May 19 2010 10:25am
He Walked Among Us (Excerpt)
[For Norman Spinrad’s many fans, and for those of you who have never sampled Norman’s work, Tor.com presents an excerpt from the first chapter of He Walked Among Us, which Booklist called “one of the best SF novels of the new century.”]
“Why, you shall say at break of day:
Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”
—COLUMBUS, by Joaquin Miller
“Have fun saving the world, Dex,” Ellie said dryly. “But do try not to get too beered out.”
“Must you rain on my parade?” Dexter Lampkin muttered sourly.
She pecked him on the cheek. “I just don’t want you to wrap that damned thing around a tree, is that asking too much?” said Ellie. “Peace?”
“Peace,” Dexter grunted and closed the door behind him. He had been going to these first Wednesday things for three years now. A dozen or so fans of his out-of-print novel, drinking beer, sneaking the occasional joint, calling themselves ”Transformationalists,” and convincing themselves that they were somehow going to save the world in the process.
Each first Thursday, he swore he would never go to one of these things again. Each first Wednesday, he went anyway.
Because a few of these people were real scientists?
Because they believed in Dexter D. Lampkin even though he found them ludicrous?
Or because, God help him, some part of him still believed in THE TRANSFORMATION too?
Out in the front yard, the Santa Ana wind rattled the sere skeletal palm fronds, set dusty swirls of dead leaves dancing, and dried the back reaches of his throat. Your average Angeleno professed a loathing for the Santa Ana, which ripped shingles from your roof, whipped brush fires up into roaring infernos, and supposedly brought out the homicidal crazies. But Dexter took a great big honk as he walked across the yard to the garage.
Dexter loved the Santa Ana.
He loved those negative ions sweeping in off the desert, stoking up the old endorphins, tingling his dendrites with norepinephrene, boosting the middle-aged biochemical matrix of his consciousness into hyperdrive.
He loved the way the hot desert wind blew the Los Angeles basin clear of smog, perfumed the air with bougainvillea and chaparral instead of undead hydrocarbons, the technicolor blue daytime skies and the nights like this one—crystalline, heated to the temperature of twenty-year-old pussy, redolent with the musk of the California Dream.
And if the acrid tang of far-off smoke all too often spiced the Santa Ana, well, hey, despite Ellie’s endless urging, Dexter hadn’t fallen into the real estate trap, now had he?
As he kept telling her, any writer who sunk his freedom money into a house and a mortgage was a prize schmuck. And anyone who thought it was a cagey investment to do so in a venue famous for earthquakes, brushfires, and mud slides, where affordable insurance usually covered everything else but, deserved what he was sooner or later going to get.
For truth be told, Dexter also loved the Santa Ana just because loving the Devil Wind was somehow a finger held high in the air to the face of LA.
Not that Dexter hated Los Angeles with the provincial chauvinism of his former Bay Area compatriots, who believed anything south of the fog-bank they were so cleverly fortunate to have chosen to inhabit was nothing but Orange County roadside ticky-tacky and braindead yahoos.
Indeed one of the charms of Los Angeles was the very lack of a local equivalent of that smarmy Northern California boosterism. While the Bay Area brooded endlessly over its supposed rivalry with La-La Land, people down here were only dimly aware of San Francisco’s existence, crappy climate but great Italian and Chinese restaurants, right, ought to fly up for a three-day weekend sometime, we get a chance, babes.
LA didn’t take itself seriously at all. In place of chauvinism, what was required of Angelenos was attitude. The attitude that expressed itself in hot dog stands in the shape of hot dogs, houses built to resemble the Disney versions of Baghdad or Camelot, the Chinese and Egyptian theaters, and the Hollywood Sign itself, an enormous emblem proclaiming the obvious in towering pharonic letters a few molecules thick.
On a personal level, one knew one had achieved the proper LA attitude when, what else, one had found a soulmate of a car.
Dexter flipped up the garage door and smiled a silly boyish hello to his.
