It’s perhaps an understatement to say the political situation in the US the past year or two has been a powder keg. Strong opinion seemingly held on all sides (except the moderates, har har), innumerable fingers point in innumerable directions, attempting to assign fault for the ills that plague the country. From “Why can’t we all love each other?” to “Divide and conquer”, the spectrum of opinion is vast even as the country’s problems appear to become worse. Politicians and policy makers looking to button up the holes with new laws, Norman Spinrad’s 2017 novel The People’s Police asks: is an ever increasing litigious society not, in fact, the reason behind a lot of the ills?
The effects of Hurricane Katrina and 2008’s economic recession not hard enough on New Orleans, in 2020 another recession hits: the Great Deflation. Once again due to overeager money lenders delivering loans that buyers cannot repay, the Big Easy finds itself in a poor way as the value of the dollar plummets. Criminal activity is on the uptake as tourism—the main source of income for the city—is on the down. Enter Luke Martin, a swamp rat who pulled himself up by the bootstraps hard enough to get a high school diploma and an invitation to police academy. He is given the task of establishing a new precinct on the edge of the Alligator—New Orleans least lustrous side—and does so with gusto. Around this time a woman named Marylou becomes inhabited by a loa and starts her own daytime tv show, Mama Legba and her Supernatural Krewe—the show’s popularity only increasing by the day. And among the city’s elite stands, J.B. Lafitte, a hometown entrepreneur with his hands in a lot of pies, including local prostitution, souvenir shops, and gambling houses. But he also has the interest of the city at heart, so when election time comes, and the northern half of Louisiana confirms its extremely conservative candidate for governor, Lafitte cooks up his own local candidate—a very liberal one, to say the least. With a little help from Martin’s newly formed police group, as well as Mamma Legba herself, things might be looking up for the Big Easy, that is, if the National Guard doesn’t get called in…
A more irreverent version of James Morrow or John Brunner, Spinrad paints a satirically absurd picture of the US and Louisiana in The People’s Police. Written in superb Naw’leans vernacular, the goal of the novel is the message rather than realistic representation. Everything exaggerated, it remains a picture with more than one stroke of truth. Greed in the financial sector, the virtualization of money, and political games that do not have the average citizen in mind are aspects of the American system requiring closer critique. (It is up to the reader to decide whether Spinrad’s ultra-liberal agenda—No victim, no crime!—is also a stroke of truth.) Thus, for as wacky as it may seem, and for as wild as the tangents fly, the novel generates discussion around some key issues pertinent to today’s political discussion. Sometimes it takes a clown to draw attention to foibles.
In the end, as Val’s Random Comments calmly notes in their review, “The People’s Police is a very politically charged novel.” Charged indeed, its politics are located on a horizon with satire on one end and Mardi Gras gumbo on the other, the novel is effective social commentary in delicious local favor, and what gaps Spinrad leaves regarding relevancy, he makes up for with dynamic prose, a fast-paced story, and an eye to the current political climate. Compared to the young guns on the market today, the overwhelming majority of which write popcorn sf, Spinrad proves the old guard has what it takes to make science fiction a pertinent literature. (For an interesting companion novel, see Bruce Sterling’s Distraction.)