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Bug Jack Barron
Norman Spinrad
Toxic, 254 pages

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Bug Jack Barron
Norman Spinrad
Norman Spinrad was born in New York City in 1940. In 1957, he entered the College of the City of New York, from which he graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Science degree as a pre-law major. Rather than attending law school, he began writing; his first sale was to Analog in 1962, "The Last of the Romany." While working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, he completed The Solarians, his first published novel, which appeared in 1966. He and his wife, N. Lee Woods live in Paris.

Norman Spinrad Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

For a writer as famous within the genre as he is, Norman Spinrad has had a surprisingly difficult time getting published. The English language rights for his latest novel remain available. The book receives its first printing in German. Toxic, a small press based in Birmingham, UK, has gone some way to redress the balance by reprinting some of his back catalogue with new afterwords. In the case of Bug Jack Barron (long out of print in English) this is by Michael Moorcock, who originally serialised it in New Worlds.

Jack Barron is the host of Bug Jack Barron, a television phone-in show with an audience of 100 million and the power to make or break reputations. Benedict Howards is the billionaire director of the Foundation for Human Immortality, a cryogenics institute that will freeze anyone for $500,000. Legislation, in the form of the Freezer Utility Bill, is currently being proposed that would give the technically non-profit Foundation a legal monopoly on freezing. In Howards' words, it would become "a public utility like the phone system or electric power -- a monopoly, sure, because some services have to be monopolies to function" -- which is a little ironic to contemporary readers. Howards is doing his best to ease the Bill's path through the Democrat-dominated Congress whilst the opposition Social Justice Coalition (of which Barron was a founding member) are trying to defeat it, in favour of a public, federal Freezer.

At the start of Bug Jack Barron, Barron and Howards are locked in an uneasy equilibrium. Barron has the ability to go after Howards but then Howards would force the FCC to shut him down, Howards could take Barron off air but before the FCC could do so Barron would have time to launch an all out attack on him. However a series of coincidences and chance admissions lead Barron to suspect that there is more at stake than simply a monopoly on freezing.

Since Spinrad uses both Barron and Howards as viewpoint characters, the fact that Howards is up to something comes as no surprise. Equally, the discovery of what this something might be is not played out in typical lone detective thriller style. Instead the power of the novel comes from the pair's gladiatorial attempts to best each other, particularly in the arena of Bug Jack Barron. Their verbal sparing is particularly effective as it contrasts with the looser narrative descriptions. These, at times, approach stream-of-consciousness but are always kept under a tight rein, giving focused rambles such as:

"'You are Jack Barron,' she said, cool honey-blonde, Upper-East-Side-27ish executive secretary with hippy Lower-East-Side-past hard-edged style."
On the plot side, there are a few implausibilities, mostly stemming from the fact Barron doesn't seem paranoid enough and Howards doesn't seem ruthless enough. The science is pure junk, but that isn't really important. The worst flaw is that the female characters are very much the inferiors of the male characters. For example, Carrie, Barron's secretary and lover, is defined entirely by her relationship to him. This is perhaps to be expected in a book about a character as macho and arrogant as Jack Barron.

In their design of the book, Toxic make much play of the controversial nature of Bug Jack Barron. Donald A Wollheim's denunciation of it as "depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate" is proudly displayed on the front cover. However this is another case of the modern reader being left wondering why. The word "nigger" appears prominently throughout the book, there's a little bit of sex and some very minor drug use and that's about it. It doesn't add up to much and anyone attracted by the shock value is bound to be disappointed. Instead Toxic should have promoted the book's exploration of timeless and universally relevant theme of big business corrupting democratic process, an exploration executed with vicious pragmatism by Spinrad.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.

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