The novel “Bug Jack Barron” by Norman Spinrad was published for the first time between 1967 and 1968 serialized in the magazine “New Worlds” and in 1969 in a longer version as a book.
“Bug Jack Barron” is a very successful television talk show, with an audience of around a hundred million viewers. Its conductor Jack Barron broadcasts calls from his audience, who can manifest complaints of various kinds. They represent ideas to attack various powerful people, the reason why Barron is generally loved by people and hated by politicians.
Benedict Howards is the owner of a very important company in the field of cryogenics. Jack Barron attacks him because the company offers the possibility of hibernation only to the people who can pay a large sum and is just the start of a clash between the two of them. Howards decides that the best solution is to buy Barron but to succeed he must also reveal to him the secrets of his company.
Since its first publication, “Bug Jack Barron” raised controversy and was initially rejected by several American publishers. It was Michael Moorcock, who at the time was running the British magazine “New Worlds” who published a version of the novel shorter than the final one facing some of censorship problems.
The red hot themes of the novel, developed using a language that today can be considered very politically incorrect, was really difficult to sell in the 1960s. In the end, the final version was published in the USA as well even though the controversy went on for a long time.
Norman Spinrad took a ideas from the political and social situation of the 1960s projecting possible developments a few decades into the future while maintaining the racial problems of the time, still a red hot topic today. The result is an extremely crude and cynical story but today we can consider it all too plausible. In fact, apart from its science fiction idea, the plot seems all too realistic.
The protagonist Jack Barron is a television host who has a great success and for this reason has a strong influence on his audience. He’s a former member of the protest movements of the 1960s who made his fortune with the result that he abandoned all idealism and uses his program cynically for his agenda.
The talk show “Bug Jack Barron” is often a battleground for fights with politicians and important entrepreneurs but the one with Benedict Howards goes beyond any past one. Howards owns a cryogenic industry that promises hibernation to anyone who can afford to pay $50,000 (in the 1960s those were worth much more than today!). What seems a cynical contrast between rich and poor people is just the beginning of a much more complex story.
The development of the clash between Jack Barron and Benedict Howards gradually reveals a number of secrets. Behind the science fiction idea there are many political and social elements that describe the power struggles, corruption and the idea that in the end everyone can be bought, it’s just a matter of knowing their price, which is not necessarily to be paid in money.
Jack Barron’s ex wife Sara gets involved in the clashes as well. She kept certain ideals, albeit watered down by drug use, so she didn’t accept the way that Jack built his success. The relationship between the two of them is sick because there are still feelings but they’re somewhat polluted by everything that happened over the years.
The story becomes more and more brutal because Benedict Howards is the type of person who stops at nothing to get what he wants and the revelation of some secrets adds an almost horror tone. The relationships among the characters become increasingly complex and twisted reflecting narcissism, materialism and search for power in various forms. “Bug Jack Barron” is a novel very character-oriented, not only based on ideas, so the protagonists are well developed with their strengths and weaknesses and above all with their emotions.
In some ways, Norman Spinrad was really a forerunner with this novel. He predicted today’s use of television, where the news are often the first to turn news into a show omitting the truth when they think that it wouldn’t earn them enough audience. That also influenced the way of doing politics and for example we can see it when election – or referendum – campaigns are based not on programs but there’s a strong focus on personal attacks and appeal to people’s emotions.
It’s precisely for these reasons that “Bug Jack Barron” is not a dated novel like others from the 1960s but actually in some ways even more important today. It’s precisely for these reasons that in my opinion you have to read it.