Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: 'Songs from the Stars' by Norman Spinrad

2 / 5 Stars

‘Songs from the Stars’ was first published in 1980. This Pocket Books paperback (275 pp) was released in January 1981, with cover artwork by Mara McAfee.

Several centuries after WWIII, civilization in North America survives in the higher ranges of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While the country on either side of the range is a blasted, radiation-baked wasteland, amidst the Sierras, Ernest Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’ exists…. as the nation-state of Aquaria.

Aquaria is the living embodiment of 1970s California ‘granola’ culture. The only technologies allowed are those powered by wind, water, sun, or muscle. Vegetarianism and New Age religions are embraced, while prewar technologies are considered ‘black science’, and advocates and possessors face banishment. 

Free love, free pot, and the hippy aesthetic govern social interactions. Citizens pepper their conversations with terms widely used by the Commune Culture ca. 1974, such as ‘karma’, ‘bummer’, ‘the Way’, and ‘righteous’.

Author Spinrad creates this culture with such conviction that at times ‘Songs’ reads like an (unintentional ?) satire.

Higher up in the Sierras are small outposts of ‘mountain williams’ rednecks. The mountain williams supply the citizens of Aquaria with solar technology obtained from the Spacers, a little-known clan, located in even more remote territory, that embraces black science. The trade with the Spacers is carefully ignored by the citizens of Aquaria, who would prefer not to know the details of how their solar cells ultimately are manufactured.

As the novel opens, male protagonist ‘Clear Blue’ Lou is en route via solar-powered glider to the capital town of La Mirage, there to mediate a dispute between two clans accused of promoting black magic. It seems that radios sold by the Lightning Clan of mountain williams contain – gasp – nuclear-powered energy cells !

Also en route to La Mirage is prototypical California blonde Sunshine Sue, a member of the Sunshine Tribe, one of the clans with the misfortune to purchase the illegal radios.

Events conspire to bring Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue together as romantic partners. But when a fateful encounter with a practitioner of black science gets Sue involved in a conspiracy that could get her expelled from Aquaria, Sue decides to turn to Lou.

Against his will, Clear Blue Lou finds himself drawn with Sue and the Spacers into a mission that represents an embrace of the technology, and the attitudes, that had destroyed the planet. But as Lou discovers, sometimes the sacrifice of one’s beliefs is a necessary evil….

‘Songs from the Stars’ is in many respects a well-written novel, but I doubt it will appeal to contemporary sf readers.

The depiction of 70s tofu-head culture will draw blanks from anyone under 40, as will the  one-dimensional portrayal of female characters as horny hippie chicks always willing to disrobe and ‘sport’.

Much of the narrative revolves around the psychological and emotional dramas that Lou and Sue must confront, and surmount, as they proceed with their mission. After a while these dramas become more contrived and more annoying – one wonders why the technologically advanced Spacers even need the assistance of self-absorbed, conflicted New Age stoners in the first place.

Spinrad can’t resist filling the latter stages of the book with drawn-out sections of highly figurative New Wave prose; by 1980, this style of writing was becoming more and more passé, and its presence in ‘Songs’ injects notes of tedium, rather than vibrancy.

In summary, ‘Songs’ is reserved for dedicated Spinrad fans, and those with particular interest in early 80s sf. All others can pass on this novel.


MPorcius said...

Have you read a lot of Spinrad's work?

Over ten years ago I read Spinrad's Void Captain's Tale and enjoyed it as a sort of literary novel about difficult interpersonal relationships in a weird SF setting. I liked it enough that I then tried Child of Fortune, set in the same universe as Void Captain's Tale, but I could barely get through the first few chapters. I quickly got the impression that Child of Fortune was going to be a hippie utopia with no tension or excitement, and while I could maybe read a short story like that, the book seemed huge, with tiny print, so I bailed.

Some years after that I read Men in the Jungle, which is a long and overblown parody/satire of violent pulp fiction and war, imperialism, etc. It was way too long, but I managed to finish it. But it squelched any desire I might have to tackle another Spinrad work.

tarbandu said...

'Songs' is the first novel of Spinrad's I've ever read, altho I have read a number of his shorter pieces.

Needless, to say, he was one of the American authors most feted by New Wave anthology editors, and sf critics of the 70s and early 80s.

I was hoping that 'Men in the Jungle' might be one of his better novels, but it seems that it may be as disappointing as the rest of his canon....

MPorcius said...

You still might want to give Men in the Jungle a try; I am sure a google search will turn up enthusiastic endorsements that are equally as persuasive as was my dismissal. And there is always his most famous work, Iron Dream, which I have avoided.

Anonymous said...

Before Spinrad wrote Void Captain's Tale he lanced an enormous boil on his left buttock which leaked venom into the maw of Yog Soggoth, Destroyer of Worlds

MPorcius said...

I guess Yog Soggoth, Destroyer of Worlds, is like the embarrassing brother of the more famous Yog-Sothoth, Lurker at the Threshold.

Like Jimmy Carter's brother Billy. Or maybe that's the other way around.