(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1970 edition)
4/5 (collated rating: Good)
A solid collection of seventeen short stories and one novelette by one of my favorite New Wave authors, Norman Spinrad. Although the collection seldom reaches the heights of his inventive and original alt-history novel The Iron Dream (1972), The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970) is still a wonderful showcase of his earliest short fiction. However, Spinrad’s relentlessly bleak outlook on Earth’s future will not appeal to all SF readers. I only recommend the collection for fans of experimental late 60s SF, the New Wave movement, and bleak satires of societal ills (count me in!).
The best include: “Technicality” (1966), a war against pacifist aliens who wield horrific but non-lethal weapons; “The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde” (1969), an absurdist pastiche of the bastardization of ideology and societal decadence; and “Dead End” (1969), in a future welfare state a man without a job, endless drugs, and no financial worries tries to feel real emotion by wandering into the United States of America’s last remaining clump of wilderness.
Tackling serious themes such as PSTD, drug culture, anti-war movements, the clash of ideologies, mechanization, etc. The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde is a heady brew worth savoring.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“Carcinoma Angels” (1967) 4/5 (Good) was Norman Spinrad’s sole contribution to Dangerous Visions (1967), ed. Harlan Ellison. An allegorical story that chronicles of the life of an archetypal American kid possessed with all the business smarts to make it big in a capitalistic world: “Harrison Wintergreen was, at the age of twenty-five, Filthy Rich by his own standards. He lost his interest in money. He now decided that he wanted to Do Good” (11). Spinrad’s satirical snark is on show: “He decided to Leave His Footprints in the Sands of Time. He Left His Footprints in the Sands of Time” (11). The perfect fodder for Ellison’s envelope-pushing collection. Perhaps less than original for contemporary readers…
“The Age of Invention” (1966) 3/5 (Average): A comedic alt-history caveman story which manages, at points, to be genuinely funny in its absurdity. Caveman Roach is an Artist with a capital “A”: he “spent his daylight hours throwing globs of bearfat, bison-chips and old rotten plants against the wall of the cave” (19). The narrator, a capitalist by nature, decides to take advantage of Roach and his Original (with a capital “O”) and in so doing creates “Civilization” (with a capital C) (24). As with “Carcinoma Angels” this story is very much a humorous take on 60s counter-culture (drugs, artists, etc) and capitalism. Its appeal will be limited.
“Outward Bound” (1964) 3.5/5 (Good): The most traditional SF story in the collection is a solid space opera where spacecraft—realistically described as “an untidy collection of cylinders and globes held together by spars” (25)—traverse great distances with their crews in deep sleep. As a result man might spend “fifty subjective years in space” but be “eight hundreds years in objective time” old (25). The Outward Bound and its crew journey from planet to planet trading new technologies. Soon they encounter a scientists whose invention might change the face of space travel completely ruin the way of life of the merchantmen. A few fine touches refine the traditional plot: namely the intriguing spaceships which use photon sails to decelerate, a chase across space the might take centuries to complete, and, one of Spinrad’s recurrent themes, the idea that Jews and Gypsies might be the spacemen of the future due to their historical wanderings and perception of historical time.
“A Child of Mind” (1965) 4/5 (Good): A disturbing tale of three astronaut explorers who prefer three types of women… They arrive on an alien world which conjures “the woman of your dreams, the perfect mate, the ideal lover…” (58). But Spinrad’s version of this classic SF trope is sinister and repellant. And little do the astronauts know but they have been plunged into a warlike-biological process between the sexes of a protoplasmic entity.
“The Equalizer” (1964) 2/5 (Bad): the weakest story in the collection is a story that has been retold and retold countless times (Frank Herbert’s equally poor “Committee of the Whole” (1965) comes to mind). At an Israeli experimental station, the “Israeli equivalent of the Manhattan Project” (74), Dr. Sigmund Larus and his team come up with the prototype to an easy to produce matter annihilation device: “A Big Cheap Bomb” (75). If they could use the bomb first then it would not matter that others would eventually get their hands on it. An pained attempt to speculate on a world where everyone can develop technology to destroy everyone else.
