His characters have individual, powerful voices, and one can literally feel the number of re-writes Spinrad went through to make sure everyone in his books is unique and special. The pilot of this ship is a such a volunteer, one of the few ever to make it home alive, who liked the experience so much she's still doing it. The tension in this story is simple: the Captain becomes obsessed, almost Ahab-like, with this fascinating pilot and in his downward spiral makes poor decisions that ultimately doom his crew.
From there, he proceeded onto his greatest achievement with this story, in my eyes: he was able to completely throw into question the morality and our experience of life itself, without ever seeming to need to resort to a cheesy answer that would resolve these questions.
The book blends Japanese, French, Spanish, and German phrases into the English of its projected future; this conceit is never as interesting in practice as in idea, and wears heavily on the reader only one quarter into the text.
That is the most powerful scene of its kind I have read in a long time. That and earlier scene of someone confronting the void, and their emptiness within, almost caused me to rate the book a 4 star read. In the end I rated the novel a two-star read because the language became tiresome till those two great scenes near the end, and because I felt that there could be so many other ways to approach transcendence, that would have worked for the story just as well as the route he chose.
I've talked before about SF authors setting their sights a little too high, and some of the novels nominated for the Hugo or Nebula getting by more on concept than actual delivery. In my review of 'Dark Universe' I talk a little about Samuel Delany's opinion on 'story' and 'writing' and why I think he's wrong to say a novel's delivery cannot be exceeded by it's concept. I might be putting words into Delany's mouth (I had trouble finding the actual quote), but either way Void is a good example of the concept, no possible story could live up to the originality of the idea. On the other hand Void Captain, which came out several years after the heyday of the New Wave, would have offended people no matter when it was written, and that's probably a good reason why it's mostly unknown. The best way to describe his writing style is 'detached.' Spinrad has the narrator maintain the tone of a captain throughout the novel. This can be off putting, and can read somewhat dated, but readers should note that this is a style Spinrad affects for this story, his other works like Jack Barron are written in a completely different tone. I think the tone of the novel does a good deal of the work in helping the story not devolve into farce or pornography, something that could have easily happens with a lesser writer. By working so hard to keep the narrator dignified in speech throughout the novel, even as he loses all his dignity in everything else, does a lot to maintain balance in a book that gets pretty out there. This novel sits in my brain, and I cannot and probably will never be able to separate how good the story actually is from how original and fascinating I find the concept.
Even when read in my mother's tongue. Obviously a very civilized writer is he :-) An extra-terrestrial adventure and a kind of a love story too.
What is slightly difficult is the syntax: Spinrad not only makes the characters' diction unique, but also plays with sentence structure. Where the novel gets really, really strange is in the way the interstellar Jump works. The Pilot (always female) experiences a complete tantric "platform orgasm" to complete the jump circuit, which is directed and ordered by the Captain. He is expected to service the ship's domo (sort of a combination hostess/activites director) but begins and maintains a relationship with the Plot, Dominique, against custom. Still, the style and strangeness of the jump dynamics make this novel powerful enough to recommend.
The language in this book, told in first person by the Captain of the Dragon Zephyr is meant to evoke a merged, semi-polyglot future; Captain Genro intersperses both his tale and the dialogue of the people in it with various words and phrases from German, French, Spanish, and other languages. Spinrad emphasizes several times the naming scheme used by the culture: until you come of age, your first name is your fathers chosen name; your second name is your mothers chosen name. This is at its heart a very old-school book. Its such an embarrassing mechanism that the pilot (always female) is an outcast, never fraternizing with the rest of the crew, especially not the Captain.
Norman Spinrad, born in New York City, is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.