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Little Heroes by Norman Spinrad

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The first time I saw a video of the band The Clash, I laughed out loud. “This is ‘punk’?” I said. “This is radical?” I don’t know if I thought, or said aloud, These guys wouldn’t know radical if it smashed their guitars. Give me Ornette Coleman any day.

I know the friend who was introducing their music to me was somewhat surprised, and took the time to explain to me why, in context, the band and their music was seen as radical. I still wasn’t feeling it, even after the explanation: it just made people in the 1970s look way more naive to me. Maybe after atonal jazz, nothing musical ever seems radical again — or maybe, it’s just that for me, no musical group could ever be radical unless their music was intensely radical too… and The Clash sounded like plain-vanilla rock music to me, at least then. They seemed, at least while performing, like they were trying so desperately hard to be cool and radical. It reminded me of teenagers on promenade at the mall; they were really big on convincing themselves and others of how radical they were, to me they looked kind of like every other rock band I’d ever seen. (Maybe a little more clean cut and uptight.)

Watching the video again, my impression hasn’t changed much. You can tell me I don’t get it; you can argue I’m not listening right; you can suggest that I’m not understanding the context. You can tell me I’m wrong, wrong, wrong. And I will probably say to you that it all depends not on the band, not on the music, but on the mythology of rock music, and how much you buy into it. If you think rock music is wild, you will see it there. If you don’t buy into the mythology, you’ll see working or middle class schmoes enacting a complicated game of dress-up and make-believe, one that mass numbers of people have joined in on because it entertained them.

Not that this invalidates the music, of course. It’s just that, with all the talk of authenticity, of radicalism, of wildness, well, something’s gonna give: either the mythology becomes unable to sustain itself, or it becomes a satirical piss-take of itself, or it gets enshrined to the point where what is “radical” is so predictable and done-by-rote that, well, the word loses all meaning.

Personally, I’m not one for the mythology of rock and roll… which is to say, despite the hostility I share with him against corporate power, corporate control of culture, and the greed we all see in the entertainment business, I can say pretty confidently that I just am not part of Norman Spinrad’s target audience for Little Heroes.

I don’t know much about Spinrad, beyond the controversy that exploded over his (poorly put, badly considered, and basically wrong article of a year and a half ago in Asimov’s). He was pinioned online, deservingly given some of the junk he spouted, and I hope it was a lesson to authors both young and old that, no, you don’t know everything about whatever random subject you choose for this month’s column, so do some bloody research once in a while — and think about what you’re proclaiming — before you hit Save and Send To…

I also haven’t read much of his work, though I loved his novel Greenhouse Summer when I read it many years ago. (Like, back-in-Canada-long-ago.)

But following my post the other day about the Korean music business and the industrialization of culture, I figured I’d pick up his SF book focused on the music industry and see what he’d imagined on the subject in 1987, a text called Little Heroes. I found a copy in Dharamshala in 2003, picked it up at a steal, and set it on my bookshelf… and then didn’t touch it until last Saturday. Probably one reason was the cover: while I agree one mustn’t judge a book by its cover, it’s hard not to do so with this book. As one blogger amusingly put it:

The first thing we must do is take a look at whats featured here: We have a tween boy (who looks very similar to Luke Skywalker) with some sort of oddly shaped acoustic guitar, A gold clad woman stretching seductively for no apparent reason other than to attract the Luke Skywalker impersonator (whom is much more interested in wooing the crowd with his weird guitar and Tron outfit), and a giant blue picture of David Bowie in the background. All 3 of which have lost at least 45% of their body and are flying though A space warp made out of a piano. The quote from some unknown critic and the note telling the reader that the author wrote another book called “bug jack baron” could be either good or bad…I was going to make fun of this book, but after I took the time to describe it, it actually sounds rather entertaining in a sort of “crappy sci-fi book” kind of way… (Cover rating: 7,Its pretty entertaining in loser kind of way)

There’s only one quibble I have with the description above, and that is that even in 1987, William Gibson was not “some unknown critic” but rather one of the biggest names in SF.

That aside, the blogger’s description of the awful cover is bang-on. No, really. See for yourself:

One of the worst SF book covers around. And that’s saying something.

But that says nothing of the book… or does it?

