A Neglected Sci-Fi Gem: He Walked Among Us, by Norman Spinrad

Posted: November 24, 2015 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , ,

H Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad front cover

(NOTE: We just ran a revised and expanded review of this book.)

(He Walked Among Us, by Norman Spinrad. Tor, 2009, 540 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

For decades, Norman Spinrad has been one of the most prolific and under-appreciated science fiction writers. He’s written dozens of novels, some great, some not so great–which puts him in good company: almost all prolific authors are inconsistent, even Shakespeare, who on occasion could have used a good editor. There are some real jewels among Spinrad’s works, notably The Iron Dream and Mindgame, but He Walked Among Us is arguably Spinrad’s best novel.

It concerns a Borscht Belt comedian, Ralf (no last name), who bills himself as “the comedian from from the future,” from “Deathship Earth,” where the few wretched survivors huddle inside abandoned shopping malls on a poisoned planet; Ralf’s shtick consists of mercilessly berating his audience for their stupidity and environmental irresponsibility . While performing one evening at a dive Catskills resort, Ralf is discovered by the novel’s most entertaining character, Texas Jimmy Balaban, an agent for second-string comics, who drinks a lot, is very “Hollywood,”  and isn’t above using his position to get laid, but is basically honest and has always “tried to be a mensch”–in other words, he’s about as good as it gets as far as agents go.

Very shortly, Texas Jimmy takes Ralf to Hollywood and lands him a gig hosting a low-budget talk show, The Word According to Ralf,  on one of the minor TV networks. Ralf, who always remains in character, and insists that he actually is from the future, quickly runs out of steam with his gloom-doom-and-abuse routine, and at that point Texas Jimmy calls in new age acting coach Amanda Robbin and hard science fiction author and screenwriter Dexter Lampkin to recast Ralf and to save the show. Very shortly, Ralf becomes the prophet from “Starship Earth,” who’s here to save the planet, and the show begins to gain popularity due to its more upbeat tone and the conflict between the new agers Amanda books as guests and the scientific types Dexter books.

As part of the attempt to save the show, Dexter turns to a community about which he has very mixed feelings: sci-fi fandom, as witness the following excerpts told from Dexter’s point of view:

Oscar Karel was a familiar figure at science fiction conventions. With his massive paunch flowing seamlessly into his enormous ass without benefit of a waistline and his narrow shoulders and chicken-chest, Oscar Karel was shaped like a giant overweight penguin. At a science fiction convention, his physical appearance would have hardly been noticed, since this was a dominant fannish genotype . . .

Most of the hotel personnel would never have seen so many grossly overweight people together at the same time, and even if they had, certainly not wearing T-shirts and capris and jeans and harem costumes in such perfectly blithe disregard of the exceedingly unfortunate fashion statement.

Globuloids, Bob Silverberg called them.

There are a great many similarly funny, mostly less acerbic, passages scattered throughout the book.

 Without giving too much away, the remainder of He Walked Among Us deals with the conflicts between Ralf, Balaban, Amanda, and Dexter, their efforts to save the show, and an emerging desire to actually save the Earth.

One ingenious aspect of this novel is that while Ralf is the center of gravity around which all else revolves, he is not one of the point-of-view characters. Rather, the story is told from the point of view of other characters, including “Foxy Loxy,” a New York crack whore who, in an apparently separate story, descends into graphically described madness, violence, and degradation. The segments dealing with Foxy (aka “Rat Girl”) are riveting and all too easy to buy, but are unpleasant reading, made more so by the very close third-person narration in her segments. Through over 80% of He Walked Among Us, while dark suspicions grow, the reader is left wondering “How in hell will this tie in with the rest of the story?”

The other p.o.v. characters are Texas Jimmy, Dexter, and Amanda.  Dexter, one strongly suspects, is modeled at least in part on Spinrad himself; Dexter is conflicted about his career, doing meaningless writing jobs simply to make ends meet, unhappy about sales of his sci-fi novels, and ambivalent about his fans, who he’s harnessing to promote Ralf and their mutual save-the-Earth agenda. Amanda is the least interesting of the main characters, though she, like the others is well drawn and believable–she reminds me of too many new agers I’ve known over the years.

Eventually, all the threads of the story converge, including the “Rat Girl” narrative, with all the dread it entails. How Spinrad resolves it is unexpected, but it works.

Until literally the final paragraph, I couldn’t figure out how Spinrad was going to end this book. But he does, and the ending is perfect.

I haven’t read a book in ages I’ve enjoyed as much as He Walked Among Us. It’s very, very funny, thought provoking, and in the end both touching and inspiring.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover

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Comments
  1. […] A Neglected Sci-Fi Gem: He Walked Among Us, by Norman Spinrad […]

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  2. […] of Spinrad’s other antiauthoritarian  sci-fi novels, such as Greenhouse Summer (1999) and He Walked Among Us (2009), are also worth reading.  Getting somewhat away from sci-fi, Mind Game (1980) is […]

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  3. […] series, which decades later he turned into (or at least reused the title for) the wonderful novel He Walked Among Us; I’d have loved to have seen that episode. This is the most “fannish” of the more […]

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