“The Last of the Romany” (1963) 3.5/5 (Good) is Spinrad’s first published SF work and a solid introduction to his style—although rather most positivist and less rage-imbued. Miklos is the last of the Romany (Gypsies). He wanders the world—a world that has lost its exoticness and cultural specificities in favor of “neat and clean and shiny” (85)—keeping alive the Romany while he searches for others to take his place. He finds attentive ears in a robot controlled playground. In a future where space travel is the ultimate transient life the Romany might find another place to thrive faraway from a homogenizing Earth.
“Technicality” (1966) 4/5 (Good): A new soldier, possessed with all the misguided furor and patriotism that makes man young men go to war, encounters a war like no other. The soldiers attack a hillside and are beset by a vast variety of horrific (but non-lethal) weapons: puke-gas, bladerbusters, bowelbillies, itchrays, freezers, Pain Pills, Aphrogas… And at the top of the hill, in their bunkers, the instigators of this strange war reside huddle by their weapons in all their fluffy cuteness (conquers of large swathes of the galaxy).
“The Rules of the Road” (1964) 3/5 (Average): An alien device lands “in the desert at Yucca Flats” (100). Surrounded by the humankind’s military might, the open doorway hints at an unknown interior. A group of soldiers that probed its dark recesses never re-emerged. Bert Lindstrom, a calculated man, decides to enter the device. But when he emerges he is no longer the man he used to be.
“Dead End” (1969) 4.25/5 (Good) is one of the better stories in the collection. Willy Carson, a Master Draftsman, is out of work. But despite his desperate looking there is no chance of another job. And, there is no need: the government supplies $175 (a Basic Citizen Stipend) a week, free housing, unlimited drugs. Because lower skilled jobs are increasingly mechanized the only available jobs are further up the ladder and Carson cannot rise up the ladder. And having run out of idiotic hobbies Carson is closed to despair. The entire US contains one remaining Wilderness Area, perhaps there among the trees he will feel real pain. The fears of mechanization extrapolated to hyperbolic levels… A genuinely effective allegory.
“A Night in Elf Hill” (1968) 4.5/5 (Very Good) is my favorite of the collection. One brother, Spence, writes a letter to his other brother Fred. The letter is a “yell […] for help” (121). The Merchant Service tests every individual who wants to join and gives them a number of years that they will tolerate in space before insanity takes over: to prevent people from going “ape” and wrecking a ship (122). Fred is nearing the end of tenure in space and has decided to return to a rather mundane planet Mindalla: “ten thousand mudballs just like it are scattered all over the Galaxy” (123). But Mindalla has a seductive mystery concerning The Race With No Name, and Fred feels the draw to return but knows the consequences.
“Deathwatch” (1965) 4/5 (Good) first appeared for Playboy which, at one point in time, commissioned serious literature and SF. “Deathwatch” is a literary attempt to tackle the ramifications of immortality on a single family. The twist ending is not surprising but definitely adds emotional complexity to the narrative. A family watches a man dying: “the only sound in the room was the rasping breath of the old man in the bed sighing the dregs of his life away…” (135). Soon the relationships between the father, mother, and son are explored. Despite the presence of immortals the emotional underpinnings are universal. Recommended.
“The Ersatz Ego” (1970) (variant of “Your Name Shall Be . . . Darkness” 1964) 4.25/5 (Good): Harvey Sanders receives a “degree” at the University of North Korea. As in, Sanders, a Captain in the United States Army, was captured and transformed into Guinea Pig 537 by Major Sung ping Lee, a “hell of a psychologist” (140). Lee’s torture of choice is electroshock therapy that that induces “physiological pain” (142). And soon Sanders does not even know his name. And then, Lee decides to rebuilt Harvey Sanders into a simulacra of the man that he once was. Of course, his purpose is unknown to Sanders who seems to pass all the psychological tests when he returns to the states. I suspect this story was inspired by Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959) or John Frankenheimer’s brilliant 1962 film adaptation.