Actually, I’m sad to say the cover does kind of capture the book, in a number of ways. Not that it’s all bad. Spinrad was weirdly prescient about a few things, such as:

That said, the book just did not work for me. I read about half of it, skimming the rest. There’s a lot of repetition, and not just of the didactocheesic song lyrics, and a number of other things that turned me off.

For one thing, Spinrad’s “transgressiveness” got on my nerves. I get it that Paco is a Puerto Rican immigrant street kid, and street kids aren’t so likely to be, you know, sensitive about racial language. But putting the word “nigger” into his mouth every time he talks to a black person just made me think that Norman Spinrad liked putting the word into a character’s mouth. Having him refer to women as “pussy,” likewise. There’s an amount of racism and misogyny I can understand in a character, but beyond that, it starts to sound like the author is reveling in it; trying to be transgressive. And you all know what Yoda said about trying.

I could probably complain more about other minor aspects of the book, but I’ll cut to the chase: I don’t buy the book’s intertwined theses about sex and drugs and rock and roll being all radical and liberative and all that.

Sex is sex, drugs are drugs (even synthetic, wire-type electronics-based drugs), and rock’n’roll is, as one of the characters puts it, just rock’n’roll. It wasn’t hard for me to suspend my disbelief about some form of rudimentary Altered Reality hardware/software being developed; it wasn’t hard for me to (sadly) imagine a world where the economy had crashed so hard that a number of women did end up having to resort to sexual barter, and where an artificial construct of a popstar could shift the national consciousness — hell, most of the pop stars we have today are to some degree artificial constructs, and they do the same.

But Spinrad asked for too much: he asked me to believe that pop music (which rock has been since I can ever remember) could become part of an anarchist uprising; he asked me to believe that all the women selling the bodies to get by in a hyper-corporatized world might actually be getting off on it (the way he seemed to be imagining such a world), but that beyond that all lay the true revolutionary power of sex, waiting to be retapped by virtual drugs and rock’n’roll.

And that was just too much for me to buy, I’m afraid. I can understand someone may arguing that in the 1970s, or the 1960s; I can get that people believed it in those days, or earlier.

But where we stand now, it comes off as about as juvenile and bizarre as the worldview of Holden Caulfield. When I hear someone praise drugs as the way to liberation, I think of that very sad postscript to Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly; when I hear someone talk about the wild liberality of “free love” in the hippie era, I think of all the accounts of coercion that women who lived in communes and hippie communities have told us about — if only we would listen — and how such radical groups very often simply reenacted all kinds of sexual coercion and unfreedom.

And as for rock’n’roll and the mythology of rock, well, I’m afraid that the parallel with SF is too tantalizing to miss; practitioners and proponents of both alike seem to exult in proclaiming the raw, radical political force of which they believe works in each genre are capable. But it seems to me that, the more self-triumphant one gets about rock, or about SF, and its radical potential, its raw, sheer political force, and so on… the more one proclaims all this, the hollower the claims echo.

If Spinrad had set out to satirize these three mythologies — to make fun of the idea that drugs and rock and casual sex were a conduit to magical creativity and political radicalism, and of course to each other — then this would have been a much more readable book. But instead, the pseudo-drugs created by technology (the wire) magically make sex amazingly better, and make amazing music something that kids and second-rate retirees can summon out of thin air and hopeless dreams; the wire creates celebrity, and celebrity (especially sexual celebrity) is all that is really necessary for a radical challenge to the system. Spinrad does send up the suits effectively, but he doesn’t send up the rockers, or at least not anywhere near as viciously as this silly mythology deserves.

The satirist took sides, believed in something silly, and that makes it impossible to take anything in the book too much to heart. I’m afraid that the mythology of rock needs puncturing as badly as the purveyors of corporate music do… if not more desperately still.

So then why did I finish it? I’m not sure. As I said, I skimmed a lot of the book. Perhaps because I wanted to know why some people loved it so much? Perhaps I was hoping Spinrad would turn around and kick the crap out of the rock mythology he was touting? If that was my hope, it was one that was never fulfilled. Sadly, I reached the end and sort of shrugged.

And yet, I have more of his books on my shelf, and I will give them a try, probably sooner than later. (Proobably starting with Deus X, which was the next book of his I found on my shelf.) I get the sense the book has aged badly, but I can also tell (and remember from Greenhouse Summer) that what he wanted to, the man could write. Little Heroes feels more like a (protracted) misstep than a keep-away sign. I just hope he wasn’t trying so hard in his other books.

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