Songs from the Stars

The relative popularity of my last post confirms what book publishers have long known. Put a swastika on the cover!

The Norman Spinrad series continues. Don’t you love the Eighties cover?

Raw Feed (1994): Songs from the Stars, Norman Spinrad, 1980.songs-from-the-stars

Spinrad once said there were only a few themes in literature. They were, as I recall, love, death, sex, and transcendence. This novel has them all.

There is the love between Clear Blue Line Lou and Sunshine Sue (such psychedelic names). There is death in the post-holocaust background, Harker’s suicide, and the remains of the Ear’s dead crew. There is certainly, as in all Spinrad novels, sex, and only Spinrad would probably conceive of a menage á trois as a political solution to put two lovers from conflicting tribes back together. As for transcendence, that is the very theme of this book. Not only is there political/moral transcendence as Sunshine Sue and Clear Blue Lou find a higher way that reconciles white and black sciences, the Tribes and the sorcerer spacers, but spiritual and psychological transcendence as Lou and Sue jack into visions of alien life and see what mankind is capable of doing in the universe. There is also the possibility of social transcendence as promised by Sue’s new broadcast network.

This novel – even more so than the other two Spinrad novels I’ve read, Little Heroes and The Iron Dream – works on many levels.

First, there are the signs, mainly in the first seven chapters, that this is a novel by the Spinrad that really does seem to believe in the redemptive power of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (though music is not heavily emphasized here). Lou, Perfect Master (sort of a judge and spiritual guide), and the tribes of white magic practice free love and mind-expansion via drugs. Spinrad has also said this is a sort of political novel though it doesn’t contain any really specific condemnation or praising of a particular type of political or economic system. Capitalism seems to be the order of the day in the trade between the tribes yet communes also exist. Justice is administered, at least in the city of La Mirage, by Lou. He administers justice based on his intuition of a person’s heart as well as their actions, tries to consider a parties karma (constantly, we are reminded – humorously – that Clear Blue Lou can see both sides of the issue and that if he couldn’t he wouldn’t be Clear Blue Lou), and his ruling tenet is that justice must be sweet to all parties and that no justice not willingly accepted is sweet. This idea of justice as something that can be non-coerced is silly and indicative of Spinrad’s ‘60’s idealism.

The politics of the novel mainly concern themselves with technology. The white tribes of this post-holocaust world regard the only good technologies as being based on the way of wind, water, sun, and muscle. Thus they have only very primitive transportation and communication though a rich knowledge of natural pharmacopia. The black sorcerer – spacers of the trans-Sierra regions practice more arcane, powerful and forbidden arts. What is unacknowledged by most in the appropriately named town of La Mirage is that their highest forms of technology (a very primitive chain of radio relays run by Sue’s Sunshine tribe and solar and muscle powered – but still sophisticated – ultralight planes) are the product of black or at least gray science. Lou and other officials of La Mirage acknowledge this but don’t make a public issue of it. They resent the self-righteousness of some Whites and believe that the good hearts in their town can take the evil out of black science. (Spinrad also briefly mentions the Remembers – people who determinedly hang on to cultural and technological remnants of the pre-war past. At the very least, they are despised and mistrusted. At most, they are subject to occasional pogroms.) However, a deliberate plot by the Spacers destroys this tacit political arrangement and maneuvers Sue and Lou into the lair of the Spacers. The Spacers want to bring a New Age of Space about and, in a plot reminiscent of van Vogt, they have been working for centuries to not only preserve and build upon man’s pre-war knowledge but to reclaim space. They want to reclaim some hardware – a space station, a satellite broadcast network, and a radio antenna – the Ear – that captured extra-terrestrial’s signals right before the war. They are confident that once Lou sees what they are up to he will rule in their favor, get the Aquarian whites to accept the Spacers, and heal the rift between the two cultures so man can reclaim space and together hear the Songs from the Stars (interesting that Spinrad again uses the metaphor of music to describe the transcendent messages of aliens). Lou and Sue find the spacers, except for their passion to reclaim space, a rather unspiritual, bound up lot who aren’t as happy or communal as the Aquarians. However, they both believe that the Aquarians need technology to foster their development, to bind them closer together. The alien messages provide the rationale to unite the two strains of man; technology will help not only man to become more of a family but also to help join the broader community of life in the galaxy.

The metaphor Sue seeks to bring about – the electronic global village, is thus to be writ large on a galactic scale. Ironically, Spacer Arnold Harker – instigator of the whole chain of events that bring Sue and Lou to hear the alien messages – can’t stand their content. He fears both the content of the messages for their potential to destroy man’s culture, possible ability to corrupt man, or as a sign of alien malevolence – and man’s worthiness to receive those messages. He kills himself after listening to all the wonderful alien songs that Lou and Sue love and see as signs of man’s wonderful future in a galactic brotherhood – and one other message they didn’t listen to from a race that died after their galaxy was devoured by a central black hole. For Harker, the idea that even advanced superscience can’t save the race from ultimate death is to much to bear. But, as Lou wisely notes, life – whether the individual or the race’s – as always been a brief period between two eons of blackness, and the alien message does not change this truth.

In his “Rubber Science” essay in The Craft of Science Fiction [edited by Reginald Bretnor], Spinrad talks about how an sf writer should acquaint himself with all types of hard and soft sciences. Spinrad does show a knowledge of aeronautical research in his depiction of Aquarian fliers and Spacer shuttle craft, and he has clearly researched the physical details of extraterrestrial radio-communication. (Though his notion of trinary logic as being more rich and better than binary logic for communicating complex information seems wrong-headed. I don’t know what difference a logic format would make transmitting a given amount of information.) In that essay, Spinrad makes reference to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media as “the single most consciousness expanding book of the decade”, and Spinrad makes specific reference to it when a young Sue finds a copy in a Remembers’ cabin. I particularly liked the novel’s bit where Lou, Sue, and Harker – under Sue’s tutelage – create a media event They go to La Mirage and, Sue, through her news network, begins to emphasize story’s involving alien contact with humans. This creates public interest which is further heightened by alleged second-hand stories, whose credibility Lou and Sue don’t vouch for, of a similar nature. This creates a feedback cycle of heightened interest creating more stories creating more interest, all of which psychologically prepare the populace to believe the reality of a faked alien landing in La Mirage. It’s a nice, plausible explanation on how to change people’s perceptions of reality and manipulate the news. In the alien messages, Spinrad throws out some sf ideas that he may not have been the first to use but have since become more popular – aliens transferring their consciousness to digital form and now haunting cyberstructures, alien reverentially sowing and maintaining life in the desolate universe, alien cyborgs inhabiting space, and giant black holes in galactic centers slowly devouring everything.

It was a good read and – like all Spinrad – surprising in its richness and twists and turns of plot.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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