Review: Bug Jack Barron

So I just finished up reading Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, a rather curious novel dating from the New Wave era of science fiction. And dated it definitely is. The plot follows a fascinating pseudo-detective storyline centering on the titular character, Jack Barron. Barron is a civil rights activist turned television talk show host of a show on which every day people call in and “bug” him with their problems which he helps bring to the larger public’s attention. In the course of one of his shows he takes on the issue of a piece of pending legislation which would grant monopoly rights to a company which has perfected cryogenic storage. This leads him into a conflict with that company’s President and Chairman, Benedict Howards, who has secretly developed a process for human immortality, and hopes to use Barron’s influence with the public to manipulate Congress. But because of Barron’s ideological opposition to fat-cat power brokers, Barron attempts to find out the secret behind the process.

That all seems pretty standard and would work well if someone wanted to make it into a movie, but it’s the societal background which Spinrad has created that puts the story into an odd world for the modern reader. The highly racially divided, socially liberalized society is a direct reflection of and a potential future from the late 1960s when the book was written. Barron was the founder of a civil rights-focused political party, the Social Justice Coalition, which is almost completely supported by southern blacks. (Republicans are a second class party, almost entirely beholden to big business, and the Democrats aren’t much better, and are tightly tied to Howards’ influence.) Marijuana use is legalized and sexual relationships are very reflective of the lifestyle of the summer of love. However, the way Spinrad depicts the women makes them all very subservient — both professionally and sexually.

Race is the key mover behind the story though, playing a large part in the conflict between Howards and Barron, and driving associated story arcs which tie in to the primary drama. The associated class differences and social limitations on blacks (unashamedly referred to as niggers, while whites are frequently called ‘shades’) are best shown though Lukas Greene, Barron’s good friend and Governor of Mississippi, a state which is depicted as being almost entirely populated by blacks living in abject poverty, despite the efforts of the SJC to revitalize the economy and population.

The story itself is quite interesting though, despite the moments of realization that this is an alternate future which never came to be and which probably can’t happen in our future which occasionally draw you out of the story (for instance Lukas Greene’s internal monologue in which he says that he knows a black man can’t be president). Stylistically, Spinrad is clearly influenced by the free association and lyrical prose of the beat generation. But that style is also cross-pollinated by the rise of commercialism and television advertising.

In all, it’s definitely an book worthy of reading to see the diversity of New Wave science fiction. I could definitely imagine the story being adapted to the modern era, or an updated future one, and turned into a movie. The conflict between the common man and big money/big business set against a backdrop of social and class divisions is one that is going to have a long life in literature and film.

Review: Wise Man’s Fear

In the land of fantasy literature, fans are pretty much guaranteed of a few things. Rule number one is that if they really, really, really like a series of books, they are going to have to wait longer than they originally expected for the next book in the series to be published. Another good rule of thumb is that it is pretty safe to assume that when a new book comes out, it is going to be a rather oversized tome (gone are the days of the less than 200 page novel).

For the average person, this phenomenon is best seen in the Harry Potter series. For the folks who are more invested in the fantasy literature genre, over the last 10-15 years two names have been synonymous with big books and long waits between them: Robert Jordan and George RR Martin. Four years ago, Patrick Rothfuss quietly introduced himself to the fantasy genre with his novel Name of the Wind, and it definitely fulfilled the second of the two characteristics of fantasy lit. And the name of that book was passed through the fan community almost as quickly as the wind itself, propelling it onto the NYT bestseller list. And fans of the book quickly learned (told by the main character of the novel, no less) that it was the first book in a trilogy. And Rothfuss told the world that the rest of the story was already written. More or less.

That’s where rule number one comes into play. Fans were hopeful that book two would be out within a year or two, because it was “already written”. But two years turned into three. And three years turned into four. And a wind rose in the backwoods of Wisconsin, and the wind was a beginning, but it was not the beginning. Er, sorry there, started channeling my inner-Jordan. The name of that wind was the anticipation that mounted and mounted over the publication of Wise Man’s Fear. It is safe to say that the only more anticipated fantasy novel is George RR Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (recently announced to have a July 11, 2011 publication date, 6 years after the previous book in the series), and depending on who you ask, they may argue the point.

Well, let me tell you something folks, Rothfuss delivers. In spades. In buckets and buckets of stew. Released on March 1, I swung by one of the two Barnes & Nobles in DC. I knew that the book was going to be popular, so I skipped trying a local store, because I figured that B&N would have copies in stock. No dice. Sold out in two hours according to the employee I talked to, who called the other store which was also sold out. So I tried one of the local stores. Also sold out. So on the third I called up B&N to reserve a copy and picked it up on my way home.

I got home around 6 and read until 2. I was only about halfway through the book. That tells you 1) the size of the book (there’s that other pesky rule of thumb again), and 2) the density and quality of the writing. (In comparison, I knocked off the last book in the Harry Potter series in 6 hours.) Rothfuss’ writing is complex, but clear; engaging and absorbing. I need to break out a thesaurus to be able to describe his ability to produce quality dialogue (clever and sparkling), descriptions of the world (elaborate and elegant), characters (multidimensional and necessary) and societal behaviors and political intrigues (inventive and detailed) without repeating myself.

And all of this is combined in a narrative that, despite the length of the novel, is so tightly wrapped and bound together that it doesn’t seem that a single word is wasted. The interweaving of the external narrative of Kvothe and Bast and Chronicler and the story which Kvothe is telling are producing a world which, while we, as readers still lack the full story, is extremely well-developed and hints at the story which we don’t yet know. In itself, the anticipation it creates for the resolution of both Kvothe’s story and the larger narrative and how the two are connected is almost maddening.

What really amazes me is the way that Rothfuss is able to take various standard tropes of fantasy literature and adapt them and turn them on their head. Sure, we’ve got the “hyper-competent” boy hero, but we see his doubt, his failures, his innocence. And we see him learn to overcome them and begin to grow from boy to man; it is a true process, not just a sudden “thing” which is so common. And how many of these other things have you seen before? He goes to a school for magic. He searches through an excessively large library. He trains with a special warrior society. He dabbles in palace intrigues. Yet, all of these are turned on their heads. But I’m not telling you how because I don’t want to ruin the story and the surprises.

What Rothfuss did in Name of the Wind was to introduce himself to the fantasy literature world by slapping it upside the head with a sea bass and saying, “I love this genre and a lot of the things about it, but dammit I’m doing it my way.” And he has definitely continued in that vein. A week or two ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha over the state of fantasy literature and it’s supposed degradation from the glorious high fantasy of Tolkien to the blackened, rotting husk of authors such as Joe Abercrombie*. No one can read Wise Man’s Fear and accept that claim as true. As good at Name of the Wind was, Wise Man’s Fear is even better. I don’t like to rank “best” books, so I can’t really tell you where it places, but Wise Man’s Fear is easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time. And if The Doors of Stone (book three’s working title) improves as much on Wise Man’s Fear as Wise Man’s Fear did on Name of the Wind, I will be hard pressed to find a better fantasy novel.

*I love Joe Abercrombie’s work and am reading through his most recent novel now.