The cover of Spinrad's Iron Dream
People typically peg New Wave science fiction's inception to Britain, where in 1964 Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds. In America, Harlan Ellison's 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions is considered an equally pivotal moment. In its pages lay a short story titled Carcinoma Angels by a young author named Norman Spinrad. It tells the highly-compressed tale of a rich and successful man dying from cancer, who injects himself with an experimental drug cocktail and goes on the greatest trip of all.
Ellison, in his intro to the story, spoke highly of Spinrad and his work-in-progress Bug Jack Barron, a novel that has earned the reputation of being proto-cyberpunk—a prophetic vision of media-saturated, political theater and electronic democracy. Spinrad went on to write many groundbreaking, classic works of science fiction across vast stylistic and conceptual spectra. In A World Between, Spinrad returned to and elaborated upon his idea of electronic democracy. His novel The Iron Dream, a story within a story, conceived of an alternate history in which Adolf Hitler became a pulp science fiction author of a novel called The Lord of the Swastika.
And in 1980, Spinrad crafted the post-apocalyptic Songs From The Stars, which imagined a utopian civilization on the American west coast called Aquaria; one committed to the White Sciences of "muscle, sun, wind and water," and opposed to the destructive Black Sciences of nuclear energy, petroleum, and physics.
Recently, I spoke to Spinrad over the phone on a range of subjects. The first half of our conversation is up on OMNI Reboot and finds Spinrad holding court on psychedelic drugs, dreams, the state of science fiction, and the future of civilization. The Motherboard interview is carved out of Spinrad's thoughts on the GOP's repression of sexual energy, the internet, the NSA, and why he thinks Edward Snowden is a patriot.
Spinrad in New York, via Wikipedia
Motherboard: You conceived of an internet and electronic democracy in A World Between in 1979, so you've long been interested in information and what we now call the internet. What is your opinion on NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden's leaks?
Norman Spinrad: Oh my god. [laughs] It's very complicated. I think you have to have something like the NSA, but I think they are completely out of control and should be abolished. The government amended the CIA to centralize intelligence. Now you have sixteen agencies like that and you have chaos—the biggest one being the NSA, and it's completely out of control. It needs to be either abolished or radically reined in. NSA Director Keith Alexander should have been fired immediately, and someone put in there to clean up this mess.
You know, I think Bradley Manning was nuts. He was sincere, but there were a lot of other psychological things involved with what he did. And he was not politically sophisticated. I think Edward Snowden was and is politically sophisticated, is an idealist, and on balance the guy is not a traitor at all—he's a patriot. From what I see, and based on what he's said, he's been editing the leaks so it doesn't do damage where it shouldn't do damage. So, I'm in favor of what he's been doing so far.
Then, the British do this thing with the mate of Glenn Greenwald, which pisses him and the Guardian off, and I think that they made a terrible mistake doing that. Maybe they're sitting on stuff that's really damaging that shouldn't be released, and now they might release it because they're really pissed off. But, so far, I think Snowden has done a great service.
Cover art from Norman Spinrad's proto-cyberpunk novel Bug Jack Barron, via Flickr
I recently read a blog post on Greenwald and the Guardian's drip-drip method of publishing the leaks' contents, instead of putting it all out there. The writer criticizes Greenwald's “God-like [edit: understanding of the news cycle]", as well as the Guardian's ability to make money off of the leaks. Any thoughts?
I think that's wrong. I think what they're doing is old-fashioned editing. There was a long piece in the New York Times about a very detailed part of this stuff, and it occupied three or four pages of the paper. If you release the whole thing at once it's chaos, you can't read it. I think the Guardian and the New York Times are exercising normal newspaper editing.
They're doing two things: breaking it up into digestible pieces, and I think they're trying to be careful not to destroy the necessary intelligence gathering functions. You rein in what should be reined in; which is that, amongst other things, the NSA is violating its own rules and charter, and its own secret court rulings, and it's a rogue organization. You have tons and tons of data, but you have to organize it in order to make sense of it.
Right. I've been pleased with the way the leaked information has been published. It gives people time to think about the content and debate it. And, of course, it keeps the larger story in the news cycle, which is important with America's short attention span.
