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Child of Fortune Hardcover – July 1, 1985

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A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett
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Editorial Reviews


"A sublime comedy-an epic, an extended narrative in the heroic tradition with grandeur and sweep. It's a Homeric space voyage, a Joycean interstellar trip, a Huck Finn saga of humanity's next adventure. It's a literary masterpiece."-Timothy Leary

"An outstanding book on every level."-Michael Moorcock
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I was born on Glade, a planet, like most of the far-flung worlds of men, of no particular fame in starfaring lore, and no economic significance in the transstellar scheme of things. Like most of the worlds of men, Glade is an almost entirely self-contained economic unit, which is to say that its plains, rivers and seas provide sufficient nutriment to support a healthy human population of about 300 million without the need to import significant amounts of trace elements from other stellar systems, and its mineral wealth, supplemented by the occasional asteroid, provides a sufficient raw materials base for its industrial economy.
Verdad, through hindsight's eye I can thus dryly state that I was born and grew up on a world ordinaire, not unlike hundreds of such worlds warmed by G-type suns. But my girlhood perception of my heimat's centrality to the larger scheme of things was quite a grander matter, for I was also born and raised as a child of Nouvelle Orlean, considered by all on Glade to be the jewel of our planet, and no more so than by the citizens of the city itself.
Like its legendary Terrestrial namesake, Nouvelle Orlean was built upon the ocean-mouth delta of a great continent-draining river system, but naturellement, in an age of primarily aerial transport, the original settlers had not chosen the site for its geographic significance as an ideal nexus of river and ocean commerce. Rather had the settlers of Glade chosen the venue for our planet's metropole along esthetic--and indeed perhaps spiritual--parameters from the outset.
Glade, by the standards of human genetic parameters, is a somewhat cool world, capped by mountains of glacial ice at either pole, and dominated by less than simpatico semitundra in its middle latitudes, so that the most favorable zone of human habitation is the tropics, where the bulk of the populace is therefore to be found. Portions of three continents lie within this optimal climatic zone. Of these lands, southern Arbolique is clearly the geographic heimat of the human spirit on the planet.
Arbolique is the mightiest continent of Glade in more ways than one. It extends from the northern ice cap to just short of the equator at its southernmost point at the tip of the Culebra Peninsula, and the Grand Massif begins beneath the polar ice, rises into a towering longitudinal cordillera of snow-capped and moss-crusted rock, then splits into eastern and western chains as it marches down the continent nearly to the shores of the tropical sea.
Between these two mountain chains lies the Great Vale, a broad and fertile central valley veined and subdivided by chains of lesser mountains and hills, the whole more of an enormous mountain meadow than a peneplain, beginning in the north at an elevation of some three thousand meters and reaching sea level only at the delta mouth of the Rio Royale, the mighty central river whose headwaters begin as myriad lesser streams draining the ice cap run-off, and which foams and roars over great falls and wild rapids through the passes of the high cordillera, finally debouching into the sea via its delta as a broad stream of clear blue fresh water visible from the air against the contrasting greener ocean waters many miles from the shoreline.
Nouvelle Orlean lies somewhat upstream from the lowland marshes of the true alluvial delta of the Rio Royale, at a point where the wide and placid river flows through a mild canyon cut through the low coastal mountains. Here there are narrow river flats on both sides of the Royale, and immediately behind them loom hills and river cliffs crusted with the gnarly and intergrown trees of the Bittersweet Jungle and dripping with lianafungi, crawlervines, and saphroflors, like brilliant and varicolored molds festooning huge green mounds of ancient bread. Here, too, there are islands in the stream, most mere sand and mud bars held together by their crowns of jungle growth, but some large enough to hold whole arrondissements of the city.
Nouvelle Orlean spreads itself on both banks of the river, on the islands, both natural and crafted, inbetween, and some folk have chosen to build manses on the jungled heights above. Beneath the palisades on both banks of the river, tall buildings rise, sheathed for the most part in numerous subtle tints of mirror-glass, and between them and the river on either side are tree-shrouded esplanades lined with kiosks, restaurants, and pavilions. Above and behind the east and west bas-corniches, haute-corniches wind among the jungle-shaded manses of the Hightowns.
