Book Review: Bug Jack Barron

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

What’s bugging Jack Barron?  Jack used to be a young radical, waving signs and helping form the Social Justice Coalition.  But the SJC became a legitimate political party, and Jack wasn’t really interested in playing politics.  Plus, he’d gotten on television a lot, and the cameras and audiences loved him.  Soon, Jack was offered his own call-in show, and it took off.  The wife who kept him honest left, but his star was on the rise.

Bug Jack Barron

Now he’s the star of Bug Jack Barron, on every Wednesday night.  You call in on your vidphone and tell Jack what’s bugging you, and if he finds your problem interesting, Jack will go on to call important people and bug them about the issue.  And you’d better believe that VIPs are sitting by their own vidphones, because if you’re “not home” to Jack Barron, he will skewer you in front of one hundred million viewers.

Of course it’s all a cop-out.  Sure, Jack Barron is for the little guy…as long as it doesn’t involve any of Jack’s own skin.  And he’ll stick it to the Very Important People, but only to a point, just enough pain to make them sweat, but not enough to make them retaliate.  After all, Jack likes making $400,000 a year, and having a penthouse apartment with the latest electronic gadgets, and free smokes from his sponsor, Acapulco Gold.  And let’s not forget that TV stardom makes you a chick magnet!   No, Jack knows better than to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Tonight’s show seems standard at first.  Seems there’s a company called the Foundation for Human Immortality, owned by a fellow named Benedict Howards, a powerful billionaire.  The Foundation will cryogenically freeze people to be revived whenever a cure is found for what killed them.  But the process is expensive, you have to have $500,000 in liquid assets for the Foundation to use.  Tonight’s caller tried to get a Freezer spot but was turned down, and he thinks it might be because he’s black.

Jack spots the logic hole right away (the man has $500K in his business, yes, but that’s not a liquid asset.) but decides to roll with it.  He calls Benedict Howards–but Mr. Howards is “not home” to Mr. Barron (for good reason, we learn later) so Mr. Barron decides to turn up the heat on the Foundation a bit.  After humiliating the Foundation’s PR person, Jack calls up his old SJC friend, Lukas Greene, now governor of Mississippi.  Governor Greene explains that the problem here isn’t direct racism, but systemic racism; for historical reasons, there just aren’t that many African-Americans with half a million in cash and negotiable bonds.  That’s why the SJC platform is to nationalize the Freezers so that all Americans have a chance to be revived in the future.

To round out the show and cool things down a bit, Jack calls Senator Hennering, who is sponsoring a Freezer Bill that will give the Foundation a permanent monopoly on their cryogenic process.  The Senator’s a professional politician and an experienced bloviator, so he should be able to provide some calming words.  Except that for some reason, the senator is off-script, and reacting to the call like he’s actually guilty of something.  Odd, but Jack is as gentle as is consistent with his acerbic television persona.

The next day Benedict Howards himself is in Jack Barron’s office, offering Jack a free cryogenic berth if he’ll help put the Freezer Bill through.  Jack still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s pretty sure he’s wading into crocodile-infested swamp water, and it’s getting deeper by the moment.  He’s going to have to use all his smarts, and see if he still has a last shred of integrity deep down, and that really bugs Jack Barron!

This 1969 novel was considered the story that put Norman Spinrad on the map.  It’s one of the classics of the New Wave movement in science fiction, when newer SF authors decided to use more experimental literary techniques and use edgier subject matter.  In this case, Mr. Spinrad uses a free association stream of consciousness style of narration to fill us in on the thoughts of the characters randomly sparked by their main concerns.  It takes quite a bit of getting used to.  There was, supposedly, a lot of drug use by New Wave authors–this one reads less like it was made on marijuana than amphetamines.

There’s also a lot of foul language, including racial and ethnic slurs (“shade” is now the slang word for pale-skinned people.)  The sex scenes are pornographic in the “experimental literature” sense, but they’re important for exploring Jack’s state of mind, so you can’t just skip over them.  Racism is an important theme of the book, while the sexism seems to be more of the author’s blind spots.

Most of the action is a match of wills and wits between Jack Barron and Benedict Howards (who is clearly meant to evoke both treacherous Benedict Arnold and nutty millionaire Howard Hughes.)  The one violent on-stage confrontation is one that Jack’s completely unprepared for and survives only by luck.  Jack is an anti-hero, handsome, clever and witty, but having sold out to the Man long ago, and willing to use media manipulation to get his way.  Howards is worse, having such a fear of death that it’s become a full-blown thanatophobia, and he’s willing to do anything to avoid dying.  Ever.

Jack’s ex-wife Sara mostly exists to tell us how awesome Jack is, and urge him to return to the superior levels of awesome he had before he copped out.

Because of the rough language, sex scenes and a suicide, I wouldn’t recommend this to readers below senior high school, and it would probably be best saved for college age.

It’s interesting from a historical viewpoint as well, predicting a 1980s that is very different from the one we knew.  Apparently, at the same time the Coalition for Social Justice became an actual political party, Nixon imploded so badly in his first term that Republicans became poison at the national level.  So the CSJ has become the left-wing party, the Republicans have shifted heavily to the right and are composed of corporatists and the former Dixiecrats (no Religious Right here), and the Democrats have grabbed the large middle ground.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned several times as an example of a politician who is more image than substance, but never became president in this timeline.  One of the major Democrats is referred to as “Teddy the Pretender” and is presumably Edward Kennedy.

Mississippi has suffered massive “white flight” and its new black governor is barely holding on with a crippled economy.  AT&T (not broken up in this world) has produced black & white vidphones, and a “miniphone” (basically a cellphone that works anywhere in the AT&T network) is the latest gizmo.  Marijuana is legal in 38 states, Bob Dylan is dead, and low-level single payer healthcare is the law of the land.  Oh, and there’s a mission on its way to Mars, but it’s not relevant to anything.

There’s an afterword by Michael Moorcock, who ran this novel in the magazine New Worlds, which is why this edition uses British spelling.  He talks about the reaction at the time, including the story being denounced in Parliament.

Overall, a book with a lot of interesting ideas, some pertinence to the current day state of the media, some dated attitudes and a lot of uncomfortable content.   Recommended for those who want to experience New Wave science fiction.

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