James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Let This Cup Pass From Me

He Walked Among Us

By Norman Spinrad 

21 May, 2024

What's The Worst That Could Happen?


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Norman Spinrad’s 2002 He Walked Among Us is a science fiction messianic fable1 … or possibly an entirely mundane story about deranged people with overlapping manias and the people who exploit them.

The novel’s protagonist, Hugo Award winner Dexter Lampkin, was certain that Transformations was his Big Novel. But Transformations didn’t even earn out its advance. On the advice of Harlan Ellison, Dexter turned to cracking out television scripts. This did not produce the accolades that Dexter was sure should be his, but it did deliver the income he and his family needed.

Despite his Big Novel’s fate, Dexter does not turn his back on SF conventions. After all, SF conventions provide him with a steady stream of low-self-esteem unattractive fat women with whom he can cheat on his hot wife Ellie.

Fate hands Dexter the chance to save the world.

Sleazy agent Texas Jimmy Balaban discovers comedian Ralf in the Catskills. Ralf’s schtick is that he is a time-travelling comedian whose bid to reach the 1960s left him stuck in the 1990s. Too bad that Ralf is painfully unfunny. Texas Jimmy, an entertainment veteran, thinks Ralf has potential. What Ralf needs is material.

Enter Dexter. Texas Jimmy has a dubious reputation but his checks don’t bounce. Dexter begins producing man-from-the-future japes at two hundred dollars a joke. It’s a living.

If the abrasive Ralf doesn’t believe his story about coming from the future, he does an excellent job of faking it. Ralf paints a vivid image of the Earth of tomorrow: poison air, mutated rats, a terminally damaged ecosystem, and malls converted into sealed habitats. All of this can be blamed on the idiots back in the 20th century, the same idiots for whom Ralf is performing.

And yet… maybe Ralf isn’t a nut. Maybe he is from the future. Perhaps, if his fans can somehow open their eyes, there is still time to change the future, preserve the biosphere and avoid having to live in sealed habitats on a toxic, radiation-soaked planet. Maybe science fiction can save the planet.

The unfortunate Foxy Loxy could provide perspective. While Texas Jimmy and Dexter were doing their best to turn Ralf into a star, Foxy Loxy escapes the projects of her youth only to tumble from her hand-to-mouth existence into drug addiction, prostitution, and finally life as a tunnel dweller under LA. Suitably transformed by certain entities dependent on Ralf’s bad future, Foxy is the perfect weapon to silence Ralf before he can save the world.


First: my Spinrad creds: I first encountered Spinrad with The Men in Jungle, and despite the viscerally negative reaction it provoked2, I went on to read his Agent of Chaos (1967), Bug Jack Barron (1969), The Iron Dream (1972), A World Between (1979), Songs from the Stars (1980), The Mind Game (1980), The Void Captain’s Tale (1983), Child of Fortune (1985), Little Heroes (1987), Russian Spring (1991), He Walked Among Us (2002), The Druid King (2003), The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970), Other Americas (1988) and perhaps some others I’ve forgotten. I’m not intrinsically hostile to his fiction, which you may find hard to believe after this review.

While this book’s publication date is 2002, this did not see print (at least in English) via any of the standard avenues until the 2010 Tor edition. I was vaguely aware that the book had existed but had not been conventionally published in North America, although there was (very unusually for 2002) an ebook, as well as a German edition. This did not necessarily mean publishers judged the novel sub-par; after all, the early aughts saw many established authors experience sudden, and in some cases, terminal career impediments. 

It was a bit of a surprise to discover that there was going to be a 2010 Tor edition; even if the book were good, it had never found a fan base. Tor is serious business, bigger than Pinnacle, Pyramid, and Manor Books combined, so the fact that they were going to publish a famously unpublished book was attention catching. What next? The Final Dangerous Visions?

To cut a long story short — too late! — this wasn’t a case of a potential classic sabotaged by market conditions. He Walked Among Us is not great. One might (and Publishers Weekly did) say that it’s terrible, on par with a lesser L. Neil Smith novel3. The greatest challenge is to work out which flaws merit mention in my rapidly dwindling remaining word count. The padded, meandering plot? The grating characters? The unfortunate vernacular with which Foxy is saddled? The manner in which the author embraces Galileo’s rhetorical gambit of placing especially easily demolished arguments in the mouths of ideological enemies4? It’s not hard to see why publishing houses passed on He Walked Among Us. The mystery is why Tor published it.

For me, what stands out is the dissonance between Dexter’s deep-seating loathing for fans, especially the fat ones (even the compliant ones with admirable BJ skills), and Dexter’s conviction that nevertheless fans have the potential to save the world. It is as though Sharyn McCrumb and Claude Degler had a very conflicted baby. Ah, well. Not everyone has my knack for boundless cheerful optimism, particularly those whose careers (like Dexter’s) have not thrived as they had hoped.

This is not the worst SF novel I’ve read. It wasn’t even the worst SF novel I read back in 2010. For some reason I was the beneficiary of a vast number of terrible SF novels in 2010 and 2011, perhaps the worst period for science fiction and fantasy that I can recall. He Walked Among Us at least has that going for it. 

That’s not a recommendation.

He Walked Among Us is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Words Worth Books).

1: My memory says that I read this book back-to-back with Thomas M. Disch’s The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten. Memory lies, because I read the Disch MS for SFBC on February 18, 2008, and the Spinrad MS for SFBC on January 28, 2010. This is why it pays to keep notes. There are parallels: a messianic figure, the sense that the author was extremely unhappy with their current position in SF, books I regret reading — so I can see why I wanted to believe that I read them in quick succession.

Fallible memory is also why I am not going to claim He Walked Among Us was available for a time as a free download. That’s how I remember it, but I cannot find verification.

2: I would guess that Spinrad must have written The Men in Jungle to provoke negative reactions. The novel is, after all, about monstrous villains doing terrible things.

3: Specifically, L. Neil Smith’s The American Zone.

4: Spinrad did avoid Galileo’s big mistake, which was to put stupid arguments in the mouth of a character that could easily be taken as a stand-in for the current pope.