But the heart, and indeed the soul, of the city, for all who style themselves true Orleaners, is Rioville, the magical archipelago spreading across the Royale and uniting what would otherwise be twin cities into one. Here the buildings have been kept low and rambling, in harmony with the jungle and wooded parklands which have been allowed to occupy most of the terrain, both for esthetic effect, and in order to bind the islands together so that the river will not sweep them away. Rioville architecture relies upon wood, brick, and stone, or at least on excellent ersatzes of natural materials, though not to the point of excluding wide expanses of window-glass overlooking every vista. Porches, breezeways, gazebos, open pavilions, and interior rooms that fling open whole walls to the natural realm while inviting vegetation inside are also very much in the Rioville mode. As are the hundreds of footbridges which span the smaller channels and the thousands of small boats of every type and fancy which give the city the ambiance of fabled Venice of ancient lore, and not without deliberate homage to the spirit of the Doges.
By custom with greater moral force than law, the arrondissements of Rioville are given over entirely to the realms of art, leisure, cultural endeavor, pleasure, and tantra, while most of the plyers of these trades have residences within these precincts, as well as those of more prosaic callings who have the desire and where-withal to live within its ambiance of perpetual fiesta.
My parents had built a rambling house on the low crown of a small island near the north end of Rioville close by the center of the river, and for the first eighteen years of my life, I spent many late afternoons and early evenings on the second story porch, watching the sun set behind the western Hightown, the lights of the manses winking on from between the folds of the deeply shadowed jungle as the stars slowly emerged in the purpling sky above and the mirrored buildings of the eastern bank flashed deep orange as they reflected the sunset like a sheath of flame across the island-studded waters.
From my little aerie, I could look north up the river as it poured through the gorge that reached up into the icebound crown of the continent, and sometimes a fragrant wind, redolent of jungle vegetation and oncoming night, would blow down from what seemed to me at the time the very roof and mystery of the world, and I could inhale deeply and imagine that I was breathing in the very spirit of the planet. On other evenings, a tongue of fog might blow in from the sea, enveloping Rioville in perfumed billows of dream stuff, turning the lights of the city into the faerie fires of a Brigadoon rising ghostly and triumphant from the mists.
And at all times, after night had finally fallen, and the full panoply of stars had come out, and one could scarcely tell where the stellar concourse ended and the lights of the Hightown began, I would walk to the other end of the porch and gaze out over the islands of Rioville itself, a carpet of multicolored jewels flung across the waters, a brilliant spiderwork of illuminated bridges, the running lights of thousands of boats bobbing in the currents, and wafting up on the sea breeze towards me, the faint, far-off music of the magical city, compounded of laughter, and sighs, and myriad voices, and the sounds of instruments, fiestas, and entertainments. At such times, I would grow giddy with the intoxicating aroma of Nouvelle Orlean itself, a heady brew compounded of dozens of cuisinary styles offered up by hundreds of restaurants, the perfumes of lovers, intoxicants, incenses, wood shavings, oil paints, leather, and the overwhelming nighttime effluvia of tropical flowers.
May the young girl that I then was therefore not be forgiven for supposing that she was favored by fate and blessed by fortune, a citizen of Xanadu and destiny's darling?
Moreover, as I grew from relatively innocent young girl-hood into early pubescent flower, as the social relativities of Nouvelle Orlean society began to impinge upon my consciousness, my sense of humility was hardly enhanced by the knowledge that my parents, far from being mere ordinary burghers of this extraordinary city, were figures of some local fame, if not quite the leading luminaries of the haut monde that I portrayed them as to my schoolmates.
My mother, Shasta Suki Davide, had herself been born in Nouvelle Orlean, and after spending her wanderjahr exploring the vie of an erotic adventurer, had studied for two years at the Academie Tantrique on Dravida, where she became an adept of the tantric arts both erotic and healing. Her freenom, Shasta, she had chosen upon completion of her studies homage à Nicole Shasta, a figure of considerable controversy in her day, who had first elucidated the mass-energy phenomena underlying the ancient metaphorical and metaphysical tantric principles and had thus founded the science my mother followed.
My father, Leonardo Vanya Hana, had been born on Flor del Cielo, and had spent only a rather brief period as a wandering Child of Fortune, for he was one of those rare people who seem to have known what they wish to become almost from birth, namely an inventor and fabricator of personal enhancement devices, several of which he had already created as a schoolboy.
Naturellement, the conclusion of his wanderjahr found him on Diana, perhaps the planet most famed for the production of just such personal amplifiers, where he secured employment in one of the leading fabriks as an artisan and sometime designer of same...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 483 pages
  • Publisher: Spectra (July 1, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553050893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553050899
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,477,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

