Posts Tagged ‘Screenwriting’


H Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad front cover

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

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(This is an expanded and, we think, better review of this novel than the one we ran two years ago.)

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 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 a time-traveling “comedian from the future” from “Deathship Earth” in the 22nd century, where the few wretched survivors huddle inside abandoned shopping malls on a poisoned planet; Ralf’s shtick consists largely of mercilessly berating his audience, “monkey boys” and “monkey girls,” for their stupidity and environmental irresponsibility.

While performing one evening at Kapplemeyer’s, 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.

Spinrad describes Balaban’s reaction to the audience at Kappelmeyer’s:

It was an audience that Texas Jimmy wouldn’t have wished on Adolf Hitler and Auschwitz Boys, an audience that he wouldn’t even have wished on the acts actually condemned to face it.

Ralf is the final one of those acts.

Very shortly, Texas Jimmy takes Ralf to Hollywood and lands him a gig hosting a low-budget TV 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.

At that point Texas Jimmy calls in new age acting coach Amanda Robbin and hard/social 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 age flakes Amanda books as guests and the nerd 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, degradation, and violence. 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. An example:

Practically at the the bottom of the fuckin’ can, there it was, half a Big Mac, meat an’ all, little green around th’ sesame seed bun maybe, not the kinda thing you wanted t’think about maybe with all th’ cockroaches come crawlin’ out of it when she snatches it, but she don’t have to, because Rat Thing don’t wanna waste the live protein, he has her shovin’ it in her mouth an’ chewin’ it down in three big mouthfuls before the last of the roaches can escape or she can even think about thinkin’ about it.

That passage isn’t much fun to read, but it must have been a hell of a lot of fun to write.

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. (Spinrad intersperses a number of anecdotes about himself in Dexter’s sections.) 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 his and Amanda’s 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 all too many new agers I’ve known over the years.

One weakness of the book is that He Walked Among Us is primarily a comic novel, and most of the sections involving Amanda are overly long and simply aren’t funny. The same could be said of a couple of the segments describing Ralf’s TV show.

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.

Before ending, I’ll note that there is one curious thing about He Walked Among Us: based on its detailed descriptions of background, it seems almost certain that this book was written (at least in good part) well over a decade before it was published. For one thing, there are mentions in a few places of archaic day-to-day technologies (e.g., answering machines), but more telling is what isn’t there: neither cell phones nor the Internet are mentioned anywhere in this 540-page novel.

My hunch is that Spinrad started writing this book in the late ’80s or early ’90s, couldn’t figure out how to end it, set it aside, and finally finished it in the mid to late 2000s, at which point it would have required major revision — revision unnecessary to the plot — to accommodate those technologies.

It’s a testament to how well the book is written, though, that I didn’t even notice those missing technological elephants the first time I read the book. (This is very likely, at least in part, due to my having lived through the ’80s and early ’90s as an adult: the background seems entirely natural to me.)

In any event, 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. In large part it’s a love letter to science fiction and its potential to inspire change.

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

Advertisements