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.