IRON AND CHROMIUM--a restrospective review in The Los Angeles Book Review byAlvario Zinos Amaro

NORMAN SPINRAD'S WORK has, over the last fifty years, elicited responses that range from "depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive" (Donald Wollheim) to "delightfully bonkers" (Thomas M. Disch) and "extraordinary" (Ursula Le Guin). Perhaps my favorite characterization of Spinrad is by Isaac Asimov, who, in somewhat of an understatement, observed that he "constantly displays the courage to be different." I'd like to illustrate this career-defining search for innovation by examining five of Spinrad's key novels, ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s, all newly available courtesy of ReAnimus Press.

Revisiting Spinrad's work, I was struck by his chameleonic shifts of voice, style, and pacing. Consider, for example, the following two passages:

Oh, you so right, baby! So here I am, dragging my dick along First Avenue, right back in the whole dumb scene I kissed good-bye six years ago. Sara, you stoned when I get there, I'm gonna beat the piss out of you, so help me.

- Bug Jack Barron

Against the will of self-esteem's desire, I could not fail to acknowledge that the true chasm between us lay both below and beyond the moral realm of ethical esthetics. Indeed, her ruthless dedication to her one true grail, proceeding as it did from a single absolute axiom to an entirely unwavering pursuit of this axiomatic higher good, might be said to be at least formally superior to my chaotic involutions.

- The Void Captain's Tale

I was also surprised to learn that Spinrad, who is often reductively labeled a "New Wave" writer because of his association with Michael Moorcock, New Worlds magazine, and other writers like Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany and Pamela Zoline, got his start by publishing three stories in John Campbell's Astounding (renamed Analog by the time Spinrad appeared in its pages). Those three pieces, gathered with other early notable work in the collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970), reveal a solid grasp of relativistic space travel and other rigors of "hard SF" that one doesn't normally see associated with Spinrad. They also highlight thematic preoccupations that reappear often throughout his fiction: displacement and alienation, which for example lead Ben Ezra to muse that life aboard a starship is "fit only for Gypsies and Jews" ("Outward Bound"), and questions of ethical responsibility, ontology and solipsism ("Sometimes I forget that I'm crazy, and then I become crazier. A neat paradox, no?" asks Miklos in "The Last of the Romany") .

Given Spinrad's wide spectrum of literary approaches and broad philosophical concerns, the question becomes: how do we evaluate the work in any meaningfully unified way, rather than as isolated or discontinuous experiments in form? I would suggest that perhaps the most apt criteria we can use are Spinrad's own ideas about what science fiction (SF) is and does. But even here, we must tread carefully. Spinrad has granted many interviews throughout his fifty years in SF, and he's also written extensively as a critic and reviewer. His theoretical ideas about SF, therefore, are often as complex -- and embattled -- as his fiction. Rather than an exhaustive analysis of all these positions, I'd like instead to focus on a fundamental notion to which he has returned several times. When asked about his writing process in a 1978 interview for CONTACT: SF A Critical Journal of Speculative Fiction, Spinrad began his response by saying: "The idea, I guess, to me, the essence of science fiction is the psychological interaction between consciousness and the environment." In one of his "On Book" columns for Asimov's Science Fiction, Spinrad returned to this formulation in 2005, albeit in far less tentative terms: "... all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround -- physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything -- with the lives and consciousness of the characters. If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fictional universe at all, it is true science fiction, and if it does not, it is not true science fiction. Period." Do Spinrad's novels, then, succeed according to this view of SF?

The Men in the Jungle (1967), Spinrad's third novel, offers us a tale of egomania masquerading as blood-drenched revolution gone horribly awry. Bart Fraden, Sophia O'Hara, and General Willem Vanderling flee the crumbling Belt Free State and program their ship's computer with certain measures of "revolutionary potential -- dictatorial government, economic setup, rigid class lines with high social tension, and about a hundred others" to locate a planet that will be ripe for takeover. The power hierarchy on their eventual destination of choice, Sangre, turns out to be nightmarish beyond their wildest imaginings: the ruling Brotherhood of Pain breeds various classes of humans for the purposes of law enforcement and torture (Killers), food (Meatanimals) and reproduction (women). The Animal slaves in turn oppress the native insectoid culture by keeping the "bug Brains" that control the worker insects docile through permanent inebriation. The three Earth protagonists attempt to instigate a revolution by shocking the lowest Animals out of their genetically and environmentally-enforced stupor through a combination of ultra-potent, highly addictive drugs, demonstrations of guerrilla warfare tactics, and vague anti-totalitarian ideals.

The chronicle that follows is unrelentingly gory, with countless severed limbs and decapitations, infants being roasted and eaten for pleasure, scorched-earth massacres, and all-around Killer/Animal/Bortherhood carnage. Add to this the frenzied yelling of "KILL KILL KILL!", a mantra repeated with bludgeoning regularity. If this sounds upsetting, it is. The novel's physical violence reaches orgiastic, histrionic proportions, mirrored by the psychological disintegration of the three main characters who, needless to say, succumb to their own conflicts. And yet, despite the slaughter, the novel confronts us with a fascinating planetary ecosystem and embeds its horrors in a binary-based philosophical system that not only perversely justifies pain but makes it necessary for someone else's pleasure. Then, too, the book's Vietnam-inspired political musings are rendered with gusto and depth, as when, about two-thirds of the way through, Braden lays out in detail the four stages of a classic revolution.

Anchoring the plot is Braden's ongoing appeasement of his own conscience through increasingly tortured justifications for his heinous, ultimately opportunistic deeds. Despite some of the novel's creaky, hyperbolic prose, and its dated reliance on coining new words, like "lasecannon," "computopilot," "synthmarble," or "snipguns," by bashing old ones together, its savage deconstruction of political hypocrisies, and its almost gleefully obsessive commitment to working out every last consequence of its SFnal premises, still pack a contemporary punch. The characters' consciousness is in dialogue with the fictional environment, and technology acts as a devastating projecting conduit for their morally-compromised psyches. The bloodshed due to Braden and his two cronies, seen this way, is not a heavy-handed warning against the perils of technology as much as the crystallization that said technology manifests our own inner demons, and that, simply said, bad can always get worse.

