Young People Read Old SFF

The Big Flash

Norman Spinrad

Young People Read Old SFF

4 Jun, 2024

June’s Nebula finalist is Norman Spinrad’s 1969The Big Flash. The Big Flash first appeared in Orbit 51. It details a wildly successful attempt to harness the power of rock for the greater good, as measured by America’s Military-Industrial Complex.

Now one of SF’s elder figures, in 1969 Spinrad was one of the hot young authors of 1969, having debuted only six years earlier. As one may deduce from the impressive abundance of award nominations, many readers responded favorably to Spinrad’s forcefully told, unsubtle tales. The Big Flash is an example, nominated for the Nebula by Spinrad’s peers2.

Will the Young People enjoy the story as much as readers did, more than half a century ago? Let’s find out.

1: The Orbit series will feature prominently in July’s Young People Read Old Nebula Finalists… unless I forget. 

All 21 volumes of Orbit were reviewed here.

2: Flash lost to Time Considered As a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, Samuel R. Delany. Nine Lives by Ursula K. Le Guin came in second, The Big Flash came in third, and Deeper Than the Darkness by Gregory Benford came in fourth. 

I have a real fascination with the 1969 – 76 period in rock music history. Not because I feel it is the best period for the music, rather it is where we see the move to it becoming a massive business.

For The Beatles biggest show, they were paid around $200k, in the early 70s Led Zeppelin were earning $1.5m per night. Small venues like The Fillmore went away because they couldn’t compete with massive spaces like Madison Square Garden or festivals like Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. And where groups like Chicago, Doobie Brothers and CSN would sell tens of millions of records and fill stadiums.

But against this backdrop, there was a large contingent angry at what they saw of the commercialization of their scene. Even though many of the artists they loved were right-wing money lovers.

For me, this story fits perfectly into that era. And, even though heightened, it doesn’t feel unrealistic to me. There were plenty of people who want to use tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam, Elvis met with Nixon over trying combat drugs and Hoover was running plenty of Conintelpros at the time. Hiring a rock group to try to sure up support for war seems like it would be something someone might try.

I do like how Spinrad makes good use of the fractured perspective as well. It gives a real mounting sense of doom and shows how all the little moments build up to the big flash”.

Given their themes and lyrics, I imagine they sound like Black Sabbath’s first album, doomladen and sludgey with a great frontman.

The Delany was the first New Wave winner for this Nebula winners series, but The Big Flash” is the first to feel like it could’ve only been written between 1968 and 1970. Indeed it was written in 68. I read this in The Best from Orbit, which has mediocre proofreading but, on the plus side, comes with excerpts of letters exchanged between Damon Knight and the authors regarding their stories. In this case there’s some arguing over what to do with the fragmented and totally apocalyptic ending, and also Spinrad mentions what would’ve been the newest Jefferson Airplane album — with a mushroom cloud on the cover.

This isn’t really science fiction. It’s more like speculative fiction, in the same way Dr. Strangelove is speculative fiction. The world is recognizably ours and there isn’t really any tech introduced that either hasn’t been achieved or couldn’t be achieved. But it’s also a cartoon (allegorical) world where a rock band that forms a cult around fetishizing nuclear catastrophe is called — wait for it — the Four Horsemen. There are at least two different narrators (probably three and possibly more), and I’m not sure why Spinrad went with multiple first-person perspectives other than to add to a building sense of delirium. You might not understand all of it in the moment, but you get that something very bad is about to go down.

This is another story I respect a lot more than like, sorry. Admittedly this is the case every time I try reading Spinrad. He’s good at what he does but he’s also often jagged, abrasive, in some way accusatory. You could easily walk away from this story thinking Spuinrad hates hippies, but it’s less about hippies (who barely feature in the story anyway) and more the commercialization of hippie art and iconography. Incidentally The Big Flash” was published the same year that a certain cult, which had been appropriating the counterculture, had members go on a killing spree and partly go to discredit the hippies. This story could’ve happened, if not in the exact way as written.

I found this to be generally pleasant and I enjoyed th thought exercise it brings readers through. My favourite part of the work is certainly the voicing of the main character and the immense almost character study we get through inner dialogue. I think plot wise the story is lacking, not in that it has no plot but that I feel it lost track of it’s, why does this story exist?” Answer fairly frequently. It was, however, still enjoyable and engaging so I place that solidly in the respectable tier.