Science fiction got it right

Last night I finished rereading a science fiction novel from the late 1960s, one that I first read when I was a boy, about twelve years old. The novel is oddly prophetic of some aspects of our current political situation.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother used to say that she taught me how to read when I was four so she had time to do housework and other tasks instead of always reading to me. The public library was not far from our house; I could walk there and back without crossing any streets, which was a blessing, since I often read while walking home from the library. I regularly won the summer reading competitions sponsored by the library for children; some of my friends tried to keep up with me by checking out books and returning them unread, but my proximity to the library kept me ahead of their pace. By the time I was twelve, I had exhausted the children’s section of the library and was exploring the larger collection. My attention was drawn to a display of paperback science fiction novels. I met the great science fiction writers there: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. I also read books that had no hope of becoming classics. Three books in particular were favorites; in the last five years, I have managed to acquire copies of all three—one because it is back in print, one that I found in a used book sale, and one that my daughter the librarian tracked down for me even though I could not remember the name of the author or the title of the book.

Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad, is the book I finished last night—the one that is back in print. Frankly, I’m surprised that I was allowed to read that book at that age—my parents must have trusted the library staff; either the library staff trusted my parents to oversee my reading, or they did not know what some of their novels contained. Bug Jack Barron has pages that would make Henry Miller blush. (When I, as an adult, read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wondered at first what the fuss was about, since I had read dirtier work in my younger and more impressionable years.) Because of those selections, I cannot recommend the book to most readers. Still, the plot and characters remained vivid in my mind over all these years, so the book contains some literary value.

Bug Jack Barron is copyright 1969, but it clearly was written a year or two earlier. It is set in a near future—no year is specified. Telephone communication largely includes video as well as audio material. Marijuana has been legalized and is commercially available. A third political party, the Social Justice Coalition, has formed out the Civil Rights Movement. Although the SJC has elected some African Americans to state offices and into Congress, it has not resolved the larger racial inequalities in American society.

The title character, Jack Barron, is a television personality. He has a call-in show: viewers call to “bug” him with their problems, and he uses his prominence and celebrity to help solve those problems. At this time, the Democratic Party has a stranglehold on Congress and the White House. At one point, Barron comments on that fact that, over the course of many years, the Republicans had nominated only two men capable of claiming the presidency: Eisenhower and Reagan. But now a coalition of SJC and Republican leaders wants to nominate Jack Barron, knowing that his television personality is popular enough to defeat any likely Democratic candidate.

The bulk of the story revolves around a multi-billionaire whose medical researchers are unlocking the secrets of human immortality; much of his funding comes from people whose bodies are frozen at death and stored until their fatal conditions can be medically cured in the future. All of Spinrad’s characters have a deep fear, even revulsion, toward death; no mention of religious hope or comfort ever appears in the novel.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is Barron’s realization that he can control his opponents through his television show, editing what they say to show them at their worst while enhancing his heroic stance. On his own, Barron has discovered what we now call “fake news,” and with that tool he plans to seize and hold power. I wonder how Mr. Spinard is reacting to our politics of 2020. J.

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