The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Jack Barron is a charismatic journalist trying to retain both his job and his integrity. Benedict Howards, owner of the Human Immortality Foundation, alternately bribes and threatens Barron, seeking his support. Ultimately, Howards makes an offer that Barron cannot refuse.
As the book opens, Barron seizes on a charge of racism as a hook to explore the Freezer Utility controversy. He makes on-air calls to the foundation; to Senator Hennering, who supports a monopoly bill Howards wants; and to Lucas Greene, the black governor of Mississippi and Jack’s longtime friend. Hennering gives a limp defense of the bill, enraging Howards. Soon after, Hennering dies under suspicious circumstances. Howards investigates Barron and learns the television host’s weakness: He still loves his former wife, Sara.
Howards bribes Sara to reunite with Barron. Sara seizes the opportunity, sure that together, she and Barron can outwit Howards. The two rediscover the joy they shared as young lovers.
Barron questions Howards on the air. Privately, Howards admits that the foundation has developed an immortality procedure. He offers Barron the million-dollar operation for free in exchange for public support. They bargain warily, and Barron offers only to do contractual public relations work for the foundation. When he and Sara sign immortality contracts, Howards urges immediate surgery. Barron equivocates. He believes that Howards still hides dangerous...
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As an innovative work, Bug Jack Barron stirred controversy beyond that over its dirty words. Exploring ideas and future scenarios has always been central to science fiction, But prior to the 1960s it almost always used a direct and even pedestrian style. The New Wave opened the genre up to stylistic experiments as well. In this novel, Spinrad uses collages of fast-moving images to reflect the world his characters live in, a world shaped in major ways by television. Interspersed with conventional narration and dialogue, they replace the usual internal monologues. Spinrad says he wrote the novel "insideout," presenting in words what would best evoke what he wanted to happen inside the reader's mind. His intention was to let the images in some paragraphs pile up, hitting the reader with a simultaneous blur or impact more akin to watching TV than to reading linear prose.
Whether or not he succeeds may depend upon the perceptual style of the individual reader. Regardless, some stunning effects come out of the pileup of images. Jack goes from sweet lust to repulsion when he and Sara make love after their operations; the two paragraphs in which this happens are a real tour de force. And when Sara jumps from their balcony, her last thoughts cry across the city to Jack like a crazy replay of all their past dreams.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Bug Jack Barron is among the few novels with a near-future setting where it hardly matters that the author guessed wrong on details, because its larger issues are still important. Television is still a prime mover and shaper of public opinion and politics. We still struggle with decisions about life and death, made harder by technology's new promises. Not a few of us also recognize its characters' dilemmas. Can personal values be kept while working for a corrupt system? Even while holding power in it? Can one make progress, in fact, only by working within the system for change? Can an old love be revived?
There is much material in the novel for rewarding discussion. Whether it starts out considering the public issues or the individual ones, a group is likely to touch on both eventually.
1. Jack Barron and Lucas Greene's Social Justice party are willing to make a deal with the Republicans, even though all they have in common is opposition to Howards's Freezer Monopoly and the corrupt Democratic administration. Is this plausible? Justifiable? How would it be likely to work out in real life?
2. Has Jack Barron sold out his youthful values?
3. Barron uses shocking, intrusive methods, like filming a dying old man, to manipulate his viewers' emotions. He also uses virtually every trick of video technique to show those he questions as sympathetic or untrustworthy, whichever he wants. What actual shows use similar...
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Critics have praised Bug Jack Barron for its sharp insights into media shaping of politics and public opinion. It reflects television's growing influence in the decade it was written, a decade that opened with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates. But the novel also uncannily predicted some things to come. So many major events in the 1992 presidential election occurred on Larry King's prime-time program that it was compared to Jack Barron's. Televised talk shows and call-in radio forums flourish — and sometimes change political and business fortunes — long after this novel first focused on them.
The book also pays more than passing attention to television methods. Through split screens, zoom shots, camera angles, and other techniques, Barron is able to manipulate his subjects' impact on viewers. These details, along with his loaded questions, provide a primer in how to manage media images.
The political situation in Bug Jack Barron is a forecast from the vantage point of the 1960s. The novel is set in the mid or late 1980s. A corrupt Democratic party is in power nationally. Republicans are a definite minority party, but they hold some statehouses and are still important as the party of the wealthy. A new left-wing Social Justice party has gained some electoral clout and its officials are now falling into the inexorable trap of losing their idealism to the demands of power. In a subplot which ties into the main action, Barron...
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Bug Jack Barron does not fit within any subgenre, except for falling in the general category of extrapolatory science fiction. There are precedents for some of its various elements, though. James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) was the first novel noted for using stream-of-consciousness techniques. Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) examines immortality from another angle. Later, John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975) also presented a future dominated by media images.
Spinrad says his technique in Bug Jack Barron was inspired by McLuhan's theories in Understanding Media (1964). The milieu of the 1960s, both the general counterculture influences and the ferment the New Wave brought to science fiction writers — still a relatively small circle in this era — are also obvious in the book.
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Spinrad dislikes most "sequel" and "series" novels and has seldom written them. Only in its themes, motifs, and willingness to experiment (and shock) does this novel resemble others by the author. Politics, advanced media manipulation, sex, and immortality are thematic elements which recur frequently in his novels.
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