People’s Police, The By Norman Spinrad, 284 pgs.

Jun 01, 2017

The People’s Police. Can it possibly live up to its title? It can.

It’s set in an alternate—but not too alternate—New Orleans. Regular hurricanes have resulted in a swampland segregation that’s sort of like if the National Guard’s orders in New Orleans immediately following Katrina had evolved into municipal policy.

The story is told in a Southern tradition—more telling than showing, but with infectious energy—and includes cops and whorehouse owners and an influential white-girl voodoo queen and corruption and an election. The word “gumbo” is pressing itself on me, so sure, it’s a gumbo prepared by a master chef.

The voodoo queen is genuinely visited by spirits, so the book is fantasy fiction, but it’s also hard science fiction, and the science in question is economics. (Economics isn’t really a science, of course.) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction website quotes Allen Steele: “Hard SF is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone.” In The People’s Police, Spinrad carefully extrapolates from the financial collapse of 2008 and imagines the Great Deflation and its effects.

How is it that some science fiction is read only by science fiction fans, and some comes to be known by a wider audience? After reading The People’s Police, I have to think it’s a question of editing. The Left Hand of Darkness and Neuromancer had the same editor, Terry Carr. Readers who tend not to read science fiction have either read them or know something about them. Spinrad is under-known in America (after something like five decades), and—perhaps not coincidentally—he publishes passages like this:

“People always hate the cops until they need them because all we are otherwise is a pain in their asses, givin ‘em tickets, busting them for dope, or pimping, or their latest armed robbery, what’s to like when you meet a cop enforcing the law on you? …”

That’s a cop explaining to another cop something that he somehow doesn’t already know, and it goes on for a while longer. Any literary editor would have axed it, along with Spinrad’s repeatedly using “not exactly” ironically—“… I did not exactly discourage them from quenching their thirsts …”, “… [it] did not exactly seem a hard way to go along …” I stopped counting after five of those.

It’s a rude, bustling, idea-filled novel—the kind of fiction that politically engaged people read back when TV was unwatchable (except for Columbo)—and I have to pay Spinrad what might be the highest compliment one can give a writer: reading his book made me miss a bus stop. –Jim Woster (Tor Books,

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