Thursday, February 21, 2019

"Carcinoma Angels" (1967)

Norman Spinrad appears to be a controversial and anarchic element in science fiction's New Wave of the '60s, which the Dangerous Visions collection edited by Harlan Ellison helped bring to term. I vaguely know Spinrad's name—have never read him, and don't know his reputation even. He appears to enjoy offending the conventional. I thought "Carcinoma Angels" was pretty good. It reminded me of Philip K. Dick more than anyone, in all good ways, though it probably started with the drugs and drug-taking the story features. Our hero, Harrison Wintergreen, is ridiculously successful at everything he tries. He's a gazillionaire by the time he's 25—his route there, starting with cornering parts of the baseball card market, is entertaining and inspired, not to mention prescient. Then he becomes a great humanitarian, and finally a great inventor. At the age of 40 he contracts incurable cancer. Undeterred, he sets out to cure cancer. Once again his route to that is entertaining and inspired. His final step is a drug regimen that effectively imposes total sensory deprivation, plus amphetamines so he can't fall asleep. And morphine, so it doesn't hurt. Once fully isolated within himself, he goes to battle, literally with the disease, represented as a kind of gang of motorcycle-riding outlaws. Spinrad is extraordinarily good at fencing in the sense of thought and thinking that goes on beyond sense input and even language. If it's perhaps too busy with the biker gang it also delivers an ending that is surprising and horrifying. Like Dick, Spinrad is good at getting inside your head, at least in this story, and reminding you he's there. I'm almost afraid to look into his other stuff, which is partly Ellison's strange introduction to Spinrad and the story. Ellison plainly doesn't know what to make of Spinrad. He praises him, but also harshly slags some of his work by name as "unreadable." This is the introduction! It's quite possible Ellison was jealous that Spinrad was competing for the same bad boy corner of science fiction he wanted to dominate. It's also possible, from Ellison's and others' descriptions, that a fair amount of Spinrad's work operates in gray areas bordering pornography. In this story the narrative voice is intimidatingly intelligent, or at least sure of its intelligence. It makes me suspect Nietzschean superman fantasies motivate him. Yet the story is also very effective at all the things it's doing. Some great writing here too: "A thousand false pains and pressures tore at him, as if his whole body had been amputated"—I love that "whole body." One of the best in the collection.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison


  1. Norman Spinrad has written a couple of remarkable novels, Bug Jack Barron about a TV producer caught up in the ultimate political scandal, and The Iron Dream, a spoof of the novel Adolf Hitler might have written if he hadn't gone into politics.