More widely controversial because of its raw sexuality and numerous expletives, Spinrad's next novel, Bug Jack Barron (1969), placed him center-stage for some readers while relegating him to the sidelines for others. I will not attempt here to summarize the novel's labyrinthine plot involving cryogenics, television, and politics, but will simply note with amusement that it is perhaps the only SF novel whose Wikipedia summary concludes with "The two [Jack Barron and Sara Westerfeld] celebrate by having oral sex." David Pringle selected Bug Jack Barron as one of his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, and commented that though its plot is "very conventional" (an assessment shared by SF historian and editor Mike Ashley), its "surface," meaning its "media landscape" setting and "breathless slangy" style, are really what matter, and are mostly very effective. Academic Roger Luckhurst describes the novel's style as a "stream of consciousness ... designed to capture the shock and disjunction of televisual images." In a way, Spinrad's technique here anticipates later mainstream attempts to capture our modern experience of fragmentation via media, as for example in novels by Don DeLillo or in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Nevertheless, the novel's central activities remain political: scheming, counter-scheming, corruption, the manipulation of public perception. Purportedly because of its obscene content, the large British retailer W. H. Smith pulled it from its stock by the time the third issue of its serialization in New Worlds, March 1968, appeared. Mike Ashley has speculated that such a decision may have had more to do with other content in that same issue, such as Langdon Jones' "The Eye of the Lens" stories. One of several faults that Joanna Russ found with the book was that it was "romantic" and "youthfully bouncy"; Pringle, too, warns us that it is "occasionally sentimental." Of the five novels in question, I think that time has perhaps been least kind to this one: reality has in many ways mirrored or even superseded Spinrad's socio-cultural extrapolations (for example, the legalization of cannabis, at least in some States), weakening its SF vein. Nevertheless, one can see how it broke new ground at the time.

Spinrad's next, highly polemical novel, The Iron Dream (1972), exists in more of an extrapolative bubble, and is therefore largely immune to subsequent developments in both the SF field and reality at large. In SF criticism pertaining to time travel stories the phrase "jonbar point" is sometimes used to refer a "crucial forking-place in Time ... most works of Alternate History develop their changed future from a single explicit or implied jonbar point" (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction online). The Iron Dream relies on such a jonbar point, namely Hitler's emigration to the United States in 1919, followed by his career as a pulp SF illustrator and writer. Spinrad's interest, however, doesn't lie in the particularities of this alternate time-stream, but rather with the nature of commercial SF itself, and how easily it can subvert and subsume resonant symbols into a kind of fascistic sword-and-sorcery hero-quest mythos. To explore these ideas Spinrad presents us with his faux-Hitler's novel Lords of the Swastika, which comprises The Iron Dream's main text.

Purportedly written by a hack writer, Lords of the Swastika stays true to its propagandistic vision and showers us with page after page of jingoistic, eugenics-obsessed purple prose and phallus-centric power fantasies. The story is episodic and of escalating grandiosity. We are told of the rise to power of "genetic true man" Feric Jaggar, who becomes head of the Human Renaissance Party, triumphs in a series of character-testing perils at the hands of the leather-clad, motorcycle vagrants Black Avengers (a transposition of Hell's Angels) and thereby discovers he is the rightful heir to the glorious weapon Great Truncheon of Held. Wielding its mighty steel and cutting down all who oppose him while "riding the juggernaut of destiny," Jaggar becomes the Supreme Commander of Held, a role that allows him to establish Classification Camps to strictly test for hereditary purity and enact the ultimate eradication of the genetically impure Zind. Like The Men in the Jungle, this novel contains its share of gore and carnage, but here it is described unabashedly, even lovingly, as would befit Hitler's fictional alter ego. The novel is followed by an "Afterword to the Second Edition" by the fictional Homer Whipple that peals back the narrative's trashy curtains to reveal its core of highly sexualized racism.

What to make of all this? Certainly the audacity of the novel's premise, and the care with which Spinrad executes it, are to be applauded. But for me the reading experience was a tense and tiring affair. On the one hand, Spinrad is tempting us to enjoy the story on a gut level by pushing precisely those mythological buttons that so often evoke a sense of wonder and suspend our disbelief. On the other hand, I kept reminding myself that any seduction by or even transitory alliance to Jaggar's ideals and mode of conduct would be morally repugnant. I therefore found myself remaining at arm's length throughout, approaching Jaggar's progressively self-aggrandizing hero rites by way of Hitler's overblown, redundant prose with chilly, intellectual detachment. Ursula Le Guin, in a 1973 Science Fiction Studies review that praised the novel's high stakes while questioning whether more wouldn't have been gained by a shorter text, zoomed in on this "staggeringly bold act of forced, extreme distancing" that Spinrad has achieved. Thomas M. Disch, in a memorable turn of phrase, recommended The Iron Dream as a consideration of the "fascist lurking beneath the smooth chromium surface of a good deal of sf."

