Norman Spinrad, author of Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream, among numerous other works, gave us the honor of an interview. A unique chance to talk about the core subject of his 30th novel, Osama the Gun.
We met in Paris with writer and author Norman Spinrad, and his mate Dona Sadock. We were eager to talk with him about Osama the Gun, his 30th novel and the less sci-fi of all. Born in 1940, Spinrad was known to us as an american genre writer exiled in France since the Reagan era. A kind of man in a high castle. As a representative of the American science-fiction nouvelle vague of the 60-70’s, his work has impregnated the current culture with more discretion than Philip K. Dick’s, partly because Spinrad is far more controversial than the father of adapted Total Recall and Blade Runner. The first time we crossed his path was in front of a cathode ray tube in the late french visual show L’Oeil du Cyclone, circa 1992. Years later, we have the chance to meet him in real life or IRL. There was so much to talk about with Mr. Spinrad that we decided to focus on islamic terrorism. Because our recent reading of Osama the Gun – a painful reminder of the Paris attacks in 2016 but also an interesting exercise of « precognition » as it was published in 2010. Before all, let’s « cognit » the man.
mXm : Via YouTube, people have became the media. Is it a revolution from your point of view ?
Norman Spinrad : It was. But google destroyed it when they bought it. (…) It is more and more commercials and stuff for commercials. It is just another television channel because it is now a big business. In the beginning, yes, it was the same thing as the internet in general which started out as a special kind of thing, a private thing for people to be with each other and put things on. It has just become interactive television. And now you see what happens with politics, with the Russians, what’s going on, with somebody like Macron who comes from nowhere and becomes president. All using the web, the social media which are originally private but public ways of communication. Now it’s entirely different.
“It’s all fake news because it’s not really news”
There was a project behind the internet. It is the illegitimate child of the US military and a bunch of researchers and idealistic students. Has the project gone wrong ?
It has started out as a certain technology. The technology has not changed. But the way it is used is what changed. It is used in different ways by different people. It’s politically very powerful. It elected Donald Trump, it helped elect Macron. It helped destroy party politics and make personal politics. That’s why we have Macron, and Trump. We don’t really need political parties, they are dying. It has done things to music, very badly. It’s much harder now to make a living as a musician. It used to be that you did gigs and went to festivals to sell your album. Now you’re doing albums to get you gigs. Because even the top can’t make the money they used to make. And it’s dominated by the big four main music companies in the entire world. So it’s done that to music. Amazon has done things like that to books. So it’s become a form of television, commercial television. On the other hand you have the social media which can be used either way and is used either way. You can’t believe anything you see on it because everybody is lying or putting their own propaganda on there. Not so much here [in France], but in the States it has really hurt professional journalism, it’s hurt newspapers, even television, neutral real professional journalism. The kind of journalism that people go to colleges and universities to learn how to do correctly, what moral rules of it are. All that is being evaporated by the social media. (…) It’s all fake news because it’s not really news. The professional very important thing about newspapers and old fashioned television journalism is that it makes a difference between real journalism and opinion. Now there isn’t. It’s all opinion. There’s very very little attempt at neutral journalism. It used to be if you did one side of an issue, you should do the other side of the issue, neutrally. And then you can have opinions separately. I’ve written a lot of stuff like that. I wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press, the top political opinion newspaper of the Counter Culture, but by understanding the distinction between journalism and opinion. Now, that’s evaporating and disappearing in real democracies. It was always like that in dictatorships, Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. But now in United States you have that. It’s not as bad in England, yet. It’s not as bad in France, yet. There’s a different concept of it but slowly in other countries and very rapidly in the States, that’s the spirit. You don’t know who to trust. Just to give you the information. It is all fake news because it’s not neutral professional news. It doesn’t give you the facts. It gives you such a take on the facts it’s not always facts. You can’t rely on the distinction. It is very dangerous.
If we had met 20 years ago I would have asked this question which is now a classic for any science-fiction writer : did any of you writers have foreseen the coming of internet, or I should ask now, the social media ?
It’s a hard question. I wrote about internet in a novel called A World Between, about the electronic democracy, voting on the internet, I didn’t call it the internet. It was before the military invented it, in the seventies. In that book the whole thing was there.
Paul Valery, who was not an sci-fi writer describes a sort of electric platform which could allow people from all over the world to instantly share pictures, sounds, musics, moving pictures… It is in his essay called The conquest of ubiquity (1928).
