Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad
Originally serialized in New Worlds, 1967-1968
Price I paid: $7
“Bugged…Then go bug Jack Barron!” cries the vidphone announcer every Wednesday night to the more than 100 million viewers watching Barron’s call-in show. And bug him they do. If there’s a gripe to air, an injustice to rectify, a cause to consider, Jack Barron will listen to it—if you can get through his gauntlet of screeners—and straight to the top, then and there, on the air. Whether it be a business bigwig or the President himself, no one is “out” when Jack Barron calls. Not with the entire nation watching. And no one is safe when Jack gets really bugged…
But the powers-that-be know they have nothing to really fear from Jack Barron. Jack used to be a hothead radical leader back in the sixties, but he gave up the poverty-stricken life of the activist to enter show biz. Now, as the country’s biggest celebrity, Jack’s not about to blow his goldmine job by skewering some biggie on the air. He may slip in a few well-placed barbs, but he’ll always make time for a convincing rebuttal from the other side.
Until one night Jack runs a show on multi-billionaire Benedict Howards’ Foundation for Human Immortality, a privately owned cryogenic “freeze now, live later” project—a show that might endanger the Foundation’s chance at a federally-sanctioned monopoly. Howards is no man to cross. One of the richest and most powerful men in America, he is ruthless in getting what—and whom—he wants. And now he wants Jack Barron.
Much to Jack’s surprise, Howards tries to buy him off when he could more easily have crushed his career. Suspicious, Jack finds his long-suppressed activist instincts aroused. Soon he uncovers hints of sinister activities by the Foundation—missing children, unexplained deaths—and when Howards tries to use Jack’s continuing love for his ex-wife, Sara, to get at him, the billionaire finds he’s taken on more than he bargained for. This is no vidphone entertainer worried about his job. This is the old firebrand Jack Barron. And when Jack Barron’s bugged, heads roll.
Warning: Sexual content and language may be offensive to some readers.
So there I was, visiting a local antiques store, hoping to find some old political buttons. I love old political buttons. My prides are one for Benjamin Spock’s run in ’72 and a Pat Paulsen one a friend gave me. Anyway, I noticed that there are some books floating around at this antique store. Sure, I think, but unlikely to be anything I’d be interested in. Maybe there’d be a couple of Cherry Ames books I can pick up for my mom’s Christmas present, though, so I give them a look.
This time I lucked out. I found a whole bunch of MAD paperbacks, one of them entirely Spy vs. Spy cartoons. I also found some non-Riverworld Philip Jose Farmer, a Frank G. Slaughter that is probably going to be the next review, and most surprisingly, a copy of Bug Jack Barron in hardback and great condition.
(There were also some Cherry Ames books, like I thought, but they were expensive and I’m not sure which ones Mom already has. I will have to revisit.)
I’d been meaning to read more Spinrad, and this one in particular, for a hot minute, so it’s clearly fate. And, like The Iron Dream, I only meant to read it for my own enjoyment, but after about a dozen pages or so I realized that this is a book that deserves to be more than just read, it deserves to be talked about, and so here we are.
It’s a wild ride and there’s a lot to talk about.
The protagonist is Jack Barron. Note that his full name is not “Bug Jack Barron.” That’s the name of his television show. He is not some kind of insectoid person, nor is it some kind of metaphor suggesting any similarity to insects, like being creepy or whatever. Jack has got a fair amount of personal problems, but being buglike isn’t one of them.
This took me several pages to realize.
Jack Barron is a television host, and his show is massively popular, with ratings of a hundred million viewers every week. Maybe not everybody watches it, but everybody is aware of it.
The show’s format is simple. It’s a call-in show. You have a problem? Call Jack Barron and bug him with it, and he will then get the person who wronged you on the line and bug them about it, live and on the air. Is your beef with your boss? Your neighbor? The owner of a huge megacorporation? The President of the United States? No matter. Jack will smack them down for you.
In truth, Jack has to walk a fine line. There are lots of people that he can’t bash without consequence, so he will allow them to explain themselves, speak their peace, and maintain the status quo. After all, in this world there are still entities like the FCC that could yank Jack off the air. There are studio execs and sponsors that might pull their support. Jack maintains a specific image in the minds of his viewers, but in many ways, that image is a sham. And Jack knows it. He does not lose a single wink of sleep over it.
This stands in contrast to his history. Back in the 60s, Jack used to be a big-time activist. He was a founding member of the Social Justice Coalition, now a major political party…kind of. I’ll talk about the politics of Jack’s world here in a minute.
The people who knew and loved him best back then—his ex-wife Sara and his best friend Lukas Greene, now the governor of Mississippi—think that this activist streak is still in him somewhere, just waiting to come out. They spend a fair amount of the book trying to bring it back out.
Jack’s world is familiar. This is another one of those cases where I wonder if Spinrad was making any kind of predictions or just that nothing really changes. It’s a world where media celebrity and wealth are the foundations of political power. That’s the main theme of the book, in fact. There is massive income inequality, with black people disproportionately at the bottom rung of the ladder.
