He Walked Among Us
by Norman Spinrad
Review by Tom Easton
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765325846
Date: 30 March 2010 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Norman Spinrad has been a seminal figure in science fiction for decades. His early works include Bug Jack Barron (1969) and the famous (and controversial) Iron Dream (1972), featuring Adolph Hitler as a fantasy writer and the Third Reich as his fantasy. That is, he has a tendency to go more than a little over the top. That tendency is on full display in He Walked Among Us. The motivation for the story is the mess we have been making out of our planet, with growing consciousness of the problem for just about the term of Spinrad's career (the first Earth Day was in 1970). In addition, there is a strong sense of science fiction as a voice in the wilderness, crying alarm over population, pollution, resource exhaustion, and other threats to "life as we like it," describing dystopias and utopias, touting solutions, and all to no avail. The audience--largely fandom (whose figures and physiognomies Spinrad caustically describes as pear-shaped, with eyes too close together)--is simply too small and uninfluential, though it does contain an awful lot of very knowledgeable people in areas relevant to our problems and necessary solutions.
One major protagonist of He Walked Among Us is Dexter D. Lampkin, a science fiction writer who took his shot at saving the world years before the story. His novel, loaded with warnings and prescriptions, found a few readers, but not nearly enough to keep it out of the remainder bins. Now he pays the bills mostly with script-writing for Hollywood.
Another protagonist is "Texas Jimmy" Balaban, an agent for second and third-rate comedians. He's more than a little cynical about the business, but he knows it well and he's a fairly straight-up guy. When he stumbles across Ralf in a dying Borscht-belt nightclub (speaking of voices in the wilderness!), he thinks he has found a jewel in the rough. Ralf's act is a little crude--he claims to be from the future, a Deathship Earth whose environment has been all but destroyed and whose people are jammed into antique malls eating their own recycled wastes, and he harangues his audience because it's all their fault.
This is a comedian? Balaban finds that Ralf is remarkably consistent, on and off the stage. Either he's nuts, or he really is from the future. So he signs him, and they're off, first clubs and talk shows and then a show of his own, which is where Lampkin comes in, writing material for him and lining up audiences--including prime specimens of pear-shaped fandom--for him to play against. So far, this is not huge success, and the reader has to wonder just what is going on. But then Spinrad introduces the notion of virtual futures, any or all of which might be sending back representatives to bring themselves about, and he introduces Foxy Loxy, a crackhead whose brain somehow picks up a roborat that wants to bring about a post-Deathship future.
That's when Lampkin ghosts a book--The Word According to Ralf, built in large part on his earlier novel--which does astonishingly well. Ralf fandom takes shape, and it begins to look like Ralf has a real chance to accomplish his putative mission. But there is still Foxy Loxy, armed with a great big knife, and she's at the con in a great Deathship Earth hall costume!
Spinrad still goes over the top with a roar and a leap. Is he successful? The book was turned down by American publishers--perhaps because of its caustic comments on American culture--but the French were more impressed, and it did very well there. Because of that success, Tor picked it up and you have a chance to see why the French seem to love Spinrad so much.
Will you love him (or the book)? If you're a fan with a pear-shaped figure and eyes too close together, you might be miffed. If your news ration comes from Fox, you might take the harangues too personally. But if you think we're trashing the joint and need solutions, you will find yourself singing along with Lampkin and Ralf and wishing desperately that the book were not fiction. The message is certainly one that needs to be heard.