R. D. Mullen, on the other hand, wrote in a 1978 capsule review that The Iron Dream "ceases to be funny after the first few pages, and therefore becomes identical with what it is parodying." I think he's missing the point, in that Spinrad's main purpose doesn't appear to be humorous per se. Sean Kitching, in a recent retrospective on Spinrad published at The Quietus, analyzes The Iron Dream on three levels: satire, the author's self-explication of Nazism, and in terms of Anti-Oedipus symbolism. I see the novel's satirical edge, conveyed through what Adam Roberts has described as its "fortissimo pastiche," as a tool, not an ends: Spinrad wants us to introspect, not just point and laugh. For me part of Spinrad's purpose here must be hermeneutical: The Iron Dream is an attempt to understand and interpret storytelling mythologies -- in particular, SF tropes -- by turning them back on themselves. The reason these proto-fascist elements exist in our fiction, Spinrad seems to be reminding us, is that, like it or not, we put them there, and confronting that tell us something important about who we are.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, in his book The World Hitler Never Made, provides a close reading of The Iron Dream over the course of six pages, and reminds us that the novel was, de facto, banned in West Germany from 1982 to 1990. Critic Edward James updates the terms of our interpretation by describing the novel as a dissection of "the inherently anti-democratic tendencies of the super-hero," thereby tracing a continuity between Spinrad's text and graphic novels such as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Michael Dirda, in a 2008 review of Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas, picks up on a reference to Spinrad in Bolano's book, and mentions Robert E. Howard and Robert A. Heinlein as two of Spinrad's targets. The novel's enduring impact and importance are without question, as is perhaps the inherent difficulty of enjoying it emotionally.

We now jump forward about a decade, to The Void Captain's Tale (1983), a first-person account of the forbidden, alternately destructive and redemptive relationship between a male Captain and the female Pilot whose "psychesomic" orgasms quite literally power the ship's "Star Drive," as is customary during the story's Second Starfaring Age. I note that this is a first-person novel because Spinrad uses our immersion in the Captain's consciousness to great world-building effect; since the Captain thinks and writes in a "sprach" that combines English with Spanish, French, German and Japanese, our experience of his world is filtered by the same language as his is. By using an invented argot, then, Spinrad requires of us that we step beyond our everyday linguistic landscape so we can get closer to the novel's native world. Our lack of familiarity with their expressions and phrases mimics the sort of cognitive estrangement we would experience if we were suddenly dropped into the middle of the Captain's culture. In this way, by making his fictional Universe less instantly graspable, Spinrad makes it more credible.

The device is a risky one -- applied clumsily, we might end up myopically focused on the cuteness of certain turns of phrase at the expense of other narrative elements --, but I think Spinrad handles it with skill. Gerald Jonas wrote in The New York Times that, "as with all artifice, The Void Captain's Tale depends on the cooperation of the audience for its effects." Quite so. I find something freeing and exuberant about The Void Captain's Tale opening pages, in which our introduction to an interstellar culture is directly contained in that culture's use of words. A clear example of this is Captain Genro Kane Gupta's indulgence in the custom of "pedigree and freenom" tale-telling, which not only furnishes us with necessary biographical information about our protagonist, but also clues us in to the idea of "freenoms" and instantly tells us something about the values of the Captain's culture (the crew of his ship, the Dragon Zephyr, prize telling stories). Soon after this bit of background material, the Captain has his first encounter with Pilot Dominique Alia Wu and, for the next five pages, we switch to her first-person narration, before returning to his for the rest of the novel. Again, this is a bold technical move; by heightening our empathy for Dominique, we are beginning to follow the same illicit path that Genro is following when he gives human dimension and character specificity to his Pilot, who, social protocols dictate, should remain anonymous to him.

If Spinrad is wise to the effects he's using, so is Genro wise to the tradition of doomed relationship he's engaging in. At one point, he even asks Dominique if she is the equivalent of a femme fatale. He anticipates the tragic dimension of his chronicle by advancing the novel's entire plot, with its unresolved ending, in four short paragraphs on page two. It's not about what happens, we realize at that moment, but how it happens. Genro wants us to understand the innermost workings of his psyche, and in so doing "touch the spirit." The more we delve into his perceptions and subjective experiences, the better we can appreciate the depth and uncommon self-awareness with which Spinrad has molded him. By the novel's end, it is impossible to pass judgment on his actions, though they undeniably cause him and his crew great distress. And yet I wouldn't want the reader to think the entire novel is nothing but a plodding apologia written in a made-up language by a navel-gazing Captain. On the contrary, because Genro's world is one almost exclusively dedicated to art, eroticism and philosophy, the novel becomes a fascinating excursion into otherworldly customs, theories of perception and belief, and rituals of kinship. Thomas M. Disch saw this work as a high point in Spinrad's post-Iron Dream career: "The Void Captain's Tale represents a new synthesis of Spinrad's main strengths. The earnestness of the metasexual theorizer is qualified by the irony and livened by the playfulness that characterizes The Iron Dream and his best short fiction."