A thing that’s not unique to Spinrad, although he does it very well, is what I call the Parade of Ugliness, an unflinching look at the absolute worst elements of our society without trying to cage it in metaphor or science-fictional trappings. It’s not subtle reference to the ugliness of our society; he’s hammering us over the head with it. You can take for instance something like the n-word. Spinrad knows its a hateful word, a horrible word, and that’s why he has characters use it every other sentence throughout this book. It’s not a juvenile attempt to shock someone and say “Haha, I don’t play by your pc rules, libs,” but an attempt to show us how hurtful it is by rubbing our noses in it. It’s like that moment in Blazing Saddles when the old woman screams it at Cleavon Little. It cuts to the bone, and that’s the effect that Spinrad goes for in most of this narrative.
I tend to see this literary device most strongly from the 60s and 70s, but it’s not gone. It’s shifted a bit. The difference is that now I see a lot more of this device coming from writers who have been on the receiving end of these social and racial injustices. People of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community writing their own stories of abuse, discrimination, harassment, and struggle. And increasingly often, I see them express it in YA lit. Read some YA a member of any of those communities and see how just ugly the world can be. I confess, I could stand to read more!
I bring this up mainly to celebrate that these writers finally have some measure of a voice in the conversation, and that’s excellent, although there’s still a long way to go. They no longer have to rely on white men to speak for them. In fact, I don’t think Spinrad could have gotten away with trying to publish this book today, just as Mel Brooks wouldn’t have been able to make Blazing Saddles today, and a ton more examples. This is fine, great even. We’re moving in the right direction, at least a little and in this one specific area. It’s not to say that those voices didn’t exist back in the sixties, or even before, but they’re louder now, with more venues to get their messages heard.
Bug Jack Barron is not a book about race, but it analyzes race as a component of the injustices perpetrated by the villains of this book. Race is an ever-present fixture in the background of this book, but it starts out in the foreground.
Jack receives a call on his show from a black man, who argues that he is being discriminated against by the Foundation for Human Immortality. The Foundation is a corporation that freezes people when they die, in the hopes that one day death will be conquered and the people can be unfrozen and revivified. The price for this treatment is steep, but this guy has the money, and yet he’s been denied. Clearly it’s because the future, according to the Foundation, is whites only, right?
Jack calls up his old friend Lukas Greene, who is now the governor of Mississippi. Greene is a longtime black activist, but doesn’t think that there is a direct racist component to the Foundation. Instead, he argues that it’s a systematic, institutional racism. Black people are disproportionately less likely to be able to pay the steep fee imposed by the Foundation due to the fact that they are at an economic disadvantage from public policies designed to keep them poor. These arguments are distressingly familiar to a modern reader. Greene calls for the creation of a publicly funded Freezer program designed to help every citizen, indiscriminately. It’s worth noting that this future has socialized healthcare and even dances around the phrasing of “Medicare for All” but doesn’t quite hit that exact verbage. Anyway, Greene argues that a Public Freezer system is a natural extension of it.
So Jack attempts to call the Foundation and get their side of the story. Thing is, the head of the Foundation, Benedict Howards, doesn’t answer his phone. So Jack goes to one of Howards’s flunkies in Congress, who completely fails to be convincing in his denial of any shenanigans. He falls flat on his face.
When Howards finds out what happened, he’s livid, and the whole story unfolds from there.
This book really shines in unraveling the conspiracy. Spinrad manages to convince the reader, or at least me, that they know what’s going on several times throughout, and then he cranks it up again.
We start off thinking that maybe there’s something to this racism thing. Then it becomes more of a classicism thing. Also, Howards is pushing hard for a congressional bill to allow him to have a total monopoly on Freezer programs. It is likely to pass. Then things start to crack open and it looks like maybe there’s a lot of money that’s not being accounted for. Is the whole thing a scam? More evidence comes out: There’s already an immortality treatment! The Freezers are a smokescreen! The problem is that the immortality treatment is even more expensive, on the order of millions of dollars. And then it comes out that children have gone missing. Jack investigates and he is led to believe that these children have been tested on for the immortality treatment. Jack plans to blow the lid on the whole thing.
It turns out to be so much worse.
The Parade of Ugliness continues and we learn that these children are being sold to the Foundation by their parents. The Foundation is targeting those parents based on their economic circumstances, and offering them a lot of money along with promises that the children will be taken care of and sent to college. They’ll have a much better life than they ever could here in the slums. Those families are, of course, disproportionately black.
And we learn what happens to these children. They aren’t being tested on. They are the treatment. It’s some mumbo-jumbo goofy biology that doesn’t really matter in the long run, but these children’s “glands” are being transplanted into adults to make them stop aging. The glands themselves don’t do the job; they have to be treated with hard radiation, and that treatment needs to be done while the glands are still in the children. This radiation kills the children by giving them, essentially, cancer of the everything.
