Costa's Reviews > Bug Jack Barron

Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad
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Aug 06, 12


Bug Jack Barron is a trip to an alternate, drug-soaked 1994, courtesy of a cynical 1969.

Merely calling Barron a media celebrity is inadequate: the host of the influential 'Bug Jack Barron' show (where 'bug' is read as a verb), Barron has gained enough respect and power to topple minor power-brokers and VIPs with his cynical wit and sharp tongue. Considered by the masses as their everyday hero and spokesperson, Barron encourages viewers with gripes to 'bug' him, after which he doggedly 'bugs' their antagonist on his or her behalf, exposing lies and conspiracies.

However, Barron is not a hero that evokes sympathy in the reader. Though we learn that he was an activist in his youth - a natural and charismatic leader, he was seen as a presidential candidate, someone to take ideals all the way to the highest office. Instead, the Jack Barron as hero of this story is cynical, womanising, egotistical and self serving, balanced on maximising his wealth and popularity whilst appearing to be the champion of his viewing public.

The antagonist, Benedict Howards, is of a similar type. Incredibly wealthy, he heads up the Foundation, a cryogenic group that, for a fee, will freeze a person until the group's ultimate goal of human immortality is realised. Of course, Howards's personal goal is to secure immortality for himself using the funds of others, by whatever means necessary.

Their conspiratorial and increasingly jaded battle is fought against a backdrop of intense racial tension and political dysfunction.

The themes of racial balkanisation in the USA (remember: this is viewed from the dying days of the 60s), corporate greed and media control are all prevalent, and do make quite an interesting read. The book was hailed as a classic of the genre, controversial adult oriented science fiction.

Time hasn't been kind to Bug Jack Barron: it's not an easy book to read, or even like anymore, for a number of reasons:

Derogatory terms for African-Americans - indeed, almost all races present in a modern western society are labeled with derogatory words at some point through the novel by one character or another. I understand the point-of-view that Spinrad was maintaining by doing this: in his novel, whole states have become single race, and his fictional American society is one of increasing racial tension - but the heavy-handedness makes it clumsy - the words lose their impact so that they become a hindrance to the reading of the novel. What would certainly have been shocking in 1969 simply sickeningly detracts from the power of the ideas in 2008.

The female characters are very poorly drawn - Sara, the main female character, seems to simply be the external embodiment of Barron's misplaced conscience (and his former lover). Other female characters just want to jump into bed with him.

The danger of crystal-ball science fiction is that, sooner or later, the future catches up to you: even in 1994 (well before the internet splintered the singular power of a talkback host) there was no single television host that could topple powers-that-be with little more than sarcasm and a probing mind. Jack Barron never came to be.

The dialogue is awful. Other writers from the late sixties (Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckly, for example) managed to leave out all the cool, hip, happening (dig-it, man?) ultra long sentences that any cat in the 60s would have been speaking while on a drug-hazed high? What? There are so many 60s phrases and terms loaded into the dialogue that at times it's impossible to understand what the characters are talking about. And the narrative sometimes verges on stream-of-consciousness. Its typical late 60s prose and it is hard to read for those of us schooled on shorter and more direct sentence structure.

It sounds as though I hate this book - not at all, its still hard-hitting and enjoyable. In parts.

But time will continue to diminish its relevance, and I think its enjoyable parts will be fewer and fewer in years to come.

A book of a specific place and time: an acerbic caricature of late 60s USA.
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