A Tunnel in the Sky

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Bug Jack Barron
by Norman Spinrad

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 31, 2012
Updated for the essay Experiment Perilous on February 27, 2023

It would be interesting to see what Spinrad might do with this story if he rewrote it today. The core ideas are still relevant, maybe even more so now than in the late '60s, but much of the character dialog and peripheral action is very dated. One has to laugh now when a black man states that he knows he doesn't have a chance of becoming President of the United States, even though he is already Governor of Mississippi. Most women would also be put off by some of the opinions expressed by Jack Barron, and by Sara Westerfield, his ex-wife. It is sometimes a trap for a reader to assume opinions expressed in a novel are those of the author, rather than just in the realm of the characters themselves. Jack Barron might be considered a misogynist, even within the culture at the time of the writing, certainly based on today's sensibilities. Sara Westerfield might be viewed as a brainwashed woman, subject to the inferiority complex which misogyny wishes to trap women.

Even though the first book publication wasn't until 1969, Spinrad began writing it as early as '66. He had difficulty finding a publisher in the US, then Michael Moorcock bought it for serialization in the UK periodical New Worlds, which was then subsequently banned from the shelves of W. H. Smith's, the nation's largest book and magazine chain. That ban was later rescinded, and the notoriety piqued the interest of two different US publishers. It was released in hardcover by Walker & Co, and paperback from Avon, both in April '69, altough I'm not sure if it was on the same day. Now it is available as an e-book from ReAnimus Press. The book is full of profanity and fairly graphic sex scenes (at least for the time, and certainly for SF), as well as a general disregard for conventional mores. In addition, a couple of racial epithets are frequently used, ones that will get most anyone in trouble if uttered in public today. Several real life people are mentioned by name, and most not in a favorable light. I'm not sure why he name-checks Reagan, but for another only referred to him as Teddy the Pretender, although from the context has to have been Ted Kennedy.

The counter-culture movement was already on the decline by the time this book was released in the States, but in the world of Jack Barron it seems the conflicts that divided the establishment and the radicals continued for quite a few more years, and it culminated in the formation of the Social Justice Coalition. Barron was one of the founding members of that political party, along with his friend Lucas Greene, who later became Governor of Mississippi. Several other SJC members have become mayors, and I believe a few are Congressmen from very progressive districts. A few years after the formation of the SJC Barron left politics behind and instead went into show business through a circuitous route. He was a guest on a confrontational TV talk show (the host is called Joe Swine in the novel, which was likely a reference to the real-life Joe Pyne). By the end of the program Barron had so outclassed the host that he was soon approached by network executives offering him his own show. No specific dates are given, but one can surmise that the action takes place sometime in the 1980s, so today's readers need to look on this as an alternate history story. For instance, in Jack's world marijuana is legal, and not just for medicinal purposes. One of his show's biggest sponsors is Acapulco Gold, the finest of marijuana cigarettes.

What this novel got right is the power and influence of the media, both in shaping public opinion about everyday matters, but also in packaging political candidates. Barron at one point says that the last real man elected President was Truman, since then it had only been an image shaped by the political establishment and polished for public consumption by the media. Easy to believe in these days of negative advertising and twenty second sound bites. Barron knows all about that type of manipulation since he uses it himself every time he goes on the air. He accepts video-phone calls from people with complaints, then he calls those most likely responsible for the problem's existence. Behind the scenes banter between Barron and his producer/director helps shape the on-screen conflict, and Barron times his comments and questions so as to end a segment with the person being grilled in a very awkward position. He can signal when he should get full screen, or half or quarter screen, when to allow his caller to speak and when to cut him off. For Jack, this is all the power he needs or wants. For one hour every week he is king of the airwaves. The power of politics is something he doesn't care for anymore, but there are several who want him to change his mind.