It does that, yes, but it also allows the papers to react to what the NSA and other intelligence agencies are doing to them. I mean, I'm not saying they're doing it perfectly, but the Guardian is a good paper and the Times, for whatever it is, is not amateur night. They're just doing what newspapers are supposed to do, and that is edit their paper!
Which is exactly what Bradley Manning didn't do with his leaks.
Right, that was different. It was just a whole bunch of different stuff, and then there's WikiLeaks—it's chaotic. This is editing. That is one of the things that is wrong with the internet: there is all of this stuff out there but there's no editing, so it's very confusing. You don't know if the information getting to you is even true or not. That's why I really think we do need newspapers, and book editors, too. The internet as a whole is not edited.
You could argue whether the internet is journalism or not. What the Guardian, Snowden, and the Times people are doing is journalism. It's edited, it's considered, and it's written up in a coherent form so that it will be understandable. That's journalism. Raw data blasted out onto the internet is not journalism, it's something else.
Earlier you said the government is on the verge of collapse because we can't get anything done. I want to get your opinion on a parallel I think about, that of the Roman republic before its civil war and the current US political environment.
I wrote a book about it called The Druid King, which is about the conquest of Rome by Caesar. My take on Caesar is that he never wanted to be an emperor. In the book he says, “I don't want to start a dynasty,” because then your son is incompetent, his son is a monster, and the third generation is probably both.
There are a lot of parallels between the US and Rome, though not necessarily that history. We are seeing an over-reaching empire, which is one of the other things that brought down Rome. Also, extreme Christianity, which was another contributing factor in the fall of Rome. And that is the morality of the Tea Party.
Cover art from Norman Spinrad's Songs From The Stars
I voted for Obama twice, but I voted for HiLlary Clinton in the primaries. My wife is really disappointed in Obama. I'm not disappointed because I never had that expectation. The big mistake he made early on is that he thought he could negotiate with these people. He can't. You can't negotiate with these people because they're not rational, and all they want is power; although they don't have the slightest idea what they'd do with power.
They are the kind of people—and maybe this is apropos of several periods of Rome—that want to rule but they have no idea how to govern. They just want to rule. They're totally incompetent, but they just don't care. I can't imagine someone like Lyndon Johnson taking this crap from the Republicans.
In a past interview, you were talking about your novel The Iron Dream and how Nazism was a “psychosexual phenomenon.” Looking at American politics, I think the fundamentalist Christian wing of the Republican party has a psychosexual component, too, but it's reversed. A great many of them are terrified of their and others' psychosexual impulses. Do you think there is some analog there?
Well, there is and there isn't. I don't know how sexual it is because these people are not very sexual. [laughs] Let me put it this way: the Republican party right now is best understood as a psychotic phenomenon. The lunatics have literally taken over the asylum. In a way there is a parallel with Hitler and the Nazis. The Catholic power structure in Germany were thinking they could handle this guy—that they could use him as a tool. Well, they were sadly mistaken.
By the way, I have something coming out called Raising Hell, published by a small press. It's basically a pamphlet with a bunch of stuff in it, one of which is an article called “The Abnormal New Normal,” which is all about what happened to the Republican party. They couldn't win anything on economic grounds, because they were the party of the rich versus the middle class. You're not going to get elected saying, “Look, we're going to take money from the middle class to give it to a ton of rich friends.” You couldn't get elected on economics since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
So they shifted through various social issues to gain traction again.
In the 60s it was the hippies, and the blacks' civil rights movement, and sex, drugs and rock 'n roll—those were the boogie men. Before that, it was the communists with Joe McCarthy. Now it becomes gay marriage, abortion, and all this stuff. This is psychosexual, but in a very repressive way.
Right. The denial of the sexual realm and, in a way, of reality itself.
It's the repression of sexual energy, not the use of it. You really have to look at it in that way. This government is on the verge of collapse because they can't get anything done. In October, the issue of abortion will hit the fan, and I don't know what is going to happen, but it's going to be very big.
You have irrational, uneducated fools dominating the Republican party, to the point that reasonable conservatives like Olympia Snowe are just dropping out because they don't want to be any part of this anymore. Even a guy like John McCain had to move to the right to win a primary. It's a real mess. There is no rational discussion of any policies, period. It's total irrationality run wild. The Republican party has essentially sold its soul to the devil, and here we are. It's a very bad situation.