When Dexter and Ellie were living in Berkeley, they had had a fairly new Toyota and a late middle-aged Volvo. Down here in Fairfax their two-car garage contained, in addition to cartons of Dexter’s author’s copies and moldy manuscripts that surely would be worth big bucks as collector’s items some day, Ellie’s two-year-old Pontiac Firebird coupe and Dexter’s ancient red Alfa-Romeo convertible.
By any rational automotive standard, the Alfa was an unreliable piece of shit. Its leaky gaskets caused it to slurp oil at the rate of a pint every thousand miles, the gearbox made ominous noises, the shift lever now had to be held down in second, and the electrical system had been rewired so many times by amateurs that even new heavy-duty batteries mysteriously died at the usual inopportune moments.
But Dexter loved the Alfa. Not for its all-too-obvious flaws, but because it was an authentic red Italian sports car that whipped around the curves as if on rails, snapped your head back in a satisfying manner when you came out of one and stood on it in second, and iwas a hoot to drive back and forth to the mechanic, which was often.
Was it juvenile for a forty-three-year-old writer with an expanded middle and a wife and kid to support to chunk out north of three thousand bucks a year in insurance, repair bills, oil, and expensive imported Italian parts to maintain this decrepit automotive wet-dream?
Ellie was certainly of that opinion.
“It’s pathetic, Dex, it’s your mid-life crisis on wheels, when are you gonna dump the thing and get a reliable second car?”
“The upkeep on the Alfa’s less than the monthlies on another new car,” Dexter would point out logically.
“You piss away half of that every year in repair bills and oil.”
At which point, Dexter would give her the ghost of the very leer that had lured her once tasty young bod to him across a crowded room a decade ago, the glamorous cocksman’s leer of the thirty-one-year-old Dexter D. Lampkin, of a risen young star along the science fiction convention circuit.
“Cheaper than a mistress in a tight dress of the same color,” he would say.
It was an old joke that had long since ceased to be funny, and an old threat that had long since ceased to have bite.
Ellie knew that he might cop one of the readily available quick ones at a science fiction convention from time to time, but she also knew that he was not likely to screw anyone at such scenes that he would care to contemplate in the morning, and he knew that she didn’t really care as long as he respected her need not to know. Both of them knew what on between writers and fans at these conventions. Both of them knew what it was to be the belle and the beau of such a masquerade ball. Which is what they had been when they met at that publisher’s party at the Seattle Westercon.
Dexter D. Lampkin had won the Hugo for best science fiction novel the year before, a silvery rocketship awarded by the fans who staged these conventions. An appropriately phallic trophy for someone not entirely above using it to add to his reputation as a convention cocksman.
This was more a matter of getting stoned and/or plastered enough to lose one’s sense of sexual esthetics than honing one’s jejune skills as a seducer. Any published writer who weighed less than three hundred pounds, and some who didn’t, could get laid at these things. The question was, by what?
Why did science fiction fans of both sexes tend to be so overweight? Why did they tend to be pear-shaped and look strange about the eyes? Why did masses of them crammed into convention hotel room parties exude such clouds of anti-sexual pheromones?
The story that Norman Spinrad told Dexter at some con or other had the awful ring of scientific truth.
“My girlfriend, Terry Champagne, had a theory that allegiance to science fiction fandom is genotypically linked to a minimal distance between the eyes, narrow shoulders, and enormous asses. One time, we were going to a convention in some horrible fleabag on Herald Square in New York, crowds of people going into the subway, your bell-shaped general population curve on the random hoof. As a scientific experiment, we stood across the street from the con hotel trying to predict who would go inside. Terry scored better than seventy-five percent.”
Ellen Douglas, however, would have gone undetected as a science fiction fan by the genetic criteria of Spinrad’s former girlfriend. Dexter had known her by reputation before he ever set eyes on her, for Ellen was what was known in the science fiction world as a Big Name Fan, what in the rock biz would have been called a Super Groupie.
But in the world of science fiction fandom, one did not achieve such status by screwing stars like Dexter D. Lampkin. One got to screw the stars by achieving the status of Big Name Fan. By reputation, Dexter knew Ellen Douglas as a convention organizer, fannish panel personality, and fanzine gossip columnist.