Yes. I wrote a thing called Riding The Torch which is about a far future. But again, that was an internet with also virtual reality. How many thousands of science-fiction novels published ? Maybe millions of short stories. Somebody has probably predicted everything. And a lot of people have predicted things that didn’t happen or that were wrong. Bill Gibson, Neuromancer, invented cyberspace in a way. But he said to me that he would prefer a manual typewriter. He didn’t know anything about computers ! By now he does.
In an interview, William Gibson said that as a young sci-fi writer [of the early 80’s] he needed to establish a new territory that wasn’t the usual extraterrestrial space owned by the older generation as in the space opera genre. So he took these kids, the early nerds-geeks, with their tech toys, as a model. And so his space would be inside the computers, the cyberspace.
Except he did not know anything about computers. He didn’t have to. If I am writing a story about a car, I don’t need to know how to take apart a car and put it back together again. Although I do, but I don’t have to… Bug Jack Barron was written before that too. And again that was television, but it was interactive television. I have been told : “you have invented the smartphone”. I didn’t invent the smartphone. They have been talked about it many times in many stories, even in Star Trek. These things often get invented by different people, in different times, in different ways. But that was before the internet. It was television turned into a two-way medium through microphones and screens and smartphones.
About “taking apart a car and put it back together”, I just read Osama The Gun and I found it disgusting, I mean as disgusting as is The Iron Dream. It is a very accurate portrait of what we would call a young french arab. So, how did you know how this kind of “car” works ? Because I always thought of you as a man [an american man] isolated in a kind of high castle, like this parisian district we are in, far from everyday [suburban] realities.
Two things. Osama is not a french arab. He comes from the Califat. As the other protagonist who is a sophisticated spy. But these characters are french arabs too. I’ve lived here long time ago Place Maubert. There were these people, “kabyles”, they didn’t like to be called [arabs], that’s what they wanted to be called. From Algeria. Local guys. I was friendly with these guys, they even helped move some of my stuff out there. So I knew some french arabs. And I don’t know how much it influenced that book. And also we were staying at one point up by the Montmartre cemetery, and that was nearby the outside peripheric [suburb limit] where they were big riots (in 2005). So we were close to that too. In fact there is a scene in the novel that takes place in an apartment in a building of the same kind the one we were in. So I had some experience with that. But you also can do some research. Like I never went to Mecca, I couldn’t go even if I wanted to. But I’ve read a lot of good books. And also, that’s one thing you can do with the internet, you can get pictures and movies of anything. (…) But it happens that I did have some contacts with kabyles, but with from the point of view of a frenchman they’re still arabs ! Even if they don’t consider themselves arabs. And they don’t want to call themselves “barbares” or “berberes”. Barbarians ! They don’t want to be called barbarians. And even they’re a minority in Algeria. So I’m not unfamiliar with this stuff.
Of course it was a naive question. All writers do research their subject. But I was troubled with this portrait of “Osama”. (…) What was you reaction on the 13th of november 2016, during the attacks on Bataclan in Paris ?
There was two reactions. The first one, we were living in New York at that time. I put it on Facebook not on YouTube. It was the “Charlie” thing. (…) It happened in places I used to go with Richard [Pinhas], like the Grand Mosquee, the tea house. There’s a thing on that in Osama. My first reaction was that the arabs or whatever you want to call them, should march in large numbers, with the same thing : “we’re also Charlie”. They did a little thing, but it didn’t happen. The other one, the recent one, we were across the street. We were going to play pétanque. The day after, there were alerts to stay home and to go nowhere. And my reaction was that I wanted to play pétanque. “Fuck them, I am not going to be intimidated by this shit”. And we went to play pétanque with friends who were french and arabs. That was a personal reaction to that kind of thing. Recently, there were soldiers here. Usually squads of four, it is a new thing to see soldiers in the neighborhood. We were glad, to say hello, to talk to them. Dona [my mate] and I have different takes on this. She took it more against muslims. Except now she got two muslim friends and it’s a little bit more complicated. You don’t know people’s people, so you react as a generality because of that kind of stuff. (…) The distinction between islam, the middle-east and the arab culture : it’s not the same thing at all in Indonesia or other countries like that, the jihadi stuff, the extreme examples of sharia are more about middle-eastern political, power structures and things like that, than they are about islam per say. One of the important thing about Osama The Gun, for me, was the whole thing about the hadj. And a long, long time ago when I was working in a literacy agency in New York on an autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember who Malcolm X was, an american black muslim… They were american muslims, sort of. They considered themselves such. And they were very racist, anti-white and all that kind of thing. Malcolm X was the second in command, very aggressive against whites, “fuck whities” and all that shit. He goes on hadj, comes back and so says “I was really wrong. This is not real islam”. And then they killed him. So way back before any of this, I had some knowledge and interest in what hadj does to people. But I think that the brotherhood of the Umma in a hadj is the real thing. I’ve never been there and will never be there, most likely, even if I wanted to. It’s very complex : on one hand it’s the brotherhood of the Umma, but on the other it’s against everybody else. It transcends race but it doesn’t go past the religious differences you know (…).