“Neutral Ground” (1966) 3.5/5 (Good): Project Voyager subjects its volunteers to high doses of a new drug that sends the participant to some other Place. Where exactly this Place is located is actively debated—the Places seem to be similar and often a similar presence is perceived. Although it might be an entirely interior voyage there is the possibility that it is an exterior one as well. And both the voyager and the presence are fearful of each other. An unusual first contact story in familiar “proto-New Wave” trappings.
“Once More, with Feeling” (1969) 4/5 (Good): A sinister attempt to tackle some of Spinrad’s favorite (dark) themes: the trauma experienced by soldiers returning from war, time travel, and uncomfortable eroticization of the “Other.” Major Jase Stone, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, has a three week break in-between deployments. He travels to Sausalito, California (the year is 1967) where he meets a mysterious woman (who seems oddly unaware of the war). He soon discovers that she is a time-traveling tourist, from a future where the Soviets won the Cold War, who has voyaged to 1967 to meet a virile American soldier… But he too has a secret.
“It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!” (1967) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good) is a comedic take on comic books and the need for escape. Dr. Felic Funck’s most common client are deluded men who think that they are Clark Kent, i.e. Superman. He easily tears down their delusions with fake kryptonite, rips off their shirts exposing tattered Superman clothes, and points out that their amnesia and inability to find Metropolis is to be expected, as in, it does not exist. But then again he too has what might be delusions that he is Supershrink. And yet another patient who claims to be Clark Kent might indeed be the real thing!
“Subjectivity” (1964) 4/5 (Good): Space, or rather anything farther than interplanetary flight, seems too difficult to conquer. The problem is that all the astronauts sent into space (various ratios of homosexuals, lesbians, straight men and straight women, near-supermen, near super-women, supermen and superwomen, etc) all come back insane. The new experiment involves five men and five women doped-up on a newly discovered drug named Omnidrene. The astronauts have the ability to conjure, and at least for a while to control, hallucinations that keep them occupied (and mostly sane) for at least the greater duration of the trip. Ultimately a nihilistic tale, man cannot and will not conquer space.
“The Entropic Gang Bang Caper” (1969) 3/5 (Average): An unabashedly New Wave story comprised on short fragmented paragraphs that play with the notion of entropy, non-traditional forms of warfare, the police-state, drugs, violence, etc. Fragments of news stories are integrated with war scenarios and bastardized slogans: “REVOLUTION IS THE OPIUM OF THE INTELLECTUAL CLASS IS THE OPIUM REVOLUTION IS INTELLECTUAL OPIUM IS THE CLASS REVOLUTION OF THE INTELLECTUAL CLASS OPIUM IS THE REVOLUTION” (202). Intriguing. Distant. I need to give it a reread.
“The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde” (1969) 4.5/5 (Very Good): Jerry Cornelius was an often metafictional character invented by Michael Moorcock. Jerry appeared in numerous of Moorcock’s novels and stories and other authors, especially those involved in the New Worlds scene (edited by Moorcock) wrote often disconnected and vaguely relate stories with the same character.
Like “The Entropic Gang Bang Caper,” “The Last Hurrah” is an experimental and absurdist take on the class of bastardized ideologies. A by-the-dots caper plot (Jerry, as a spy and bohemian) is sent to perpetuate an assassination in the Chinese steppes with the help of the Russians. A roving band, the last band, of the Mongols seeks to carry out its time honored mantra of destruction. The strange tableau is set involving a decadent pseudo-Los Vegas in the Mongolian steppe, Communist children chanting the “latest Number One Top 40, ‘Death To The Violators Of The Spirit Of Mao’s Urine” to the rhythm of “Rock Around The Clock” (215), and destruction seeking old Mongol tribesman… The slogan strewn, ideologically bastardized and merchandized emptiness preached by all sides generates a certain breathless absurdist brew. Weirdly and wildly seductive.
(David Chesnutt’s cover for the 1970 edition)