Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bug Jack Barron

Norman Spinrad

My second Spinrad novel, based on the copy I'd borrowed from you that had been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. An interesting work, somewhat uneven but with a lot of substance. Reading this piece I was struck a lot more than I am with most past works on when it was written, checking and then confirming the date several points, and that played a role in how I assessed it. It feels like a very New Wave book for one thing, all fired up with the ability of using science fiction to take about the grittier side of life, serious social issues and full engagement with sexuality. This last element doesn't work entirely well--the rather graphic scenes do serve an important role in building up the sense of the main character and his position in the world but the story revels in this element rather too much. The core of this angle comes down to Jack Barron's relationship with Sarah, and their encounters are mostly worthwhile to the story. I'll also give the text one of the sexual relationships prior to the reconciliation with Sarah as a way of forming contrast. The second one is dramatically unnecessary, however. More broadly speaking, on the whole the book gestures in a lot of directions for effective use of gender--the way masculinity becomes so important as a point of pride for people--but at the end it doesn't use these elements to great effect. In the end Sarah's purpose becomes suiciding to motivate Jack Barron's defiance, and there seem a number of wasted opportunities.

More effective is the book's centering of race, and its connections with both class and politics. This element is something that's still fairly rare in science fiction, and gives the book a real intensity and relevance. Rather than the kind of detached, focus on technology and reaction to it take for life-extension, here we're given a scenario where it plays out in something closer to the realworld, with all its divisions and inequalities. It's this element, and the tone of defiant cynicism that animates the scenario that make the book most engaging and relevant even to today. The media representation is good to this end, but feels a bit overstated and somewhat implausible with just how much publicity Jack Barron is able to attain. However this element still builds to the book's unique tone.

Unfortunately it's rather let down by the plot. In both SFnal terms and the standard thriller there's not that much here--lots of corporate intrigue and political manipulations, the promise of immortality, the reality of immortality, the sinister underbelly of said immortality, the piling up of bodies, the big disclosure. Two main problems in here are that Benedict Howards is a very stupid antagonist and the functioning of the plot depends on too much contrivance. Howards has some very creepy and effective moments, particularly when he declares that he's going to live forever, but in the larger narrative he's too inept and easily foiled. He's quick to reach to murder that signals his presence, gets easily flustered on camera and for all the book declares his amoral brilliance he makes a number of strategic errors. That he might have bad television presence and be flustered into saying more than he expects is perhaps believable, but given that it seems he should notice this and stop appearing on television. There’s a more central issue with his whole scheme, in expecting that duping Jack Barron into complicity with child-murder will keep him quiet on his (Howards') much more extensive actions in the same field. There’s a basic logical flaw built into that which becomes expressed fairly rapidly. Or his whole pattern of killing people in ways that point to him far more than the individuals left alive would have. On coincidences, the one that really irks me is someone happening to call in to mention selling his daughter, he turns out to be one of a few dozen people that this process happened to as part of the immortality procedure. Out of an audience of a hundred millions, and hordes of callers each day, the people just happen to screen in the one who alerts Jack Barron to the later plot. That's the worst implausibility, but there are some others scattered around that make this a less well-constructed book than it could have been.

Worse than: Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard
Better than: The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

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