« I wanted to play pétanque, fuck them ! »
In an interview about the riots in France in november 2005, you said that from the french arab community could emerge “hope”. Ten years later, we had Charlie Hebdo, Paris Attacks and so on. This terrorism which is very difficult to separate from arabs and islam. Do you still have hope for this community ? My question may sound racist according to french standards – but the hell with that.
It’s a hard question because we have friends that are arabs, “beurs” I think, very successful and well regarded in the neighborhood, friends and people and everything. One of them is named Yasmina but for business reasons she calls herself “Michele”… (sigh) It’s a real question and also a part of Osama the Gun.The people here consider themselves french muslims or muslim french. If you consider yourself muslim french, it’s one thing. You’re culturally french but you’re muslim. You can still go the mosquee and stuff like that. Then Sarkozy wanted to subsidize mosques so that french kids would be educated in a different kind of islam than the jihadis. (…) What’s been happening with the jihadis is not good for the beurs in France obviously. That’s why I said that the beurs and their imams should have made a big thing of “we are Charlie too”. It would have been very important, it would have been the right thing to do. However we were in Barcelona when that happened. Afterwards there were big marchs there, there were some muslims marchs saying the same thing. “We are not them and they’re not us”. The french ideal and politics is if you want to be french, acclimate the culture, if you don’t, you don’t belong here. The american idea of melting pot is not the ideology here. (…)
Considering that the whole world is in crisis – we would not have had Trump if the world was in a good shape – would it be correct to say that terrorism is an expression of the crisis in the islamic world ? I didn’t say “arabic” because they are such a small part of muslims compared to Indonesians.
Indonesia is very complicated situation so I won’t go into that. (…) Islam and democracy are deeply against each other ideologically. Democracy says that legitimacy of a government arises from the consent of the people as expressed in a vote. Traditional islam says legitimacy of a government arises from the Quran, that human beings have no right to change these rules because it’s the word of Allah. And you can have a country that’s a democracy with a majority of muslims but you can’t have an islamic republic. Iran is not a real republic. It’s a phoney republic. The ultimate word is the word of Khamenei. And not of the president, not of anybody who that’s been elected. It’s not that it is a dictatorship. The ideology of what’s a legitimate government is completely different between an islamic government and a democratic government. So their take on what’s a democracy is it’s evil because it says that the decisions of humans can overrule the word of Allah. On the other side, democracy says [islam] is evil because it doesn’t allow people to decide. There is no middle ground between a theocratic muslim state and an electoral democracy. And that’s the core of the whole thing. Have you read Houellebecq ?
Submission maybe ? No. But I have my own idea about that. As I said to a muslim friend, being muslim is like having a cop inside your head permanently. She didn’t appreciate my remark.
Have you read 2084 by Boualem Sansal ?
I have it on my playlist. I am afraid to read it.
You should be ! It’s a very scary book.
I am from Algeria, as Sansal. We had a civil war during the 90’s, the death toll is about 200 000 people. But it seems that we have learnt nothing from it. Did your publisher or your publisher’s lawyer had any reserve when they read the end of Osama the Gun, which I will not spoil ?
I couldn’t sell the book in America. It was first published in France by Fayard. I had many many rejections from american publishers. The rejection notices were saying “no american publishers will take this book with a fork” which turned out to be true. Nobody published it. Finally a small press published it.
I read Osama after some of your previous works. When I reached the end of the book I said to myself “this guy [the writer] must be crazy, he doesn’t fear for his life”. Did you feel a certain kind of fear writing it, because of the lack of tolerance of the muslim community to be true – these are my words ?