Jack learns all this after he’s agreed to accept the treatment. Probably the part of the book that felt most contrived to me was Jack’s plan to accept the treatment in exchange for helping Howards get his bill passed, all the time knowing full well that he’d back out as soon as the treatment was done. It was no surprise that Howards planned to keep Jack’s loyalty by then revealing the horrific source of the immortality treatment, therefore making Jack legally an accessory to murder. It was all pretty convoluted and wasn’t my favorite part of the book. It felt like the kind of plot element that only happened because it needed to.
All the while, Jack is being courted by several people to get him to run for president. The Freezer Monopoly Bill is widely supported by the Democrats in congress, who are also the majority and have been for years and years. Democrats are essentially the only political game in this future. The Social Justice Coalition and the Republicans still exist and have a few congresspeople and governors, but they represent the far left and right elements of the political landscape, while the Democrats dominate by sitting comfortably in the center.
Spinrad makes some interesting political predictions, if you can call them that, in this book, and they’re interesting. They say more about the world of 1967-68 when the book was being written than anything. The book takes place around the mid-eighties, based on a reference to a Dylan lyric (“Tombstone Blues”) and it being referred to as twenty years old. Also worth noting, Dylan is referred to several times as dead by the time this book rolls around.
The Republicans are in a sharp decline, stating that they have only had two presidents since the end of WWII. They are referred to as Eisenhower and…Reagan.
Now, Reagan had been elected Governor of California by the time this book had been written, so I assumed Spinrad was suggesting that he would eventually go on to be president, and I thought that was an interestingly true prediction. But at the same time, it looked like he was suggesting that Nixon would lose to Humphrey in ’68, I guess?
But then I fell down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and learned that Reagan had run in the primaries for the ’68 Republican nomination, so it seems that the prediction here is that Reagan was going to win that and then take the presidency. It was a fair prediction—Reagan won the popular vote in that primary so he was clearly considered a strong possibility. Since the ’68 Democratic primary and convention is the one that gets all the press thanks to Mayor Daley and his band of hooligans, I’d honestly never even considered what was going on on the other side of the aisle.
Imagine a world where Ronald Reagan was president before he got dementia. Wild.
There are also lots of references to the Democrats’ presidential frontrunner, who is only referred to as “Teddy the Pretender.” An offhand reference to him and “his ghosts” leads me to think that this is referring to Ted Kennedy, who probably would have run for president eventually if it weren’t for the Chappaquiddick (holy beans I spelled that right on the first try!) Incident.
What I’m saying is, I love reading political satire from the past. It’s so much more edifying than reading straight history. Is Bug Jack Barron satire? We could probably argue about that for a while, but I fall on the side of yeah.
Anyway, in this book, the Republicans and the Social Justice Coalition want to run Jack on a sort of combined ticket, joining forces against the Democrats. The only things these parties have in common are their distaste for the Freezer Monopoly Bill, and then for opposite reasons.
The book ends a little too pat for me. Jack gets Howards on the air and cuts him to bits, exposing him for the horrific murderer he is. Howards’s response is to go completely batshit and start screaming threats and obscenities, which the world takes as a sure sign of guilt. Jack confesses his part in the situation and begs the forgiveness of the American people, and receives it.
In the end, he decides that maybe he will take up the Republicans and the SJC on their president idea, but only so that, in the unlikely case that he wins, he can resign and give the presidency over to Lukas Greene. His main reason for doing this is to annoy the Republicans.
There’s a lot more to this book than I just talked about over the last 2000-odd words, but I’ll leave a lot of that for you to discover. It’s worth reading.
I have a few nitpicks, but on the whole I think this book is a certified Classic. It was nominated for the Hugo in 1970 losing to The Left Hand of Darkness, which, I mean, yeah. I don’t think anybody could be too mad about losing to Ursula K. Le Guin.
I think a lot about the book’s treatment of Jack’s ex-wife, Sara, who comes back into his life as the book goes on. She comes across as existing only to help Jack achieve his goals. It’s like she has no goals of her own. In fact, at the end of the book she decides, for a variety of reasons, that she’s holding Jack back from his true calling, so she commits suicide. Jack is devastated, but uses that energy and channels it into taking apart Howards and the Foundation. The Woman in a Refrigerator trope refers to when a woman has to suffer somehow in the narrative to cause a man to complete his mission. Usually this means that the bad guy does something bad to the woman, which spurs our hero to seek revenge. In this book there’s a kind of twist on that, since Sara does it to herself and knows full well that the reason she’s doing it is to cause Jack to seek revenge, and she tells him so. And he does, but he was planning on doing it anyway already? It’s almost self-referential, and now I wonder if it was intentionally so? I wouldn’t put it past Spinrad to do that.
Despite some criticisms with this book, Norman Spinrad is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. I want to read everything he’s written, but I think I’d need to space it out a bit. This book, as well as The Iron Dream, were difficult reads emotionally. I don’t suspect he has an awful lot of books that anyone would describe as uplifting. Tell me if I’m wrong, though!
I would also like to hang out with him, which would be difficult since he spends his time in France these days, I gather. I think I’d like him, but I have a gut feeling he wouldn’t like me, so maybe I’ll stick with his Youtube channel. It’s a real trip.