We should perhaps spend a few more moments on the novel's engagement with sex. As mentioned earlier, the Pilot's orgasm, one of such intensity it physically consumes the Pilot and reduces her life expectancy to an average of ten years, is an integral component of the Ship's technology; without it there would be no Jump and hence no FTL travel. In addition to this, we're presented with a rich panoply of recreational sex, which functions both as social lubricant and status indicator. Gerald Jonas wrote that Spinrad was "one of a handful of science fiction writers who regularly consider the impact of new technology on the arts," and in this novel sex is that art. It acts as a distraction from the Void (the theme of travelers between the stars having to cope with boredom is one of Spinrad's oldest, appearing as far back as his second published story, "Subjectivity," in 1964). But if sex is an evasion here, it is also a rich form of communication, a reaching inward towards communion. Gone are all the four-letter words and staccato thought-bursts of Bug Jack Barron; here the descriptions are comprised of long, winding sentences replete with "tantric dyadic asanas," "kundalinic energies," "erect lingams," and so on. In this novel Spinrad's previous deliberate vulgarity has been replaced with sophistication, crassness giving way to a refinement of social intercourse that necessitates pages of the Captain's description to do it justice. Problematic, though, as some reviewers have noted, is the exclusive focus on heterosexuality; not because we demand political diversity from fiction, but because the kind of classicism that Spinrad otherwise evokes suggests a less restrictive, more open-minded approach to his subject matter, easily attuned, say, to ancient Greek sexual practices. The sustained effect of Spinrad's invented argot and the baroqueness of his culture border on the delirious, at times tipping over into philosophical-sounding smut and smutty-sounding philosophy. Indeed, the words "esthetics," "phenomenological," and "transcend" occur with dizzying regularity. Baird Searles, reviewing the novel in Asimov's, complained about the repetitiveness of certain words: "I personally came close to feeling that I would throw the book across the room the next time I hit the word 'thespic' no matter how appropriate it was to most of the circumstances it described." In spite of this, he concluded, by gently mocking Spinrad's style, that the novel is "a frissonic, libidinal tour de force."

So why, I think it's legitimate to ask, does Spinrad place such emphasis on sex? One might infer that Spinrad is simply reminding us of the notion of spaceship as phallic symbol. Michael Levy, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, implies as much when he says that the novel "uses Freudian psychology, explicit sexual content, and witty prose to reexamine many of the basic tropes of sf." But I'd like to focus on the orgasm-as-star-drive conceit. In the novel's specific setup, it is the Captain, always male, who invariably enters the command to "Jump!", and thus imposes his masculine will on the Pilot, who is always female. In a very real sense, then, he controls the femininity at the ship's core. Is this a stand-in for rape? That reading seems at odds with the novel's elegant tone and discursive asides. As if that weren't enough, the Captain himself wonders about the rape analogy (!), and discusses it with Dominique, who assures him (and us) that neither of them are truly in control.

I'd like to posit an explanation different from the rape scenario. As Elisabeth Lloyd argues in The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution (2006), none of the twenty or so long-standing theories that attempt to explain the female orgasm as an adaptive, survival-enhancing trait stand up to thorough scrutiny. Instead, Lloyd proposes an accidental "byproduct" account of the female orgasm in terms of a response to the evolutionarily-driven evolution of the male orgasm. In a way this explanation mirrors that for the existence of male nipples -- which confer no obvious survival advantage to males -- as a byproduct of female nipples. With this in mind, I'd suggest that Spinrad's female orgasm is both a statement of what was, before Lloyd's extensive research, a bit of a conundrum, and the author's uniquely SF-nal response to it. The Pilot's orgasm fulfills the function of unknowability, and serves as a kind of transcendence by proxy. It is the Captain's obsessive wish to understand and experience it for himself that lead him to ruin.

One of the two protagonists of the last novel we're going to discuss, the near-future Deus X (1992), begins at precisely the opposite side of Captain Genro Kane Gupta: Father Pierre de Leone, nearing the end of his life, only desires to be left alone. The Void Captain is willing to sacrifice himself and everyone else in order to resolve a metaphysical unknown: what will happen with the Ship "blind Jumps"? Will it escape ordinary reality? The great unknown in Father Pierre de Leone's fictional universe is this: what happens to a human soul when the person's consciousness is replicated in the vast, non-corporeal cyber-land known as the Big Board? Is the "meatware successor entity" soul-less, or has the soul perhaps been cast into an electronic version of hell? Father Pierre's faith leads him to believe it's the former, and he therefore has no wish to investigate the matter. But he becomes a peon in the Church's ploy to regain its popularity, in a time of crisis and ubiquitous consciousness replication, by providing definitive, empirically-based answers to questions over which it claims authority. Father Pierre therefore ends up in much the same place as the Void Captain. The novel's other protagonist is Marley Philippe, a black boat captain with a penchant for spliffs and hacking, who's hired to locate Father Pierre in the Big Board after the theologian has been downloaded into it and kidnapped by mysterious virtual entities claiming to belong to "the Vortex."