It’s complicated because this is a kid [Osama] who grew up with a certain background. Who became jihadi hero by circumstances/happenstance. He experiences jihad differently. This book is “sympathy for the devil” like the Rolling Stones’ song. I can not give the name nor even gender of my translator. The translator of my book talked to a liberal muslim sociologist who read the book and liked it but said : “don’t put my name anyway near this thing and I advise you to do the same”. And so did the translator. So the name of the translator in the french edition is a pseudonym. And I have been asked to not to tell anybody who this pseudonym was. (…) The end [of Osama the Gun] ? Why did I do that ?
Not why. I found it a very courageous to end the novel in that way.
It was realistic. Whether you like it or not. (…)
« The main character in The Iron Dream is not very likable at all. But the main character in Osama really is »
Is Osama the Gun a sort of arabic version of The Iron Dream ?
Yes and no because the main character in The Iron Dream is not very likable at all. But the main character in Osama really is. It’s about a guy who is not a bad man. He ends up doing evil things for various ideological reasons, for reasons of ignorance, for various reasons, accidental. For me it was very important that a big part of that book was about someone who is like that, on a hadj. Which I guess I got the idea of that part from Malcolm X’s experience. (…) [In the book] the jihadi who enters the hadj is not the same one that comes out. Whatever the things he may be involved into after the hadj. He comes out at least with a different idea of islam, which is the difference between the religion of islam by itself and middle-eastern politics. So… I wouldn’t compare it to The Iron Dream. “Sympathy for the devil” is how I felt when I was writing Osama the Gun. I was not trying to get sympathy for nazis and Hitler ! That’s the difference.
I think you have succeeded in making “Osama” likeable. That’s why I told you I had mixed feelings reading it, like disgust but also empathy.
You are supposed to ! You’re supposed to have mixed feelings. I would really want to have that book published in Arabic. (…) I was in a big science-fiction convention and there was an arabian publisher and editor. He said “I want to publish something from you”. I said “I got this book” !… So I sent it to him. And he said “I can’t publish this thing…It would be far too dangerous”. He wasn’t offended by the book himself. “No way I can publish this in Saudi-Arabia !”. I really wanted Osama to be published in Arabic. He said arabic most important publishing places were Egypt and Iraq. And Iraq publishing was not doing so good at this point ! (…) Maybe it is easier now in Arabia Saudi with the new prince. But he wasn’t offended by the book, he was afraid. (…) People also told that Arabic differs somewhat from a country to another. So it’s hard to publish a book in Arabic that’s universally acceptable. I am not talking about politics here, just about the language. It’s the opposite of Chinese : you can’t understand what they’re saying but everybody can read Mandarin. I’m not published there either !
Just before ending our interview I would like to talk about the non-story between you and the movie industry. I like to call you “the less adapted science-fiction writer”. What did happen with Jack Barron ?
That’s the longest story in the world ! Basically, I won’t go into the details, but Universal Pictures wanted the complete rights with it, not just an option. And they did not make the movie. They still own the rights and they won’t sell it to anybody, for complicated money reasons. Costa-Gavras was originally gonna make the movie. (…) Everybody has been trying to get these rights. Diane Kurys too.
The french director ?
Yes. She always wanted to make this. By now she’s a good friend of mine thanks to all of this ! I can not remember all of them [who wanted to make it].
You have a page on the IMDB. You are listed as a screenplay writer for La sirène rouge…
Yes ! How did you land on this project ?
How did I land on this project ? I knew Jacques Dorfmann and we had a good friend in common. They wanted me to give them an idea of who could write a script about Vercingetorix. I knew they didn’t want me, I had not written a feature film at that point. Rospo Pallenberg was a friend of mine. He wrote The Emerald Forest, Excalibur. I felt he was the guy who could write this thing. So I got them Rospo. They did not like what he did. So finally they said to me “you do it” ! (…) That’s how I did it. As to the Dantec thing, The Red Siren (La sirène rouge). I was friend with Dantec, I had never read this book. One day I’m at a party, people introduced me to the company that wanted to make Sirène rouge. They had a script that they didn’t like, so they came to me and said “we want you to write a screenplay”. Also because of what I am, a writer in English, who can not translate but turn such a book into a script in english. Why the movie is so bad ? It has to do with the director who also thought he was a writer and the usual shit with directors. He is not my friend. Jacques Dorfmann is still my friend, despite everything. So I didn’t go after either of these things, they came after me. Television is another story.
