanderjahr they choose a name. (They used to do that, in a way, in medieval Germany, and that's where the word wanderjahr comes from.)

''That book relates to my own feelings about how I became a writer. In some kind of crazy way, Child of Fortune is autobiographical. The difference is, this is the way it should be for young people, so it's a kind of wish-fulfillment autobiography.

''For various reasons, I'm an important writer in France. Bug Jack Barron was very important to a certain generation who became media people, politicians, culture-types. It won the Prix Apollo in 1974, and got a lot of literary attention. So that established me in France as a writer more important than science fiction. When a book of mine comes out, it gets a lot of press, and interviews, and attention. Not because I'm living there this started earlier. I've been in France almost ten years.

''For a long time, I'd been writing a lot of things that sort of add up to a big central theme which in fact is an essay on my website, 'The Transformation Crisis', a speech I gave at a futurology conference in the south of France. I believe it's in the nature of intelligence and the universe that every intelligent species that evolves anywhere is going to go through this crisis. It's when an intelligent species evolves to the point where it's got nuclear weapons; where what it's doing industrially is starting to affect the atmosphere of its planet, its oceans, its biosphere; where the capacity for genetic engineering arises, so you've been tinkering with the nature of life; where you are or are not going to get off the planet, develop sustainable energy resources; and so forth.

''This is the central question of our time, and our time is the central time in the history of our species, because this is when it gets decided. Maybe we are too young for it then we're screwed. But we're stuck with it. We have the power, the capacity, to destroy the planet. We could destroy ourselves, and we could destroy the biosphere itself.

''And also, you develop cultural institutions that are sustainable. That's also an inherent, technologically-based part of this crisis. Sooner or later, the technology of an evolving civilization runs into this situation where 10% of the people can produce the goods and services for 100% of the people. What are you going to do with the other 90%? You have to solve this.

''The novel I'm working on now, Glass Houses, is mostly set in post-Greenhouse Effect Paris, but also in New York and Libya, and the main characters are mixed nationality American, French, Romanian.

''Glass Houses had a lot of starting-points. What irritates me in Paris, a city I love, is the crappy climate it's cold, it's wet. One cold, rainy, windy Paris day, I'm reading something about people complaining about the Greenhouse Warming. I look out the window and say, 'Where is it?' Which gave me the realization that it's going to be good for some people, and bad for others. So in Glass Houses there are winners and losers.

''What's wrong with science fiction is part of the same damn crisis, and I'm not kidding. What's wrong with science fiction ultimately is an aspect of what's wrong with conglomerate corporate capitalism, the publishing part, because in terms of how many good books are being written every year, there's nothing wrong. The last ten years, there are 20 or 30 good-to-great novels every year, and you really can't complain. The problem is, they're buried in an avalanche of cynical commercial crap. That's a dysfunction of the publishing industry, and it affects what writers write.

''There's another thing wrong with science fiction, and I think it comes from the culture too. How much science fiction is being published now that's set in worlds that are better than ours? Not that have bigger shopping malls or faster space ships, but where the characters are morally superior, where the society works better, is more just? Not many. It becomes difficult to do it, and that's a feedback relationship with what's happening in the culture, with science fiction being the minor note. People don't credit it anymore! Not just better gizmos and more virtual reality gear, but better societies. People don't believe the future will be a better place. And that is very scary.

''Providing hope is something science fiction should be doing. It sounds arrogant to say it, but if we don't do it, who the hell will? One of the social functions of science fiction is to be visionary, and when science fiction isn't being visionary, it hurts the culture's visionary sense. And when the culture isn't receptive, neither is science fiction. It's a downward spiral.''

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.