She was also reputed to be a great beauty who knocked ’em dead at masquerades in famous minimalist costumes, but fannish standards of pulchritude being what they were, Dexter had given this a heavy discount for hyperbole until that moment when their eyes met for the first time across that sea of flabby flesh in Seattle.
All right, so this lady might not be quite movie starlet material, but oh yes, she had it, particularly in the usual convention context, and oh boy, did she flaunt it! Natural blond hair permed into an incredible afro, regular features, big green eyes the regulation distance apart, and this wonderful ripe body artfully barely-contained in a tight low cut thigh slit black dress.
It had been a magic moment, a wild weekend, and a frantic slow motion cross-country romance, as Dexter and Ellen fucked their way from convention to convention for about six months, before she finally gave up her place in St. Louis and moved into Dexter’s little apartment in San Francisco, and soon thereafter into the house in Berkeley.
For two or three years they were the Golden Couple of the Greater Bay Area Co-Prosperity Sphere, the circle of science fiction writers, their significant others, and the surrounding cloud of fans, hangers-on, fringe scientists, and Big Name Dope Dealers to same who formed what was the largest science fiction community in the United States. Those were the days to be young, and in love, and a science fiction writer in Berkeley, and Dexter D. Lampkin!
The science fiction genre had completed the transformation from lowly pulp publishing backwater, where for a quarter of century 5 cents a word for short fiction and $3000 for a novel had been considered hot stuff, into a “major publishing industry profit center.” Meaning that a hot young talent like Dexter D. Lampkin could command thirty or forty thou for a novel. Dexter could take six months or even a year to write a novel. He could afford literary commitment and social idealism and enjoy a life of relative bourgeois ease at the same time.
He could even believe he could change the world.
A lot of science fiction writers did, and some of them had. Arthur C. Clarke had inspired the geosynchronous broadcast satellite, the Apollo astronauts credited science fiction with putting them on the path to the Moon, DUNE and STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND had created the hippies and the Counterculture, and L. Ron Hubbard had turned an idea for an sf novelette into a multimillion dollar real-world religious scam.
Dexter had even read a piece by some French intellectual who had opined that science fiction writers should get together, decide the optimal future for the species, and, by setting all their stories in that future, call it into being thereby.
Given the difficulty any three science fiction writers had agreeing on how many letters made up a word at 5 cents per, this kind of collaborative messianism did not seem entirely practical....
Dexter wrestled down the top, looked under the car to see whether the size of the oil puddle demanded a look at the dipstick, decided it didn’t, put the key in the ignition, and heaved the usual sigh of relief, when, after the usual catch and hesitation, the starter managed to turn the engine over.
The science fiction community did already accept certain truths as self-evident that had yet to penetrate the obdurate brain-pans of the so-called ”mundanes,” aka the rest of the species.
Foremost, that the Earth was the cradle of a future space-going humanity, and in a galaxy containing hundreds of millions of stars similar to our own, it would be ridiculously arrogant to assume that our evolution was unique. And therefore, advanced space-going civilizations who had achieved mastery of matter and energy and long-term stability should abound.
But no less than Enrico Fermi had asked the obvious question: If so, where are they? Why haven’t we detected them? Why haven’t they visited us or at least sent a cosmic postcard?
The answer was not than reassuring. Namely that the natural tendency of sapient species was to do themselves in before evolving to the long-term stable stage.
After all, no species was likely to develop space travel without unlocking the Faustian fires of the atom first. It was hardly guaranteed that any species would develop clean sources of power like fusion or space-born solar power before the necessary precursor technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear fission poisoned the biosphere. And these were only the most obvious means by which our own species seemed likely to expire. So it seemed logical to assume that we were only average dickheads, that the present crisis we had entered, say about the time of Hiroshima, was something that all sapient species must pass through, the historical moment, as Dexter put it, when the lunatics take over the asylum.
Sooner or later any species that developed an evolving technology was going to get its hot little pseudopods on the power of the atom, long before which its activities would have begun doing unpredictable things to the biosphere, both of which were likely to occur long before it had the technology to escape the consequences by colonizing other planets. Or, if the foibles of the human race exhibited only average shitheadedness, before it evolved the necessary wisdom to transform itself into a civilization capable of surviving even another few centuries of its own history.