The science fiction element in the story is a technology that cryonically freezes a person at time of death, to be revived when a cure for their ailment is available. Since the majority of people die from old age, the Foundation for Human Immortality is formed by one of the world's richest men, Benedict Howards. The foundation funds research into prolonging life spans, and eventually immortality. Of course things are very expensive so only the very rich can afford a place in the Freezers, to have any hope of living again even if it is not forever. Howards is buying up politicians right and left, getting them to sponsor a bill that will give his foundation a monopoly on freezing bodies. The opposition wants a publicly funded Freezer program. Barron gets caught in the middle of the opposing forces on the issue. Howards wants to buy him and use his influence to promote his Foundation bill. Lucas Greene and the SJC, along with other politicians, want Jack's influence to help defeat Howards and promote the public bill. Jack is content to ride the controversy to higher ratings. That is, until Howards brings his ex-wife Sara into the deal, as well as Jack learning some incriminating evidence against Howards.

Okay, that's enough about the plot, I won't spoil any of the details. A strong element of the book is its stream of consciousness style. It is written in third person, but almost all the characters are illuminated by the thoughts racing through their minds as they confront others or just confront their own worries and fears. In spite of his pompousness, Jack Barron is still a pretty cool character. He is highly intelligent, knows what he wants and how to get it. He relishes the power and influence he has over his audience but he is not gullible enough to buy into the assertions of the political power he could have if only he would allow himself to want it. His on-air confrontations (and a few private conversations) with Howards are the highlights. Howards is not used to anyone disagreeing with him much less publicly attacking him. It becomes clear that no one is a match for Jack Barron, not in intelligence, nor in charm or chutzpah. He takes on all comers, and in the end is where he was in the beginning, on the top of the heap in the TV hierarchy. And that's were he intends to stay. It is still a very powerful novel in spite of the dated nature of several elements. The main point that the reader should take away from it is how governments and the media are able to manipulate us. There have been others I've re-read recently where there were many details that I had forgotten. Not with Bug Jack Barron, and I believe that is a testament to how vividly rendered it was more than forty years ago, and still is today.

Keep reading for some other thoughts about the book, both from Spinrad and myself.


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Posted February 27, 2023:
This short essay was originally published in 1976 in Algol, a semiprozine which subtitled its issues as "The Magazine About Science Fiction." That issue also included work by Alfred Bester and Marion Zimmer Bradley. ReAnimus Press released just Spinrad's essay in 2012, shortly after they offered the novel. I've had it almost that long, but finally got around to it, shortly after adding Spinrad to my Facebook Friends List, which got me thinking about re-reading several of his books, or reading a few others for the first time. Considering what I already knew about Bug Jack Barron, most of which I wrote about in the above review, it was actually a disappointment. Nothing I didn't already know, except about a particular editor, to whom Spinrad presented the idea, and who had encouraged him to continue. When it was complete, Lawrence Ashmead of Doubleday rejected it, in very emphatic terms.

For someone just learning about Spinrad, either reading BJB for the first time, or any of his other novels or short stories, it gives a glimpse into his mindset both before and after writing the novel. In another of his essay books, Fragments of America, which I'm also reviewing today, he mentions several times how one thing that the literary establishment, including SF, didn't take into consideration about new genre voices, whether or not they or anyone else considered them New Wave, is the influence of drugs on several of the writers. And not just their own use of pot or stronger substances, but the depiction of the drug culture, as well as other parts of the "underground" or counter-culture. The novel stands on its own regardless of what the author said about it later, regardless of what I or other reviewers have said about it. At the time of its first publication the novel was controversial, and perhaps it still is in spite of the dated elements. Not sure it was really a perilous experiment, but it set the stage for a lot of Spinrad's later work, most of which are steeped in politics and sociology, attempting to disect the divide between the establishment and the new voices, the new experimenters. If you've read and liked the novel, this essay is just 99 as an e-book, and perhaps worth a look.

Related Links:
My profile article on Spinrad's career
Wikipedia (which quotes me!?!)
His Blog


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Norman Spinrad


Hugo & Nebula nominee

Available in e-book formats from ReAnimus Press
or in print from amazon.com