Friday, March 18, 2016

Did Norman Spinrad Predict Donald Trump?

Norman Spinrad
Donald Trump’s run up America’s political ladder has baffled pundits, party insiders, and anybody who got a B or better in 11th-grade American Civics. He lacks a policy platform, speaks in generalizations so broad that even career politicians can’t understand him, and engages in a magnitude of undisguised race-baiting seldom seen since Barry Goldwater cratered in 1964. He shouldn’t succeed, and serious commentators remain baffled that he does.

I say Trump’s critics need to read more paperback science fiction.

Norman Spinrad has always courted controversy. One early novel, Bug Jack Barron, published by British editor Michael Moorcock, was so ahead-of-its-time, and so frank on politics, that he got condemned, by name, on the floor of the British Parliament. Though observers have noted a utopian impulse in Spinrad’s works, he maintains a broadly cynical attitude regarding the present and near future. Norman Spinrad generally believes things will get worse before they get better.

In 1985, Asimov’s Science Fiction published a lightly bowdlerized version of Spinrad’s novella “World War Last.” Three years later, Bantam bundled the uncensored story together with three other Spinrad novellas in the collection Other Americas. All four novellas feature some vision of America where economic inequality, political opportunism, and plain rot have conspired to reduce America to a ghost of itself. Long out of print, this collection has become available again thanks to Kindle publishing.

In “World War Last,” Samuel T. Carruthers has made his reputation as a used car salesman bu refusing to sell “Cheap Jap Junk.” His billboards, featuring himself dressed as Uncle Sam, make him iconic to Southern California’s reactionary nationalist segment, so a transition to politics seems natural. With Obama-like haste, and Donald Trump-like policy vagueness, he finds himself billed as America’s next President. Until he vanishes for several days, turning up gibbering weird, incoherent slogans.

Original paperback cover art
Across the globe, the Soviet Politburo is unable to elect a premier. (Note the scientific foresight, six years before the Soviet collapse. Sci-fi authors are perceptive, but not prophetic.) So the Party’s technocrats fit the former premier’s corpse with an artificial intelligence system that reads political sentiments, matches them to the premier’s speeches, and tells the Party what it wants to hear. The USSR is trapped in a death spiral of revisiting past, moribund policies.

Between these two puffed-up adversaries stands Hassan al Korami, despot of a tiny, oil-rich desert emirate. Korami has appointed himself caliph of all Islam; Muslims worldwide have responded with yawns. After all, Korami is all ambition, no authority. He has no air power, and is reduced to begging international arms dealers for rudimentary nuclear technology. But he has money and power enough to kidnap, drug, and brainwash America’s next President.

The parallels with current politics couldn’t be more direct or brutal. The American nationalist, the Russian demagogue, and the Middle Eastern would-be potentate constitute a tripod of international instability. None can gather their shit together to really challenge the others. But each has authority enough to enflame global sentiments. As two nuclear-armed opponents half-ass their way toward Armageddon, Korami sits back, prepared to claim Earth’s smoldering remains for his weird, self-serving version of Islam.

Desperate for resolution, “Uncle Sam” Carruthers invites the Soviet premier for a summit meeting. But addled on hash, sex, and self-made mythology, Carruthers picks Caesars Palace as the venue— and the Soviet AI agrees. Nothing could be worse for either. Carruthers would rather gamble and screw than conduct national affairs. The premier’s corpse, kept fresh by icy Moscow weather, begins rotting in the Nevada sun. The metaphors scream out Reagan-era political decay, on both sides.

Literary critic Joseph Anthony Wittreich (and not Mark Twain, as sometimes attributed) once wrote: “History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Here we see the themes of history, at least as perceived by Americans, echoing themselves in Spinrad’s writing. The very concerns that permeate this novella, including photogenic political fatuity, bad political ideas given zombie-like reanimation, and world powers playing into small operators’ fear machines, are playing themselves out on this year’s electoral stage.

Spinrad’s prose refines then-current issues into low comedy. High-minded topics like nuclear war and bad political maneuvering mingle with dick jokes and profane puns. But as with the best comedy, it uses broad laughs to make us think about the most profound and timely truths. If anything, “World War Last” more accurate to our time than to its own. Between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and that demi-religious gasbag Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Norman Spinrad’s time has come around again.

1 comment:

  1. Frightening times, Kevin. I don't know if it's true, but someone once told me a Chinese curse goes like this: May you live in interesting times.