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He Walked Among Us
By Norman Spinrad
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Librairie Arthème Fayard
All rights reserved.
"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 brushfires 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 brain-dead 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 soul mate 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 collectors' 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 it was 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 midlife 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 more than 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 went 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 aesthetics 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 antisexual 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 a century five 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 five 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 brainpans of the so-called "mundanes," a.k.a. 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 that 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 thirty-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 toward 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.
Excerpted from He Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad. Copyright © 2009 Librairie Arthème Fayard. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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