Bug Jack Barron, Norman Spinrad
Norman Spinrad is an author who has a pretty strong reputation in the “literary” side of the genre, but who I know almost nothing about. I started my efforts to rectify that with what’s probably his best-known book Picking up this book may have been influenced by the Aismov’s forums, where they discussed it recently.
The eponymous “Bug Jack Barron” is a TV show where Jack Barron, a former political radical now committed only to his media career, takes phone calls from the public, to find out what “bugs” them. Naturally the show touches on a major ongoing public debate about “freezing”, a process offered by the Foundation for Human Immortality in which, for a price, a person is held in cryogenic suspension after death, awaiting the eventual development of an immortality treatment. The Foundation wants to be granted a monopoly on the freezer treatment; while the upstart political party known as the SJC, which Jack co-founded, then abandoned, wants the freeze process nationalized. When Jack’s on-air inquiries start to unravel a mystery within the Freezer Foundation, he (because of his 100 million viewer audience) becomes a potential political pawn of all factions, and he has to choose between the bribe of immortality and his long-suppressed “Baby Bolshevik” principles.
There are a couple of significant plot holes; first, everyone seems to (irrationally) accept the promise that if they pay the Freezer Foundation to freeze them now, they’re sure to benefit from immortality technology at some uncertain future date. Second, where Barron doesn’t foresee the means Foundation chairman Benedict Howard will use to double-cross him; and he doesn’t even see the much more obvious possibility (maybe he never read Heinlein’s 1941 Methuselah’s Children) that if he does accept an immortality treatment, he’s likely to fall precipitously out of the public favor.
Another weakness of the book for readers today is a very dated slang vocabulary, used especially by Jack. In a short story, the slang would have produced a solid sense of timeliness and shown Jack’s position as a cultural bellwether; in this novel, phrases like “it’s not my bag,” and “hot for my bod” used multiple times become annoyingly repetitive.
Much of the narrative comes in a borderline stream of consciousness style, giving us the inner thoughts of both Barron and the practically incoherent Benedict Howard. Combined with the slangy language, the style is a definite barrier to entry for readers. I incline to consider the style as a legitimate and dramatic effort to push the borders of genre writing, and I’m glad to have pushed through it, but it would have been easier to appreciate unreservedly in a shorter work.
This book covers a lot of the same ground, and makes a lot of the same predictions, as some of the best-known works of one of my favorite authors, John Brunner. In particular, Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Jagged Orbit (1969) share a lot of concepts with Bug Jack Barron. There’s the relationship between power and the media; projected continuously increasing tension in race relations, and broadly accepted and decriminalized drugs. One of the positives in the book for me was seeing these issues from Spinrad’s slightly different perspective.
The book clearly deserves its reputation as a bold experimental work of SF, pushing the envelope of what can be done with the genre. But in many ways, especially the slang vocabulary, it is a document of its time, and not a timeless work. It’s worth reading, but more as a signpost (“Pavement Ends”) of where the boundaries of sf were 40 years ago than as a work of relevant speculations for today.