What do you think about science-fiction in movies and TV nowadays ? Do you go to movies ? Or maybe you subscribed to Netflix ?
There are some good movies being made. The Cameron thing, Avatar, that was good. A lot of this stuff, Marvel Comics stuff or stuff imitating Marvel Comics, tons of it : that’s dominant.
You like it ?
No ! I like bande-dessinée and a lot of things but not that stuff.
« The stuff imitating Marvel Comics lacks of everything : spirit, characterization… »
What does it lack ?
It lacks spirit, morality, characterization. It’s more easy to say what it has than what it lacks. Cause it lacks almost everything except action, special effects, car chases and things blowing up, and people in funny hero suits killing horrible villains. There’s always exceptions, some good ones. The reason that happened is because they so depend on action and violence, and visual things. While science-fiction movies were expensive to make due to the technology at that time. But now anything you can think of, you can do. And so, people are expecting that. And science-fiction is the easiest thing to do. Superhero stuff is a kind of science-fiction. Just like The Iron Dream which is technically science-fiction. It’s a take on that. So the more necessary it is to spend a lot of money on special effects and fights and evil people fighting good people, the more they turn to science-fiction because it’s the best thing to do. I wrote this Star Trek episode, The Doomsday Machine, you can tell the difference with Star Wars, just by the title. Star Trek : a spaceship with people from everywhere goes to explore the galaxy, a trek and a positive morality. Star Wars is what the title says ! And the villains are mostly faceless robots or faceless humans in robots suits so you can not see their faces.
Let’s finish then with a geek question. Did you like the original Star Trek series and what “generation” of Star Trek do you prefer ?
You mean the series with the bald french captain, Jean-Luc Picard ?
Patrick Stewart. I liked it, Stewart is a great actor. Those things were pretty good. Roddenberry was still sort of involved in it. After that, they tried different things, different people…
Since J.J. Abrams remade it, “trek” has become “war” because it’s more action movies than anything else.
There was action in the original series too but there was some sense to it. They are more cynical now.
« Reality never catches up with science-fiction »
Is it still possible to make space opera movies in 2018 ? We know so much more about (the possibilities and impossibilities of) space travel. Even Elon Musk is a kind of science-fiction character. Star Trek was a metaphor for exploration and colonization. What would be the cultural and historical background of nowadays space operas ? Does the genre still have a value ?
Sure ! Musk is trying to get maybe to Mars, which is a good thing to do. But Star Trek is out there, like millions of miles away ! They always say that and it’s bullshit : “reality catches up with science-fiction”. Reality can never catch up with science-fiction because science-fiction is by definition something beyond what exists. So before man on the moon, there was a lot of science-fiction stories about man on the moon. Since then, science-fiction is not doing anymore stuff about that. Now, it’s radically different, really radically different. At the time of Star Trek and even Star Wars, the question was about finding another solar system. Now we know that there are trillions of stars, there are more planets than stars out there. Science never makes science-fiction irrelevant. It can not exceed science-fiction. What it can do is make certain stories obsolete or wrong. I recall Russian Spring which was written and published just before the collapse of Soviet Union ! There is no more S.U. so you can not write about it anymore. But in general, it’s impossible, by definition for reality to outdate science-fiction.
I can’t resist to ask a last question about artificial intelligence that tech companies make a big buzz about now. What is your take on that and the concepts it carries like “singularity” ?
I think this is bullshit. Singularity stuff is bullshit because they don’t seem to understand the difference between intelligence and consciousness. I don’t care how “clever” an algorithm gets. Intelligence is not consciousness. Before making an artificial intelligence I would make an artificial stupidity. If you can figure how to make an artificial stupidity maybe they can make a conscious intelligence. But it is a big mistake because what they call an A.I. is just a tool. It can do things that we can’t. It can treat great amounts of data and this and that. But it’s not conscious. We don’t even know what consciousness is exactly yet, if ever. So I do not play that one at all. And if they want to educate kids about so called A.I. that’s what they should be explaining to them. No, this is not something that’s going to replace consciousness cause it does not have one. And to give it consciousness is maybe impossible but certainly not likely. (…)
Interview by Rachid Ouadah, on september 2018 in Paris, France. Thanks to Duncan Nilsson-Pinhas and Dona Sadock.