Let me start this with something of a caveat… I’ve only read a little of Norman Spinrad’s considerable literary output; six novels and a couple of short story collections, yet I still regard him as one of the primary influences on my writing and as one of my favourite writers.
The novels in question – The Solarians, Agent of Chaos, The Men in the Jungle, The Iron Dream, Bug Jack Barron and The Process – mostly belong to his early period, when he was producing what can best be described as bloody good science fiction. The Men in the Jungle and The Iron Dream, both of which I have written about before, are fantastic examples of ball-to-the-wall SF with a fierce literary bent which carry the reader along with their pulp-influenced style but at the same time dazzle with their invention, their style and their philosophical undertone.
His first two novels, The Solarians (1966) and Agent of Chaos (1967) are, to be honest, fairly standard sixties SF, very much in the thrall of earlier pulp sensibilities, but pointed the way to the remarkable work that Spinrad would soon produce
In many ways The Men In the Jungle (1967) is the ultimate Vietnam satire – a fierce guerilla war on an alien world that brings down not only the villains of the piece but also morally corrupts the (nominal) hero and brings the world itself to utter ruin. Add to this eugenics taken to the extreme, cannibalism, a ‘sixties slant on the power of pharmaceutical drugs, a liberal dose of (for the time) explicit sex and you have a rather remarkable and should-be classic of the American New Wave.
Even more extraordinary is 1972’s The Iron Dream, a novel which tales alternate reality to an extreme that few other authors have ever managed. Rather than a simple ‘what if?’ taken to its next logical step, Spinrad imagines a world where Adolf Hitler became a writer of pulp SF and presents The Iron Dream as Hitler’s best-remembered (and award winning) novel. There are wheels within wheels working here in a novel which dissects not only the possibilities of history but also the workings of a particular genre (in this case sword and sorcery) and gives it a literary spin that has left me reeling no matter how many times I’ve re-read it.
Controversial upon publication in New Worlds (even leading to questions being asked in parliament about public money being spent on ‘offensive’ material) Bug Jack Barron is arguably Norman Spinrad’s SF magnum opus. As relevant now as when it was first published in 1969, Bug Jack Barron depicts a world where TV moguls are one of the dominant forces in society, where racial tension is never far from the surface, and where a man might sell his soul for immortality.
The Process (1983) was one of the first novels I ever read that openly challenged scientology, with its depiction of a fictional Hubbard is a scathing vision of both the messiah and the messiah complex.
Equally remarkable are some of Spinrad’s shorter works, collected in such collections as No Direction Home (1975) and The Star Spangled Future (1979): The Big Flash gives us an example of a rock n’ roll holocaust, The National Pastime is simply one of the funniest and most harrowing sports stories you will ever read, A Thing of Beauty and The Lost Continent are both stories that look upon a future America where the USA lies in ruins, economically and socially, and where a resurgent Africa and East Asia dominate the world, and his Jerry Cornelius story The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde is a free-wheeling, psychedelic trip that in many ways manages to out-Moorcock even Michael Moorcock at his most free-wheeling and psychedelic.
Put simply, Norman Spinrad is one of the finest writers of speculative fiction that the 20th century produced and I urge you to seek out his work, you won’t be disappointed.