Other Americas, by Norman Spinrad, New York: Bantam/Spectra Books, 273 pages, $3.95 paper
"Way I see it, the government of the United States has stolen about a half a million dollars from me in the first place! I don't do business with people who have picked my pockets until they acknowledge the fact and pay me back with interest. Nonnegotiable, Ellis. I want my money. I don't think that's asking too much."
Some Bolshevik this guy is, Ellis thought.
—"La Vie Continue," Norman Spinrad
Norman Spinrad is one of the perennial Bad Boys of science fiction. From the first, he's pushed the edge of the envelope that describes the kind of fiction publishable in America. The Iron Dream, among his best-known novels but far from his best, remains banned in Germany, close to two decades since it was first published. That's because it's ostensibly by Adolf Hitler, an obscure American science fiction writer of the '30s and '40s, who fled to these shores after a brief and undistinguished career as a German lieutenant during the Great War.
"Journals of the Plague Years," an outline and treatment for a novel of the same name, was recently published in Full Spectrum, an original anthology from Bantam books. It deals with an America ravaged and horribly changed by the spread and mutation of the AIDS virus. Though the outline was published as a novella, the novel itself has been repeatedly rejected—because, Spinrad claims, publishers say that book chains and distributors would refuse to handle such controversial material.
Other Americas is a collection of four novellas, all dealing with a future America and each, in its own way, admonitory.
"Street Meat" is set in the same world as Spinrad's 1987 novel, Little Heroes; it portrays New York City as a complete dystopia, with the rich holed up in East Side preserves, protected by Uzi-armed desperadoes, while the poor scuffle in filth for a juicy mouthful of roast dog. It may be considered extreme of its kind; but, as anyone who must contend with filth-stained subway panhandlers on a daily basis can attest, it is not beyond the realm of imagination.
"World War Last" is broad farce, perhaps excessively broad at times. It deals with a dope-crazed Islamic dictator with nuclear weapons, a sex-crazed American president and former used-car salesman, a dead Soviet Premier animated by computer software and kept "alive" to preserve the delicate balance of power within the Politburo, and the possibility of global thermonuclear war. It is not for the easily shocked, but it is certainly uproariously funny.
"La Vie Continue" is somewhat self-indulgent; Spinrad casts himself as its hero, although it takes place some decades in the future. Despite the conceit, it is an amusing and ultimately sad vision of an all-too-possible America in which the First Amendment has been eroded to a meaningless sham.
To say that "The Lost Continent" is the weakest of the four is, by comparison, hardly criticism. It is no surprise to discover that the story was written in 1970; Spinrad has grown enormously since his early work. It describes a world in which Africa is the heart of global civilization and America is a sad, tattered remnant of the glory that once was.
Other Americas is explicitly about other Americas—possible futures or alternative paths for our own country. But all of Spinrad's work is motivated, in some sense or another, by America; whether set in the far future or alien worlds, his central preoccupation is with the survival and extension of freedom.
It would be ludicrous, however, to brand Spinrad a libertarian. Indeed, he would certainly reject the label with some heat. Spinrad's passionate attachment to freedom, individual and economic, derives not from some abstract 17th-century notion of natural rights, nor a pragmatic observation of the economic benefits of freedom. It comes instead from the Summer of Love.
In an era when "My Generation" is sung by 40 year olds and pressed into service to sell products on TV, the "Spirit of the '60s" is claimed by every conceivable pitchman with a product to sell, whether that product be Kentucky Fried Chicken or fear of nuclear power. Exactly what "the '60s" meant was far from clear at the time and its import, in retrospect, is no more pellucid.
To Norman Spinrad, the '60s was an era of possibility. It was the era when nonwhites were offered the possibility of full participation in American life; when America awoke to the dangers of being the world's policeman; when it seemed, for a brief and shining moment, that the promise inherent in America's radical and (ahem) libertarian beginnings might actually be realized. If it was, in truth, a confused, violent, and fundamentally unhappy time, this is irrelevant. To Spinrad, what is important is not what it was, but what it promised.
This vision inspires not the sort of sugar-coated '60s nostalgia that is becoming nauseatingly prevalent, but a gritty, hard-nosed prose. Taken together, the four novellas in Other Americas are an excellent introduction to Spinrad's work. Such an introduction is to be desired. Norman Spinrad is, simply put, among the finest living American writers. That he chooses to write science fiction should not limit his appeal; indeed, the sort of fiction that he writes could hardly be squeezed into any other form. Readers who, like Spinrad, love freedom and America will find his work a startling and invigorating brew.
Greg Costikyan writes both fiction and nonfiction and has also designed 23 commercially published games.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "An Invigorating Brew".