The short novel is told in alternating first-person chapters (in a neat typographical layout, roman numerals are used for Father Pierre's sections and ordinary numbers for Marley's). As with The Void Captain's Tale, the first-person allows for quick immersion. The pacing is brisk, and accelerates frantically during the final pages. Despite the occasional point-of-view observation that strains credulity (as when Marley recalls a "pop cult" from the late twentieth century called "Cyberpunk"), each of the character's voices is distinct and enjoyable, if at times close to stereotype. Whereas in his earlier works Spinrad conveyed internal anguish in characters whose external settings were often decadently abundant, the present novel's setting during the Earth's lean "last days" lends an atmosphere of quiet beauty and reflection, and gives Marley a modicum of peace, or perhaps resignation. Once again, the plot, as writer Gordon Sellar points out in a blog post [], "isn't really where the book's charm lies," but rather "in the way the story is told." For me part of the book's unique spell is also derived from the metaphysical questions it poses: its playfulness regarding reverse Turing tests, ontological regressions, and so on. More importantly, I appreciate its overt inclusion of a Catholic viewpoint, rare in mainstream SF. Father Pierre de Leone's outspokenness and strong views remind me a little of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez in James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958).

Deus X, which sees the future Catholic Church led by a woman Pope, adroitly balances opposing forces: faith and atheism, principles and pragmatism, self-repression and self-expression. But in the end, as Gabriel McKee concludes in The Gospel According to Science Fiction, the book is "optimistic about the possibilities of AI and consciousness-modeling, proposing that a machine-copied mind can be as fully real as an organic, human one," a similar position to the one backed by Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan.

Despite what I feel is a pat ending, I find the economy of prose and the richness of ideas amply rewarding, and this is without a doubt one of my favorite Spinrad stories. Gerald Jonas' comment that "the author has got hold of a powerful metaphor for transcendence that he intends to push to the limit -- with thought-provoking results" seems a fair assessment. Other critics, particularly within the field, have expressed less enthusiasm. Gary K. Wolfe, for example, notes that while "Spinrad has set up a genuinely provocative situation, I'm not sure he's done himself a favor by trying to resolve it in such a conveniently SF-nal manner." I would argue the exact opposite, that anything but a SF-nal resolution (albeit one less "easy" than the one Spinrad presents) would be cheating. John Clute's main concern is with the way Spinrad depicts the Church: "It is very difficult to swallow a Christian Church relevantly concerned with the kind of issue at stake here; and it is impossible to imagine one so internally transfigured by humility and good sense that its representatives could begin to admit to Spinrad's whole litany of sins." I don't think the latter directly hinges on the former, and Spinrad's case for declining membership as a motivating political force suffices within the spare world he's created. Returning to Spinrad's ideas about what constitutes SF, here is a clear instance indeed of minds being entirely contingent upon the technological medium with which they're interacting or, in this case, in which they're residing. Deus X, viewed this way, is arguably the most purely SF-nal of Spinrad's novels.

A brief concluding thought on accolades. As the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction summarizes, Spinrad "won the Prix Utopia in 2003, a life achievement award given by the Utopiales International Festival in Nantes, France; he won no significant awards in America or the UK." While it's true that his work has never reached the critical thresholds of popularity or fellow peer support needed to earn these awards, we should remember that he has been nominated for six Hugo awards and six Nebula awards across categories that include dramatic presentation, novel, novella, novelette and nonfiction book. Perhaps my favorite of Spinrad's short stories is "Carcinoma Angels," which first appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, and which tells the story of Harrison Wintergreen, a prodigy who can seemingly accomplish anything he sets out to, except taking pleasure in his own accomplishments -- with tragic results. That story is a compelling reminder to enjoy what we do have while it lasts. Spinrad's body of fiction, which I've only sampled, contains much work whose raison d'etre at first blush appears to be purely confrontational. His non-fiction, which could be the subject of its own essay, can be just as incendiary and intellectually unruly. And he has a tendency to repeat certain phrases -- "molecule and charge," for example, in The Void Captain's Tale, or "bits and bytes" in Deus X -- to a desensitizing degree. Despite this, and the fact that his experiments have not always succeeded as art, commerce, or either, he has nonetheless continued to experiment time and again. That should be regarded as its own accomplishment.

Recommended Reads

Norman Spinrad is the author of over twenty novels, including BUG JACK BARRON, THE IRON DREAM, CHILD OF FORTUNE, PICTURES AT 11, GREENHOUSE SUMMER, and THE DRUID KING.

He has also published something like 60 short stories collected in half a dozen volumes. The novels and stories have been published in about 15 languages.

His most recent novel length publication in English is HE WALKED AMONG US, published in April 2010 by Tor in hardcover and April 2011 in trade paperback.

He's written teleplays, including the classic Star Trek, "The Doomsday Machine," and two produced feature films DRUIDS and LA SIRENE ROUGE. He is a long time literary critic, sometime film critic, perpetual political analyst, and sometime songwriter.

