A Novel Ian Likes: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

Jack Barron hosts a phone-in talk show. He’s one of the hottest stars on television. But his personal life is a mess; his marriage has collapsed, he doesn’t appear to have any kind of goal or aim that he wants to achieve, and all he worries about are his ratings. But one night someone rings in with a tale about a missing child. Then Jack gets given a tip about a cryogenics company… and it seems that both of these things are linked…

Norman Spinrad burst onto the sixties in a manner that can only be described as meteoric. His first short story was published in 1963 when he was just 23. His first novel, The Solarians, a perfectly adequate space opera, was published in 1966. He published seven novels and two short story collections during the first ten years of his career as a novelist. He also wrote “The Doomsday Machine”, one of the finest episodes of the original Star Trek and one of my favourites across the entire franchise. His fourth novel, Bug Jack Barron (1969), is where his fame really appears to start, some of which has dogged him ever since.

Looking at it as a novel, it is terrific. Written in a style that embraces stream-of-consciousness as a motif rather than as an artistic choice, it covers a lot of ground. Spinrad was an author who rose to prominence during the New Wave, a movement that meant a lot of the same things in science fiction as it did in music a decade later and his characters and setting evoke that spirit. It’s sometimes confused as to whether it wants to be a novel about race, class or media, but provides a lot of ideas for all three of those themes, which means that it could be about all three. One thing it isn’t, though, is dull. The pace of it is electric, with the characters never seeming to sit still for a moment. But it never feels forced, nor do any scenes feel gratuitous or overly-manipulative.

Barron is a complicated hero: he comes across as amoral and jaded; once idealistic and influential, he now appears to have swapped whatever influence he had for tawdry public showdowns with minor bureaucrats or corporate scapegoats. As the book progresses, though, he starts to feel that fire in his belly again. He realises that he hasn’t wasted his opportunities as a talkshow host, but he has come close to squandering the goodwill of his fans and loved ones. As the book reaches its conclusion, he becomes even larger than life as he recaptures that spirit of protest and iconoclasm that launched him to where he was at the start of the book and promises to send him even further into the future.

That future is clearly twenty years after the publication date (1968). Barron is a baby boomer who has made a career and reputation out of the protesting he and his peers engaged in during their younger days. In a lot of ways, though, this is very much a novel of its time: the values of the late sixties’ youth culture purvey the very structure of this world, but it’s a future that took another twenty-something years (in our timeline) to really achieve its predictions.

For one thing, the callers to Jack’s show all use videophones. We know from experience that, while we’ve had the ability to make video calls for around twenty years, it wasn’t really popularised or mainstreamed until the pandemic made it a necessity for working from home. Bandwidth was a major issue for many of those years but really, it wasn’t until the ubiquity of smartphones and streaming platforms that people came to terms with seeing the person they were calling.

For another, this was also written at a time when television could be seen as having a major voice for social change. Jack and his show provide a voice for people who don’t normally have a voice. He was also, for the time, a novelty in that people were only just beginning to see that television could influence how people perceived an issue – the coverage of the Vietnam War at the tine of publication was the first really solid piece of evidence that it could happen. Sadly, the reputation of journalism has fallen over the last thirty years or so, so that a show like Jack’s is seen as an impossible dream now. But Spinrad was right about how celebrities can be influencers of public opinion.

But like I said, it’s a future that feels a lot more current now in 2022 than it did in 1988, the time that it was set. The issues of race have not gone away; the idea of corporations seeking to control the media; and the idea of the sort of power you can command as an influencer of public opinion have only become more relevant as time has gone on. And that’s an idea that has been a part of this novel’s history from its original publication in New Worlds magazine back in the sixties. But we’ll need a little history lesson for that…

New Worlds Science Fiction was a magazine that had been around since the 1930s. Originally edited by John Carnell, it had been edited by Michael Moorcock for about 4 years by the time it came to publish Bug Jack Barron. He’d taken it from a fairly traditional sf magazine to a leading light in the New Wave movement, publishing a lot of authors like J. G. Ballard, Tom Disch and John Brunner. Due to the tightrope-like existence led by many magazines, Moorcock applied for – and got – Arts Council assistance to publish the magazine (if you’ve read any of Moorcock’s many fantasy novels published in the second half of the sixties, chances are they were written to help finance New Worlds). However, Moorcock continued to publish a lot of stories without thinking about how being partially-supported by the government might impact on their reception. Bug Jack Barron was serialised in New Worlds and… well, for a novel published in the 1960s, certain elements of plot and language were a tad… confronting. Basically, there’s a fair amount of sex, swearing and drug use. Questions were raised in Parliament and the relevant issue was removed from the market.

Of course, that only made it more popular when it was eventually released. Critical reception was mixed, but generally positive, and I think your opinion of it may entirely depend on how much belief you are prepared to invest in it. As science fiction, it falls into the ”soft” side of the genre (“hard” sf being technically and scientifically accurate, “soft” sf often dealing more with the impact that change might have on a society or on people), leading with a basic premise that doesn’t really stand up to any kind of scrutiny save being what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a “MacGuffin,” an object that gives the plot a reason to move.

I first read it in 1988 (the tentative year it was set) and I loved it. As a reader, I’m really more interested in how an author writes rather than the quality of their story or their believability of their science. Spinrad is, if nothing else, a fantastic writer. I was carried away by the entirety of the plot and the ways in which Jack and his friends fought against the evils of the corporate world (the possibility that Jack was a part of that world himself didn’t really occur to me until quite a bit later). I can see a lot of the flaws in it now – the explanation of what Jack is going to do after the ending seems to lack some sort of credibility; the dialogue is rooted firmly in the 60s; Jack seems to have his cake and eat it with the conclusion – but it still packs a fair bit of a punch.

In Australia at the time, we were seeing the rise of programmes similar in structure to Jack’s show. However, there was no Jack Barron to stand up for the underdog here: it was mostly outing “dole bludgers” or “dodgy tradies” (You can get a glimpse of what it was like by watching the Working Dog series Frontline (1994-97). It’s the kind of show that hasn’t aged a day in the thirty years since its release). So to see one of these shock jocks (or VJs as some authors referred to them, though possibly only once) actually being on the side of their viewers was quite the novelty for me.

Spinrad felt like an author who had his finger somewhere near the pulse of contemporary society. I sought out a couple of his other novels as time went on. Little Heroes (1987) seemed to do a similar job on the music industry, although it was clearly written by someone standing on the outside looking in, while The Iron Dream (1972), is a magnificent send-up of sword and sorcery novels, presented as a pastiche, with an afterword that explains the punchline (it’s a post-apocalyptic novel in which a young hero becomes a leader of a decadent, broke society and rids it of its weaker elements, creating a vast empire in a short span of time. It is purportedly written by a failed artist who left Austria in the 1920s for the US and became a successful pulp sf author.). The structure of that is a little weak but it should be read by anyone who is concerned about how young people can be radicalised by what passes itself off as “popular culture.”

But Bug Jack Barron is the novel that I hold up as Spinrad’s most successful and, possibly his most accessible.

So kick back, light up an Acapulco Gold and switch channels…

“Bugged? Then Bug Jack Barron.”

You can find out more about Norman Spinrad at https://normanspinradatlarge.blogspot.com/

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