Science Fiction

Pilgrimage to Other Worlds


Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad, New York: Bantam, 515 pages, $16.95/$4.50

Norman Spinrad has been around for a long time. Among science fiction writers, he has ranked among the moderately successful enfants terribles for several decades—one of the angry young writers worth reading, though he has never really attained the ranks of the greats. Like Harlan Ellison, he does have a loyal following, but his political tone and, until recently, his lack of real artistic depth have necessarily limited his appeal.

But Spinrad is not the young writer who wrote the biting social protest Bug Jack Baron in the late '60s—his best-known book about the coming of middle age to then contemporary liberal Berkeley radicals. The hero of the book, Jack Baron, is a talk-show host and thorn in the side of an industrialist who has turned his longevity research institute into a government-protected monopoly. Baron is forced to come to terms with his own price when he is offered physical immortality in return for supporting the monopoly. It is appropriate that now—as Bug Jack Baron is set to become a movie and Spinrad has reached the middle age of his most famous fictional hero—his work has attained the maturity and depth that he lacked in the past.

With Child of Fortune, it is evident that Spinrad has found himself as a writer. It is a beautiful composition about a young woman, Wendi Shasta Leonardo, and her wanderjahr, the time of travel and self-discovery that most young adults of the future engage in before settling down to a career. Called "children of fortune," they are universally encouraged to vent the ardor of the transition from puberty to adulthood not on their own societies but in a pilgrim-like adventure, reminiscent of the experience of so many during the late '60s.

Child of Fortune is a tale of consciousness raising, of the trials and tribulations of the heroine as she journeys to a variety of planets during her wanderjahr. She visits the pharmaceutical center of the universe, where the use and misuse of drugs confronts her. She visits a totally free-market planet, where she runs out of money and has to fend for herself in a relatively unsympathetic culture. She gets involved with the king of the gypsies, the cult hero of the children of fortune. And the book is in part the story of her own struggle as a writer to recount her experiences.

Curiously, Child of Fortune parallels Tom Robbins's latest, Jitterbug Perfume, in many ways, especially in its harkening to the same elevation of consciousness as a reward in itself. Robbins, best known for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, has slowly been drifting into science fiction. Jitterbug Perfume, if it were Robbins's first book, would be stocked in the science fiction section of bookstores. Like Child of Fortune, it is the story of a pilgrimage and consciousness raising. I would be very interested to know whether Spinrad read Jitterbug Perfume before writing Child of Fortune, or if both he and Robbins built on similar cultural and literary foundations.

Child of Fortune struck me on three levels. First, it stands up as a book, which is to say that it does not fall into the category of much science fiction that is simply a vehicle for a concept or story. Child of Fortune is not just a story; it is a story about stories in which the form itself is the purpose.

The influence of Alfred Bester, one of the greatest of American wordsmiths and perhaps the very best in science fiction, is evident. Spinrad's language of the future is a mixture of languages that is not only believable but a joy to read, though it may require several dictionaries for those unfamiliar with major tongues. There are few books that force me to stop and reread a paragraph for the pleasure of the language. Child of Fortune is one.

Second, the book openly favors a type of idealism, as in the political and spiritual activism of the late '60s, that now seems relegated to nostalgia. I have always resented Tom Hayden and his ilk who attempted to co-opt the anti-Vietnam war movement, which was fundamentally a spontaneous cultural uprising, into a leftist coup d'etat.

The activism of the period was a purely American rejection of the authoritarian disdain that the government showed toward the people. Though it is true that many of the reactions to the system were just that—reactionary—the period had an impact that is still felt strongly today, perhaps more strongly than many will admit. Very few authors have attempted to translate the fervor and convictions of the era into middle-aged and more-educated sensibilities. Spinrad is one of them.

The third noteworthy aspect of Child of Fortune is the very, very German flavor of the work—in subject matter, philosophical bent, and writing style. Previously, Spinrad wrote fictional works in which Adolph Hitler played central roles, books that have been banned in Germany, but he was only writing about German issues. With Child of Fortune and its predecessor, Void Captains Tale (1983), the very essence of Spinrad's art is German.

The old conflict between disciplined, scientific intellectualism and sensation, verging on hedonism, is at work, richly serving the flavor of cabaret Berlin at its most decadent. And it should be noted that neither book will please the morally timorous. Sexual and pharmaceutical experimentation are accepted in the future of Norman Spinrad, much as they are practiced today and were practiced in the German counterculture during the rise of the Third Reich.

Void Captains Tale, in particular, focuses on the tension between the search for pleasure versus duty or responsibility. It is, in a sense, a precursor to Child of Fortune, establishing the technology of cheap transit and some of the culture of Spinrad's future, though there is no congruence of characters.

In some ways, it seems that everything Spinrad has written was leading up to this latest work. The discovery that a good writer has evolved into a brilliant one is worth celebrating. If there is a negative side to Child of Fortune, it is that it may appeal to writers more than to casual readers. Unlike much science fiction that deals with cultural evolution, this book deals with an individual's personal evolution in a future where economic and civil liberties are taken for granted by virtue of the choices offered by inexpensive interstellar travel.

Child of Fortune will offend many people who have settled into familiar explanations and views. Those who are willing to alter their consciousness will appreciate what Norman Spinrad has done. More important, it raises the very pleasant prospect of what he will do next.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to USA Today.