He's also briefly been a radio phone show host, has appeared as a vocal artist on three albums, and occassionally performs live. He's been a literary agent, and President of the Science Fiction Writers of America and World SF. He's posted 28 YouTube videos to date.

Customer Reviews

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I first tried to read this book when I was a teen.
Here we end up with a protagonist who starts out as a spoiled "child of Fortune" manages to make very little progress over very many pages.
Amazon Customer
Most of all, I admire the author's use of language and dialect.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By "rikki_tikki_tavi" on February 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I first tried to read this book when I was a teen. I wasn't ready for it. I recently happened across it, and decided to give it a go. How can I explain this? I've read literally thousands of books. (None of them Norman's until recently). The story is a brilliantly told tale of a young girl growing into herself through a space-style walkabout; but it's more than just that. There are ideas and correlations and connections that are both familiar and alien, none of which left me untouched. I know, you hear "this will change you" from movie critics and the like, but I urge you to find this book, and sit down and really read it. It's not a difficult read; the story flows smoothly and the humor is delightful. Don't let this one get away. Trust me.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By rhonva on December 3, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This has long been one of my favorite books. It is a serious, no-simple-answers coming-of-age tale, yet at the same time it manages to imaginative and entertaining, with plenty of laughs and vivid imagery. Thus the story is enjoyable whether the reader is in a contemplative mood or simply craving a good science fiction yarn.
Most of all, I admire the author's use of language and dialect. He creates a form of modified English by incorporating words from several different languages throughout the text, as well as some made-up slang and terminology. (The novel is written in first-person, thus the use of dialect is constant through the text.) This can be daunting at first, but by the time you're a few chapters in you'll have 'picked up' the language to a remarkable degree. Years after my last reading, I still remember it.
Again, one of my favorites. I'm going to buy another copy soon, before my old, often-reviewed copy falls apart completely.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 3, 2004
Format: Paperback
Child of Fortune was one of my few satisfying excursions into Sci-Fi. Though the story; a hefty space opera, is set in the far future it is very accessible.
Reading the book was like being in the best "dark ride" in the best theme park ever built. Spinrad takes the reader into incredible worlds and civilizations; most are wonderful utopias. The charactors are developed and believable. This book will appeal to old hippies and the new Bohemians.
For those who loved Brave New World, the explorations of the McKenna Brothers, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test -- u ain't read nothin YET! So, my advice -- "take a walk on the wild side" and read this book before it gets burned!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John Kwok HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on June 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
It's hard to decide which of Norman Spinrad's novels should be regarded as his best, since he has written exceptional novels in the science fiction subgenres of Alternate History, Space Opera and Cyberpunk, as well as in Historical Fantasy. Still, "Child of Fortune" has to be regarded as one of his literary triumphs; it is not only a great science fiction novel, but more importantly, a splendid piece of literature. "Child of Fortune" is comparable in scope to what Anthony Burgess created in his "A Clockwork Orange", replete with vivid literary prose and a future English stirred vigorously with liberal doses of French and German too. This is an amazing, over-the-top coming of age saga about a young woman who seeks her destiny amongst the far flung worlds of Humanity's Second Spacfaring Age. Ultimately she finds herself while journeying across the galaxy as an itinerant storyteller, finding a psychological Hell within the exotically verdant Bloomenveldt where a unique symbiosis between humanity and alien plant life is evolving on the planet Belshazaar. I found this book impossible to put down, having been intoxicated by Spinrad's poetically rich, dense prose.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By bd__sd on December 13, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I first read CHILD OF FORTUNE as a teenager. It blew my mind and set me on the path of continuously seeking enlightenment. Spinrad's tale of a girl seeking her fame, fortune, and most importantly, herself amongst the stars is titillating, profound, funny, and eye-opening. The universe of the Second Spacefaring Age is fun, stylistically well-crafted, and ultimately one of hope and universal enlightenment.

Over the years I've reread CHILD OF FORTUNE to help keep that enthusiastic childlike part of me alive. Everyone should pursue the Wanderjahr!

UPDATE 2011: A couple of years ago, I found a near mint 1st edition of CHILD OF FORTUNE at a used bookstore. A steal at $10!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Wells on January 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
Written in a style which becomes naturally beautiful and expressive as your mind expands to comprehend it, experiencing this book is very much like travelling through the culture shock of another country.
Perhaps the depiction of the space-faring civilization in which it is set (along with its (oh! so!) dark companion novel "The Void Captain's Tale") leaves certain quotidian features unmentioned (I always wonder who services the wonders of sci-fi novels; rare is the hero/ine who cleans the toilets, maintains the subways, is the bank teller, works in a restaurant)... well, after all, the story of one's life is a self-created spiel, and adventures are found where you choose to have them at least as much as where they may find you.
I grew up in Berkeley in the 60's, and this tale honors and burns bright with the true spirit of those days (and the many days since, even up til this very moment). Who will interpret this book into the film it deserves to be?
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