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Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading List: Bug Jack Barron

Spinrad, Norman. Bug Jack Barron. Golden, CO: ReAnimus Press, [1969] 2011. ISBN 978-1-58567-585-2.
In his Berkeley Baby Bolshevik days Jack Barron dreamt of power—power to change the world. Years later, he has power, but of a very different kind. As host of the weekly television show “Bug Jack Barron”, he sits in the catbird seat, taking carefully screened calls from those abused by impersonal organisations and putting those in charge in the hot seat, live via vidphone, with no tape delay. One hundred million people tune in to the show, so whatever bugs the caller, bugs Jack Barron, and immediately bugs America.

Jack's Berkeley crowd, veterans of the civil rights battles, mostly consider him a sell-out, although they have sold out in their own ways to the realities of power and politics. But when Jack crosses swords with Benedict Howards, he is faced with an adversary of an entirely different order of magnitude than any he has previously encountered. Howards is president of the Foundation for Human Immortality, which operates centres which freeze the bodies of departed clients and funds research into the technologies which will allow them to be revived and achieve immortality. Only the well-heeled need apply: a freezer contract requires one to deposit US$500,000 (this is in 1969 gold dollars; in 2012 ObamaBucks, the equivalent is in excess of three million). With around a million people already frozen, Howards sits on half a trillion dollars (three trillion today), and although this money is nominally held in trust to be refunded to the frozen after their revival, Howards is in fact free to use the proceeds of investing it as he wishes. You can buy almost anything with that kind of money, politicians most definitely included.

Howards is pushing to have his foundation declared a regulated monopoly, forcing competitors out of the market and placing its governance under a committee appointed by the president of the United States. Barron takes on Howards with a call from a person claiming he was denied a freezer contract due to his race, and sets up a confrontation with Howards in which Barron has to decide whether his own integrity has a price and, if so, what it is. As he digs into Howards' foundation, he stumbles upon details which hint of secrets so shocking they might overturn the political landscape in the U.S. But that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

This is one of the iconic novels of “new wave” science fiction from the late 1960s. It is written in what was then called an “experimental”, stream of consciousness style, with paragraphs like:

The undulating blue-green light writhing behind her like a forest of tentacles the roar of the surf like the sigh of some great beached and expiring sea animal, seemed to press her against the glass reality-interface like a bubble being forced up by decay-gas pressure from the depths of an oily green swamp pool. She felt the weight, the pressure of the whole room pushing behind her as if the blind green monsters that lurked in the most unknowable pits in the ass-end of her mind were bubbling up from the depths and elbowing her consciousness out of her own skull.

Back in the day, we'd read something like this and say, “Oh, wow”. Today, many readers may deem such prose stylings as quaint as those who say “Oh, wow”.

This novel is a period piece. Reading it puts you back into the mindset of the late 1960s, when few imagined that technologies already in nascent form would destroy the power of one-to-many media oligopolies, and it was wrong in almost all of its extrapolation of the future. If you read it then (as I did) and thought it was a masterpiece (as I did), it may be worth a second glance to see how far we've come.

Posted at February 8, 2013 23:56