The human race was going through its transformation crisis right now, and judging by the lack of good news from outer space, the chances of negotiating it successfully seemed something like slim and none.
On the other hand, Dexter’s New York agent had little trouble getting him a $40,000 contract for a science fiction novel based on the 30 page outline he batted out around this material on a hot weekend with the aid of some excellent weed.
Dexter put the Alfa in gear, pulled out of the garage, and headed towards his rendezvous with the rather pathetic latter-day fans of that very visionary novel, a novel which his agent still hadn’t been able to get back in print.
“Transformationalists,” they called themselves. Their bible was THE TRANSFORMATION, Dexter D. Lampkin’s exercise in science fictional messianism, the book with which he really thought at the time he was going to change the world.
NASA picks up a funeral oration from an extraterrestrial civilization by a species not much in advance of ourselves which has destroyed the viability of its planet via atomic war and atmospheric degradation. Worse still, these aliens have received similar messages from several other intelligent species who have also done themselves in by similar assholery. This appears to be the galactic norm. If there are any intelligent species out there who have successfully passed through their transformation crises, they don’t seem to have any interest in foreign aid to Third World planets.
The government tries to sit on it, but a few scientists in the know are horrified, and a secret conspiracy of “Transformationalists” gradually comes together. They know what has to be done to transform the human race into a successful long-lived space-going species. Big bucks have to be poured into fusion, space-born solar energy, the colonization of the solar system, artificial photosynthesis. The burning of fossil fuels and the use of dirty fission reactors must be halted, massive tracts of farmland must be reforested, and, complete nuclear disarmament will probably be required too.
But how are they supposed to cram all this down the species’ throat?
They hit upon the idea of creating an alien from outer space, a visitor from a far distant civilization that has survived its own transformation crisis, to serve as their mouthpiece.
So they recruit a 16 year-old hippie-dip runaway and go to work. They profile the perfect transnational wet-dream fantasy and surgery and genetic tinkering transform her into the most stunning woman the world has ever seen, with apple-green skin and purple hair.
They raise her intelligence to super-genius level, program her with the millennial history and scientific knowledge of this imaginary advanced civilization she’s supposed to be from, and erase all memories of her previous incarnation so that she is convinced she is Lura, ambassador from the Galactic Brotherhood of Advanced Civilizations, dispatched to save the Earth.
The Transformationalists sell Lura as the savior from space and begin to effect the great Transformation through her, presenting their visionary program as the tried and true path of all those civilizations who have succeeded in passing through their Transformation Crises.
Many plot twists later, the civilization of the Earth is indeed transformed, the final McGuffin being the capture of Lura by a mob of the dispossessed, and her impending martyrdom.
Some of the Transformationalists try to tell the world the truth to save her. But since Lura herself contradicts them, believing that she is a noble being from an advanced civilization, they fail, she is martyred, and the Transformationalists have no pragmatic choice but to turn her into the legend that successfully puts the seal on the great Transformation.
In the epilogue, an immense spaceship then manifests itself in the solar system to welcome humanity into a real Galactic Brotherhood of Advanced Civilizations. Earth has negotiated its Transformation Crisis on its own. That’s the entrance test. That’s why the galactic silence. The Galactic Brotherhood has no interest in communicating with species who have not yet proven themselves worthy.
Dexter poured his heart and soul into this one.
It ended up taking over his life completely, became an obsession, a mission, a cause.
Before he began, he felt he had to travel the convention circuit, pouring booze and dope into scientists of his acquaintance and scientists of their acquaintance; conning them into serving as his brain trust, creating something not unlike the Transformationalist cabal in his unwritten novel, at least in his own mind at the time.
By the time Dexter was ready to write page one, six months had passed in a blur since he had signed the contract, he had gone through about $5000 in travel and entertainment, and he had a dossier of speculative papers from cutting-edge scientists about 2000 pages thick.
