Thursday, May 22, 2014

At least as reactionary as it once was radical: Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron

'One of the most uncompromisingly adult science-fiction novels ever written', saith the back cover of this 1972 edition of Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron.

Take a look at the front cover and you can hazard a guess what adult means here.



Er.. rainbows?

While it is steeped in the sixties counterculture, Bug Jack Barron isn't the SF goes Austin Powers fluff you might assume from the artwork. It's a vehicle for Spinrad's considerable satirical talents, a Dylan-quoting caustic assault on the complacent heart of baby boomer America. 

The problem for the modern reader is that the novel's intended effect is undermined by Spinrad's reactionary sexual politics and his unwise - to put it mildly - deployment of the N-word to the point of nausea. Controversial at the time, a half-century of cultural shift has left the taboo-breaking radical looking reactionary.

The plot of Bug Jack Barron could loosely be described as Sexy Nick Ferrari Saves America From Itself. Ordinary people call Jack Barron's video phone-in show with a problem, and he gets all Esther Rantzen on their behalf, grilling politicians and businessmen live on air. And by far the best - or at least the most accessible and least excruciating - parts of the book are the blow-by-blow accounts of the programme.

The novel recounts how a routine inquiry to Jack about the affordability of cryogenic freezing to the poor  - especially the black poor - escalates into a story that will blow open the corruption of America's youth-obsessed, acquisitive, sell-out, complacent ruling classes. And asks Jack's viewers (and the reader) - would you be any different?

Sometimes the writing supports this. Spinrad is fond of lapsing into a Burroughsian torrent of broken sentences and repetition, which serves well to power the stream-of-consciousness monologues which define the chief 'tagonists. It humanises Jack and makes the villainous cryogenics boss chillingly memorable.

At other times I had to skip whole paragraphs, especially the sex scenes. And there is a lot of teh sexing in Bug Jack Barron, oh yes. Combine the descriptive overload of Burroughs with the sexual politics of Henry Miller, and you get page after page of worship of Jack and his sexual prowess. 

Aesthetics aside, the real problem here is the subservience. The main role of women in the plot is to sleep with/validate/adore Jack Barron. Or to recognise when they are holding him back by sleeping with him. Spinrad might be merrily slaughtering sacred cows throughout the novel, but feminism is definitely the mote in its eye. Small wonder the (women) typesetters of New Worlds, the magazine in which it was originally printed, refused to work on it.

Spinrad's also fonder of the N-word than a sixteen year old white gangsta wannabe. Some of this usage is in context - when the chief villain is a racist and a (sympathetic) supporting character is a black nationalist Governor of Mississippi, for instance. And - without revealing some massive spoilers - I do think Bug Jack Barron is a deeply anti-racist book from a time when a lot of SF did nothing more than reflect dominant cultural values.

But most of the usage - which easily creeps into the hundreds - feel like a gratuitous bid for shock value which added nothing to the book then and grates even more so now. When Spinrad puts the word into the mouths of characters who don't have N-word privileges - if such a thing can even be said to exist - or simply adds it to his narrative flow, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

In short - I don't question his convictions, but I do question his sincerity. I do question his strategy.

What I find most frustrating about Bug Jack Barron is that this is a brave and intriguing piece of work, more ambitious than you'll find that often in period SF. Yet it's flaws are so overwhelming that I cannot in all conscience regard as being of more than academic interest today. It's simultaneously both a deeply adult and a deeply juvenile novel.

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