The contract called for Dexter to turn in the manuscript in twelve months. He was eight months late. The contract called for about 100,000 words, but Dexter turned in 250,000, and after three months of cutting under editorial supervision, the final version still came in at 220,000. It took harder work over more months to write than anything Dexter had ever done, and by the time he saw the galley proofs, the $40,000 was long gone.
But Dexter knew that THE TRANSFORMATION was his masterpiece, his destiny, the work for which his name would be remembered for a thousand years, the mission he had been born to fulfill.
It came out 6 months later, and it bombed.
“Too intellectual for the kids who they’re marketing sci-fi to these days, Dex,” his agent told him. ”What they want is space opera series, or likewise in wizards and dragons, Star Trek and Star Wars novelizations, role playing tie-ins, and novels based on the laundry lists of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.”
Broke, devastated, with Ellie now pregnant with Jamie, Dexter spent ten days listening to his wife whine, and staring into the black hole his life had become.
His agent had timed it perfectly. On the eleventh day, he called and dropped the other shoe.
“Hey, it’s not like your career’s over, Dex. You get me a strong outline for a trilogy, preferably fantasy, and I’m sure I can get you a contract for $30,000 a book, maybe even more if there’s game potential in it.”
“Fuck you!” Dexter snarled and hung up on him.
“Fuck you, Dexter D. Lampkin!” was Ellie’s take on it when he conveyed the gist of the conversation. “What are we going to live on, your Polish serial rights?”
She kept hammering at him. Bills began to pile up. His American Express card got pulled. Dying inside, Dexter was about to surrender his soul to the inevitable when he ran into Harlan Ellison at a convention in Phoenix.
Ellison, a Los Angeles scenarist and short story writer who had flourished on a high economic level for decades, set him straight in no uncertain terms.
“Are you nuts, Lampkin, you got to ream out crap to stay alive, don’t piss on the work that really matters to you to do it. Instead of writing three hundred pages of sci-fi bullshit and ruining your reputation for $30,000 a pop, come down to Hollywood and bang out 48 page tv scripts for $15,000 minimum. Buy yourself time to do your real work and keep it separate from what you do to make the rent.”
The Santa Ana ruffled Dexter’s hair as he crossed Sunset and drove Laurel Canyon Boulevard up through the hills. The night was warm, the canyon was heady with vegetal perfume, he kept the tach over 3000 as he whipped through the curves, just to feel those gees, just to hear the double-overhead-cam engine growl, whoo-ee!
So it hadn’t exactly worked out as smoothly as the picture Harlan had painted—prime time tv script gigs were few and far between—but considering the alternatives, Dexter figured he was doing all right.
The cartoon shows were hot for an sf writer accustomed to writing novellas in the time it took the usual derelicts to write a 30 page script, and while the money was pretty shitty, it was usually there when needed. There was a certain amount of magazine work, bullshit he could write in his sleep. Dexter even found that he had a knack for writing album cover blurb, ad copy, even gags for third rate comics.
He made enough money via the Scam of the Week to be able to spend half his time writing his novels. He was now older and wiser enough to know that most science fiction writers had a book like THE TRANSFORMATION in them, the visionary masterpiece that would express the full brilliance of their genius and enlighten the world. He was older and wiser enough to know that most of them were going to bomb.
He was middle-aged enough these days too to know that the Alfa was an extended hardware metaphor that would have Sigmund Freud chuckling in his beard—the forty-three year old one-time visionary with the expanded waistline zipping up over Mulholland towards his boys’ night out with the ghosts of his youth in his equally superannuated red Italian dick on wheels.
But as he crossed Mulholland destiny sent him a sign.
Up from the Valley side came another old red Alfa of approximately the same vintage. The top was also down, and in the car was your prototypical California beauty, long honey-blond hair blowin’ in the wind, could have been all of twenty-five.
She honked her horn.
Dexter honked back.
Her smile was radiant.
Dexter waved, and then she was gone.
But not before he remembered that it was old stogie-chomping Siggy himself, who, when tweaked by some smartass as to the obvious symbolic nature of the cylindrical object perpetually stuck in his yawp, had proclaimed: ”Sometimes a cigar is a cigar.”